What makes a team tick like a clock, not a bomb?

The Mines men's and women's teams are RMAC champions. Photo by John Babiak.

What makes a team tick like a clock, not a bomb?

In 2015, Current of Colorado published 176 articles about boys, girls, amateurs, professionals, and international players at the highest level. I drove 28,525 miles to work 16 stadiums and 17 soccer complexes from Virginia Beach to Olympia, Washington, from Louisville, Kentucky to Casa Grande, Arizona and Boise, Idaho. Lessons in tactics and technique filled my brain while I filmed games and wrote stories. But I learned more about team chemistry in 2015 than during any stretch of my 48-year submission to the sport as a player, journalist, and soccer community member.

Successful teams maintain humility regardless of results. They communicate from the top brass to the end of the bench, and they build a sustainable support system on and off the field so players always feel involved.

Humility

“They believe in themselves, and they’re selfless,” explained Switchbacks FC assistant coach Lou Sagastume. “And that’s one of the greatest things because they all play for each other. It’s so awesome to see in a professional team because they are such good friends, and that’s what’s making it work here.”

Starting with captain Luke Vercollone, team culture trumps individual agendas in Colorado Springs. Vercollone leads by example with box-to-box movement, assists, and goals while he connects with everyone in the organization. When the Colorado Rapids loaned Charles Eloundou to the Switchbacks for the last four games of the USL regular season, Vercollone helped the young Cameroonian join the group. They moved a goal together at practice, talked to players, and did the little things that teammates do to mesh.

Charles Eloundou eludes JJ Greer in the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S.  Rapids attacker Charles Eloundou eludes JJ Greer from Switchbacks FC in the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in June. They played together in Colorado Springs at the end of the season. Photo by John Babiak.

Rapids attacker Charles Eloundou eludes JJ Greer from Switchbacks FC in the fourth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in June. They played together in Colorado Springs at the end of the season. Photo by John Babiak.

The selfless framework also comes from head coach Steve Trittschuh. He’s clearly in charge, but it’s also clear it’s not about him. He doesn’t throw players under the bus or tolerate behavior that strays from the humble core. Trittschuh surrounded Vercollone with veterans and youngsters who shared a realistic vision for a start-up team that needed to gel quickly and continue to gel. He also released a talented, entertaining outside back (Kley Bejarano) because the Colombian didn’t commit to the team according to their standards.

“We’re getting better every week,” Trittschuh said in March. As his Oxygen Debt Collectors punished teams at Sand Creek Stadium throughout the summer, they improved dramatically without losing the humble vibe. After the USL Western Conference semifinal in Oklahoma City in October, Trittschuh didn’t gloat about an undeniably successful first year. He talked about taking a short break and then going about improving the team for next year.

Switchbacks FC celebrate Martin Maybin's opening goal against Harpo's FC in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Photo courtesy of Switchback FC.

Switchbacks FC celebrate Martin Maybin’s opening goal against Harpo’s FC in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Photo courtesy of Switchback FC.

Not far from Sand Creek Stadium, the USAFA women’s team at Cadet Stadium showed the same kind of humility that drives a team’s improvement. They had not beaten the University of Denver since 1999 when they opened the Colorado Cup at home in August. But they posted a 2–0 victory over the perennial powerhouse with tight teamwork despite playing as a group for only the second time in a week.

After the final whistle, we shared game footage in the press box. While the DVD burned, USAFA head coach Larry Friend gathered his team. Every face showed the recognition of the accomplishment (and the joy). Yet the comments they shared showed nothing but humility. Sure, they were fresh off basic training and preseason at an institution defined by the pursuit of teamwork. Without humility, that kind of organization simply won’t work.

But Friend and assistant coach Kiha Sutta both played for the Academy, so they applied elevated humbleness to the soccer program. When he played in the 1980s, Friend was always one of the best players on the field. But you wouldn’t know it if you talked to him later. His body language and verbal statements showed nothing but respect for the game, his team, and the opponents. Humility works. Tons of teams showed me how this year.

Support

Fan support played a huge part in the amateur team’s victory when Harpo’s FC traveled to Provo, Utah to face the Brigham Young University Cougars in the first round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in May. With the score tied at the end of regulation, BYU fans started streaming out of South Field stadium. The announcer returned to the microphone, presumably to encourage them to stay for overtime. But he said he understood it was a weeknight and basically wished everyone pleasant dreams.

While the teams discussed strategies, people calmly wandered off to their cars and didn’t look over their shoulders when play resumed. At that point Harpo’s fans took over with cheers, encouragement, and different vocabulary until their boys won the spot-kicks to earn a trip to Sand Creek Stadium for the second round of the tournament against Switchbacks FC.

The Boulder pub team looked more mature as the game came to a close, creating more cultured chances and tightening at the back. They probably would have won anyway, regardless of bedtime. But the support swing was dramatic and obvious, and I’ve filmed three more Harpo’s FC victories in big games since then, all with superior fan support.

But Harpo’s FC isn’t alone. FC Denver and Azteca fans started filling the sideline at Broomfield Commons an hour before the Colorado Amateur Soccer League championship game in November. Azteca fans rolled out three full-size grills for a day of celebration. FC Denver’s children, wives, girlfriends, parents, and close friends cheered players by name and shouted intelligent comments. One player’s grandparents drove from Kansas. FC Denver prevailed, and neither team disappointed their fans.

With amateur teams, perhaps it’s easier to see the link between support from within the team and support from fans, many of whom are family and friends anyway so they already have a genuine connection. But for teams of all levels, if you don’t have support within your team, no number of fans can help.

Breaking down my camera equipment after the FC Denver victory, I saw the start of a top-level women’s game. When I passed the bench, a player stormed off the field in tears. Citing the names of two players, she said she would never play with the effing c-words again and dropped down to remove her cleats and socks. Whatever made her snap probably started weeks, months, or years ago.

Here’s another case where soccer is better than life. Everyone has a mother-in-law, boss, or coworker who by all measures is an effing c-word (or the male equivalent). You can’t just untie your shoes and leave the scene very easily. But soccer teams that work through crap like this (or at least try) are winning teams. I hope she cooled down and eventually gave them a chance to help fix the situation. If the two gals were unwilling to try, then she basically confirmed their effing c-word status.

The conflict stayed with me while I drove across town to support my photographer shooting the men’s Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) championship game at the Colorado School of Mines. The support from the Mines women’s team lingered at the border between a team and its fans. Already crowned RMAC champions, the women cheered all game and formed a tunnel for the men to run through after the final whistle. They looked like two teams who supported each other throughout the year, super-fans and friends with intimate knowledge of soccer team issues.

Photo by John Babiak.

Like parents at a U-6 game, the Colorado School of Mines women’s team made a tunnel for the men to run through after the RMAC championship. Photo by John Babiak.

Whether games are free of charge or require a ticket, fan support works the same way as soon as the opening whistle blows. Sales receipts don’t always reflect this. Consider game tickets included with a kid’s tournament package. It’s a treat for families that attend games anyway. But the folks who don’t show up and don’t even bother to give the tickets away appear just as supportive, according to ticket totals. If that’s all a team has for filling seats, the team will lose.

Twice this year I witnessed fans jump the fence to see their team play because they didn’t have the money for a ticket. All things equal between two teams, advantage tips to fence-hoppers and true fans every time.

Sustainability

Looking at a box score, any conclusions about a team are useless. It’s like looking at a single frame of a full-length movie and claiming to know the story. Teams perform in the present, but they exist within history and potential.

When Marcus Hahnemann played his final 67 MLS minutes as a Seattle Sounder in a reserve game on the Dick’s Sporting Goods Park training field in 2014, he shared fond memories of his days with the Rapids (1997–1999). After 13 years in England with Fulham, Reading, and Wolverhampton, he said his family entertained the idea of settling in Colorado in 2012, but they didn’t have any offers to entertain.

So the Bald Yank returned home to Seattle for retirement in 2012. Sounders assistant coach Brian Schmetzer pulled the sustainability card and changed the goalkeeper’s mind. Hahnemann’s Sounders roots sank too deep for him to walk away.

“I’ve played a long time,” Hahnemann said. “One of the questions Schmetz asked me before I played was, ‘Look, if you don’t play, what are you going to be like? Are you going to want to play?’ Obviously, I still want to play. And I think I can play, for the first team. So he asked me again, ‘what are you going to be like if you’re NOT playing?’ I said, ‘Schmetz, if I don’t play games next year, that doesn’t matter. It’s still my team.’ I’ve played lots of games for the Sounders, maybe not recently. But this is my team.”

The sustainable sentiment is that simple. “This is my team.”

Marcus Hahnemann watches a shot sail past the post in the 1-1 Sounders/Rapids reserve game on October 6, 2014. Photo by John Babiak.

Marcus Hahnemann watches a shot sail past the post in the 1-1 Sounders/Rapids reserve game on October 6, 2014. Photo by John Babiak.

For Hahnemann, his team played in the A League against the Colorado Foxes and sustained itself on a rise to MLS with a personal glue strong enough to span decades. When the Sounders first team beat the Rapids the afternoon before the reserve game in 2014, Hahnemann joined the away-victory song in the locker room. The song follows the melody of “Jingle Bells,” but with different words, of course.

“That goes back to the old ‘80s,” Hahnemann recalled. “Old Sounders. When we win one away, we sing the song. When the new guys come in, they say, ‘are you kidding me? This is so stupid and corny.’ We do it all the time. I’ve always done it, and I think it was before my time.”

The song is not a gimmick. It’s a tradition with a history sustained for so long that it carries itself.

So how do you create traditions instead of gimmicks? Can it be prescribed in advance, or does it only take shape as you look back over time? Does it matter if you’re amateur or pro?

The Harpo’s FC player pool includes dozens of guys whose involvement and age range span decades. But as manager-owner Johnny Freeston said, “Our players come to training because it’s some of the best soccer they can find.” Young players push to make the starting lineup, and older players relish the chance to play at a higher level than they face in other leagues and games during the week. The organization has critical mass. They have enough activity indoor, outdoor, and at training to sustain a group that swells comfortably beyond the sidelines. Injured players spill into the stands with former players and other folks whose support seems to bleed onto the field and blur the boundary line itself.

Everyone has a place within a team that has enough critical mass and sincere commitment. If a team maintains communication from the top of the organization through the bench players, fringe players, practice players, former players, and out to the fans, then it sustains itself because all parties involved are a party to the party. Quite simply, they can say, “This is my team.” From then on, the team sustains itself.

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