Real Salt Lake coach Freddy Juarez hasn’t been passing the time in the same way as many others around Major League Soccer since COVID-19 forced the league to suspend operations.
Sure, the first-year coach is watching movies on Netflix and spending time with family. But you won’t see him juggling toilet paper or doing a pushup challenge or dancing in a TikTok video — at least not in public.
Instead, Juarez is spending his time in quarantine the only way a man who constantly thinks about soccer would: studying, learning, preparing.
He’s tasked each of his assistants to develop tactical game plans for two teams, and will continue to do so until they have one for every MLS team. Usually, preparing those plans comes down to him and maybe one other assistant.
He asked two coaches he knows to prepare video reports on RSL’s first two games. He returned a favor for their teams.
Juarez said his staff is also producing individual development plans for the club’s younger players. The IDPs had always been planned but couldn’t be completed because they are time consuming and the team has many young players on its roster, he said.
While all this preparation could potentially put Juarez and RSL ahead of the curve if and when MLS returns from its coronavirus-caused hiatus, the coach has anecdotal evidence that his team isn’t the only one putting in extra work.
“We’re doing a lot of things, [but] I don’t know if it’s any different than what most are doing now,” Juarez said. “So maybe [we’re] looking for an edge, but I think really it’s just making sure we’re keeping up with everyone else, that we’re still trying to better the team one way or another.”
Juarez, his staff and his players are preparing in this way in order to stay as engaged as possible. The MLS was only two games deep when the season was brought to a sudden halt. Now, that fitness, sharpness, chemistry and hunger the team spent preseason building is in jeopardy of declining.
There are couple of things to consider, however, when it comes to RSL and the rest of the league putting all this extra time everyone suddenly has into deep analysis. For one, it might be all for naught.
Each MLS team has played only two games. That might not be a big enough sample size for a deep dive on the types of teams that hit their strides in the middle or even late portions of a season. In the past few years, RSL has been a second-half team.
But Juarez thinks there are enough base tendencies out there from which RSL can learn from and apply to game plans in the future. He brought up Sporting Kansas City as an example of a team that has had a clear identity for years.
“All this homework that we’re doing right now, in the middle of the season could potentially not even help us,” Juarez said. “But I think there’s always a base of every team that you can figure out. Now it’s just the tangibles as the season goes on, what little tweaks that they did that you have to make sure you’re ready for.”
The other consideration is there are several teams in the league — RSL included — that came into the 2020 season with significant changes. Juarez is a new coach, there are several new players on the roster, and the front office experienced an overhaul.
Other teams in the league are in positions where their rosters and coaching staffs are much more stable. Because of that, those teams might not be as far behind as teams like RSL, Juarez said.
“New teams that came in with new coaches possibly complicate this because you’re still trying to establish a rhythm and educate the players,” Juarez said. “The teams that already have a style of play established, they can go almost just go as if nothing happened.”
Juarez does think the extra studying teams are doing will lead to more tactical plans once play resumes, making the on-field product look a little differently than in the past. But at the same time, if the league attempts to finish the full schedule by playing multiple three-games-in-seven-days sets, only the most basic of those concepts might be discussed, Juarez said.
“I think coaches are going to be very educated and very prepared,” Juarez said. “The difference there is who can apply it and not and what teams can carry it out.”