Photo via Rhinossoccer.com
Ahead of tonight’s US Open Cup match between the Union and the Rochester Rhinos, PSP spoke with Rhinos head coach Jesse Myers about the coach’s role on a team, preparing his squad for a MLS opponent, veteran leadership, and how the evolution of Major League Soccer has affected leagues like USL. Myers is in his first year as Rhinos head coach after spending 14 years involved in almost every aspect of the Richmond Kickers’ organization. The Rhinos were the last team outside of MLS to win the US Open Cup (1999).
PSP: What did you expect when you came in to Rochester from a successful club like Richmond?
Well Rochester, if you look at it, probably has the best history in the United States of the past 30 years in lower level professional soccer. The only team to win the US Open Cup, three championships, but soccer is changing over the past few years and I’m not sure Rochester has changed with the times. They’ve tried, and they’re getting there. And they’ve got the new stadium – obviously six years old – but the management now totally understands that it’s a different game.
No longer can you get $1500 to live in Philadelphia and get a developmental contract.
Our President [Pat Ercoli] was the coach of those Rochester teams that won all the championships. MLS has come a long way in 10 years and they just keep flying and moving forward. They already know who the best players are and spend more money. No longer can you get $1500 to live in Philadelphia and get a developmental contract. They’re weeding out over the years and figured out how to be successful and done a great job doing it.
So what kinds of adjustments do you have to make? Expanding your scouting network?
Yeah, it’s expanding the scouting network, one. Number two, understanding MLS rosters and if I can get a player on loan I have to take advantage of that. Seeing who gets dropped. We just have to be smarter. MLS doesn’t make many mistakes. I think they once did, in the late 90s.
With all that in mind, are you at all worried about your guys seeing a match at PPL as a chance in the spotlight and forgetting about playing a team game?
No, they’ve got a good mindset. They know what it’s about. If you can’t get excited to play the Union in a brand new grass stadium then you shouldn’t be here. My only concern right now is the rigors of our travel and four games in seven days. At some point the body can’t do that.
You have a lot of guys with international and MLS experience. Will this game be that different for your team?
So it’s a chance for them to say y’all made a mistake and I should be at the next level.
Obviously for our guys its a couple of things. It’s guys who want to be in MLS. A couple of our international guys, especially my goalie, are trying to use this as a stepping stone. There are guys who were in MLS camps or were drafted and not picked up. So it’s a chance for them to say y’all made a mistake and I should be at the next level.
And that goalie is Kristian Nichte?
“Neesh”. Was this what you expected out of him when you brought him into camp (6 clean sheets, 7-1-1 record, 0.22 GAA)?
What I’ve gotten out of him is tremendous leadership and a professional mindset that many young American players don’t have yet. They don’t have until they’ve experienced for a few years after college. That’s what he’s given us more than anything. Obviously he’s a very solid goalkeeper but he also brings in tons of maturity and leadership and he’s played in Bundesliga one and two, so…
Can you explain what you mean by that professional mindset?
It’s being in a professional environment for more than your college soccer season, which is three months. A lot of these guys train 5-6 days a week. Even in our league we play 6-7 months and… it’s not enough. But they’ve been doing it for years and years, they’ve done it in front of good crowds. The majority of my players have played in front of 40, 50, 60,000 people. It’s an environment that college soccer can’t give you.
Is leadership having the ability to pass those experiences and lessons on to younger guys?
It helps. Some kids grow up faster than others. Look at [Tam] McManus, he’s played in Scotland and scored against Celtic. Your young college kids haven’t experienced that. Even in MLS. So coming in as an underdog to a very good Philadelphia team is nothing new to these veterans.
When international players began arriving in the US, and even in MLS, there was a concern that they might not take the game seriously. Have you had to deal with anything like that?
No, no-no-no-no-no. Not ever. Not one of them has ever done that. They know. They’re here for a reason. A lot of international guys grew and came up through the ranks at smaller clubs. They know what lower level professional soccer is about. We don’t fly everywhere, we play back to back games.
We drove to Harrisburg Thursday, played Harrisburg [City Islanders] Friday and drove seven hours to Dayton, played Dayton the next night, got back on the bus and drove back to Rochester, got in Sunday at 6am, got back on a bus Monday morning to come here. These guys understand the rigors of professional soccer.
Is it the kind of thing where you can almost turn the locker room over to these guys and let them handle it while you concentrate on tactics and planning?
That’s a good point. I do feel like I’ve got a good group so I am probably less hands on than I would be with a locker room of young kids, yes.
Is there anything special you tell guys, or anything you do to prepare them differently for a game like this? Any tactical changes?
I don’t think we’re going to do a whole lot different, to be honest with you. I’m gonna give them how I think the game will shake down and what I think we need to do to be successful because we’re not going to get the chances we get against our league opponents. And we’re not going to have the ball as much as we normally do. So we’re going to have to work that much harder to be successful.
I’m sure Coach Nowak is… what’s the word I want to say… not happy.
I know it’s going to sound surprising to a Philly guy like you, but I think the toughest team is going to be a wounded Philly team coming off a loss. I’m sure Coach Nowak is… what’s the word I want to say… not happy. And guys are going to have to be accountable now. Even more than they were before.
Jobs are on the line. Some of these guys making $50,000, they could be calling me and making two grand a month. It’s the wounded animal thing, and I think that’s what’s dangerous. And I think my guys know that.
So when you guys come out, if you can get a quick sucker punch goal against a team that hasn’t looked that confident on the ball this year it could really mess with their confidence. Is that something you want to see from your team?
If I come out and high press Philadelphia I think we’ll get killed. I think we need to stay in the framework of our game plan and the longer the game stays close the better chance we’ll have. If we go out and press the hell out of them in 90 degree weather then it becomes one or two nothing quick and you can forget about it.
If I come out and high press Philadelphia I think we’ll get killed.
I certainly don’t want to give them all the momentum early, but… If you look at the history of our league with MLS in the Open Cup, no team from our league has gone on the road and beaten a MLS team twice in one year. Then when I was with Richmond, it happened last year [Richmond beat Columbus 2-1 in the 3rd round, then beat Sporting KC 2-0 in the quarterfinals]. In Rochester, I think it’s almost a 50-50 game. On the road, it’s 80-20 proposition for the most part. So we just gotta be careful.
What is it exactly about the home atmosphere that really changes things?
It’s the environment. All over the world if you look at it, it’s your home, it’s not having to travel, it’s knowing your field and how it bounces. You’re always more comfortable at home. If you’re playing a MLS team in Rochester and you’re used to having 6,000 fans but now you have nine or 10,000, it’s a big plus.
Is there any system you’ve tried to bring with you in your first season with the Rhinos? Anything you’ve tried to impose?
I’ve tried to emphasize attacking and we can’t score goals. We haven’t done much defending and we don’ give up goals. It’s just the character of the players. In my mind it’s always harder to create chances to score goals than it is to organize and work hard.
If you are organized and work hard you’ll always give yourself a chance but at the end of the day you’ve gotta score goals. And that’s what we’ve struggled with. A lot of new guys in an attacking role for us, I think the ten guys I kept were all midfielders and defenders and the one forward I kept hasn’t played at all for us because he’s been injured.
When a new coach comes in, it’ll often be said he’s bringing in a new system. Is that really just a new way to create chances, a new method of attack?
I don’t think… or I haven’t found that there is a magic potion in soccer. I think a lot of coaches in soccer do things the exact same way when it comes to the tactical part of the game. The thing is in professional soccer, getting those players together and forming a team that you trust and trusts in you. It’s managing people in the professional game.
Look, I lived in Philadelphia, I coached in Philadelphia and I know the Philadelphia fan can be a bit impatient at times, but they’ll be fine.
I think the tactical thing, it’s something that most coaches have, I don’t think any coaches are that superior tactically, I think what it is is finding what works for you, finding the people that work for you. I think, and I could be wrong about this, that Peter likes younger players who work hard and his team is a make up of good young players. And it’ll take time. Look, I lived in Philadelphia, I coached in Philadelphia and I know the Philadelphia fan can be a bit impatient at times, but they’ll be fine. Just watch.
Especially impatient after such quick success?
No question. It’s a brand new franchise and it’s full of excitement and now it’s settled down a bit. But Peter’s trying to win and do it his way and he knows what types of players he likes to manage and he has a lot of good young players and it’s just a matter of getting them together. But they’ll be fine. They’ll be fine. If you remember the first DC United team that won it, they started out 0-8. Terrible. A lot of MLS teams start off so slowly but it’s a long haul in MLS.
Sure, same with Kansas City last year. It sounds like you’re saying that coaching is mostly psychological.
Absolutely. You’ve gotta be able to trust the people. If you can’t trust the people you’ve brought in then you brought in the wrong people. If I have to do a bed check at 11 o’clock every night then I’ve brought in the wrong people. Obviously you’re going to have some, but for the most part you have to be able to trust the people you bring in. At any job or company.