Emmy award-winning producer Mark Thomas has been tagging along and filming hours and hours of behind-the-scenes footage with the U.S. Men’s National Team as they progress through World Cup qualifying. Thomas has been the eyes and the ears, giving ussoccer.com viewers an excellent “All_Access” insight to the practices, the players and the games. In this special one-time piece, Thomas tells us what it’s been like to be “one of the guys” while on the road with the MNT.
Having spent my entire life around sports, I know most of them extremely well. Soccer isn’t one of them. I don’t have the foggiest notion as to why a team would play 4-4-2 versus a 3-5-2. But I am getting an education. So when you view the “All Access” stories, you can think of them as an outsider looking in and learning.
The first thing I want to tell you is that, by far, this is the best group of athletes I have ever been around. They are genuinely good people, and they all seem very normal. They are like regular guys you could see yourself hanging around. They’re all educated and have interests outside of soccer. We’ve sat around the table at mealtime and discussed things as random but interesting as the construction of the Panama Canal. In El Salvador, I watched a large group of players stay after dinner to watch the second Bush-Kerry debate. Like any group of people, they have a wide range of views.
As you would suspect, there’s a collage of personalities on the team. Different guys have different roles. For example, it took me all of about five minutes around Pablo Mastroeni to realize that on the field this guy adds a vocal element to the team. All of a sudden, practice was a whole lot louder.
Kasey Keller brings intensity on the field and some levity off of it. The first thing you learn after being around Kasey is that you better remember to tie up your shorts tightly, or they’ll be finding their way to the ground, usually with a group of people around to witness it. I only had to learn this lesson once. Kasey also has a habit of mistaking the camera for his personal laundry basket. The lens has a hard time seeing through his socks.
Kasey and Jonny Walker are veterans who have taken it upon themselves to escort the team’s youngest player, Eddie Gaven, around off the field. They are a regular trio at dinner. Poor Eddie. Not only does he end up at restaurants where a 17-year-old has no clue what to order, but every night it also ends up being his birthday. At the end of every meal, it seems that one of the guys has informed the wait staff that this night happens to be the unsuspecting Gaven’s birthday. To see Eddie’s face when the cake and singing staff march out is priceless.
Another lasting image in my head courtesy of Keller is a small move he made upon our arrival in San Salvador, El Salvador. We arrived at our five-star hotel after 11 p.m. and a meal was waiting for us. The meal room staff went out of their way to make a good impression on us. One of the small touches was to have some soothing music playing in the room. The waiter had a CD of easy listening Gloria Estefan playing in the background. After Kasey, a serious headbanger music fan, finished his meal and was making his exit, he made a detour over to the CD player. Kasey reached into his bag and pulled out a ridiculous metal disc. He replaced the easy-listening music with something approximating Slipknot or MachineHead, slightly turned up the volume and left the room. The funniest part of it was to see the face of the waiter who had put on the easy listening music. He didn’t know how to react or where in hell this music came from. After uncomfortably standing around for a few minutes, he went back over to the CD player and turned down the volume before changing the music back to its original play list. I still laugh when I think of his face.
The team members have been very accepting of me. Naturally, some of them are a bit leery of the media with cameras around, but I think they’ve figured out that I am on their side. From day one, they have gone out of their way to say “hello.” Clint Mathis regularly offers a pat on the back. It would be easy for stars like Landon Donovan to be aloof, but he has known my name since day one. When we accompanied Landon to Dave and Buster’s entertainment center, he was all too eager to share his complimentary swipe card to make sure that everyone could play games. You don’t get that from “superstars” too often.
And speaking of stars, it was neat to watch the emergence of one. Eddie Johnson didn’t get any playing time during our time in Boston against El Salvador or in Panama. However, you could see flashes during training. We all know what happened when he was able to crack the line up. Also emerging is Eddie’s personality. I don’t know him real well, but I sense that he is a little bit camera shy. Now he’s doing himself in with his own performance. The attention given him will only grow and he seems to be getting comfortable with it.
The players have an open line of communication with the coaching staff. Sitting in on the locker room or video/flip chart sessions it is very clear that coach Bruce Arena and staff want input from the players. At the end of meetings, Coach Arena always makes it a point to ask the players for their opinions on things. For those that aren’t comfortable addressing an issue in front of everyone, he adds that he is always available to talk. He also has a great sense of humor and regularly uses it to lighten a room.
As I noted earlier, I don’t have a great understanding of all the strategies involved in the game. But after getting a taste of watching this coaching staff break down opponents on tape or on charts, it is easy to see why they have had so much success. They have a great knack for seeing what is developing on the field and how to put players in a position to have success. Another interesting aspect of watching this coaching staff at work is how assistants Glenn “Mooch” Myernick and Curt Onalfo go through a lot of the conditioning drills with the team. They are regular fitness buffs who stay in shape despite putting their playing days behind them.
The real unsung heroes are the support staff that get everything in order and make sure the players are able to do their thing. Nobody works harder or longer than General Manager Pam Perkins. She seemingly has a mobile phone surgically implanted on her head. It is always ringing and when it’s not, she’s dealing with someone’s request. Among a million other things, she takes care of booking everyone’s travel and the accommodations. She has the perfect personality to deal with it all, as she keeps a cool head and never appears flustered.
Press officer Michael Kammarman is another one who is constantly at the beck and call of people inside and outside the team. His phone is always ringing and I know this because he is my roommate. On the other end of the line could be a coach who wants to know the score of a random game, a member of the media who wants access to a player, or a player who is in search of a good place to eat that evening. In addition to the title “Press Officer,” Michael should also carry the title “Problem Solver”. He fills in where needed, including as chauffeur to practices and appearances.
The busiest room at any given training location is the training room. Athletic trainers Jim Hashimoto, Bruce Snell and Rudy Rudawski are busy all day and all night long. They have a stocked hotel room with two training beds that always seem to be occupied. With such a short period of time between training sessions and games, they have a huge responsibility in both getting and keeping players physically fit to play. They go through miles of tape, gobs of ointment, lots of stretching and rubbing. And then there are massages. Endless massages. Ultimately they have a big say in whether players can “go” on a given day or night.
The one guy who has more baggage than anyone is equipment manager Ryan Maxfield. Upon returning from our trip to Panama, we formed an assembly line that must’ve passed through 15 or so luggage carts of his equipment. Included in that are practice gear, balls, game uniforms, etc. When we play on the road, it is his job to get the team a dozen or so versions of the game ball that will be used by the home team. These balls aren’t exactly located in the local sporting good store. At practice, it is Ryan’s job to make sure that the field is set up with the proper equipment for the day’s exercises. There’s certainly much more to being an equipment manager than meets the eye.
The bottom line is that I am very happy that this group of people wears the letters U-S-A across their chests. They are informal ambassadors for our country, and I now have first-hand knowledge that we can all breathe easy, because this team – its players and staff – is first class. They descend upon national team training and game sites from all over the globe, but when they arrive, they come together with a common purpose. It is a very cool experience to watch the whole operation in progress, from the coaches, to the support staff to the players. It is a true team effort that makes the U.S. Men’s National Team work.