Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer is pleased his team emerged from the Tucson, Ariz., phase of training camp with no serious injuries, but knows the real soccer work is now about to begin.
Throughout the world of professional sports, the early part of training camp is generally spent assessing fitness levels. Major League Soccer is no different, which is why Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer came out of the Arizona phase of his team’s camp pleased mainly with the fact his squad suffered no serious injuries.
But that’s generally it. Questions about how his team is rounding into form? Stuff about how players are meshing together in the midfield? You save those for when there’s something close to actual regular-season style soccer being played. That wasn’t the case in Tucson, where a pair of exhibition games had some nice moments but generally lacked the speed and intensity level typically seen.
“The first phase in pre-season is always pretty hard on the players,” Schmetzer said. “They’re trying to build that fitness base. And so sometimes you sacrifice a little bit of the soccer for the fitness. And then it flips over in the second phase.”
That part begins next week, when the team prepares to head to Charleston, S.C., for three exhibition games that should provide a level of play far more suited to answering some of the above questions.
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This portion just completed? It was about “developing a training plan to get them — in that eight or nine-day period — kind of like a base of fitness so that we can move forward,” Schmetzer said.
For some younger players who don’t really factor in the team’s immediate plans, there were assessments to be made about whether to even bring them to Charleston for that much tougher phase of work. Some of the team’s academy youngsters taken to Tucson were pretty beat up by the end of it and won’t be carrying on much further with the big club.
The tough part of the Arizona phase for Schmetzer was thrusting players back into action after such a short off-season following the MLS Cup win in Toronto. He’d already made a decision not to play midfielder Osvaldo Alonso in either game, knowing he had newcomer Gustav Svensson to fill any void. Alonso instead did plenty of conditioning work during the games as he attempts to return from the knee injury that plagued him throughout last season’s playoff run.
On forward Clint Dempsey, attempting to play again after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, Schmetzer is cautiously optimistic. Dempsey played 30 minutes against Portland on Saturday and then another 45 minutes versus San Jose on Tuesday as his doctors allow him to be eased back into action.
“They gave us the OK to push him in increments to try and get to that 90-minute mark,” Schmetzer said. “And so, when we started with 30, that was what the doctors were OK with, our training staff was OK with and Clint was OK with. Then when we pushed it to 45, it was the same process. I had to ask Clint how he feels, make sure that the trainers were OK with it and the doctors were OK with it for that little ramp up.”
Dempsey will see his minutes rise in Charleston while the team gauges whether he’s comfortable. But it isn’t merely getting Dempsey back up to 90 minutes and then signing off. Again, the entire level-of-play issue is pertinent. The quality of soccer wasn’t all that high by MLS standards in Tucson. Beyond racking up minutes, Dempsey will have to show that he is capable of pushing to that higher level when play starts to improve in Charleston.
“Clint can play in minutes,” Schmetzer said. “He played the 30. He played 45. Maybe we push him to 60 and push him to 75. But it’s also, within that 30 minutes, how hard did he push? How many sprints did he have to make? A real MLS game is harder than some of these pre-season games. We’re not completely out of the woods yet. But we’re obviously, again, just real pleased that he’s with the team and progressing in what we feel is a positive way.”
It’s the same thing with Alonso, who Schmetzer describes as “a bit of a moving target” where his return is concerned. Schmetzer hopes to give him playing time in Charleston to assess where he’s at, but admitted to only “some degree of certainty” that will actually happen.
So again, whether or not Alonso begins the season with the team will depend on how he responds to those game conditions.
On a positive note, the injury to midfielder Harry Shipp now appears to be just “a tweak” to his ankle and nothing serious. He’ll be back out there when the team resumes training in Tukwila on Sunday.
The Sounders will continue training there Monday and Tuesday and then head off to Charleston later in the week. And that’s where we’ll start to get at least a few answers on how things are actually going soccer-wise for the defending champions.
“We’ll be more in focus and more in tune with how the soccer is coming along,” Schmetzer said.