Monday, February 02, 2009

Back to business

Within the confines of a rural indoor sports complex, a collection of twenty odd professional footballers convene on a large green carpet, stretch their muscles, and kick around dozens of soccer balls for the first time this year.

Yes, the New England Revolution, under the guidance of manager Steve Nicol and his assistant Paul Mairner, return to their pitch away from home this morning, the first of many winter training sessions that await in 2009.

Though many professional athletes grow accustomed to a lifestyle that offers the best of the best - facilities, equipment, amenities - there is something completely unglamorous about the scene. The turf feels like a thick-bristled welcoming mat. The locker rooms are a five minute drive away, up north at Gillette Stadium. Heck, there aren't even benches.

Giving further humility to all involved, an old, musty smell permeates the entire complex. The cold New England air pervades through walls and ceiling. Journalists and spectators grip their hot coffees close. It is dark due to the low-voltage lights that hang above, giving it the all the atmosphere of a Soviet missile silo.

As usual, there are the familiar faces. There always are when it comes to a club who's employee turnover is comparable to that of Google's. Shalrie Joseph, Steve Ralston and Taylor Twellman are back. So are Jay Heaps and Matt Reis. All have painfully fallen short of MLS Cup glory on multiple occasions. In the back of their minds, they must wonder: will this finally be our year?

Sprinkled among the veterans, you'll also find a fresh crop of players all readying to make their professional debuts. There's first-round pick Kevin Alston running laps with his new mates, along with Zack Simmons defending a backyard-sized goal and Ryan Maxwell limbering up. They'll soon realize - if they haven't already - that this isn't college anymore. No more four month seasons. Goodbye, cute co-eds and frat parties. It's ten months of straight soccer from here on out.

And sometimes, amid all the familiar faces, distinct voices, and practical jokes, you begin to notice those who's not here.

Michael Parkhurst's mop of dark hair is bouncing around a Danish training ground. Khano Smith's mischievous laugh cannot be heard from Seattle. The strong-legged Adam Cristman is busy battling defenders in Barbeque City. The jokes that the affable Doug Warren cracked are missing. The absence of these familiar personalities are sharp reminder that no team, not even the Revolution, can stay together forever.

But there's no sense on dwelling on it. There is work to do.

Mariner gathers a group of lads to one corner to work on abdominal exercises. There, they lie on the backs, point their toes toward the ceiling, reach for them, forcing them to flex their cores. Back down. Up again. Back down. Up again...

Nicol takes another group for passing drills. Five players form a crude, close-quartered pentagon. The ball is traded with alacrity between alternating players. One player - a rookie - stands in the middle, desperately trying to disrupt the flow of the game.

Goalkeeper coach Gwynne Williams tutors his charges. He peppers their large leather mitts with close-fire. They sprawl. They leap. They get whacked in the face.

Despite all of the action, it's still early for full scrimmages. So, after an hour and a half of stretching, drills, and running, the players retreat to the cramped sidlelines and down a variety of colored sports drinks. Minutes later, after the sweat evaporates, the cold hits them. They quickly don their long, oversized winter jackets. Some chat with reporters. Others escape quietly to the exit, where team caravans are idling outside in the parking lot.

And thus, the closing bell has rung for the first of many Revolution preseason training sessions. The players, coaches, staffers and journalists will be here back tomorrow, ready to do it all over again. And again in the days and weeks thereafter, until the first day of spring - March 21st -affords them the real thing.

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