New England Soccer Today

Keeping it simple

ORLANDO, Fla. – Steve Nicol has been here before.

As the longest tenured manager in MLS, Nicol, who’s been at the helm since 2002, knows that preseason matches won’t forecast how well or how poor his team will do in the regular season. It won’t predict which players are sure-fire picks for the All-Star game, either. Nor will it lend insight on the number of wins, draws, losses or points a club will accumulate over the summer.

Rather, the slate of preseason scrimmages present the opportunity to evaluate. And with so many news faces on this year’s roster, Nicol’s primary focus this February has less to do with the future and more to do with the present.

“We just want to see some good habits,” said Nicol. “If you have good basics, it gives you a good platform to try things and go from there. And by that, you mean keeping the ball, making good decisions.“

Making good decisions. It was the hallmark of Nicol’s most successful squads. Look back at the club’s mid-2000s run, and you’ll notice that the eleven men on the pitch make very few mistakes.

Another thing you might catch is the shape of the squad. During many of those postseason runs, the team thrived in the 3-5-2 formation, thanks in large part to a core of seasoned veterans who performed well within their roles.

But, with so many of those familiar faces long gone, Nicol finds himself, for the most part, starting up from scratch this season. Although the 4-4-2 has been the default formation for the past two seasons and will likely remain intact this season, the master tactician isn’t closing the door on other looks.

“We are still finalizing how we are going to go about the season,” said Nicol, in reference to his team’s tactics. “As far as formation and all, we want to see good basics.”

Of course, playing formations aren’t the only thing Nicol’s keeping an eye on while the club readies itself for the six matches currently listed on the preseason schedule.

One of the primary problems that plagued the club’s performance last season was its inability to hold the ball, an area Nicol is optimistic about seeing improvement in, regardless of its formation.

“It goes back to basic things,” said Nicol. “If you’re a team where the majority of people are comfortable on the ball, and they enjoy playing, they work hard and they have good basics and are good people, then you have a chance to win games.”

However, that does not necessarily mean that the midfield, in particular, will be under scrutiny.

“No, we are looking at the whole thing,” said Nicol. “As I said, we have got a lot of things (to address), and we are looking at fitness, as well.”

Fitness is always a concern during the preseason, especially when a northern-based team like the Revolution suddenly drops into a warm, southern climate like the one the club finds itself training in down in Orlando.

“Obviously, the heat here is something we are not used to,” said Nicol. “By the end of (Thursday), guys were a little bit fatigued.”

Nicol hopes that the typical weariness and exhaustion that often accompany the first series of outdoor practices eventually subsides, especially among the younger players, many of whom are battling for a more than just roster spots.

“We have a lot of young guys who are trying to impress, who are trying to get contracts,” said Nicol. “So we have to try and give them a chance, as well.”

It’s a balance that Nicol has often encountered as a manager: pushing the players just enough to squeeze the most out of them without burning them out or – worst case scenario – having them pick up injuries. And the last thing Nicol needs is another nicked up player after last season’s squad was ravaged by injuries.

Despite the normal set of worries and concerns that come with every preseason, the manager remains especially vigilant about keeping his players first, and foremost, fit. After all, an injured player cannot help his team’s on-field performance if he’s stuck on the bench in street clothes.

“We want to make sure we are looking after the core of what we think the first team (will be),” said Nicol. “And also giving those guys a chance to show what they can do and to show whether they should be in the first team.”

It’s fair to say that Nicol has a tight rope walk before him this winter. Pushing, yet preserving, his players is often one of the toughest aspects of coaching, especially during the preseason. But, don’t think the gaffer has let those concerns cloud his enthusiasm about the upcoming season.

“Every year, everyone is always a dreamer,” said Nicol. “We are not the only team that will be doing that.”

And he should know. After all, Steve Nicol has been here before.


  1. jw

    February 26, 2011 at 11:10 am

    Not sure how to decipher a quote from Didier Domi in today’s, (2.26), Globe. Now, going into Orlando, SN mentioned, (see above article), about how “the inability to hold onto the ball’ was a major problem last year.

    So, here is the quote from Domi: “We have to improve in keeping the ball, so we’re not always chasing the ball. We have to keep going on that, because it’s very important. Otherwise, we’re going to lose energy in the game.”

    This comes after 3 games and, what, a month of practice? So, am I to believe that they are no better at possession this Spring than they were last Fall? Or, is Domi just repeating the party line about keeping possession, and it’s not a reflection on what’s happening on the field?

    Are we still chasing the ball because Shalrie, Alston, Dabo, and Coria haven’t been here to help provide stability along with Domi and Cochrane? Are we still chasing the ball because Nicol has used a lot of combinations to see who he’s going to sign?

    I don’t know…I just find it a bit disconcerting that one of the first things that a new addition to the squad would notice a month into training, was something that I thought we were working to control.

    That, and we haven’t found a new striker yet.

    OK, time to stop complaining…after all, we did go 3-0-0 at the “Greater Orlando U17/Reserve Tournament”. :p

  2. Brian O'Connell

    February 27, 2011 at 12:15 pm


    I think the addition of Dabo will certainly help with possession once he arrives. Will it improve overnight? Definitely not. But, I think they will be better on the ball this year. Whether that translates to a return to the playoffs remains to be seen. This team is very much a work in progress. And like you said, they still need a striker, and without one, there’s going to be a ton of pressure put on the D to win alot of 1-0 games.

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