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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Together, Sporting KC Cope With Small Roster and Focus on One Game at a Time

Heading into Wednesday night’s game against the New England Revolution, Sporting KC faced arguably its most difficult test this season. With a slew of injuries and several players called into duty with their national teams, the club had to bring in rookie defender Saad Abdul-Salaam from his loan club in San Antonio just to have 17 eligible players on its roster for game day. Despite the roster limitations, Sporting KC earned a massive 4-2 win over the Revolution, currently in second place in Eastern Conference. For goal scorer Dom Dwyer, the result came down to the team’s ability to push through adversity together. “You can see that this side is a hungry team…We were down to bare bones tonight, had to call a guy back from on loan…so that shows the character of the team.” Dwyer said. “We’ll deal with what we get and fight for it. We’re all working through injuries and nagging hurt bodies, and we just keep pushing and keep going.” For head coach Peter Vermes, it was also his players’ ability to focus on one game at a time that helped the team overcome adversity. “I really think the reason why we were able to get a result tonight was because of this one thing, and one thing only: We take every game that’s coming up as our most important, and we’re focused on that game, and we’re not thinking about the next.” Playing with such a depleted roster was made even more challenging after Sporting KC conceded a goal 11 minutes into the game, after Benny Feilhaber turned the ball over in midfield. “We go down a goal, mistake on my part, and then every single guy picks me up, picks the team up and we deserved the game from then on out,” Feilhaber said. “It says a lot about the mentality, the ability of the guys.”

Sporting KC’s ability to win under these conditions speaks volumes about the mentality of the players and the team as a whole in coping with adversity as a group. Part of overcoming these types of challenges is recognizing that things may not always go as planned, and that you and your team need to be ready to adapt to uncomfortable circumstances. There will be days when your team is missing one or more key players. There will be days when you are forced to play down a man after a red card. And there will be many days when your team goes down by a goal or more, and you must find a way back. In these situations, how do you individually, and collectively, “keep pushing and keep going” when it seems like the odds are stacked against you? Effective communication among players can play a big role in these moments. When players are placed outside their comfort zone, they can often start criticizing and yelling at teammates, especially when another player makes a mistake (e.g., Feilhaber). Communicating effectively, however, means that you provide specific, useful information (feedback) to other players in a way that encourages them, or gives them instructions to improve their performance, rather than attacking them generally and personally. Furthermore, as Vermes pointed out, part of a group’s ability to overcome adversity also has to do with keeping the focus only on what is happening now, whether it’s this game or this single play. When you notice that you or your teammates are starting to worry about, or dwell on, a future outcome, or what may seem like impossible challenges in the future, find a way to bring the focus back to the present moment, perhaps through a team refocusing cue or mantra (e.g., “Here and now” or “One play at a time”). As players eventually return and Sporting KC regains its full roster, a big part of the club’s continued success will come down to the players’ collective ability to cope with whatever cards they are dealt, and to, as a team, take things one game at a time.


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Terry’s Leadership Guides Chelsea to Premier League Title

With a 1-0 win at home over Crystal Palace on Sunday, Chelsea claimed its fourth Premier League title and fifth English league title overall. Perhaps most impressively, the Blues did so with three games remaining in the season. Eden Hazard, recently named Premier League Player of the Year, scored the game’s only goal in the 45th minute. While Hazard’s performance over the course of this season has received considerable attention, Chelsea center back and captain John Terry has played a key role in helping the club claim its first title in five years. According to former Chelsea midfielder Ray Wilkins, Terry’s leadership this season has helped head coach Jose Mourinho manage his players on and off the field. “He’s a fantastic leader and that’s what a lot of people don’t see, the way he controls the dressing room for Jose Mourinho, he is Jose on the pitch, they are both winners,” Wilkins said. “[John’s] a dream to work with and is a massive assistance (to the manager) because he gets across what you want him to get across and that is very, very important when you are a manager. They have lots of big personalities in there.” Having a captain that can help manage a locker room of “big personalities” in a club like Chelsea is invaluable, and Wilkins further noted that Terry’s ability to fill this role is “…something that every club in the Premier League would have loved to have had for the last 10 years.”

Leadership comes in many different forms. Some players are comfortable being loud vocal leaders on or off the field, while others choose to lead by example. Being a vocal leader means that you understand how to effectively communicate to your teammates in ways that help them perform at their best. This involves recognizing the difference between feedback and criticism. Feedback involves providing specific information to a teammate in a way that he or she can receive and use it (e.g., “I like that you are taking risks, try to help us maintain possession by playing the simple ball.”). Criticism, however, often involves a personal attack, in which a player provides general, unhelpful information to a teammate about his or her performance (e.g., “You’re giving the ball away every time!”). Leaders who communicate effectively know that how they send a message is just as important as what they are saying. While vocal leaders are often more noticeable, being the type of player who leads by example means that your behavior on and off the field sets a standard for your teammates to follow. You can lead by example by demonstrating an ability to manage your emotions on and off the field in any situation. You can also lead by bringing your best effort and focus to the field on a regular basis, and understanding and executing your role in training and games. As a player, you can develop your leadership abilities like any other mental or physical part of your game. Focusing on your effective communication or the different ways in which you lead by example on and off the field can help you build leadership capabilities that teammates and coaches come to notice and value. While players like Hazard may receive most of the recognition for their contributions to Chelsea’s latest title, leaders like Terry played a critical role behind the scenes in helping a team of world-class players (and personalities) perform together towards a common objective.


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Red Bulls Implement New Approach to Leadership for 2015

When Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill left the New York Red Bulls at the end of last season, after retiring and moving to a new club, respectively, there were questions surrounding the team’s future, specifically concerning the void of leadership. Yet, five weeks into the 2015 season, the Red Bulls are one of only two clubs who are still unbeaten, and have taken a new approach to leadership roles. While veteran midfielder Dax McCarty took over the captain’s armband, head coach Jesse Marsch has also implemented a “leadership council”, composed of McCarty, midfielder Lloyd Sam, goalkeeper Luis Robles and five or six other veterans, charged with sharing the leadership responsibilities. “When you have Thierry in the team, there’s always a bigger personality no matter what,” McCarty said. “But now that he’s gone and some other players are gone, it’s more of a case of this is a team of seven, eight, nine, 10 really experienced, veteran guys. All of us see ourselves on the same level in terms of our leadership and our abilities and our roles.” McCarty also recognized the contributions of non-veterans. “I love that our young guys aren’t afraid to talk and give us their opinions and speak their mind. This is an environment where every player’s opinion is valued and every player’s opinion matters. You’re never going to win a championship with five or six guys.” Thirty-year-old Robles also sees the new approach as a way of promoting ownership. “It’s built accountability,” Robles said. “Guys have to make sure that guys are doing what’s supposed to be done, whether it’s on the field, off the field, in the locker room, in the community, whatever we’re called upon to do…The one thing that’s really good about this collaborative effort is that it allows people to feel ownership…ownership in what they’re doing, in what the team is trying to achieve.”

While a “leadership council” may not be the answer for every team, it shows the value of spreading these responsibilities among players, rather than having a single captain who is seen as a team’s only leader. Many players make the mistake of thinking that leadership is a natural ability – that you are either born to lead or you’re not. Many of them also assume that leadership is entirely vocal – that you need to be a loud, outspoken player in order to have an effective influence on your teammates. Both of these are misconceptions. First, leadership can be developed and improved over time. You can build your vocal presence on or off the field by focusing on the simple elements of effective communication: sending and receiving messages in a way that helps you or the players around you perform at a higher level. Offer clear and specific feedback that helps other players, but doesn’t come across as personal criticism. Find opportunities to encourage or motivate other players to continue working hard, or to increase their effort. Second, recognize that leadership is not always about verbal communication. You can be an effective leader through your behavior, by consistently working hard in training sessions or games, by focusing on performing your role to the best of your abilities, and by staying emotionally and mentally composed when your team faces adversity during competition. Ultimately, your own form of leadership comes from knowing yourself and the strengths you bring to a team, and how to use those strengths to positively influence the players around you. Despite a noticeably different roster heading into this season, the Red Bulls look primed to have a successful campaign. The extent to which each player on the roster (veteran or not) continues to be accountable for leadership in his own way will likely play a big part in helping them accomplish just that.


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Lallana Stresses Importance of “Sticking Together”

With a 3-1 setback at Crystal Palace over the weekend, Liverpool suffered its sixth league loss of a very young season. In four months, the Reds have lost as many games as they did all of last year. With its latest loss, the club is winless in its last four Premier League games, and has struggled offensively and defensively. Out of 12 league matches, Liverpool has won only four games and currently sits in 12th in the English Premier League table, four points above the relegation zone. Having recently made it back to the Champions League after last year’s strong campaign, Liverpool are in danger of being knocked out of the European competition with a loss or a tie against Bulgarian club Ludogorets Razgrad on Wednesday. Over recent weeks, players, coaches, and fans have become increasingly frustrated with the club’s lack of success, and head coach Brendan Rodgers knows that his job could be in jeopardy if Liverpool fail to turn things around. In response to the recent struggles, 26-year-old midfielder Adam Lallana noted the importance of maintaining belief and commitment to the team’s objectives as a group. “We need to stick together. It’s as simple as that. When you’re having a tough time as a team, you all need to stay together – you can’t start becoming individuals. We win and lose as a team; we need to stay together, keep fighting and keep working for each other. We have got a tough game on Wednesday so we all need to be together for that one.”

“Sticking together” through adversity can be a significant mental challenge for any team at any level. When things are not going your way and losses begin to pile up, many players can struggle to maintain their effort and remain committed to the team’s goals. They can become increasingly upset and instead of focusing on the team, begin to dwell inwardly on their own frustrations. As a player in these situations, focus on being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Instead of arguing with teammates or choosing to blame other players when your team loses, take ownership of your actions. Identify ways that you can improve your own role on the field. Pick out small aspects of your game that you can work on so that you are doing whatever you can to give your team the best opportunity to win. Furthermore, pay special attention to your communication on the field, and make sure it is effective. When a teammate makes a mistake, rather than jumping into criticism and angrily pointing out his or her error, provide feedback in a way that will help the player learn from that mistake and improve (i.e., “I see what you were trying to do there, but try doing this instead.”). Bring your team together before training or on a day when you are not training and discuss ways to improve performances as a group. It is not easy to take a leadership role in these circumstances and help your team stick together. However, the players who are able to do so often find that these “slumps” do not last as long. As Liverpool’s players and coaches turn their attention to the Champions League game on Wednesday, the fate of their season could ultimately depend on whether they are able to stick together and work for each other in the face of adversity.


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Zat Knight Adds Leadership and Experience to Rapids Despite Loss

Following a 4-1 loss to the Seattle Sounders on Sunday, the Colorado Rapids were officially knocked out of the MLS postseason. However, there was at least one bright spot in Sunday’s loss, as Zat Knight, a 34-year-old English center back, made his MLS debut after joining the Rapids several weeks ago. With his team already down 3-1, Knight entered the game at halftime and provided a massive boost of leadership and communication to Colorado’s backline over the final 45 minutes. “Zat brought a bit of calm and a bit of experience to the group, and that was pretty evident with the way things went,” head coach Pablo Mastroeni said following the game. Goalkeeper Clint Irwin added to the praise for his new teammate. “It definitely helped a lot; you could see we were just a lot more organized,” Irwin said. “He was talking to everyone around him, keeping them in good spots, and at the same time playing well. He made a huge difference as soon as he came on.” For Knight, who previously captained Bolton FC, this leadership, and his vocal presence is all part of his role on the field. “It comes natural to me…I’m experienced, and I’ve learned as a defender you have to be vocal. Being 6-foot-6, it would be a shame if I never spoke.”

Knight’s comments demonstrate the point that leadership skills can be learned and developed. While some players may find it easier than others to communicate loudly on the field, leadership, like other physical and mental skills in the game, can be improved over time. Leaders come in different forms. Some individuals, like Knight, lead through their effective communication on and off the field. Effective communication involves providing encouragement when your teammates perform their roles well, and providing feedback when you feel they can make adjustments or improvements in their play. This involves either clear and specific instructions (i.e., “That player is right-footed, so force him to his left”) or motivation for players whose effort or focus seem to be dropping (i.e., “I know you’re getting frustrated, but we need you to stay focused and keep working hard for us.”). Alternatively, you can lead by example on the field, through your own hard work, commitment, and accountability. If you make a mistake, take responsibility for it, but demonstrate that you are able to quickly regain focus and bounce back. Good leaders are also able to manage their emotions and help their teammates maintain composure during times of adversity. When your team is losing, it may often seem like things are spiraling out of control. Communication between players tends to decline, effort and focus may fade, and your team’s organization and discipline can suddenly disappear. As a leader, you can take steps to reverse this by focusing on your role and what you can control to more effectively execute your responsibilities on the field and instructing teammates to do the same. In many cases, your ability to lift your intensity and your play will often cause the players around you to do the same. While the Rapids have to wait until next year to earn a playoff berth, the club can take pride in the latest boost in leadership and experience that has been added to their backline.


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Cohesion Between Edu and Okugo Leads to Strong Performance

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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