I caught the initial trickle in 1995 along with 180 other guys at a Major League Soccer talent search in Colorado. No one in the group advanced toward the payroll for that inaugural season. After I handed in my bib, I wrote a 1,000-word description of the weekend and have been writing about MLS and the Colorado Rapids ever since.

Now I’m getting some help. At the close of the 2014 MLS season, Brian Jennings adds the perspective of an MLS veteran reporter. Jennings covered the Wiz/Wizards before moving to Colorado for more than a decade of Rapids coverage for Soccer365.com (now 365.worldsoccershop.com) and Coloradorapids.com.

John Babiak captures photos at Rapids games and training sessions, and I’m grateful for the chance to use his images on this site as well.

Nasco

Marv    Gale    Grant   Piermayr

Carlos   Nicky   Davy  Kamani

Edson   Danny

Snow covered the Pride Soccer Complex at the start of Day Two for Switchbacks FC trialists. But after three 35-minute games, the fields of battle were almost completely clear. The thermometer showed mid-20s during warm-ups while the wicked wind chill was much lower.

“Like I told the players, I thought the quality was better today,” head coach Steve Trittschuh said. “I don’t know if it had to do with the weather or if they were more familiar with the players around them. There was some good soccer today. I was happy about it.”

On Saturday, assistant coach Wolde Harris said tryout situations eventually show cream rising to the top.

“In a group like this,” Harris said, “you have some people playing at a higher level and some people lower. So it’s difficult to judge teamwork. We can see if they’re communicating or providing instruction to help teammates with positioning. That in turn helps you judge the players that set themselves apart with leadership and game intelligence.”

All 10 teams received instructions to line up with a 4-2-3-1 formation. On Sunday, some of the teams shifted players and made adjustments. The weaker players had a chance to shine on Saturday, and they filled new roles on Sunday (or sat on the sidelines longer).

After the final whistle, Trittschuh gathered the group to thank the players and tell them that one of three things will happen. They’ll receive a contract offer. They’ll receive an invitation to come back in February. Or they won’t hear anything at all.

In addition to USL Pro veteran Luke Vercollone, the Switchbacks already signed a few players and are on track for the opening game in March. Although the USL Pro schedule isn’t settled, Trittschuh said the first home game at the new Sand Creek Stadium won’t be until April.

In the meantime, Trittschuh said he will finalize input from his coaches, offer contracts to the top talent from the weekend, invite six or seven from the tryout to preseason, and finalize the schedule at the USL Pro AGM in December.

The first day of tryouts for Switchbacks FC showcased players from all over the world. Some grew up learning the game not far from the Pride Soccer Complex. Others came from different states, Spain, the United Kingdom, Holland, Denmark, Germany, France, El Salvador, Panama, Mexico, Ghana, Australia, and Iran. They played almost five hours of full-throttle soccer.

Head coach Steve Trittschuh said he was pleased to see all 140 players on Saturday. Unlike other tryouts with multiple cuts before the final decisions, Trittschuh invited all the players back for Sunday.

“If they had a bad day,” Trittschuh said, “they can come back and show us more, if they’re not dead and can get out of bed.”

Trittschuh had assistant Wolde Harris run the show, and he assembled 15 other coaches to help evaluate talent and give input throughout the day.

“I needed more eyes,” Trittschuh explained. “Most of these guys played professionally, so they know what to look for. And I totally trust them. Tomorrow we’ll meet after the last game and put all our notes together. There were a couple kids who I can probably offer a contract to. And there probably will be a handful that I can ask to come back in February when we get together again.”

The day started with players assigned to teams for a number of possession games on small fields, some with goalkeepers. Harris explained that “small-sided games give us a chance to see their technical abilities and decision-making in tight spaces.”

Players wore reversible jerseys with their assigned number. One coach asked a goalkeeper to put his number on the front. “Otherwise, I’ll only see your number when you’re digging the ball out of the back of the net.”

At 11:00, they jumped into 11v11 games on three fields. Some teams rested while others battled for 25-minute contests.

“I gave them a shape I wanted, a 4-2-3-1 for all the teams,” Trittschuh said. “I wanted to see how players stand out in that shape. You can get your outside backs into the attack. You can see movement from the guys up top, and you can see who wins the ball in the middle.”

Harris said the teams didn’t necessarily improve throughout the day, but he noticed one or two players starting to make connections and find a rhythm in the game.

“We’re looking at the talent level and the decision-making,” Harris said. “But we’re also looking to see who really wants it more than anyone else. A big part of our team will be commitment because we’re a new club coming new into a league. We’re looking for people who know what they’re doing with the ball and can make things happen. Also, we’re looking for mental toughness. If you can perform in the sixth game as well as you did in the first game, then that shows us something special.”

Day two will be another test. If players can return from the grueling day of games and perform just as well for the finale on Sunday, they might be wearing Switchbacks FC colors in 2015.

A few days ahead of the team’s open tryout on November 22-23, Switchbacks FC announced head coach Steve Trittschuh’s chief assistant, Wolde Harris.

Harris and Trittschuh were Colorado Rapids teammates from 1997 to 1999. Trittschuh went to the Tampa Bay Mutiny and retired in 2001. In 2000, Harris moved to the New England Revolution for three seasons, but he was not ready to retire. The Jamaican striker played with the Kansas City Wizards in 2003. In 2004, he scored two goals in eight games for the Charleston Battery before scoring four goals in 17 games for Boden BK in Sweden. Harris returned to the Rapids in 2005 and scored a goal in 10 appearances. From 2006 to 2009, he played for C.D. FAS in El Salvador.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Harris played for the University of Connecticut and Clemson University while remaining part of the Jamaican national team pool. Harris played 25 games for his country throughout his career and has always tended to his Jamaican roots. With the help of his father and brothers, Harris founded the Jamaican Grassroots Football Company.

As a coach, Harris was on staff for Lorne Donaldson’s Real Colorado. Since then, he has been an assistant coach at Kingston College with his father in Jamaica, as well as his alma mater, Clemson University. As a player, Harris performed at a high level all over the world, coordinating in multiple languages and systems. Combined with Trittschuh’s playing and coaching experience, the Jamaican can offer attacking expertise to balance Trittschuh’s defensive perspective.

The announcement on Switchbacksfc.com includes a highlight reel of Wolde’s MLS goals.

By Brian Jennings

Pablo Mastroeni and the Rapids players put in the work hours in 2014. That was never an issue with this group. The challenge for Mastroeni and his staff was thinking less like players and more as teachers and communicators during the weekly build-up.

“The whole experience for me was new,” admitted Mastroeni succinctly. “What I did was spend endless hours prior to any meetings that we had, any of the video sessions that we had, any of the sessions on the field that we had to make sure that we were very organized and buttoned-up from a staff perspective.”

Mastroeni explained how his communication style changed during the season. “The information that was given was, for the most part, received in a way that can actually be applied on the field. Initially I was very black-and-white in the way I delivered messages. Communicating as a captain in the locker room is a lot different than communicating as a coach. The nuances there — when you say things and have the trust of a group from a ‘you’re on the field with us, you’re going to battle with us’ perspective — it’s a lot different from saying the same exact words in the same tone now as a coach with a shirt and tie on.”

Pablo admits he still occasionally gets pulled between the player mindset and the coaching role, and he has taken an interesting approach to reminding himself on a daily basis what his new career must focus on. In fact, if you looked closely at the Colorado bench you may have noticed it but not given much thought to the small transformation on his face. “My dad gave me the idea. He said you need to differentiate the Pablo that played and your new career path. It still is a work in progress, which is why I’m growing this mustache: So when I look in the mirror I realize I’m not the guy that was in the locker room.

“As a player I’d always say, ‘Get your head out of your (rear). Let’s go!’ and they were used to that,” Mastroeni recalled of his playing days. “There’s a lot of new players. If I say those things, they don’t know Pablo as a player. They just know me as a coach, and it comes off as abrasive — ‘he’s nuts.’ I have to communicate in a different way to the players than I was accustomed to.” The mustache is a daily reminder of this transformation.

However, the 12-year MLS veteran still has moments when he’d almost rather “catch the fish” instead of “teach to fish,” as the old saying goes. “There’s times with injuries I thought to myself, ‘I might want to suit up,’ but I talked to myself about do I want to be a good player or do I want to be a great coach? So if I want to be a great coach, I have to use my knowledge that I gained in my experience as a player and communicate to the best of my abilities.”

Pablo’s message to himself? “Do the best you can and learn from it. Don’t run and hide and try to put on (boots) and get away from that role you were asked to be.”

Stay tuned for more of my conversation with Pablo coming soon as we discuss the takeaways from the 2014 season and what changes may come about in 2015.

November 12, 2014 — Switchbacks FC will hold the club’s inaugural tryout at the Pride Soccer Complex east of Colorado Springs from November 22 to 23. Capped at 140, the pool of trialists paid $150 each for a chance to make the new USL Pro roster for the 2015 season.

A week before the tryout, head coach Steve Trittschuh said, “We have so many good players in this country. Tryouts give us a chance to find a diamond in the rough.”

“I’m a big fan of tryouts,” Seattle Sounders top assistant coach Brian Schmetzer noted in 2013. “In the first open tryout for the [Sounders] USL team in 2002, we were playing in Memorial stadium. Chance [Fry] and I sat in the stands watching 100-some guys. I remember Chance saying, ‘you gotta look at this this guy [Zach Scott]. He has won every headball that has come his way.’ He was head and shoulders above everybody else. He was tenacious. But he wasn’t very technical. All he could really do was head the ball. The more I watched him, I said I’d take him. We only took two guys. So Zach signed with us. I sent him to Andy [Schmetzer, Brian’s younger brother] who was coaching the Cleveland Crunch. I told Zach, ‘Your feet are terrible. Go play some indoor soccer, and maybe that will get your feet better.’ Andy called me up and asked, ‘why did you send me him? He’s terrible.’ Testament to Zach’s character, he kept working and working. Now he’s improved, and he’s a starting center back on one of the better teams in MLS. We got him from an open tryout.”

Trittschuh has been scouting games in Colorado at all levels lately, a process he’ll continue after the tryout weekend. “I’ve been in contact with coaches,” Trittschuh said, noting affiliation with Real Colorado (PDL Foxes and youth), Rush, Pride, Corinthians, and other clubs and colleges. Trittschuh’s scouting work for academies also gives him insight into rising young talent.

Trittschuh recalled the great relationship developed between clubs when Lorne Donaldson coached the Colorado Foxes and he played for the Rapids. “When I was a player, and then as an assistant, I learned how important these relationships are. We’ll be on the same page with the clubs in Colorado.”

Schmetzer described the scouting process in Seattle. “We’ll watch a lot of college games this year,” Schmetzer said. “We have a whole scouting department that goes around and watches games. Personally, I get more out of going to an actual training session and watching players. You have to assess players based on a final product, an 11v11 game. But the details and layers are revealed when you watch them train, watch them adapt to whatever drills the coach has.”

Through tryouts and scouting sessions, coaches look for a blend of attributes. “Every coach would want to have talent, plus desire, plus character, plus smarts… any number of those key attributes,” Schmetzer said. “If you watch a training session, you can check more of those boxes, or not check them if the player doesn’t have it.”

Schmetzer praised his club’s top goalkeeping coach, Tom Dutra.

“Tom looks really closely at goalkeeper warmups,” Schmetzer said. “Their footwork, their angles… you get more information than you do during a game.” Schmetzer noted how goalkeepers don’t get to demonstrate all their strengths in a game, particularly a dominant game without much action.

Trittschuh will have plenty of time to fully test the goalkeepers at the tryout next weekend, and field players should have ample opportunity to show their unique blend of attributes. As Trittschuh assembles his roster, November 22 will mark an important day in the development of Switchbacks FC. For the 140 trialists, this day could mark a new direction in their lives.

Chapter Three: Extra drive

Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, Jason Kreis pushed himself to be the best player he could be, shooting a bag of balls well past more than one sunset and into the night. While other kids ate dinner, Kreis perfected his shot. Kreis scored the first goal for the Dallas Burn during the inaugural season of MLS in 1996. His play improved every year and he became the first American-born player to earn the MLS MVP honor when he scored 18 goals and registered 15 assists for the Burn in 1999. When Kreis arrived at Real Salt Lake, he scored the first goal for that franchise too. He eventually became the head coach.

“When we look at potential players,” coach Kreis explained. “We want to watch them train with their teams so we can see their natural work habits.”

One key player for Kreis, Kyle Beckerman, credited Carlos Valderrama for helping him develop good training habits as a young professional. Beckerman joined the Colorado Rapids in 2002 and worked with “El Pibe” every day.

“He’s one of the guys,” Beckerman recalled. “I was lucky to play with a lot of great players in Colorado, Miami, and Salt Lake. I always tried to soak up as much as I could. He was an amazing passer with amazing vision. To see him train day in and day out was very important for my development. It was the way he focused, the way he dressed, the way he conducted himself with the media, and every day in practice. When guys mouthed off, he didn’t take it lightly and made sure he put them in their place.”

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