During the World Cup in 2002, I lived in San Diego and fell in love with the game. I had already been playing rec-soccer for a couple of years and was motivated to work hard to improve my playing level. During that summer and the following season, I went to the Nomads, where we ended up being one of the best teams in the country. I moved to Colorado when I was 11. I still remember my dad looking up the best club teams before even moving out and even interviewing coaches, when we were searching for a house. Turns out he chose brilliantly. I moved to Broomfield, and began to play for the Broomfield Blast. The club isn’t all the great, but Tesho Akindele (FC Dallas) and Shane O’Neill (NAC Breda) played for the Blast when I moved there. By my second season, I was one of two captains of the team, Dillon Serna (Colorado Rapids) the other.
Going into high school Dillon went to the Rapids Academy and I played up a year for Storm North and we ended up winning the club’s first state championship, a few months later. Dillon and I played a very similar style, despite the fact that physically, we were much different. Tesho played on Storm’s top team and was two years older at the time. Our teams had some exceptional battles and we were the first team to defeat them in over a year, with a 4-3 wild west showdown, with incredible goals and energy. Tesho was just coming into his own as a striker at that point and his confidence in the forward third, was inspiring.
My club team, for the next couple of years, had one of the most gifted players I ever played with, yet he was never identified and pushed through the development pipeline. A player that was a combination of Landon Donovan and Eden Hazard, but faster, more athletic and exceptional with both legs, than either one of them. He, like me, was easy to coach and had the attributes and work ethic….but the system completely missed him. He eventually ended up in Kansas, playing NAIA ball. He is still one of the most naturally gifted players I had the opportunity to play with to this day. And you would think the athleticism alone, would be enough in the US system, but no. I will discuss these types of challenges in another Blog titled “The US player development pipeline is leaking talent all over the ground” Note: I may shorten this title. 🙂
For club, I played attacking mid, and for my first three years of high school I played a forward. My senior year as a captain I played attacking mid and was the highest scoring player in the conference, as well as the Player of the Year. My coach, Jim Davidson, has won NSCAA National Coach of the Year and was one of the best coaches and mentors, a player could ever hope to work with, during those formative and player-molding years. I was also the captain of my club team that won another state championship my senior year under coach Rafael Amaya who played for the Rapids and the Colombian National team. I was very fortunate to have coaches that wanted to play attractive, intelligent soccer.
On to College
My team was desperately in need of a 6, as their current 6 had one more year (as an All American) and would be graduating. For one of our scrimmages, I played that position for what was supposed to be 15 minutes and it ended up playing the entire first half. Our current six played the second half and was not nearly as productive as I was that day. It was after that game, my coach decided I was going to be his next generation 6! Since I had always played an attacking mid, I was disappointed, to say the least. I liked spending lots of time in the attacking third and was known for my “final ball”. But when you go to college, you get shifted sometimes. And since I’m a team player, first and foremost, I was willing to give it a shot.
My first college season we were playing a few colleges in preseason, and the head coach was playing the wrong formation with the wrong personnel. How do I know this? I look at each teams player attributes, proposed formations and overlying strategy. Why? Because I’m an idiot that likes to think five moves ahead, as I have discovered that most players and coaches, are very predictable. And that match-ups either empower or frustrate/stifle teams…and I prefer the latter, for our opposition.
After much consideration, the coach decided he needed to play me at center back. I felt I was a waste at center back, because I wasn’t involved enough in build-up play. He also had ideas that were not logical for a couple of other players. We ended losing multiple pre-season games, struggling with this dysfunctional formation. So I decided I needed to at least try to be proactive, and not just allow this to happen to a good team. I chose this team, because they played possession oriented ball, and not your typical American “wreck & counter” style. They had all of the technical and tactical capabilities, but were lacking the ability to execute, because the pieces, were in the wrong places. Kind of like a Chess match, where you have the pieces to pose an attack, but they are in all the wrong positions, so you are forced to watch opportunities pass you by.
Before our season opener against the second best team in the country, I brought my suggested formation and starting squad to the coaching staff; including starting a player at center back, who had never played college soccer, but had Olympic level 100M speed and good size. My belief was that I could help him understand how to play the position (because he listened) and shield him from making real time decisions. His sole focus was to use his speed, strength and size in order to man-mark the opponent’s leading scorer and remove them from the attacking equation. He would not be forced into making any other “game speed” decisions, just get in that one guy’s space and remove all of his touches…and hence, opportunities. He listened. He executed wonderfully. And he had a chance to really start learning the game, as the season unfolded.
How did that work out?
We played the first home game with the entire formation, exactly the way I recommended and beat (Simon Fraser) the #2 nationally ranked team 2-1. It was with highest-paced game we played that year. That team had only lost one game in the last 17 games, at that point. So they were on a serious roll. The last time our program played this team, and I didn’t play, we lost 6-1. Starting from that game, we started a 9 game streak of not conceding a goal in the run of play. I made sure the team was very organized and knew how to move as one cohesive unit, as a defense. We also dominated the mid, because everyone bought into the style of play…and someone was always ensuring we stuck to the script.
The next year, a week before our season started, a crunching tackle in practice took out my ACL. Fortunately, I was able to go to the best doctor and rehab program in the country and am now stronger than I was before the injury. But wow…this was a shocker for me. In my entire career, I had missed a total of three games, due to injury. And we are talking about over 300 games. So this was a serious disappointment, that I used as an opportunity, to watch, asses and learn to be a better player. It ended up being a blessing in disguise. And since I broke the record on the strength rehab testing protocols, at the tail end of the ACL rehab (with Chris Powers who is recognized internationally for his research on knee injuries and owns Movement Performance Institute) it truly set the stage for me to move forward.
That year, I had the most minutes, most touches, most passes and the best passing completion percentage, along with five goals (3 game winners) and 2 assists. For the rest of the year we played this formation, including a 12 game win streak. We finished the regular season after winning league by 7 points and ranked #2 in the region. We dominated every game in both possession and chances created. The sprinter/center back ended up getting all-American that year. Why? Because the other coaches all said “he just suffocated our forward and took him out of the game” And that happened because he was allowed to focus on one thing…and only one thing. And he did a great job, felt empowered and grew as a player. All of this despite the fact that he was the worst technical player on our team. 🙂 But soccer is all about match-ups and applying player attributes…at just the right points. We finally lost in the playoffs that year, when our keeper spilled a header back to him and the forward walked it into the goal.
That year, (after my injury) we were picked to win the league again, but naturally. The team finished ninth (without me) in the table. They conceded 56% more goals and scored 37% fewer. They went from #19 in the entire nation, to #87 in the Nation. They lost all sense of a style of play and were just doing what they could to scrap together as many results as possible. They went from controlling the pace, tempo and tone of each game…to desperate survival mode. From “proactive” to “reactive”. From “thriving” to “surviving”.
So what changed? The six changed!
I’m a true 6. Strong, tall, two-footed, technical, and most importantly, intelligent. As a kid, I was always tall and thin and my level of athleticism was only middle of the charts. But today, that has all changed. I’m the same weight and height as Paul Pogba and my strength and speed are top notch. Since I started college, I realized that I could positively affect the play more from a holding mid position than any other position. I embraced the accountability and thrived in the new position. I’ve grown to love everything that goes into being a great 6 and am looking forward to learning more and getting to Europe to play in a country that appreciates my approach to playing this position.