Sunday, August 30, 2009

Final Preparations

Nicholas Gerard-Larson, a senior on the 2009 Milwaukee men's soccer team, will be blogging all season long on the UWM website. Today is his third blog entry.


It’s weeks like these that make me feel twice my age. I’ll walk up a flight of stairs and it sounds like someone jumping on those sheets of soft, plastic packaging used to protect valuables. Each ascending stair is greeted by a pronounced snap or crack. Normally, this noise is oddly satisfying, especially when you’re the one lightly popping the little bubbles on the sheets. But when your bones begin making these sounds it serves as a fitting and accurate testament to the heightened activity they’ve recently been put through.

Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not complaining. I’ve been through this feeling of temporary, accelerated aging before ... many times in fact. However, every preseason it seems to get more distinct and inauspiciously more permanent. The wear and tear is in many ways unavoidable, since we rapidly need to prepare our bodies for the fast approaching regular season. Over the years I’ve utilized several effective techniques to slow this inexorable aging process. Hydration remains one of the seminal practices to avoid exhaustion, overheating, and cumulative fatigue. Eating a well-balanced diet, high in protein, fiber, and fruits and vegetables also greatly aids the body in recovery and reconstruction. (Wow, this sounds like some mandatory dietary explanation on those cereal commercials.) Ice baths, with their initial pangs of stabbing chills leading to that blissful numbness bordering on slight warmth, suggestive of the early stages of hypothermia, comprehensively invigorate the lower limbs. Individual ice bags also often soothe acutely sore areas of the body and I’ve seen some players, Nkuti (Ndely) in particular, with a veritable multitude of plastic bags strapped onto various injuries.

This year’s training schedule differs from most other years in that we have our second sessions very late at night. We eat as a group around five and then rest a few hours before reporting to training at eight or eight-thirty. While this allows us to avoid the heat and humidity, it does make for some fairly late nights. It’s the price we need to pay in order to train on turf, so few players are complaining. These practices tend to create an atmosphere of heightened urgency and emphasis. Playing under lights, with the darkness thick and enclosing, establishes a far more radiant and almost claustrophobic arena. The sounds of practice become sharp, more emphatic, and surreal. Once you get over the initial tiredness of practicing at this hour, your body responds with a growing sense of purpose, a realization somewhere along the lines of, “Well, what the hell, I’m out here anyway so why not make this good?”

Our second exhibition was played at home and featured a number of similarities with the first game. Our opponent, Wisconsin-Whitewater, is a Division III program, but one that is consistently competitive at both the regional and national level. We started out the first half with some good movement and passing, yet we allowed ourselves to stoop into Whitewater’s slower speed of play and nervous, erratic possession. Despite having far more dangerous chances, we found ourselves down 1-0 at half. The second half saw revitalized movement and an increased sense of urgency, resulting in two unanswered goals within a period of 38 seconds. (Eric) Frazier converted a penalty kick and (Zach) Funk blasted another goal past the Whitewater goalie to give us a 2-1 lead. The score stood the rest of the half, giving us another slim and well-deserved victory.

Later in the week we played our final exhibition against a very strong alumni team. This game is always a good test, since our program has seen a multitude of players ascend to the professional levels all across the country and globe. We showed signs of improvement in terms of defensive shape and transition. However, a few mistakes in our defensive third hurt us in the long run. The alumni team, with their greater collective experience, adeptly moved the ball with speed and consistency. A penalty kick against us in the first half, coupled with two unanswered goals in the second, left us 3-0 down before Abe Gibbons put us on the scoreboard. The game ended in a 3-1 loss, yet we made important improvements in organization and transitioning, both on offense and defense.

We always have an annual barbeque at Doc Middleton’s house during preseason and this year’s meal was another delightful (and tasty) experience. Doc and his family graciously invite thirty starving, worn-out individuals into their house and provide us with an amazing spread of burgers, brats, salad, and deserts. It’s a refreshing relief from our regular, rather mundane diet and helps nourish our depleted, calorie-craving bodies.

Unsurprisingly, our last preseason practice began under discouraging weather conditions. We ran from our locker room north about a mile to Shorewood through a steadily increasing drizzle. The night air was cool and dense, and the wind picked up as we reached the white glow of the stadium lights. It looked and felt as if it might snow. The rain was coming down in slow, compact clouds of condensed moisture, almost like a visible and perpetually forming dew. We were already soaked from the run, but seeing the rain illuminated under the glaring lights made the wetness that much more tangible.

Despite the slick field conditions and drenched clothing plastered against our chilled frames, the practice was a success. Once you accept the feeling of total and unavoidable saturation as your body’s normal state, it isn’t difficult to focus on defensive transitions or switching the point of attack. In fact, you begin to relish the turbulent elements around you, almost wishing for some new form of chaotic interference from the heavens, like some twisted taunt to the Almighty.

We played a possession game for our warm-up and than progressed directly into 11 versus 11, starting out with smaller dimensions and steadily increasing the size up to a full field scrimmage. The slippery surface caused numerous passes to skid out of bounds and succeeded in upending several players making moves too aggressive for such conditions. The level of play may not have been pretty, but it certainly was honest and dynamic. Exhausted, sodden, and humbled by nature’s capabilities, we retired to the showers, happy to be sheltered and finished with another preseason.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Exhibitions, Excursions and Excitement

Nicholas Gerard-Larson, a senior on the 2009 Milwaukee men's soccer team, will be blogging all season long on the UWM website. Today is his second blog entry.


This year’s preseason exhibition games started even earlier than usual with two matches slotted in the first week. After only two initial days of practice we commenced with our Black and Gold inter-squad scrimmage. This game is always a competitive contest as players battle it out for upcoming starting spots. The match mimics most of the structure and hype of a regular season game, offering a preview of this year’s squad in a spirited and aggressive environment.

Our practices leading up to the Black and Gold match focused on individual defending and defensive structure. We progressed from small-sided games to more expansive drills on defensive organization, eventually advancing to full 11 versus 11. Our fitness sessions earlier in August seem to have paid off and, although it will certainly take longer to regain match level stamina, on the whole the team appears fit and ready for real opposition.

In previous years we’ve been forced to practice down on the lakefront, a pitch that’s renowned for unevenness and ankle-breaking potential, despite the excellent view of Lake Michigan. Instead, we’ve relocated to the nearby artificial turfs of Shorewood High School and Bradley Tech, replacing the dreadful grass surface of the lakefront with smooth, fast-running synthetic fields. Although sliding and falling on turf tends to perniciously affect one’s skin, the positive results of having a consistent and even surface underfoot are more than worth the perpetual scrape on one’s vulnerable “cheeks”.

The first half of the Black and Gold game saw both squads maintain a fairly disciplined defensive structure, while simultaneously trying to probe the opposition for potential weak links in backline organization. The Gold team struck first when Evan (Bartzis) intercepted an errant pass out of the back and neatly slotted the ball into the left corner. By the end of the first half it was obvious our match fitness wasn’t quite up to par. Weariness and disorganization led to sloppy shape, but neither side was able to capitalize further.

Fans that stuck around for the full 90 minutes were rewarded with a flurry of goals towards the end of the game. The score remained 1-0 far into the second half before Evan netted his second off a well-placed cross from Pedro (Mejia). Shortly after, Ross (Van Osdol) struck a shot right outside the eighteen which took a menacing deflection off a Black player and sailed into the net, putting the Gold team three goals up. In the last minute of play the Black team gained some level of consolation as (Eric) Frazier was taken down in the box and converted the penalty kick, stealing the shutout from the Gold team with about 15 seconds left on the clock. Overall, the effort and excitement on both sides was promising, and positive aspects, offensively and defensively, can be taken from our outing under the lights.

After a light session the following morning we departed for southern Illinois. We watched footage of the Black and Gold game on the six-hour bus ride, reaching Edwardsville in the early evening. Our session planned for that night at the game field was canceled due to electrical difficulties, so we enjoyed an unexpected chance to relax.

The next day’s build-up to game time exemplified our customary rituals leading up to kick-off. Following an early morning breakfast we tour the field, than return to the hotel to sleep, eat our pregame meal and indulge in any other individual idiosyncrasies. Personally, I enjoy clearing my head by reading a good book or listening to music, usually something introspective like Bob Dylan or The Arcade Fire. Appropriately, as game time nears my music selection changes. Something a little more upbeat gets me ready for the field, more along the lines of The Doors, Metallica or The Who.

SIU Edwardsville only became Division I in the last two years, but their quality of play certainly proves they’re worthy of the highest collegiate level. They are a strong possession team, capable of keeping the ball for long periods of time in their defensive third. However, they struggle going forward and many times their fixation with possession becomes detrimental. They spent much of the first half knocking the ball around with short, quick passes, yet failed to penetrate more than a few times. Unfortunately, one such attempt succeeded and we found ourselves down 1-0 at halftime.

In the second half we reestablished our defensive tenacity and organization, denying SIUE from hitting even one shot on goal. Offensively, we were able to capitalize on a veritable flurry of opportunities. (Andrew) Wiedebach hit the equalizer in emphatic fashion with a diving header, audaciously throwing himself into the scrum of defenders and flying cleats at the top of the six. A few cuts under the eye were well worth the effort. The goal seemed to galvanize us further and we dominated play for the rest of the game. Shortly after the first goal, Evan connected with a beautiful cross from Aaron Gibbons that put us up 2-1. We missed a few late chances that could have given us a more resounding victory, but the result was well earned.

We emerged from the postgame showers to an ominous looking sky. Clouds coalesced into ever-larger masses, contrasting sharply with the light gray backdrop of the oncoming night. The stadium lights, now highlighting emptiness and silence, still gleamed bright on the field; the previous activity that shook this small, illuminated rectangle in the expansive ocean of darkness surrounding it had abated. The faint outlines of nearby fields enclosed the stadium and the distant downtown of St. Louis shone with the hazy ambience of smog and electricity.

I wonder how many places around the country I’ve stood outside an idling coach bus, with its warning lights flashing as we load up our gear, and reflected on the game that’s just completed. I always call my parents and my girlfriend, letting them know how the game went and how I played. Usually, there are a dozen or so other players, all dressed in our matching traveling garb, doing exactly the same thing. From a rural grass field surrounded by standing corn or picked soybeans to a decrepit parking lot in some downtown metropolis, it’s always the same. The scene would seem strange and surreal if I hadn’t become accustomed to it over the past three years. Individuals, clad in all black, their hands stuck to their ears drowning out the background noise and sheltering the garbled phone call of some far-away voice, each stamping out a five by five circle of grass or gravel or pavement. It looks like some strange cultish ritual, a choreographed dance to appease the gods. Random gesticulations and erratic rises in volume or tone reinforce this picture, although I know we’re merely describing the past two hours with any remaining bit of energy. Eventually, each person ends their conversation and slowly trickles into the waiting bus to collapse on the multi-colored, musty seats.

The ride home after a victory is always more lively and enjoyable. Sometimes we sing chauvinistic school anthems or watch some sophomoric, lighthearted comedy, reveling in the simplistic, slapstick humor that allows us to simply lie back and tacitly absorb. It’s difficult to get comfortable on these seats, especially with multiple areas of your body begging for a soft, forgiving place to rest. I crumple up my UWM sweatshirt to serve as a pillow and hope the overwhelming desire to sleep can overcome the persistent aching in my limbs. My ipod serves as both nightlight and bedtime story, and I’m able to gradually drift off into the arms of mindless sleep…

“I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail,
Poisoned in the bushes and blown out on the trail,

Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn.

Come in, she said, I’ll give you, shelter from the storm.”
-Bob Dylan

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Welcoming the 2009 season...

Nicholas Gerard-Larson, a senior on the 2009 Milwaukee men's soccer team, will be blogging all season long on the UWM website. Today is his first blog entry.


It’s August and the fun is all over. Languid days on the beach and late nights at outdoor music festivals are things of the past. It’s preseason, and our previous boredom and nonchalance has quickly been replaced.

While the rest of the nation argues over economic decisions, health care reform and Michael Jackson’s drug overdose, we turn our thinking to far more simplistic issues. Our immediate problems tend to be confined to completing six-mile runs without getting lost or fighting back the ever-increasing urge to vomit during a stair and hill workout. We’ve already been here for several weeks, sweating out the inactivity of the summer months and preparing for the approaching season.

Captains’ practice generally begins at the end of July and serves as a fitting precursor to the start of regular training with the coaches. While much of our workouts focus on regaining and boosting fitness, in particular stamina and speed, we also try to begin laying down the foundations of structure and team dynamics that accompany our training sessions throughout the season. Some of the players may grumble about long fitness days or early wake-ups, but few argue when we play a full game of 90 minutes, whether or not it’s at the crack of dawn.

No matter the fitness plan for the day, I usually keep a fairly sanguine outlook. I’m one of those undeniably strange characters that gets up at 6 a.m. to run 10 miles as the sun comes up. Or takes his dog for a three-hour bike ride in a nearby park during the middle of a tumultuous downpour. Exercise and strenuous activity keep me sane. I don’t know how else to explain it. There’s nothing more satisfying than pushing the body and mind to exhaustion and collapse. While this may seem unnatural, even deranged, I encourage those of you who don’t understand the inner exploration and extensive self-reflection of extended activity to give the experience a chance. Anyways, returning to Milwaukee at preseason time never really struck me as something to dread or worry about, but rather simply signaled the start of another season of effort and self-sacrifice.

August is also an excellent time for the incoming freshmen to start the process of college acculturation. This can be hostile and unforgiving at times, but arriving here a month early tends to properly prepare most of our rookies. Important tasks like laundry duty and equipment transportation greatly aid in building character. It is a necessary and unavoidable experience and all of us have gone through this period of adaptation and realignment.

The arrival of organized and disciplined practices with the coaches is widely greeted with both relief and trepidation. While strictly fitness sessions are now figments of the past and ball work occupies significant portions of each practice, even more of our lives fall under the cracking whip of Panther soccer. Sessions get longer, team meals and tactics meetings intrude on spare time and the body undergoes increasingly merciless beatings at the hands of one’s teammates.

But it’s all worth it when you step onto Engelmann Field, with the clean-cut grass glistening under newly-formed dew, under the lights, in front of several thousand fans, with a cool breeze blowing up off the lake, reminding you why you submit to the purgatory of preseason every year.