Walk by a football coach's office in the fall, and you're likely to see a thick binder on the desk, emblazoned with the name of that week's opponent. That binder contains that week's game plan, and it's the result of hours of video study, scouting reports, and breakdowns that result in an almost militaristic report of the best way to defeat the upcoming enemy. Basketball teams depend on similar preparations. Many baseball teams have video stations that allow players to study upcoming pitchers and hitters. The overarching idea in those sports is to leave nothing to chance.
For the Minnesota United FC coaching staff, though, weekly preparations are less about the opponent, and more about their own team. Said player/assistant coach Kevin Friedland, "In terms of an overall game plan, we typically like to do our thing, and hopefully then they have to adjust. I would say most teams kind of come out with a similar plan. "
Head coach Manny Lagos thinks that the closest sport to soccer, in terms of preparation, might be hockey. In hockey, the team prepares by working on its own skills, and while they might study certain set plays for other teams, the game itself is, in Lagos's words, "more instinctual."
The week begins with a look back by the coaching staff at the previous week's game. "We try as a coaching staff to absorb some of the things that the game before presented - challenges, places we want to get better, things that we did really well," said Lagos.
In many ways, the United coaching staff focuses more on correcting problems, rather than preparing. While Lagos notes that they don't want to dwell on the past, much of the coaching time is devoted to minimizing the team's own errors, rather than concentrating on the opponent.
Said Friedland, "First, between Manny, [assistant coach] Carl [Craig], and myself, we all kind of look at the game that we previously played, we look at the errors that we made, and the good things that we did. We talk about the mistakes that may have happened, and we try to fix those during the week. As we get into to the weekend, closer to playing the next opponent, I think we start to talk about the opponent, watching their last couple games, kind of identifying their shape, and how they like to play... I don’t think it’s as in depth as you see in some other sports - football, even basketball."
Taking away video study from coaches in other sports would be akin to cutting off their air supply, but according to Friedland, Minnesota doesn't spend a lot of time on it, at least as a squad. "As a team we don’t do a lot of video," he said. "Video is something that some coaches are really into, some are not. As a staff we watch a lot of the video, and there are times where Manny will bring in a player at a time, maybe a couple of players together to talk about certain instances from the last game... But we don’t typically have whole-team video sessions. We have had some in the past, but we don’t do it often."
The game plan itself comes down to a few basic conversations, especially about set pieces, as well as players to watch from other teams. Said Friedland, "We typically look at their what they do on set pieces, highlighting maybe some of what we consider their standout players or special players."
Friedland, who has the added advantage of being a player as well as a coach, also said that he'll use his past experiences against teams to inform what he's doing, and will warn players to watch out for certain things - for example, if a team likes to take short corner kicks, rather than swinging the ball all the way into the penalty area.
Perhaps the best explanation of why the team has no overstuffed game plan, though, comes from Friedland the veteran defender, not Friedland the coach - who knows that sometimes, its best to focus inward. "You can plan so much for the other guy that you’re kind of not worrying about yourself," he said. "You’re so worried about what they’re going to do that you’re not taking care of your own game."