Early stages, but how are the Rapids faring?
Smiling faces peered through the rain in Houston on Tuesday, as the collection of Rapids coaches enjoyed what was unfolding before their eyes. With a new set of coaches presiding over the team activities, the style and setup of the early-season training has a new look, giving players more autonomy and free time compared with previous seasons.
So far, the technical staff is pleased with what they've seen.
A 3-2 win over the Dynamo on Sunday was a positive result, but the team's four coaches - Pablo Mastroeni, John Metgod, Steve Cooke (pictured above) and Chris Sharpe - were even more pleased with an excellent training session on Tuesday morning, following an off day on Monday.
"The players were flying [this morning]," said Cooke, following Tuesday's practice. "They were really excited to be out there. They were rested, they were sharp, and they were really ready to go.
"Not only does that vindicate having a day off yesterday, but it also says that the gradual build that we've had so far is benefitting the players, because they've looked really good and we've been impressed with them."
Mastroeni's relationship with the players, being so fresh off his playing career, has given him some extra insight into how they want to go through preseason, and what they need from the coaching staff. The plan has been to push players when needed, and give them space outside of that - all with a solid plan behind it.
"As we plan our training sessions, we try to build the sessions through the week and also through the six or seven weeks leading to the New York game (March 15)," says Cooke. "Base fitness is a big consideration right now, and we look then to develop flow in the training sessions so that not only are we getting the base fitness, but they're also getting the technical/tactical work that the players need to keep improving."
For Metgod (above left), a newcomer to the Rapids and to U.S. soccer in general, the response from the players has impressed him already, and the result on Sunday was a just reward for hard work.
"So far I think it's been very good," said the Dutch coach. "What we ask from players in the games is that they try to do what we've trained on. Certainly against Houston, that worked pretty well.
"We were talking about keeping possession, trying to be dangerous in the last third, and that's exactly what we did. The rest you're trying to develop as the preseason goes on, and take it one step at a time."
In addition to Cooke and Metgod, whose work is hands-on with the outfield players while Mastroeni oversees, goalkeeper coach Chris Sharpe (below) is in charge of preparing his corps for the rigors of the MLS season. The Australian coach has a relatively young group to work with, with last year's starter Clint Irwin still just 24 years old, and the other two keepers in the group, Joe Nasco (29) and John Berner (22) coming in with no prior MLS experience. Veteran Matt Pickens remains an excused absence from camp.
"We're looking for somebody to compete at that #2 spot, to push Clint day in and day out, and to be comfortable and ready to play," said Sharpe. "Johnny's very young, he's a big boy, he's raw. The reason I like him is he's very brave and he's very strong in the air, which is necessary for this league. Joe is a bit older, he was the NASL goalkeeper of the year, and he's brave in the air and a very good shot-stopper. Those were the things that caught my eye."
In the match against Houston, Nasco started and played 60 minutes, giving up both Dynamo goals through no fault of his own. Berner appeared for the final 30 minutes and kept a clean sheet, making a pair of nice saves. The expected starter, Irwin, was rested, but is also working hard in training.
"We've got a lot of preseason games, and as we move toward Tucson, we're getting Clint prepared and making sure he's comfortable," said Sharpe. "He's come in a lot fitter and stronger than he was last year. He's looking very sharp right now, which is very nice this early in preseason."
It is not just the players who are adjusting to a new group around them, as well as new roles and additional challenges. For a technical staff assembled in early January after the abrupt departure of Oscar Pareja, they've had to get to know how to work together in a short amount of time.
Early reviews have been nothing but positive, with all the coaches settling into their positions and working well together. Even Metgod, who arrived in the U.S. just before the MLS Combine in Florida, has felt comfortable in new surroundings.
"I said to Pablo, Steve and Sharpe, that basically from the first day I got to know them in Fort Lauderdale before the Combine, I felt like I'd known them for years," said Metgod. "That's the best way to describe it.
"The players have been absolutely magnificent, not only on the pitch in training sessions, but also off it. You have to adapt to new situations very quickly, and the best way to describe it is that I've got the feeling that I've been here for years, and that's very strange in football because it hardly ever happens."
While the Rapids continue to build on their fitness, technique and tactics throughout the preseason, the team hopes that the positivity in camp continues. March 15, after all, is just around the corner.