The last day of practice before heading off to Arizona to continue pre-season started off indoors. Originally using both fields, the MLS Cup Champion Sounders were soon ushered off of one field for what looked to be a girls U4 team. (Schmetzer’s look was priceless.)
The younger players and trialists went through speed testing, with Shipp and Adekoya going 1-2 in the 5/10/5 shuttle and Tolo and Adekoya going 1-2 in the sprint. Tolo really impressed with his straight line speed. Seyi is an incredible athlete as well. This testing was briefly interrupted by Roman Torres shaking the entire Starfire complex while doing the standing triple jump above the indoor fields.
A beautiful day greeted the full combined group as they moved outside afterwards for training and it was great to see the addition of Nico Lodeiro to the team, as he warmed up with the squad. Ozzie Alonso, sporting a knee strap, was also in attendance and joined many of the drills today. The MVP Frei was lightly taped and got some work on the side.
After stretching and warm-ups there were again a variety of keep-away drills testing touch, vision and positioning. Immediately Lodeiro and Dempsey got a knock in on each other, both refusing to back off on a 50/50 ball and we saw the trademark Dempsey smirk as they high fived after the collision while Nico was also all smiles.
The most intense grouping was mostly veterans Lodeiro, Dempsey, Torres, Flaco, etc. plus Gale Agbossoumonde who again showed off soft feet. Any group or drill involving Roman is VERY loud and fun, yet also intense. He has the ability to keep everyone’s spirits high while at the same time challenging each and every player around him to do better. I cannot stress how valuable this is to a team, and it shows how much his teammates look to him for this form of leadership.
The class of keep-away was Lodeiro, who hasn’t missed a beat. His control and vision is perfect for small-sided games like this, and he also takes great angles when defending. He just makes it look so easy out there. He excelled in the next drill as well and showed no rust from his off-season.
After keep away a group including most of the returning starters plus Shipp, Bruin, Zakuani, and Wingo played a four-goal game that stressed quick ball movement and utilizing numerical advantages. Alonso was protected, but it was great to see him join in and do some ball work. (Schmetzer suggested it was a direct result of Lodeiro being there for the first time.) This group was fantastic at communicating, moving off the ball, and playing high intensity soccer. Wingo fit in better than I thought he would, although he tended to be an auxiliary option, which is logical with guys like Dempsey and Nico dominating the ball.
The practice ended with some full-sided 11v11 games, with the same group of guys I would consider “first team locks” starting together. This was the first time we saw the inclusion of Lodeiro, and he made his presence felt in the middle with his usual insane work rate. It took a while, but soon Dempsey stopped dropping so deep, trusting Roldan and Nico to get him the ball. There was a good moment where Clint took a moment to discuss with Bruin where he wants the ball (and vice versa). Some of this was due to a strong showing by Agbossoumonde who was able to use his size to push Bruin away from goal. I love seeing the communication on the field, which to my eye is better than I have ever seen from this team. The switching and movement was very good, and some of the younger players showed better than expected.
· Vic Mansaray is improving still, and playing a withdrawn playmaker role showed off some great control. He is improved from the last time I saw him play.
· Adekoya looked strong on the ball, but no one on the second team was able to make much headway against a back four of Jones, Alfaro, Torres, and Fisher
· The more I see his strength, instincts, and control, the more I think the very smooth skillset of Henry Wingo could be a defensive mid option. His is very disciplined in the midfield and uses his body and physicality so well, I see a lot of Alonso in his playstyle.
· Brian Nana-Sinkham played an outside back and looked good overlapping, but had difficulty finding a pass once he got into attacking positions
· I haven’t said much about Tony Alfaro, but that is because I forget he’s not a starter. He looks great next to Torres in many of the drills, and his communication, positioning, and decision making is rock solid.
Daily Dempsey: Who else but Clint himself would have the goal of the day? Finding a pocket of space during the scrimmage, Dempsey cut to his left foot and launched a perfect curling rocket to the upper-v for a spectacular goal over Brian Meredith from 25+ yards out. Even with Nico out there, it was Clint who was the best player on the field today.
The team is off to Arizona, with Zakuani a confirmed member and some academy kids going as well. Look for 30-33 players to travel and there is still a ton of competition for spots from my vantage point.