Players like Maurice Edu and Amobi Okugo are rare, yet valuable to any club, because they are talented and versatile enough to play in multiple positions. This season, both have started for the Philadelphia Union as center backs, and have also served time in front of the backline. Yet, despite their versatility, before Sunday, Edu and Okugo had never played together as central midfielders. Against the San Jose Earthquakes over the weekend, Union head coach Jim Curtin paired the two together in the center of the field, and the effect was almost immediate. Edu and Okugo helped the Union to a 4-2 win, and their performances often made it seem as though the two had been playing together as central midfielders all season. For Okugo, the natural chemistry with Edu consistently helps him develop as a player. “When he first came in, we naturally bonded,” Okugo said. “We’ve become very close. He’s been sort of like a big brother-type of guy to me…we’re always pushing each other and keeping that competition lively. For us to finally play together, it was good…I feel like we can even raise it to another level.” Edu agreed that the chemistry would develop even more with time: “I think we both have the natural ability to get forward, to be box-to-box players,” he noted. “I think we understand each other well. Obviously it’s a partnership that’s going to grow as we continue to get more games together. But as a starting point, I think it went well.”
Edu and Okugo’s partnership provides a strong example of team cohesion that has been cultivated both on and off the field. Cohesion, or chemistry, between players is built on the field through experience. As you train and play, pay attention to your teammates’ tendencies – work to develop an understanding of their strengths, and even the mental state at which they perform at their best. If you know that a player tends to perform well when he or she is confident and relaxed, provide some encouragement throughout training, warm-ups, or even games. If you notice that the player is getting too worked up and losing control of his or her emotions, consider using a simple cue word or phrase (i.e., “Relax”, “Push through”) to help them regain composure. During training and games, push each other to become better and maintain high expectations for each other. As a player, hold your teammates to high standards, but also let them know that you are there to support them. Expect your teammates to work hard, but allow them to take chances and make mistakes. Finally, motivate and support them by maintaining effective communication through feedback (i.e., “Good effort, but try to switch the point of attack next time”) rather than criticism (i.e., “Stop being selfish with the ball”).
Chemistry between teammates is also built when players like Okugo and Edu spend time together off the field, getting to know one another outside the athletic environment. Recognize that you and your teammates probably share most of the same experiences. As such, provide support for each other through those experiences. When teammates are playing well, let them know and boost their confidence. When they struggle, or go through a period of playing poorly, recognize that you have probably been there before, and offer your support. Encourage them, and let them know that you believe in their ability to bounce back. When talent and effort are equal, teams with strong chemistry or cohesion are often able to produce strong performances even in the face of adversity. Regardless of where Edu and Okugo line up when they play their next MLS game against Toronto, their strong bond and understanding will go a long way in helping them perform well together as the Union fights for a playoff berth.
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