Ten MLS preseason storylines
MLS debuts a new ball this season and early reports from players are favorable
Bobby Convey is happy in midfield after San Jose used him as a left back
Vancouver has experimented with top draft pick Darren Mattocks out wide
CASA GRANDE, Ariz. -- Major League Soccer teams once scattered across the continents to optimize preseason training. But new facilities and tournaments in Florida and Arizona are providing the goods now. For instance, five teams were training in Arizona last week. Here are 10 things to know about the early goings-on from five sides prepping in the Arizona sunshine.
1. Early reports on new match ball: MLS and adidas have replaced the maligned, flighty Jabulani match ball with the Prime, a slightly harder and heavier ball.
Early reports say this version might slightly favor possession sides that like balls on the ground; the added weight makes aerial incursions somewhat trickier. Mostly, players are describing it as "more true," which means all that lesser predictable movement that could sometimes flummox hapless goalkeepers is less a factor. It doesn't mean, however, there won't be some foibles and fumbles -- they'll just be different.
"It's heavier, for sure," Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando said. "I'm dropping balls I normally don't drop, because they are coming in harder. ... But every ball you play with, it takes some time to get used to."
D.C. United 2011 Golden Boot winner Dwayne De Rosario said what's lost in movement can be gained in zip and sting on those shots. "If you hit it right, it's gonna fly," he said.
"But it's going to be interesting on a wet surface, because the outside of the ball is a little more slick than we're used to."
2. A different look for RSL: Sure, it stings for Real Salt Lake that there's no early Champions League match ahead, as there was a year ago. On the other hand, it's probably a blessing for Jason Kreis and his men.
Kyle Beckerman, Nat Borchers, Javier Morales, Will Johnson and Alvaro Saborio are all at various stages of injury recover, none yet cleared for full workouts. You may recognize that list as "pretty much the heart and soul" of the side. If RSL was indeed prepping for a CONCACAF quarterfinal (as Los Angeles, Toronto and Seattle are), all but Saborio might be pushing the recovery pace. That remaining foursome is all close enough as it is, but the lack of a pressing need allows them to be conservative. This way, the longest MLS season yet can be eased into properly.
3. More teaching time: Meanwhile, the forgiving time frame is working out well for Kreis, too, as he spends additional time with quite a few new faces. The core starters are mostly the same. But a couple of noted exceptions (Robbie Russell and Andy Williams) and a bevy of fresh backups give this year's preseason camp a different look and feel.
"We're doing more coaching, a lot more teaching than we have passed the past several years," Kreis said. "It's forced us to spend more time on details, which is also a pretty good reminder for everybody who has been here for a while."
4. Swingin' Chandler, Ariz.: There are essentially three host cities in the still-relatively-new MLS preseason love affair with Arizona. There is Phoenix, with adjacent Scottsdale, a major university and lots of other attractions leave plenty to do around training. There's Tucson, which is a mini-Phoenix in terms of night life and cultural offerings.
And then there's sleepy Casa Grande, about halfway in between. The teams that occupy Casa Grande stay at a small resort outside of town, one that empties right out onto the practice field. There's not much else around. At all. Even a trip to the nearest Starbucks is a 10-minute drive. The coaches generally love it; team bonding and all. The players? Not so much. Seattle coach Sigi Schmid put a sympathetic spin on it. "It's only a 45-minute drive into Chandler."
Hmmm. Chandler? Hard to tell if Schmid was serious about that one. Because, no offense to the good people of Chandler, but that's probably not exactly the young athletes' idea of a swingin' good time, either.
5. Convey moves forward (in more ways than one): Bobby Convey never liked playing in the back at San Jose, and never made it a secret. Midfield was always the preference. Well, with Sporting Kansas City he's found a way to move even further up the field. SKC manager Peter Vermes has Convey lined up as a left-wing, more or less replacing departed Mexican international Omar Bravo at the spot. Convey is a different player, of course, and his skill set is sure to keep him further out wide than Bravo, something SKC could probably use. Even though Vermes likes a 4-3-3 setup, Convey will be the first real winger around Kansas City since Ryan Smith, who last played regularly in 2010. "I'm very excited that we do play in a very attacking style here, and I'm excited to get into it," Convey said last week.
The former Earthquake went on to say he enjoyed Vermes' constant communication and clear expectations. "There is no gray area, as in 'Can you do this, and then we can move you back up?' He knows what he wants out of the players, and then he's right behind everyone."
6. Remodeling the Kitchen: United manager Ben Olsen had touted 2011 rookie Perry Kitchen operating as a holding midfielder during some parts of training last week, but at center back during others. Olsen thinks Kitchen will "end up" as a midfielder, but still clings to the flexibility and wants the sophomore talent to be comfortable at either position. As for Chris Pontius, who is returning from injury and still has plenty of national team potential, Olsen has him solidly stamped as a "forward."
7. A swell adjustment to make: Vancouver Whitecaps manager Martin Rennie, who built a career in lower U.S. tiers, is adjusting happily to life with far greater support staff in MLS. It certainly beats what Rennie had over the last five years at the Cleveland City Stars and Carolina Railhawks. "Before, when we played our staff games, it was just 1 v 1," he said. "Now it's 7 on 7 -- and there's still a couple guys missing because of injury."
8. Where does rookie Mattocks fit: Note to anyone concerned about Rennie's choice to use Darren Mattocks, the No. 2 overall draft choice, out wide in a 4-2-3-1 during early scrimmages: relax. Rennie told me Mattocks' best spot is either at the top as a target or operating underneath the striker. But he wants the system to be fluid, so there will be times when Mattocks could find himself out wide. As such, Rennie wants the quick, young attacker to understand the defensive responsibilities of the flank types. Plus, it will help in the youngsters' development, Rennie figures, to see the attack from all angles. Literally.
9. A better offseason plan: Every manager looks for leaders. Sporting Kansas City center back Matt Besler, now age 24 and coming off an All-Star season, did his part around Livestrong Sporting Park during the offseason. Besler encouraged teammates to stick around and work out together rather than scattering across the States. He was quick to point out that he just organized; his buddies actually put in the work. Either way, midfielders Graham Zusi and Roger Espinosa, starting fullbacks Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic and others joined Besler in adding strength and overall conditioning. "You can't push yourself as far if you just work by yourself," Besler explained. "If you have more guys, especially elite level athletes, who are competitive and are pushing each other every day, you get better results."
It must have helped. Zusi was among the most fit when he reported to Jurgen Klinsmann's January national team camp.
10. Rivals and reckonings: Considering how nasty the Vancouver-Seattle friendly got last week, you might wonder if preseason matches between known rivals are a good idea? (Schmid said things did get "chippy" in the scrimmage that saw Mike Fucito injured by a bad tackle, and several others who could have been. By that standard, some of the recent Republican debates were "slightly acrimonious.") Schmid said he thought the physical tone was more about Vancouver players' first test under a new coach than any Cascadia Cup animosity. He didn't think he'd have any problem with future friendlies against Vancouver.
On the other hand, he didn't sound quite as sure about potential practice matches against Portland ...