Matt Beard had a hell of a challenge waiting for him in America when he became the new head coach of the Boston Breakers. The team was not in a good place, either on the table, or in terms of headspace. Beard had to transition quickly, as he joined up with the team just before the 2016 college draft. Then came the preparation for preseason, a handful of scrimmages, which tripped into a tough opening stretch of games. Things might have picked up a bit in the second half of the season, and Natasha Dowie was certainly a spark of light, but Boston still ended things at the bottom of the table.
“You can start to see certain improvements but I’m not gonna lie, I’m frustrated with myself,” said Beard last week, before the team played their last game of the season against the Western New York Flash. “It’s taken me too long to adjust to - not the league, forget the league - but the culture over here of what it’s like to run a team.”
Part of that culture difference for Beard was managing his expectations for young players based on his experiences in England. “A young player to me is 16, 17, 18,” he said. “So look at the under-20s in this invitational tournament as an example for USA in comparison to England.” Beard was referencing the NTC invitational, in which the United States U-20s faced South Korea, England, and Brazil, coming out with two losses and a 0-0 draw.
“These kids in England now are getting good quality coaching from good quality clubs, from good quality coaches at a young age. Under 9, under 11, 13...my worry for America is they’re gonna be far behind as a national team in four years’ time. Because now [the U20s] are doing exactly what these girls are doing here. The rookie players, I would do things completely different with them because technically and physically, they can cope with the demands of the league, but tactically, they struggle a little bit coming into it. So from that side of things I need to do more work with them.”
But that need to manage his players’ development was also part of the problem for Beard, whose coaching staff fluctuated throughout the year. “It’s difficult when you’re doing virtually everything yourself to a certain extent,” he said. “What has to happen is we need more resources as a pro team.”
Beard was unprepared for the transition from having a full staff to having to make do in many areas. “The biggest thing for me, as a coach, at Liverpool and at Chelsea, I’ve been in control of our environment,” he said, then gave an example. “Here we had an external fitness partner.... Stadium Performance is a fantastic facility. It gets players fit, it gets players strong, it gets players healthy. But the difference for me was of the first six games, in three of them we had players going into the games fatigued when we shouldn’t have done.... It’s a big learning curve when you go from one culture where you’ve got your own assistant, you’ve got your own goalkeeper coach, you’ve got your own analyst, you’ve got your own sport scientist, you’ve got your own phsyio, that’s a big thing. Here, I had me, I had Doc [assistant coach Dushawne Simpson] and Cat [Whitehill] that were part time. I didn’t even have a sport scientist, I didn’t have an analyst. So all of a sudden you’re doing everything.... that was one of the biggest things that caught me by surprise that I had to adjust to, and it took me longer than I should’ve done.”
It wasn’t just the coaching staff that fluctuated, it was also the roster itself. “As we went through the season, when we lost Whitney [Engen], and obviously McCall [Zerboni] went, we lost a little bit of steel in front of the back four and it caused us problems,” he said. Naturally that begs the question of how you fix up the roster. Natasha Dowie was a good first step.
“I think if you look at the start of the season, I was pleased with how we were playing defensively but we just wasn’t crossing the line,” Beard said. “So if we had Natasha Dowie at the start of the season, maybe one of them one-nil defeats early on - what was it, four out of five where we lost one-nil? - potentially could have been a one-nil to us or a one-one.”
But Dowie can’t change everything on her own, which Beard affirmed. “I think we need more. We need more than one.... Look at Chicago, they’ve got Christen Press. I really like that Colaprico, I think she’s a hell of a player. Look at Portland, they’re inundated with international players, not just American. That’s something that we haven’t had. We lose one or two players to injuries, like we had the situation with both goalkeepers being injured.... My plan is to build a core of players, I feel I’ve got a core here already, that’s if they decide they want to be here, and we build around that core. We do need more players that can change games.”
To that end, Beard has been reviewing options since before the end of the season, not just in terms of the draft (Boston currently holds the #1 pick in 2017), but also in terms of trades within the league and bringing in new internationals. But they can’t just be any internationals; they have to be adaptable to the particular needs of an American club.
“You’ve got to be athletic to play in this league,” said Beard. “You have to be aggressive. I think one of the biggest things for me is I want to bring players in that are international players that are playing for their national teams and we’re working hard on that right now. I want to improve the 11.”
Which national teams? Beard wouldn’t say for sure. “We’re looking all over. We’re not specifying one league. It’s difficult to bring English players in because if they’re England internationals they get a central contract. If they leave England then they don’t get that money, and that’s probably more than they would earn here. And that’s just with the national team.... We are having to look at Scandinavia, we’re looking across the board, Germany...Japan.”
Beard hinted at some possible moves in the draft too. “I feel with the way the draft works out for us, it gives me a little bit of flexibility with utilizing some of the picks that we’ve got, because there’s some teams that don’t have a lot of picks....”
But first, Beard will assess his current roster. “I’ve sat down with everyone probably six to eight weeks ago,” he said. “Ultimately the team hasn’t performed as it should have done this year. It hasn’t performed over the two previous seasons, so there has to be change. I just want players to be honest with me. If they want to be part of that change and move in the right direction, fantastic, and if we want them, then we would like them to stay. But if a player comes to me and says look, they’ve been here for three years and they feel they need something fresh then that's something that we‘ll look at. There’s no point keeping players here that don’t want to be here.”
After he knows what he has, Beard will know more specifically what he needs. “We’ve got probably three to four players in each position that we like,” he said. “You’re not gonna get all them players of course because that’s how it works, but we need to have a plan in place, we need to have players that we like identified that can play in the way that I want us to play. Then we’ll go from there and we’ll work our way through the list and we’ll continue to improve the team.”
Okay fix the roster. What else? Better preseason prep for one. “Only having a four week preseason for me was a big shock,” said Beard. “We didn’t play enough games. I know we had that one that was postponed that was a doubleheader which really did affect our preseason plans but you can’t obviously legislate for the weather. I definitely would do preseason differently. We were playing catch up in those first run of games and I think you could see that.”
Beard seems to have a decent plan in place for the immediate and longer-term future based on his experiences in season one. Of course there were things he would have done differently, starting with his very first day meeting with the team. “I didn’t realize how fragile the group were collectively,” he said. “You don’t know. You come in, you think it’s fresh.... The one thing that I might definitely do next year, I mean we sat down on our first day and we spoke about obviously discipline and we spoke about being ambitious and doing the right things. We spoke about if you get to 33 points you get into the playoffs and I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have even mentioned the word playoffs. Because as much as it’s good to have ambition, we finished bottom, and bottom of the second last two years.... So right away I’ve probably put them under pressure. As much as I wanted them to have a positive mindset and go into it thinking that we can achieve that, I shouldn’t have done it.”
Beard regretted that that emotional false start to the season might have altered how he dealt with team management. “Maybe I changed the way that I generally would deal with players because of that,” he said. “Felt like I had to put my arm round certain players or round the team at times when they probably should have got a rollicking. But I’ve learned from that experience now and I think that’s the key thing. If I don’t learn personally, then we’re gonna be in the same position next year.”
Along with his regrets, he was honest about his own future with the team. “If I don’t do well next year, then I’m out of a job aren’t I. There’s no two ways about it,” he said, but with the attitude of someone who has accepted that challenge. And he has evidence to back up the professional assessment that he could do the job. “One thing that I can take heart from is that I know, my experience at Liverpool, I had six months there. I only had a couple of months in the back end of the season, but then I had a good time in the offseason to change things. I’ve got longer to do that here this time round. And the result of [Liverpool’s offseason] was the next season we won the [FA WSL] title. We won that league title against a team that had Kim Little, that had Katie Chapman, that had Gemma Davison, Ellen White, Steph Houghton.”
Beard shrugged off the word “optimism” during the interview. Perhaps a better term is “forward looking.” Beard now knows the landscape better, and he knows what’s at stake. Perhaps that refusal to talk about hope in favor of talking about what needs to be done is a good sign, especially as he brought it all back to his position as head coach. “I know from my perspective now that I’ve got a big job on my hands next year,” he said. “There’s no ‘oh it’s his first year’ and get that little bit of leeway, especially from the fans at times this year. I know that I’ve got to perform, myself.”