Boston Breakers head coach Matt Beard arrived in Boston knowing that he would be taking over a team with a losing record that had had some difficulties in the past couple of seasons.
But he got much more than that, as the Breakers started off the season with a player who needed to go on the long-term injury list before they’d ever had their first practice in Sinead Farrelly, and then got hit with a season-ending knee injury for goalkeeper Abby Smith, who was looking like a strong competitor for the starting spot. Then McCall Zerboni had to be traded away to the Flash, and then Kristie Mewis picked up a nagging ankle injury. There’s been games that were plain unlucky with balls off the woodwork and clearances off the line, and there’s been games that have just been really really bad, like the 7-1 loss to the Western New York Flash.
How do you keep the team from crumbling after a loss like that? How do you convince them the rest of the season is worth playing when the first half has gone so abysmally? Well, first you let yourself have your feelings. Coming back from Rochester was not a pleasant experience.
“Oh it was horrible,” Beard said after practice on Wednesday. “It's like probably the lowest point in my football career. We had an eight-hour coach journey, which we stayed there the night after the game, so I think a lot of people done some soul searching. It was a very horrible atmosphere after that.”
Ok, you’ve been in your feelings. Then you acknowledge the game for what it was, which Beard did with frank honesty.
“Nah listen, it was embarrassing,” he said. “You know I said to the girls after the game I felt numb. I've never been involved with a game like that in all my life. We just didn't stick to the principles of what we had spoken about game-playing wise that day and that was the biggest frustrating thing for me. We spoke about it at half time and we actually made changes obviously to stop them getting more, and that's something I don't want our team to be about. I want our team to be about hard work and not giving up. But as I say it's going to be interesting to see how we respond to what happened, and to be fair we have had a good week's training and we've had a bit of an open up and bit of a heart to heart.”
He didn’t go into detail about what they discussed in that heart to heart, only calling it an “open conversation.”
“I opened up about one or two things, the players opened up about one or two things. They've responded really well in training this week, the mood’s been good, the vibe's been good, the intensity of the training’s been fantastic.”
Earlier in the season, Beard said in a post-game presser that part of his job was getting his players to believe that they even could win again, as a first step to turning the team around. But how do you do that, after two losing seasons in a row, finishing next-to-last and then dead last in the table? How do you do that when this season still isn’t going well and the losses are piling up again?
“Look, no one wants to lose games. We don't want to lose games,” said Beard. “And it's difficult coming in every Monday to go through the clips and you've lost the games and you've had some really good chances to score a goal or win a game and it's difficult. That's what I mean, it’s trying to get that balance for me to, you know, do I have a go and will that affect their confidence even more? So as I say it's a different mentality out here, it's a different league and these first 10 games have been the toughest of my football career without a shadow of a doubt. But as long as I'm given time I know I’ll turn this club round and I know we'll have a successful team. Just going through a bit of a poor period at the moment which I'm confident we will turn round.”
Managing player confidence is a balancing act, one that requires Beard to consider his options depending on whether they’re in the middle of a game or on the practice pitch. He’s had to take different tacks to players at different times, and he spoke reflectively of everything he and the team have gone through so far.
“In Chicago I was unhappy at halftime and I let them know that. Obviously I was disappointed with the performance at Western New York especially. What, it was 38 minutes we get it to 2-1 and then by 45 minutes it's 5-1. So there was no point to going into that dressing room and losing the plot with them because what was that going to do? I've tried different things. I've tried putting my arm round them, I've tried to have a go at them, and I just think at the moment we're not in a position where we can lose our best players to injury because if you think about it, I've got Libby Stout out, Abby Smith, McCall's gone, Sinead Farrelly out injured, Kristie Mewis is out injured. We're just not in a position where we can lose five or six players to injury with the depth of the squad that we have at the moment so from that perspective it's been real tough.”
Part of his strategy seems to be keeping a distinct routine. When asked if he reacts by gauging the mood of the room, he was quick to deny it.
“No, not at all. We still do the same things that we do every week. So we’ll review the games, we’ll show clips of who we’re playing, we'll show them reports, we do that early on in the week. We then work what we need to work on for that particular game. We start to change one or two things, do a little bit more development stuff, cause I feel maybe the knowledge and like the soccer brains aren't what they should be. That's something that sort of I'm having to go back to what you would do with academy players, talking about where they should be on the pitch, etcetera etcetera.”
Part of the problem was also Beard’s own workload, which the Breakers helped solve by bringing in a sport scientist in Julian Haigh.
“He's starting to make a big difference from a conditioning point of view on a day to day basis which I think is clearly important,” said Beard. “You know, I made that clear from day one that you need the correct support staff around the head coach to get the best out of the players. I can get players fit but I can't get them fit like a sport scientist can. As I say we're at a point now where with Julian coming in has sort of freed me up a little bit because I felt like I was a sport scientist, a head coach, an analyst all rolled into one. It's difficult to balance all of them.”
So where does that leave the team? Beard seemed realistic about the circumstances, if slightly frustrated at just how many things had accumulated not in the Breakers’ favor.
“For me I didn't want this year to be a transitional year. I didn’t expect to be in the position that we're in. I'm not gonna lie, but I didn't expect the Farrelly and McCall thing to go the way that it did, and that's hurt us big time from that perspective because we've lost a potential national team player in the middle of the park, we've lost McCall, but I can't keep a player at a club that's threatening to retire and that's not happy here. You know, I've got to do what's best for the club but it's hurt us in the short term because we didn't expect Kristie to be out as long as she has done.”
For all that, Beard also seems to be keeping his head up. As he was recalling how bad it felt to lose in Rochester, he also came at it from a more philosophical angle that showed he’s aware what the stakes are for everyone involved.
“But you know sometimes, it might sound stupid but, sometimes you have to go through something like that for you to realize and to make sure that you step up to the plate. I think everyone probably, including myself, the way the results have been we're all fighting for our futures here. The group of players now have got to show that they want to wear the shirt and they've got to show me that they want to wear the shirt and I've got to show the owners and the general manager that I'm capable of doing the job that I know I'm capable of doing.”
The Boston Breakers continue their series of road games this weekend as they face Seattle away on Saturday, July 2 at 10 PM ET.