[THE PITCH: Blog 6] The past two weeks marked the quarterfinals of UEFA Women’s Champion’s League. Due to weather issues, the Swedish season runs
opposite to the central European leagues, starting in spring and ending in the fall. Which means that to qualify for Champions League you have to place in Damallsvenskan nine months before the
tournament begins. In order to play out a Champions League season with a Swedish team, you have to sign for two seasons. Switching clubs last winter meant missing out on the Champions League
quarterfinal this spring. So, over the past two Thursdays, I watched from my couch as Malmö and Göteborg, my rival and former club, took on their French opponents in the biggest club soccer
tournament in the world.
Playing about 30 games with Göteborg last year and four times against Malmö (as well as watching the latter on TV several times), I feel quite familiar with the level of play that these teams are capable of when at their best and, also, when they are not at their best. And, while I know that the usual elements of travel, the away crowds, and playing on a grass fields put both Swedish teams at a disadvantage for the first leg, there seemed to be something more missing from their play both away and at home.
While I can’t put my finger on exactly what was missing, I could see it in the timing of their passing. It’s hard to describe precisely what went wrong, but I could feel it as I observed the familiar Swedish faces.
To put it simply, it appeared that neither Swedish team looked “played in.” Some may argue that Lyon is the top women’s club in the world because of the talented roster afforded by a considerable financial advantage in the club.
While, of course, individual talent and economic advantage are huge components contributing to the team’s success (did I hear something about a 100 game no-losing streak?), there is something more to the story here. Lyon’s cohesiveness and singular mindset, or “X” factor, give them the true edge. If a team is a sum of the individual players’ ability then, the addition of the “X” factor puts the beauty in the beautiful game for the fans, and the play in the game for the players. The presence of the “X” factor differentiates a great team from merely a team of great players. Like the sixth man in basketball, this variable is often the deciding force in the outcome of games as well. So, where can I find this “X”?
In the case of Lyon, the majority of the team plays together on the French national team and a large number have been a part of Les Lyonnaises for years. Unlike many women’s soccer environments today, the club is stable and established, so the players do not have to live with a lingering fear of instantaneous disintegration à la WUSA/WPS. That being the case, players and the staff certainly know each other, and they understand each other’s goals and football philosophies. With that valuable information, they are better able to make each other look good.
On the other hand, both the Swedish teams were playing with significant roster changes for the new season and on a two-month "training-only" preparation for these important Champions League matches. And in the case of Gothenburg vs. Juvisy, a match up of arguably equal rosters and resources, the more cohesive, unified, organized side won.
As the season progresses with matches and trainings, teams fight together, celebrate triumphs big and small, and commiserate failures both minor and colossal. With each training session, players learn their teammates’ tendencies, triggers, signals, weaknesses and preferences. As a result, the teams that have been together longer exhibit more confidence and are more consistent.
The benefits from this type of bonding have the potential for providing even more benefits. Research studies using virtual reality have demonstrated that mothers can run faster/ jump higher when trying to save their babies compared to when they simply put forward their "personal best effort." The same phenomenon can be found in football too. I’ve noticed that players seem to move faster and work harder when they know their teammates are counting on them. A simple example of this can be found in training for fitness tests. No matter how many times I ran the “beep test” alone in preparation for preseason, I always ran it better with my teammates at my side. Yes, perhaps it was the heat of a little inter-squad competition, or perhaps it was something else: the feeling that when your goals include more than just yourself, you can be bigger than yourself, too. And through the mutual and consistent flow of blood, sweat, and tears ... a team of reckoning is born.
Taking things one step further, playing on a team of players that you know well and know you well creates a unique and advantageous training environment. This atmosphere can cause the most successful moves in a game to become the least successful moves in training. As your teammates learn your style and moves, it becomes increasingly more difficult to wield those “bread and butter” techniques and tactics during training sessions. Individual predictability is a game killer. You must learn that counter move and push yourself that much further to excel. Therefore, through training with familiar players, the individual’s arsenal is forced to expand and the player, quite naturally, grows.
When it is all said and done, the bigger the stakes, the bigger advantage a seasoned team has over their opponent. Knowing your teammates well is like getting the answers the night before the test: it is easier to stay one step ahead of the play, read the game faster and make moves more quickly. I mention these factors, as an observer from the outside looking in, not as excuses for the results in the quarter-final matches.
As the semifinals edge nearer and nearer for the four remaining teams, Tyreso’s opportunity to play for this title sits idly. The start of the 2014 Champions League season is months away in the fall. Perhaps in those early rounds, we will possess the “X factor” we might lack today. And the time spent waiting … well, it just might be exactly what we need to prepare for this championship. Suddenly, it is clear … every touch, pass, sprint, every match, every practice, and every meeting … we have an end goal, and I, a sense of restored purpose.