USL Feature by Jason Minnick
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
CHARLOTTE, NC – In a battle of patriotic-themed soccer clubs, MLS’s New England Revolution will travel to UNC Charlotte Stadium this Saturday to face the USL Second Division Eagles. The match, set to kick off at 6 p.m., features teams at opposite ends of their preseason campaigns. The Eagles are in their second week of preparations for the 2010 USL-2 season that begins on April 17 against the Charleston Battery.
“We have had six training sessions thus far,” Eagles Head Coach Mark Steffens said. “We are not where we want to be. Having said that – last week’s training was excellent. The intensity level was high. So is our motivation.”
After finishing up a two-game preseason stint in Orlando on February 26, the Revolution has been holed up in frigid New England at Dana-Farber Field House the past two weeks.
“We have been indoors for four-and-a-half of the past six weeks,” Revolution Head Coach Steve Nicol said. “Getting some grass under our feet and adapting to the outdoor conditions will be important for us on this trip. We also want to win. Charlotte is going to want to win, too, though. They will be ready for a fight. Hopefully not a real fight, but they are not going to lie down for us.”
The Revolution will spend 12 days training and playing their final three preseason games in North Carolina before they open their MLS schedule against the LA Galaxy in Los Angeles on March 27. Nicol is entering his ninth season as head coach of the Revolution, while Steffens is beginning his 13th with the Eagles. The pair represents the longest tenured coaches in both MLS and the USL Second Division.
“In both our cases our clubs have kept a solid group around for some time,” Nicol said. “We have both set down bench marks and each season we look to hold that down and improve upon it. I know Charlotte will be competitive. They will compete well.”
Steffens points to the opportunity to mold young lives as his reason for staying in Charlotte for 13 consecutive seasons.
“The players that we are blessed to have are a joy to coach,” he said. “I would go to battle with any one of them. They are respectful and hard-working young men. I have the best coaching job in the country. I do not do this for a paycheck, I do this for the reward I get every day – investing in the lives of the young men in Charlotte. We try to build a strong spiritual foundation that will prepare them for the rest of their lives. Can you think of anything better than that – soccer with a greater purpose than just winning games?”
Combining for 22 years of experience at their current posts, the old guards of MLS and USL-2 have an inside perspective of how the game has developed during the past decade.
“The game in the U.S. has developed nicely,” Steffens said. “We have taken some good things from other countries and made it our own. Our style seems to be a combination of “samba” soccer, direct play and timely pressure up high.”
“When I first came to the U.S. [in 1999], I could not find anything on TV,” Nicol said. “There was no exposure. Now you can watch any game from anywhere around the world at any time. It is fantastic. Also, the quality of play is certainly better. With more exposure, more people are playing the game and you have better players. If you have a roster of 20, the 20th guy is way ahead of where that player would have been 11 years ago.”
“For sure the players have gotten better,” Steffens echoed. “Do not get me wrong, there were very good players in 1997, but the depth is amazing now. There are substitutes on our teams the past few seasons that would have started in ‘97.”
Steffens’ 13 seasons has also produced a library worth of stories to tell about the game.
“One amazing time is when we took the Eagles to play in the Gaza Strip in 2001,” Steffens said. “We were the first American professional soccer team to play there. The Gaza Football Federation just finished building their National Stadium. The morning of the game we saw a single push-lawnmower cutting the entire field. It took hours for them to get it done.
“Then we played in front of a sold-out stadium of men. At that time women were not allowed to go to sporting events. Hopefully that has changed by now. The federation treated us like royalty because President Bill Clinton was flying into Gaza the next day. It was just an amazing trip and a great game that finished 2-2. We were protected by 20 members of a Special Police Force for the entire stay. We really enjoyed building relationships with them.”
On the opposing bench come Saturday, Nicol is arguably the most prominent player to have ever taken the field in the A-League/USL First Division. The defender played in more than 340 matches for Liverpool from 1981-1995. From 1999-2000, he played in 40 matches with the Boston Bulldogs, recording 3,415 minutes, four shots, 24 fouls, six yellow cards a minor in coaching Americans.
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“The matters of the game are more or less the same in MLS as they were in the A-League,” Nicol said. “One thing I took away from the A-League was the physical drain that the schedule and the travel had on the players. You need to be aware of where each individual is at…constantly. I am always weary of the type of training I do because of the physical drain on players in this country.”
While the similarities between two of the most stable coaches in U.S. Soccer history is obvious; the biggest difference between the pair would be that Nicol is operating in a results-driven environment where Steffens’ aforementioned focus is on player development.
“I love teaching the game and building relationships with my players,” Steffens said. “As we invest in their lives we hope to enable them to invest in other peoples’ lives. We are trying to build men for others.”
“New England is one of the best teams in the MLS. They always seem to get to the finals and that speaks volumes of coach Nicol. He is not only a top coach but a consistent winner. I respect the coach, the team and the entire organization greatly. We really need to play as a team, both offensively and defensively. If we play as a bunch of individuals against them, we will not have a chance.”
Another factor in this weekend’s matchup will be the 2009 retirement of Eagles core players Dustin Swinehart and Ben Johnson.
“We will have a greater turnover than ever this season,” Steffens said. “We expect to have 12 or 13 new players. There will be a lot of work to do to get on the same page tactically. I do not know what system we will be playing or even the style since we are a few weeks away from having our entire team here. The returning players from last year will have to put forth a great game on Saturday night for us to be successful against the Revolution.”