The two a day workouts and the brief stay at all that is Casa Grande are now are growing dim in the distance. In addition, we have two games worth of live action to discuss and endlessly breakdown. In my mind several things are clear...
The excellent series of live chats and action videos with players being produced and orchestrated by the team media staff, as well as the players’ performance on the field in the first two preseason matches, seem to indicate that even with all the changes in roster the players morale is high. Their excitement for the season to come and their individual eagerness to compete for time on the field seems too real and genuine to be merely the party line and what is expected.
And in my mind the desire to move beyond the challenges that became so apparent as last season ended and changes began is not limited to the team alone. Kyle Beckerman, for long the captain and a face of RSL, has yet to set foot on the pitch in a competitive match. While this has led to speculation of a possible injury or other issue, let me offer another reason.
Several sports openly embrace the idea of an on-the-field leadership group of players whose focus is assist the coaching staff in ensuring harmony and morale among the players. They are officially announced at the beginning of the season and rotate on a frequent basis. While there are advantages to having this group made up of senior players, regularly adding in younger players help smooth transitions as older players leave the team and younger players join.
In the past Kyle has declined participation in a January camp feeling that he should be in spring training to provide leadership as RSL prepared for the season. What if this year, in a proactive attempt to ensure a smoother transition among on-field leadership as his career approaches an end, he has intentionally taken a step back and created a void for other younger players to step up and assume some of that leadership. And the staff as well, through a massive media effort, has taken steps to help new on-field player leadership emerge.
It is merely pure speculation, but how much better this type of exit than the recent exits of several of his former teammates, both from RSL and other teams. In my mind, a Captain will act like a captain.
18 Players Deep
The ultimate goal of any soccer team is to name 18 players worthy and capable of starting for each and every match. While injuries can quickly change a team’s fortunes, it has quickly become apparent that, unlike last year when RSL frequently struggled to find 11 players of starting caliber, one or two missing players will not decimate the team. Six RSL players (I am including Brooks Lennon) have spent all or portions of these last two weeks on national team duty and yet the team prospered and starting caliber players saw time in their stead.
With improved team chemistry and better quality depth at each position RSL is at least progressing toward this ultimate goal. We were able to see effective play from different teams in each half of the each of the first two preseason games. As Craig Waibel has explained in the past and reiterated during halftime of the first preseason game, getting to this point has been a 24 month goal of team staff and the process will continue.
In these two weeks, and in the absence of four others on national team duty, we have seen breakout performances by several of our homegrown academy players.
Jordan Allen earned man of the match acclaim and appears ready to settle in to a regular staring role as an attacking winger. He scored the winning goal on a nice header in the first game and contribute to the goal in the second.
José Hernández, at a diminutive 5’5”, put in two scrappy shifts at attacking midfield showing he has no fear at mixing it up with the professionals. I am amazed at how he can plant and use that low center of gravity to avoid being shoved off the ball like so many larger players.
Ricardo Velazco showed what Monarchs fans have enjoyed for the past two seasons and why he was worth of moving up to the first team.
Even Andrew Brody came on as a late substitution and managed to provide our first glimpse of the replay procedure that will surely become more common.
RSL finally seems on the brink of seeing widespread and long-term benefit from their early and sustained effort in developing the next generation of talent.
Feel free to chime in with what stood out for you during these two weeks in Arizona as we prepare for yet more fan moments in the second stage of the preseason at Portland.