It can be said in soccer, as true for most sports, that sometimes a team, player, a coach need a miracle, or as we so often cheer, good luck, to accomplish a remarkable finish that defies probabilities. But it is also just as true that there are those "other teams". The teams whose consistency – and tenacity in the game – show something more calculated, more deliberate, that pushes them forward and onward to the big game. To be that kind of team - most coaches, managers, fans would argue - is the most satisfying because that type of “being good at what you do” passes the test of time as they continue to get better year after year.
For those interested in the engineering behind good teams – the question always lingers, “what makes them tick?” Is there a formula? A recipe? If there is, then most coaches of competitive soccer teams would certainly list ingredients to be proper preparation, nutrition, plenty of rest and recovery. But as any seasoned cook knows, ingredients to a successful recipe are only part of the process – how the ingredients are mixed, and in what order of importance they are handled, can make huge swings in the recipe’s success. And in the world of soccer, as anyone watching this year’s World Cup can tell you, just how the ingredients building a team lay themselves out on any given day is anyone’s guess. But, sometimes you can see the success in the making – the mixing and melding, the fusion among the ingredients – each step in the process working together in such a way that it becomes deliberate.
Eastside B00 Red and Coach Mark Kovats demonstrated what it means to have a good, effective strategy – a recipe - to successfully handle whatever would come their way, game by game at the 2018 Region IV Championships in Honolulu last month. Fortunately, good luck was not necessary despite that temperatures were high, the grass on the fields long and the unfamiliar terrain that certainly showed wear and tear as the week progressed. Eastside’s year of preparation to get to this point in the game had all the special ingredients necessary to move out of group play, win quarterfinals against a formidable foe and earn a berth in the semifinals. The team had been deliberately prepared and were ready.
Right out of the gate, the competition at Regionals was stiff. Eastside’s bracket included two State Champs. Their first game was against the SoCal state champions: South Bay Strikers. According to Coach Kovats, SoCal teams are consistently among the best teams in the region and nation, and Eastside knew that this game, their first game at Regionals, would be the most difficult one and would set the tone for the rest of the tournament.
“It was a good thing we were fresh as the Strikers were fantastic. The game ended in a draw, I knew that this was a good result for the start to our tournament,” said Kovats.
Eastside continued their undefeated streak by beating Colorado’s state champions 2-1 in Game 2 and cruising by Hawaii Surf with a 3-0 win in the third game to secure a spot in the Quarterfinals.
“The games took their toll on the group as the heat, level of competition and importance of the games were all extremely high! We felt like making it out of our group was a great accomplishment, but the team definitely wanted more and thought we could compete with anyone,” said Kovats.
With one day off to prepare, the team looked to Quarterfinals against Santa Clara Sporting, last year’s Regionals Champions AND a team that had beaten them twice in previous years at Surf Cup.
According to Kovats, “The quarterfinal game was epic - two good teams playing in windy conditions and in the middle of the day….HOT! We scored a goal to go up 2-1 with 20 minutes left and made it stand up for the win. The boys were over the moon happy and really proud of their performance against the team that won regionals last year!”
Advancing to Semifinals, it was all Eastside in the first 25 minutes of the game with Eastside ahead 2-0 against a strong Las Vegas team. In a heady surge of adrenalin and momentum, the boys made it almost to halftime without allowing any goals until Las Vegas pulled one back to make it 2-1 in the last minutes of the half to close the gap. Coming back in the second half, some wind out of their sails, the boys found themselves defending more than attacking.
“We were on the defensive for most of the second half, but still were able to create scoring chances that came to nothing,” Kovats surmised. “They tied the game with 25 minutes left and got the winning goal right at the end of the game. We fought to the very end, but were unable to get another goal and tie it up. I know that the team was disappointed with the result, but left every bit of themselves on the field that game and walked off knowing we had accomplished a lot. “
For a team who had never before competed at the Regionals Championships, the week in Honolulu was a completely new and memorable experience– three of the players were graduating (a total of seven high school seniors were on the B00 Red that qualified for Regionals; four were not able to make the trip to Hawaii due to graduation ceremonies that week). The excitement the team felt was very high in anticipation to be able to compete against the top teams from the other states in Region IV and see how Eastside compared, said Kovats. Their remarkable run at Regionals can be traced to a slow, steady and deliberate progression of proper preparation through training and high level competitive play earlier in the year – and knowing when to rest the players.
Eastside FC began their 2017 season on the pitch. Between the 14-week period from Labor Day to the first of December, the team competed in 22 games, says Kovats. Not only were they playing in RCL, but they also competed outside the state in FarWest Regional League and nationally with the National League. With such a competitive, busy schedule, proper game preparation was crucial.
“ It was very important to keep the team healthy and rested, as much as possible, knowing the importance of the National League games that came at the end,” said Kovats. “We finished in 2nd place in the FWRL, tied for second in the RCL and 4th in our National League bracket. Considering where this team started off and the heavy load of games over that 14 week period, we were able to play at a continually high level and remain competitive in all of the competitions. We narrowly lost to Seattle United in the state semifinals in mid-February, went through tryouts later that week and continued to prepare for our second National League weekend in Las Vegas in mid-March. And the boys started with their high school teams on March 1st.
Kovats said that with the players engaged in their high school seasons and the team heading to Regionals in mid-June, it was a tough call deciding when to begin club training in preparation for Regionals. Most of the boys enjoyed success at the high school level and that extended their high school season well into May, just weeks before Regionals, said Kovats. Not only would the training period prior to Regionals be short due to their respective high school season, but the team dynamic changed a bit during the February tryouts. Seven on the team were Seniors who were graduating and six new boys were added and started training with the team prior to Regionals. Balancing the need for rest and not overdoing it physically after the lengthy high school seasons and properly preparing for the highly competitive Regional tournament was critical, said Kovats. Aiding in the balancing act, according to Kovats, were the strength of the new players to assist the Regional team during training.
"They were instrumental in pushing the team in training and raising the energy level as they integrated into their new team," said Kovats.
To help the boys prepare efficiently in a short time frame, Kovats arranged for three scrimmages in three days leading up to Hawaii - replicating the three consecutive games in the team would face in group play at Regionals. The rest plus the smart, efficient training despite the short training window, was a preparation strategy that worked. All the ingredients for success came together for a successful run at Regionals.
“The boys were a couple of breaks away from playing for a regional championship, played five games in six days in hot/humid conditions and represented themselves, the team and our club at the highest level,” said a very proud Coach Kovats. “The parent/sibling/fan group was outstanding, carrying the boys on when things got difficult and supporting them throughout - we could not have accomplished so much without them! I could not be more proud of this group of young men, they have proven to themselves that they are capable of greatness and able to compete against the best teams in the nation on a regular basis. I’m looking forward to this coming season and seeing how they are able to raise their game and establish themselves again on the big stages to come.”
Rest up boys; more soccer games to come!