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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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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Despite Frustration With Referee, Dynamo Could Have Done More

Players and coaches on the Houston Dynamo were quick to express their frustration after Saturday night’s 2-0 loss to the Portland Timbers. In the game’s 15th minute, the Dynamo appeared to take the lead when Raúl Rodríguez struck off a corner kick. However, Rodríguez’s goal was called back after the referee whistled another Houston player for obstruction. After the Timbers went up 1-0 just before halftime, Houston center back David Horst was called for a foul in the 59th minute for pulling down a Portland player in the box while defending a corner. Gastón Fernández stepped up and converted the subsequent penalty to give the Timbers a 2-0 lead and ultimately all three points. After the match, several members of the Dynamo, including head coach Owen Coyle and captain DaMarcus Beasley voiced displeasure at the two decisions that influenced the outcome of the game. “The referee was very inconsistent…” Beasley said. “…But we can’t rely on the referee to bail us out.” After what he described as a “very disappointing” performance by his team, Beasley pointed out the things he and other players could have done to prevent the result. “I felt that we didn’t play well the whole game, not just the two mistakes we made. From back to front we were soft. We gave the ball away in bad areas. Just all-in-all a bad game. I’m not pointing fingers at anybody. Collectively, as a whole team, we weren’t good enough tonight. They punished us and they got the win.

In situations like this, it’s often easy and even understandable for players and coaches to be frustrated or angry with the referee. It may even be tempting to blame a loss entirely on a referee’s decision. However, before doing so, reflect back on your performance as a team and as an individual. Were there things you could have done differently (or better) at any point during the game that would have influenced the outcome? Were there areas of your performance that were not as strong as they could have been? If mistakes had not been made earlier in the game, could this have swung the result the other way? It’s very easy to blame a loss or tie on a referee’s decisions, a poor playing surface, or the weather conditions because it means that, as a player, you are letting go of accountability, and choosing to blame the result on something outside your control. And while it may have been the case that one or more of these factors (i.e., referee, field, weather, etc.) influenced a game, it is never the case that they were the only reason your team did not win. Part of what it means to “objectively evaluate” a game involves identifying things you can improve on that are under your control – specific things that you can work on in training the following week so that you can improve your performance and increase your chances of success in the next game. Having accountability as a player means finding a way to take responsibility for results, good or bad, regardless of how tempting it might be to blame anyone but yourself.

As Houston’s captain, Beasley’s leadership is also important to note here. As a veteran, he sets a strong example for other players by acknowledging the Dynamo’s collective accountability in the loss. He doesn’t cast blame on any one player or single out a teammate for a crucial mistake. Instead, he identifies several specific ways in which the team’s performance simply wasn’t “good enough” on the day. With a match scheduled this Friday against in-state rival FC Dallas, all Dynamo players will need to focus on what they can control so that they don’t risk leaving future results in the hands of anyone but themselves.


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Fagundez Seizes Opportunity Through Preparation and Deliberate Practice

Having lost to the LA Galaxy in last year’s MLS Cup final, players and coaches on the New England Revolution had been looking forward to Sunday’s rematch at home in Massachusetts. Unfortunately for the Revs, however, the club was missing two of its best midfielders – veterans Chris Tierney and Lee Nguyen – after both received red cards last week. Nguyen and Tierney are also the first options to take set pieces for New England, and so, when the Revs earned a free kick outside the 18-yard box in the 37th minute on Sunday, it was 20-year-old midfielder Diego Fagundez who stepped up to take it. With the Galaxy leading 2-1, Fagundez lined up and curled a ball over the wall and in, helping the Revs secure a 2-2 tie against the defending champions. According to New England head coach Jay Heaps, the ability to execute a rare set piece opportunity when it mattered most came down to the Fagundez’s preparation. “Diego does those in practice quite a bit,” said Heaps. “This week he’d been really good on set pieces and I think that was something that we were looking forward to.” Speaking to reporters after the game, Fagundez said he developed a comfort from repeatedly hitting balls from a similar distance, and after making one in Sunday’s pre-game warmup, he knew he’d be ready if the opportunity arose. “Yesterday [in training] I probably hit it, maybe 30 times right from that spot,” the midfielder said. “Then today, right before warmups I hit one and I stopped with that one.”

When it comes to improving their mental game, players often hear the phrase “focus on what you control,” whether this refers to how you handle playing in a new position, how you react to a mistake, or how you manage your emotions after a bad call. However, before facing any of this in competition, focusing on what you control starts, first and foremost, with your preparation during training sessions or on your own. One of the ways to get the most out of this preparation is to engage in something called “deliberate practice” when you train. Practicing deliberately means having a purpose when you step onto the training field. Rather than simply going through the motions on any given day, treat every moment you are on the field as an opportunity to become a better player. Start by setting process goals for yourself for each training session. Identify what you want to work on – perhaps one of your weaknesses or something you can improve on from the previous game – and more importantly, identify how you will go about working on it. Another way to practice deliberately is to actually visualize yourself performing in game-like situations. Many players perform better in training than they do in games because they put less pressure on themselves in training and, therefore, are naturally more composed and confident. But, when they get to the game, their training has not necessarily prepared them for the intensity of competition. Therefore, when you are training with your team or even on your own, try to imagine yourself in realistic game scenarios. For example, if you are practicing free kicks, imagine a wall of players in front of you, the goalkeeper moving along the goal line, and the noise of the crowd as you step back to take it. Finally, recognize that deliberate practice does not mean that you cannot enjoy yourself during training. Hold yourself to “game-like” standards when it comes to your effort and focus, but be sure to enjoy the opportunity you get to play. Doing this on a daily basis will help you carry the same intensity, passion, and enjoyment onto the field when it comes time to perform during games. For Fagundez, who has struggled for playing time this season, engaging in deliberate practice will help him be physically and mentally prepared to execute whenever the opportunities do arise.


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Hall Focused on Returning a “Better Goalkeeper” Than Before

After suffering a torn ACL in his right knee last August while playing for the Houston Dynamo, goalkeeper Tally Hall knew he was in for a long recovery process. During that time, he was traded to Orlando City, an MLS expansion club preparing for its inaugural season. Now, nine months after his injury, the two-time MLS All-Star is preparing to make his return to the field at a time when his new club might very much need him, having started the season with only two wins out of its first ten games. Hall, who helped lead Houston to two consecutive MLS Cup Finals in 2011 and 2012, recognizes that it’s ultimately his coach’s decision on when he returns to the field, but feels confident that he has controlled what he could throughout the process. “I feel very comfortable in practice. I feel like I can explode going both ways… my movement isn’t hindered at all,” Hall said. “My job is to work hard and try to be the best goalkeeper on this team. When coach deems that to be the case, then I’ll be playing.” Throughout his recovery, Hall has focused his energy not on getting back to his old self, but on returning better than he was before. “For me, it’s been an opportunity to refocus, reenergize, get a different mindset on how I approach the game,” he said. “I think what I’m doing now is going to prepare me to be a better goalkeeper than what I was doing a year ago.”

No matter how severe, being injured is never easy. As a player, it’s normal to feel frustrated and even helpless dealing with something that can, at times, seem fundamentally out of your control. It’s common to hear things like “be patient” and “stay positive” throughout an injury, but this is certainly never easy, and the mental challenges can at times be more difficult than the physical ones. With any injury, accept the fact that your body will heal at its own speed, and recognize that your doctor, athletic trainer, and coach will make many of the decisions regarding whether or not you are fit to play again. In the meantime, acknowledge what is out of your control, and choose to focus on what is within your control. Communicate frequently with your trainer and coach to set realistic goals for yourself. Commit yourself fully to the physical therapy, and ask about other ways that can possibly help accelerate the physical recovery process, such as changing your nutrition or sleep habits. Hall’s approach to his own injury demonstrates the importance of viewing recovery as an opportunity for reconditioning, as opposed to rehabilitation. In other words, injuries, as frustrating as they might be, open the door for you to work on different parts of your game (e.g., leadership, tactical understanding of your position, other forms of fitness, etc.) that could help you return to the field a better player – physically and mentally – than you were before you left. Also, recognize that, despite your absence from the field, you can still fill an important role within the team. Use your time away from the field to be a leader, both vocally and by example. When you’re watching training or games from the sideline, offer encouragement and feedback to players on the field. Take seriously the physical exercises you’re able to do, while remaining as patient as possible, because while you understandably want to play as soon as possible, your teammates and coaches are relying on you to be at your best when you do return. Even after nine months, Hall’s job isn’t done, as he must earn his spot back in the lineup. Nevertheless, having navigated many of the physical and mental challenges of a long reconditioning process, he is well prepared to cope with any further challenges or lingering frustrations that he might face.


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Focusing on What You Can Control: Patriots Earn Fourth Title Despite Adversity

Sunday’s Super Bowl offered plenty of entertainment as the top two NFL teams went head-to-head, and the New England Patriots earned a 28-24 win over the Seattle Seahawks after a dramatic fourth quarter. New England quarterback Tom Brady broke numerous records in the game, including most Super Bowl completions, most career Super Bowl passing yards, and most career Super Bowl touchdowns. He was also named the game’s MVP for the third time in his career, after completing 74% of his passes for four touchdowns. However, Brady’s Super Bowl performance was far from perfect, as he also threw two interceptions, and the Patriots had to stage a comeback after falling behind 24-14 in the fourth quarter. “It wasn’t the way we drew it up. Certainly, throwing a couple of picks didn’t help…It was a lot of mental toughness. Our team has had it all year. We never doubted each other, so that’s what it took. That was a great football team we beat.” The quality of the opponent wasn’t the only adversity the Patriots had to face this week, with the controversy over deflated footballs in the AFC Championship causing a lot of distraction. After Sunday’s win, Brady was asked how he and his teammates were able to mentally cope, and focus on winning this game: “Coach always says, ignore the noise and control what you can control.”

It can be extremely challenging as an athlete to maintain your focus in the face of adversity. In addition to issues off the field, adversity can come in many forms, including bad calls from referees, officials, or umpires, poor weather or field conditions, distracting behavior on the part of coaches, parents, and fans on the sideline, or even the talent of your opponent. While you do not have control over these and other obstacles, you do have control over how you choose to respond to them as a competitor. Your preparation, your effort, your attitude, and your communication during the game are all parts of your performance that you consistently have under your control. When it comes to preparing yourself for a difficult opponent, you control the amount of time and energy you put into ensuring that you are physically and mentally ready to perform at your best when you step on the field. Once the competition has started, you control how hard you work throughout a game, and how much effort you put into performing your role to the best of your abilities. This does not mean that you will never have an “off-day” – perhaps when your technique isn’t quite right or you are feeling tired. However, it does mean that you continue to work hard under these circumstances. You also have control over your attitude. If, like the Patriots on Sunday, your team is losing late in the game, you and your teammates have a choice in these moments regarding whether or not you maintain belief in each other and stay positive. Similarly, you have control over the quality and effectiveness of your communication in these situations. The Patriots faced no shortage of adversity this year, including a rough start to the season and many distractions down the stretch. However, by never doubting each other and maintaining a focus on what they could control, the players and coaches have earned the franchise’s fourth championship in 14 years.


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Sidelined ‘Indefinitely’: Decision Will Test Mignolet’s Mental Strength

After an impressive season last year, Liverpool has struggled over the first four months of this season. The club was recently knocked out of the Champions League and, in the Premier League, is currently six spots outside of Champions League qualification for next season. Over the weekend, Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet was benched as a combined result of the club’s and his own poor performance, in a move that manager Brendan Rogers called ‘indefinite’. While this is undoubtedly a frustrating time for the Belgian, Queens Park Rangers goalkeeper Rob Green, who has endured his own share of struggles, including an infamous mistake that cost England a win over the United States in the 2010 World Cup, noted the likelihood that Mignolet returns a stronger player. “At some point keepers need a time out…that’s the manager’s decision. Simon will work hard and come back stronger,” Green said. “Clearly he’s got the ability and clearly the manager believes in him – he signed him – but when times are tough the manager may take stock behind the scenes and say ‘now’s the time to give him a rest’. It’s happened to me, it’s happened to every goalkeeper.”

Whether due to your poor performance, or simply the better performance of another player, there will be times in your career when you must deal with limited playing time. Whether or not you agree with the decision will not change things, so accept the responsibility and role you play in earning a return to the field. Granted, this can be a challenging and frustrating experience for players who are working hard in training and want to see rewards for their efforts. However, in response to these circumstances, recognize the things you can control, and those that you cannot. Your coach’s decision to ‘give you a rest’ is not under your control. Your response to this decision is. These times should be treated as an opportunity to, in some way, push the ‘reset’ button and recover both physically and mentally to eventually return to the field stronger than you were before. In these situations, it is tempting to blame something or someone else for your limited playing time. However, the players who are able to objectively evaluate themselves are often able to identify something that they can improve, take action in addressing that part of their game, and ultimately return a more complete player than before. Communicate with your coach to better understand what you can do specifically to see more time on the field. For example, perhaps he or she says that you struggled to start games well, and that it took several minutes after kickoff for you to physically and mentally adjust to the speed of play before you began to perform well. This could be due to insufficient preparation on your part. Under these circumstances, consider ways to boost your physical and mental readiness for a performance by taking the opportunity to fine-tune your routine (i.e., through improved nutrition and sleep, longer warm-ups, mental imagery, etc.). Regardless of your personal opinion concerning whether or not you should to be on the field, it is your job to remove any doubt from your coach’s mind about whether you deserve playing time. This ‘time out’ could prove to be a pivotal point in Mignolet’s professional career, and the outcome rests on his ability to respond effectively and seize the opportunity to become better.


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