Tampa Bay Sports Day

It’s all about speed

As each player or team advances to a higher level the quality of competition goes up a notch. Opponents tend to be stronger, more confident, and faster. The player or team will adjust or not and at rates that will vary with actual talent and application to the task of improving.

Although a competition like the Gold Cup is intended first to be a money maker, its proximity to the Confederations Cup and World Cup qualifiers slides into the realm of testing ground.

For second tier CONCACAF teams like Haiti it offers more competition to challenge and raise their game. For potential players on a top level team like the United States it offers that next level of play, but only to an attenuated degree.

While similarly talented opponents like Honduras do indeed challenge the US, the choice by both sides to offer a “B” level of player does leave bit of the highest challenge lacking. However, the competition does offer a chance to shine and to elevate one’s understanding of a higher level.

In an ideal player development scheme a rising talent will mix with his seniors and meet their level or not over some reasonable time. The environment in training and competition will be near the top and the qualified player will meet the new level fairly quickly.

Witness the ascension of Charlie Davies who grew into an impact player during the Confederations Cup and then raised the level of the US squad last night at RFK Stadium when he entered the game. Whether his energizing effect will work as a starter is not yet settled, but his ability to turn speed into results as a second half sub is already clear.

Another player who brings speed to the US table is Robbie Rogers. He is less well tested, but shares a drive and purpose with Davies that augurs well for his future. Opposing teams dare not relax when either charges forward. They can make dangerous things happen very quickly, primarily because of sheer running speed.

There are two more “speeds” that are important to a soccer player, mental speed and technical speed. The first usually grows gradually as a function of experience, but some athletes seem blessed with it early in their careers. Such a player is Freddy Adu, but in a way that is thus far only partially realized.

Let me switch briefly to the third speed, technical. That is expressed by the ability to execute both basic and innovative movements with the ball quickly, comfortably, and with frequent good results. Soccer almost never allows for too perfect an execution rate.

Technical speed is the gift that Adu has in abundance and it has led to the early recognition of his potential. The 20 year old was amazing even as a newly minted professional. He still makes new and creative things happen to this day.

His top end running speed is merely adequate at the international level and his size will require that he continue to learn how to ride tackles in the heavy traffic he will always encounter. His quick burst speed is top notch, and complements his mental speed with the ball. It explains some of the amazing things he has done.

All of this brings us back to why it is vital to his development that he play at the highest levels possible as often as possible. The reason that US Coach Bob Bradley wants all his players to get regular club competition is primarily so that they may develop and maintain their mental speed.

In addition to his size deficit, one that he will probably learn to work around, Adu has significant room for improvement in half of his mental speed.

With the ball, he operates at a full international level. He sees the movement of others clearly and often sends them great passes. When they are not the best option, he often creates something out of almost nothing.

However, his movement off the ball too often seems confused. As he developed as a player, his talent led to his being the carrier and creator to the detriment of his understanding of his possible role as decoy or as an option among several for a teammate. Given his mental speed with the ball, his spatial and dynamic understanding is clearly superior.

If I am correct in this assessment and he works specifically on his movement without the ball, by reviewing films and executing the lessons learned therefrom in practice, we might see a significant improvement in his game.

The best possible example for him would be the growth of a strong MLS journeyman, Brian Carroll. He paired in midfield with Ben Olsen and learned well from the experience as both switched roles as defensive and holding midfielders. However, he hit a plateau and declined slightly as opponents figured him out.

Carroll took to studying films to learn what worked and what did not and developed specific responses and changes that he needed. His consequent value to DC United and then to the Columbus Crew attest to the effectiveness of that approach.

Perhaps young Adu could benefit from a similar avenue of study.