After the recent match against three dinosaurs and some other guys sporting sky blue, Brad Evans had a few things to say. The most noteworthy—other than his overall body language and facial expression, which was unmistakably downtrodden—was when he essentially called out some of his teammates for not caring or not trying enough.
In a sport that is often summarized through diagrams of Xs and Os, of passing and shot metrics, and of larger-scale tactical philosophies such as possession-based or counter-attacking styles, this was an interesting development. We have clichés forced down our throats all the time. This felt different. It was raw. It was honest. It wasn't just chalking up the struggles of the Rave Green to a missed chance here or a missed chance there. It wasn't the things we hear all the time, things I believe many of us are growing increasingly weary of hearing.
It exposed us to a part of soccer, and sports in general, that does not receive enough attention in my opinion. It exposed us to the role of psychology in sports.
You don't need to be a direct descendent of Albert Einstein to grasp the concept that believing in yourself and feeling appreciative of your surroundings can be helpful. The importance of morale has been well documented ever since unions demanded better working conditions—fundamental basics we now take for granted like better lighting in workspaces and a scattering of breaks throughout the day to stretch aching muscles—and productivity was subsequently observed to increase.
However, the Sounders cannot point their fingers toward a dimly lit locker room as the origin of their offensive woes. While the (thankfully controlled) outburst that recently spewed from Brad Evans' mouth was by no means tantamount to the locker room meltdown we witnessed in the dying months of 2013, it is clear that all things are not rosy when the locker room door closes and the cameras are powered off. However, this could potentially point to an even larger issue than what we faced in 2013. Despite it being perceived as lesser this time from the outside, we may not have fully learned from that troubled year.
Identifying it as either a problem or an opportunity to improve is one thing. Actualizing this on a team that boasts dozens of individual human beings is another.
There is no blueprint for creating team chemistry. At least not one that is publicly available and widely known. At an individual level, there are at least philosophies and approaches for how to maximize confidence and many other virtues that are critical components to being successful. However, extending that to an entire team and painting solid over previously dotted lines is essentially going from two dimensions to three.
Thankfully, there are examples out there in the professional sports world that we can use as initial stepping stones for better understanding.
The San Antonio Spurs are considered the best-run professional sports franchise by many sports pundits despite lacking the athleticism and talent of other teams. This has been reflected in the standings. They have made the playoffs in 19 consecutive seasons and only a strike-shortened 1998-1999 season prevented their streak of seasons with 50 or more wins (a minimum of .61 win percentage) from matching it. They have also filled an entire hand with rings, winning five titles in the process. And despite eventually losing out in the Finals, the Warriors' historic season is in many ways indebted to the Spurs: Steve Kerr cites Gregg Popovich as one of his most influential mentors and their GM has a quote from Popovich permanently saved on his phone as a reminder.
How do they do it? Although they are great with advanced metrics, the answer is in many ways more simple than it is complex. When asked what they look for in players, Popovich had this to say (the full interview provides even more savory nuggets):
"For us, it's easy. We're looking for character, but what the hell does that mean? We're looking for people — and I've said it many times — [who] have gotten over themselves, and you can tell that pretty quickly. You can talk to somebody for four or five minutes, and you can tell if it's about them, or if they understand that they're just a piece of the puzzle. So we look for that."
To hit closer to home (the only pun here, I promise), the Seahawks are believed to be pioneers in terms of character development and team-building within the NFL. Sure, they are good at scouting diamonds in the rough in rounds when most pundits fail to recognize half of the names. But a large part of that is because they are not just scouting squats and 100-yard dashes. They are scouting human beings, and they go out of their way to develop them into even greater ones through things like doing yoga classes together and beginning mornings with meditation.
Even if this seems a bit over the top, let us take perhaps the simplest of examples. When the Sounders were struggling through one of their roughest patches in recent history, Kasey Keller responded to a question of what he would do by stating he would invite the team over for a barbecue. In essence, the caloric setback from a few ribeyes and potato salad would be offset tenfold by the players hashing out some of their grievances (if applicable, which was the case in 2013 and signs point to potentially being the case today) and walking away from the patio feeling like a team rather than an assortment of individuals or cliques that happen to cash checks signed by the same hand.
While I am not familiar with how formally or informally this is stressed within the Colorado Rapids as an organization, their 2nd year coach Pablo Mastroeni believes mentality is a huge part of their surprising success this season:
On if the patience creates the winning or the winning creates the patience:
"I think it's all intertwined. First you've got to believe. You've got to believe in yourself as an individual, you've got to believe in what we're doing as a group. You've got to believe that even when you're down, as we've been this year on the road, that you're going to come back. Then that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of belief. With that belief, the men have done some great things. What I'm starting to feel with this group is there's not test that's too big and there's no task that's too daunting. They fear nobody. We're still the underdogs and we'll continue to fight our way through the season."
On how his team is playing for each other:
"It's a really selfless group. The group inside that locker room is one of the tightest teams I've ever been a part of. I'm kind of on the outside as the coach, but to be part of that group Monday through Friday in that clubhouse...the camaraderie, the older guys taking the younger guys under their wing and talking to them about what it takes, leading by example. We have a great group of leaders in that locker room. We have young guys that are hungry to prove themselves and whenever called upon, they step in and do a great job. That's team. That's why we coach and that's why we play."
While this may sound like a no-brainer and something most coaches and players would agree to, there is an enormous difference between conceptually agreeing that it is helpful as opposed to prioritizing it as central to your success. These are things that must start as a point of emphasis, starting with the owners and trickling down throughout the management and coaching staff, the players, and even those than handle matchday equipment. The effort to cultivate this by whatever means necessary should be highlighted as a mandate in bold in whatever the internal version of their mission statement is. While you do not want to go too far—cheesy quotes plastered throughout offices and locker rooms can quickly become nothing more than pandering clichés—it should nonetheless be viewed as something that could help turn the Sounders from historically good to historically great. Montreal recently hired a full-time psychologist for a more tangible example, and if the Sounders haven't already they should do the same.
I believe we are in the beginning stages of the transition away from what I would call the Machismo Era in sports. Sure, knuckling lashes into the upper corner, slam dunks, and bone-crushing tackles are what test the decibel thresholds of those sitting next to us. But once the camera and stadium lights go off, there is a lot more to the game than Xs and Os. Pete Carroll was laughed out of the NFL in the 1990s, but he is the one laughing now. It is high time that all teams—the Sounders obviously included—take note.
It would not be fair of me to conclude without recognizing that I do not attend training. I do not have access to the locker room. It is very possible the Sounders are well aware of all of these things and have already taken concrete steps to begin addressing them. If that is the case, however, we have yet to see it manifest on the 116x75-yard expanse upon which we do have access to so far this season. We know for certain that there are elements of this—leaders taking youngsters under their wing, for example. But formalizing this to the extent possible rather than let it develop (or not) organically would go a long way.
The future will undoubtedly be brighter. History tells us as much. But to end with a cliché: A bit of holistic thinking and embracing of forward-minded approaches could add that needed bit of extra sparkle to an otherwise beaming light.