Union Overcome Adversity Again to Beat Red Bulls in Open Cup

For the second consecutive U.S. Open Cup game, the Philadelphia Union overcame enormous adversity to advance to the next round. Traveling to the New York Red Bulls for the quarterfinals on Tuesday, Philadelphia won 4-3 on penalties after regulation ended with the score tied at one. A red card issued to striker Conor Casey just before halftime left the Union a man down for nearly 80 minutes including extra time. For head coach Jim Curtin, overcoming this challenge showed the character of his players. “I thought that our players showed a ton of heart, the heart of a lion. I couldn’t be more proud. They represented the badge very well…they left everything on the field.” Union goalkeeper John McCarthy also recognized the importance of having faced similar adversity three weeks ago. “We’ve been there before, a man down. We had the same exact experience against D.C. United. So we just [knew] that it was mental…we had to stay mentally focused the whole game.” After taking the lead early in the second half despite playing with only 10 men, the Union almost won the game in regulation, until New York equalized in the 90th minute. “Most teams [at that point] would quit and collapse but our guys kept fighting,” Curtin said. “…Something inside of us kept going.” After neither team scored in extra time, the Union prevailed in a shootout, with Fernando Aristeguieta converting the winning penalty after playing all 30 minutes of extra time, despite having been out for the last month and a half with an ankle injury. “He was gassed and exhausted,” Curtin said. “But he had enough legs to step up… and take the fifth spot. That’s not an easy one. It comes from within you, the guys who step up in those big moments and come through.”

Despite your best preparation and all the time and energy you’ve put into developing technically and tactically as a player, there will be games in which you need to rely on sheer effort and determination to get a result. When adversity (e.g., a red card) is working against you, and you are exhausted, it can certainly be difficult to meet the game’s demands and perform your role effectively on the field. As a player, your inner voice may even be giving you permission to give up under the circumstances. However, in these moments, it’s important to recognize that your effort is one of the few things under your control. Players, like Aristeguieta, who do rise to the occasion in these situations, are often the ones who are able to dig a little deeper and find something within themselves to overcome the physical and mental fatigue. Managing your self-talk during these moments is essential, and it needs to start long before the moment itself. For example, when you are tired during training, try to build an inner dialogue that motivates you to dig a little deeper. Identify one or more refocusing cues (e.g., “Keep pushing” or “I’ve got this”) that will help you overcome the challenge in front of you. You may not control the outcome, but you do control whether or not you choose to leave everything on the field in an effort to be successful. In these moments, it’s also important to communicate effectively with the players around you to make their job (and yours) easier, and to also focus on playing smart rather than playing hard. In other words, there may be times when it is wiser and more efficient for you to conserve energy and get yourself into good positions, rather than chasing down a ball in the corner that you may not reach. Finally, as McCarthy pointed out, it can help to rely on past experiences in these moments, recognizing that you have overcome adversity of many shapes and sizes before and know how to do so again – an effective source of confidence. Heading back into league play, and eventually the Open Cup semifinals, the Union players certainly have enough evidence thus far this season to show that they are more than capable of finding a result even when their backs are against the wall.



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Crew Look to Develop Consistency Following Two-Game Winning Streak

Through 21 games this season, the Columbus Crew is currently in second place in the Eastern Conference standings. Yet, despite a strong record, the club has been inconsistent at times, and has not won more than two games in a row all season. While the team has had no trouble scoring goals (second most in the league), Columbus has often struggled defensively, conceding, on average, more than a goal a game. Nevertheless, the Crew is starting to show signs of becoming more consistent, having won its second game in a row on Sunday, beating the Chicago Fire 3-1 at home. Crew defender Tyson Wahl spoke with reporters after the game about the progress the team is making. “I think it shows a lot of great character and grittiness,” he said. “I think over the last two years we’ve shown that we can be a great team, but we haven’t always been consistent. So I think it shows, with two sound wins in a row, that maybe we’re on our way to becoming a more consistent team.” Head coach Gregg Berhalter was impressed with his team’s ability to find a way to win despite not putting forth its best performance. “In this game, I think the players did extremely well mentally to get over the hump and get a result,” he said. “It wasn’t easy. You saw today, it clearly was not our best game of soccer…I give the guys a lot of credit for hanging in there and finding a way to get it done.” Moving forward though, Wahl stressed the importance of avoiding complacency. “This isn’t good enough. We’re not going to get complacent. We know we can play better, and this is the right time to get a couple wins in a row and build momentum for the end of the season.”

When it comes down to it, any individual player or team is ultimately striving to be consistent. It’s one thing to perform at your best on any given day, and something entirely different to put together reliably good performances and be successful over time. Consistency, as a team or a player, starts with identifying your strengths. Reflect on the things that have worked for you in the past (e.g., your effort, your routine before games, your communication on the field, etc.), and view those as essential ingredients to your success. Complacency, however, is one of the biggest obstacles to becoming a consistent player or team. After experiencing success, it can seem easy to let your guard down and allow yourself to take shortcuts in the way you approach your training and your physical/mental preparation for games. It may be tempting to feel as though you’ve “found your groove” and that success will now come naturally. The only problem here is that this often means that you stop doing the things that made you successful in the first place, such as challenging yourself to try new things and improve. Instead, choose to set the bar higher for yourself. Objectively evaluate your recent performances and find new ways of lifting your game. There is also a certain level of “grittiness” that is needed to be a consistent player. As Berhalter and his players noted on Sunday, there will be days when you simply aren’t performing well. Consistency does not mean that you don’t make mistakes, or that you step onto the field and play at your absolute best every day. On the “off days”, consistent players are often able to find other ways to make a positive impact on the game by focusing on what they can control, like their effort, communication, and completing simple passes. While consistent players and teams are not flawless, they are typically good at coping with adversity and finding ways to be successful even on the days when they are not at their very best. Turning to the next game, at home against Toronto FC this Saturday, the Crew players need to reflect on what has allowed them to have success the last two games and also avoid complacency, in order to put together their longest winning streak of the season.



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Loss to AFC Bournemouth Provides Union Players With “Good Learning Experience”

Prior to Wednesday night’s international friendly against AFC Bournemouth, the Philadelphia Union had put together a string of good performances and a four-game unbeaten streak across all competitions. However, Bournemouth, a club recently promoted to its first ever season in the Premier League this fall, put a resounding end to that run with a 4-1 win. While the English side owned a majority of possession and chances throughout the game, Union head coach Jim Curtin felt that the match provided an important opportunity for his players to grow. “Tough night for our guys, definitely a good learning experience. Credit to Bournemouth, I thought they put a lot into the game. Their ability to press us all over the field, their commitment and their organization was excellent…For our guys, it’s a big lesson learned. There’s a whole other level of technique, of work. Again, they’re not just good on the ball, they also put the dirty running in.” A first career goal by defender Richie Marquez helped the Union reach halftime only trailing 2-1. However, after changing the entire lineup for the second half, Bournemouth’s reserves continued to press and scored two more goals. “For a team in preseason that is going into the Premier League, they’re hungry…they showed that,” Curtin said. “[They] pressed us and made it very uncomfortable. We didn’t have a whole lot of the ball…Again, you try to take some positives and you learn from it, you like to measure yourselves against the top teams and we came up short for sure…I think that for our young guys to play against them was a good experience.”

Despite only being a friendly, games like this can be a struggle for some players who may feel their confidence drop or even become nervous about competing against more talented teams or players in the future. However, as a player, you always have a choice in how you view these experiences beforehand and how you respond afterward. Perhaps, after being invited to a youth national team camp, you realize that you are not quite as good as the other players, or perhaps you are returning from an injury and discover that you are nowhere near the level you need to be at to compete. These experiences can certainly be humbling and even frustrating. But they also provide you with a valuable opportunity to objectively evaluate yourself as a player, by identifying your weaknesses and even reflecting on ways to lift your strengths to another level. When you’re performing well against typical opponents, it can be easy to become complacent, believing that you have achieved your goals (e.g., playing professionally with the Union), and assuming that the work is done. However, encountering a “whole other level of technique,” can put you outside your comfort zone and can give you information on specific ways to improve your game. Take time to reflect on an experience like this, and develop one or more outcome goals for yourself (e.g., being invited back to that national team camp). Break these goals down into performance goals, or parts of your game that need improvement in order to help you achieve that outcome. Finally, set regular process goals that give you specific ways to build those skills (e.g., arriving early for training three days per week, or waking up early for a morning run). It’s normal to feel a bit “shaken up” after being outplayed like this, but the individuals who grow from this experience are the ones who take valuable information from it and apply it to bettering themselves. Heading back into their MLS schedule, players on the Union have a great opportunity, midway through the season, to think about ways to lift their game to the next level.


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Wenger Ends Nine-Month Scoring Drought

When the Philadelphia Union took on the Portland Timbers at PPL Park on Saturday, it had been exactly nine months to the day since Andrew Wenger last scored a goal. That streak came to an end in the 69th minute when he scored from outside the box to give Philadelphia its first goal in an eventual 3-0 win. Speaking to reporters after the game, Wenger admitted that his inability to score this season has, at times, been mentally challenging. “There’s been good days and there’s been bad days,” he said. “And there’s probably been a few more bad days than good. But that’s the life of a soccer player or an athlete… you just try to move forward.” Wenger also credited head coach Jim Curtin for showing confidence in him throughout his scoreless streak. “[He told me] ‘you’re a good player, just keep going. Just keep after it. Keep moving forward.’ And that’s all you really can do…some of the best players out there, that’s all they’ve ever done.” After the game, Curtin acknowledged the importance of Wenger’s goal, but also pointed to other ways in which he has contributed this season, even if they weren’t readily visible on a stat sheet. “He’s gotten good looks this year; nothing has seemed to go in for him,” Curtin said. “But I still see the guy from preseason…the little things that he does…he won probably ten head balls tonight off goal kicks, he fights defensively…he protects [left back] Fabinho, he does a good job making Fabi’s job a lot easier…he’s doing a lot of the dirty running…Every good pro goes through moments of dips in form, and how you respond to it is how you’re judged. It’s easy to quit and bail out, but the good ones, the ones who belong and stick in this league and have great careers are the ones that can deal with that.”

Wenger’s ability to overcome his scoreless streak is a testament to his accountability, his patience, and his commitment to focusing on the controllables. While a “slump” like this can certainly be frustrating and even overwhelming as a player, there are steps you can take to help you manage, and ultimately overcome, any rough patch. First, it’s important to take ownership over the part of your game that is giving you trouble. Facing a “slump”, many players fall into the habit of blaming anyone but themselves for their substandard performance. While it may be true that a teammate’s performance, a coach’s decisions, or even blind luck can play a role in whether or not, as an attacking player, you’re scoring goals, blaming your performance on any one of these factors will do you no good. Instead, being accountable for your struggles allows you to take steps to overcome them. Second, having taken ownership, identify specific ways to work on whatever part of your game needs improvement. Set process goals, or daily objectives, that determine how you will specifically go about bettering this aspect of your performance. Third, whether you’re working to rediscover your scoring touch or improve your 1v1 defending, also take time to identify other areas of your game that can make you effective on the field. Wenger received praise from his coach for his effort in winning defensive headers, his discipline in making a teammate’s job easier, and his commitment to doing the “dirty running”. Likewise, pinpoint small ways in which you can make a positive impact on or off the field. Ultimately, overcoming a “slump” comes down to recognizing that “how you respond to it is how you’re judged.” Wenger may not score in every game moving forward, but his accountability, his patience, and his commitment to focusing on the controllables will help him cope with whatever adversity he may face.


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Rookie Greenspan Shows Adaptability and Willingness to Learn From Mistakes

Following Joseph Greenspan’s impressive four-year college career at the U.S. Naval Academy, the Colorado Rapids drafted the 6’6” defender in the 2nd Round of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft. Greenspan officially joined the Rapids in June after receiving permission from the Navy to temporarily forego his service duties, and quickly earned his first two MLS starts against Orlando City FC and Sporting KC. In both games, Greenspan, a towering center back in college, had to adjust to life as an outside back at the professional level, playing against some of the top attacking talent in the league. Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni said that he had confidence in Greenspan’s ability to adapt to the new position. “I talked to Joe quite a bit,” Mastroeni said. “He’s obviously dynamic on set pieces. Defensively, one-v-one he’s pretty good, so there’s a lot of good characteristics to put him in that position.” Nevertheless, Greenspan struggled at times during those games – both of which were 2-0 losses – including a moment in the second half against Orlando when he was unable to contain the speed of Carlos Rivas, who assisted on Orlando’s opening goal. Despite the challenges, Greenspan pulled some valuable lessons from his first two professional games. “I learned I could improve my closing-down speed in cutting down angles for guys,” he said. “If I could’ve angled my body better I could have forced Rivas inside…The coaches gave me a decent bit of instruction during training and before and after matches. It was a bit different because all of my tendencies are as a center back. It’s a bit of an adjustment, but I thought I did a decent job for never playing there before in MLS matches.”

The idea of playing in a different position can be daunting for many players, who might be uncomfortable with unfamiliar responsibilities, or feel pressure from the expectations to perform well. However, being asked to play in a new position doesn’t have to be a source of fear, but should instead be viewed as an opportunity to expand your game. Gaining experience in a new position is a great way to increase your versatility on the field, and improve your ability and understanding of the game as an all-around player. As with any type of adversity you may face, playing in a new position requires focusing on what you can control. Before stepping into that role, reflect on your individual strengths as a player – the parts of your game that have made you effective. Consider how those strengths can help you fulfill the responsibilities of a new position. For example, if you are a striker who is asked to play on the backline, think about how some of your attacking attributes (e.g., speed, movement off the ball, etc.) can help you have success in a defensive role. And, regardless of your position, there are parts of your game that are always under your control, including your attitude, your communication, and your hard work. Also, recognize that, by putting you in a new position, your coach is demonstrating confidence and belief in your ability to play there. Finally, while some players are easily critical of their performance after stepping into a new role, the process of evaluating your performance should not change. Be objective about your play, and identify specific aspects of your performance that allowed you to have success, and specific ways in which you can improve. Don’t be afraid to seek out feedback from coaches and teammates on how you can better yourself in your new position, and then incorporate that feedback into your training. At 22 years old, Greenspan potentially has a long career ahead of him, a career that will be successful as long as he maintains his adaptability and commitment to learning as a player.




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Carli Lloyd’s Mental Preparation Culminates in World Cup Title and Golden Boot

Four years ago, when Carli Lloyd stepped up for the second penalty kick in a shootout to decide the 2011 World Cup final against Japan, she was visibly nervous. The pressure of the moment seemed to overcome the U.S. midfielder, who watched her shot sail high over the crossbar. In the four years since then, Lloyd has focused on better preparing herself for those moments, and has developed a rigorous mental routine leading up to games, consisting of meditation, visualization, and music. Fans around the world got to enjoy the result of that preparation on Sunday: a 16-minute hat trick by Lloyd that sparked a dominating 5-2 win over Japan, earning the U.S. its third World Cup title. “Over the years and definitely over the last four years, I’ve taken that visualization part to another level,” Lloyd told reporters last week prior to the final. “I’ve basically visualized so many different things on the field, making these big plays, scoring goals.” Lloyd’s six goals throughout the tournament seem to suggest that this preparation has paid off. “I basically zoned out the entire world except for the net, the ball, and myself,” she said, referring to her game-winning penalty kick in last Tuesday’s semifinal win over Germany. This mental preparation has also helped Lloyd develop an appreciation for the big moments. “I think there’s a switch that kinda goes off inside of me when there’s a big match, when there’s something big on the line…those are the moments that I live for…everything that goes into my training, it’s for those big moments…it’s for the final when everyone is tired and I’m still able to continue to empty that tank.”

Many players fail to devote sufficient time towards building their mental game before competition. Like any physical, technical, or tactical aspect of your game, mental preparation requires commitment and repetition. You can begin building an effective pre-performance routine by testing out different techniques to determine which ones work for you, and then engaging in them consistently on game day. An effective routine can incorporate any number of mental strategies, including self-talk, centered breathing, body scans to promote a state of relaxed alertness, meditation, yoga, visualization, and listening to music. The use of visualization, or imagery, for example, involves creating mental pictures of different scenarios you’ll face during competition, and imagining yourself performing well in those situations. In order to use imagery most effectively, try to incorporate as many different senses as possible (i.e., sight, sound, smell, etc.) into the mental picture to make the experience vivid and game-like. Like Lloyd, many players also include music in their pre-game routine, to help them manage their arousal or activation level before a performance. As for your choice in music, like most aspects of your preparation, it’s important to find what works for you, depending on whether you prefer to be pumped up or more relaxed (Lloyd revealed last week that she listens to Mumford & Sons and Ed Sheeran before games). Regardless of the strategies that go into your routine, remember to be flexible and adaptable. Unlike rituals or superstitions, routines are designed to help you prepare mentally to perform at a high level – they do not cause you to perform well, nor does having to change part of your routine cause you to perform poorly. Above all, mental preparation should involve focusing on what you can control, and staying in the present moment (rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about a future outcome). With a regular commitment to developing the mental side of her game, Lloyd has gradually turned the big moments into the ones she “lives for”, and as a result, has helped the USWNT earn its third World Cup trophy.



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Union Overcome Rain Delay, Red Card, and Early Deficit to Win

Some days, the odds may just seem to be stacked against you. For the Philadelphia Union, Tuesday looked like it would be one of those days, as the team squared off against D.C. United in the U.S. Open Cup Round-of-16. Fourteen minutes into the game, lightning forced both teams back into the locker room for nearly an hour. Then, ten minutes after play resumed, C.J. Sapong was shown a controversial red card after going up for a header and colliding with a D.C. defender. United then took the lead three minutes later when Jairo Arrieta scored on a low cross. However, despite being a man and a goal down, Philadelphia was arguably the better team for the remainder of the first half. “We just fought through it,” defender Sheanon Williams told reporters after the game. “I thought for being a man down, we had a lot of possession and when we didn’t have the ball, we really did a good job of helping each other out and limiting their chances.” The Union’s momentum continued into the second half, and goals by Erik Ayuk in the 55th minute and Fabinho in the 79th minute ultimately earned Philadelphia a spot in the Open Cup quarterfinals. “It’s a huge win,” said veteran midfielder Brian Carroll. “First of all it’s hard to get a comeback victory in this league, and to do it in a tournament like this in conditions like this, already being low on numbers, it was huge… it prepares us going in to the next one.” Head coach Jim Curtin also felt that the win would pay off going forward. “…Games like this bring groups together,” he said after the game.

While these games can certainly bring teams together, they can also be very difficult to overcome. When so many uncontrollable factors seem to be working against a team, players can often become increasingly frustrated, communication between teammates can break down, and effort and concentration can drop. It’s important to recognize, however, that these are the things you do control in these moments, unlike the circumstances that seem to be working against you. In response to adversity like weather conditions, red cards, a poor playing surface, or the other team’s performance, it can be tempting to dwell on those uncontrollables and blame them for any outcome. However, managing your emotions in these moments is a big part of focusing on what you do control. Rather than allowing frustration or panic to take over, find a moment to take a deep centering breath and reset yourself. Individually, recommit to the effort and concentration needed to perform your role and responsibilities to the best of your ability in the present moment. It may be difficult at times, especially if you are a man down, but these moments often bring out the best in players, because you can focus on simply working hard and playing without hesitation or fear. Finally, when it comes to staying organized and working together under these circumstances, effective communication between teammates is key. When a teammate needs to do something differently, deliver that information as feedback (i.e., “I like what you’re doing, try forcing him to his left foot”), rather than criticism. It’s also important to recognize that communication (both verbal and non-verbal body language) can be contagious during pivotal moments in the game. In other words, if you fail to manage your emotions and start yelling at a teammate or you allow your head to drop, it will often influence other players to do the same. Having success in moments like this should fuel your confidence and belief for future situations in which you face adversity. As Carroll pointed out, these experiences serve to prepare you physically and mentally for the days when factors outside your control seem to be working against you. Having overcome so many obstacles to advance to the Open Cup quarterfinals, the Union players and coaches can move on, knowing that the team is capable of – to use Williams’ words – “just [fighting] through it.”


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