Practice started off with sprints, followed by the dreaded beep test, which, if you've never seen it in person, looks positively grueling. A quick drill set up against practice dummies (4-2-1) lead into a 10-v-10 scrimmage.
Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair: For the first time since preseason training began, the sounds of clicking cameras and dragging tripods intermingled with the chirps and shouts that emanated from the players on the pitch. Alex Morgan has indeed arrived, her army of Twitter followers and media trailing behind her. Until (if) Tobin Heath arrives in May/June, we have our Thorns FC squad finally intact, at least until next week, when the Canadian and US national team players light out for their respective international friendlies.
So, what was it like, finally seeing Baby Horse galloping right next to Canadian thoroughbred Christine Sinclair?
It was pretty awesome, actually. I've seen Morgan play many times in person, three of those times against Sinclair's Canadian team, and witnessed both of the two stars' mastery, but I've never spent an entire match honed in on them exclusively. So I focused mainly on the pair during the 10 v. 10 scrimmage that took up the latter half of practice.
I've always wondered how on earth opposing teams allow Morgan to get so open, so often. You'd think they'd be fully aware of the threat she poses and stick to her. It's one thing to be beaten by her speed; it's another just to lose track of your mark. The phenomenon made more sense upon seeing her play up close. Morgan sort of floats through the defense, cruising through seams in the back line, doubling back, curlique-ing, and then, suddenly, blasting goalward with a quick burst of speed. She lulls defenses to sleep, and then she becomes their nightmare.
Sinclair works a little differently. She's too much of a presence to slip through the backline so sneakily. Sinclair's more one of those players who you know is that good, you know is right there, and she still beats you. It's hard to find a fault in her skill set--she is fast, smart, strong, technical, an underrated passer (head coach Cindy Parlow Cone notes this often) and, obviously, has a finishing foot like a rifle. The boom after the ball leaves her foot is like the report of a 30-06 --lasting and scary.
The scrimmage featured an interchange involving the two that was a flash, one would think, of things to come. Accepting a pass around midfield, Morgan sent a perfect ball to Sinclair, who was charging about 15 yards upfield. Sinclair executed some nifty footwork to outduel Rachel Buehler, then passed laterally to midfielder Angie Kerr, who one-timed it to a wide-open Morgan in front of the goal. Veteran goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc made a nice kick save on Morgan's shot, but, boy, did the offensive execution look good.
"I'm hoping that come this season, we'll know each other a lot better, we'll have good rhythm," Morgan said after the 20-minute 10 v. 10 session. "I've played with Sinc before in Buffalo, and we've played against each other plenty of times, so I think that we anticipate each other really well and it's just bringing those midfielders in with us and finding that rhythm with them."
Angie Kerr: Much of the dummy drill and offensive work has involved the intertwining work of Morgan, Sinclair, and Kerr. So far Kerr's presences has been lagging just behind the two forwards--almost a hybrid middie/forward--distributing the ball and acting as the fulcrum in a triangle-type passing scheme. The deeper we get into preseason, the more obvious it becomes that she's going to be an important component of the offense. So far she's seemed pretty up to the task, especially on that pretty one-touch setup to Morgan.
Versatility: A key component of this team's success is going to be its ability to shapeshift. "Right now we're moving players around a lot." Parlow Cone said after practice. "We change it a little bit every day, just to see different people in different positions. Because with such a small roster and you never know who's going to be injured we like to have a visual now of where players can possibly play."
That's Parlow-Cone's strategy right now in terms of positioning and the roster, but it sounds the philosophy will carry over to players' decision-making on the field. "I'm fine with a right back becoming a center mid and a center mid becoming a right back and our forward mid and our mid becoming a forward," she said. "That's the great thing about these players that we have on this roster is that they are comfortable playing different positions, so if someone makes an overlapping run, they have no problem filling in behind."
Beep Test: Parlow Cone gave Morgan, who basically arrived at Jeld-Wen straight off the tarmac, the choice of opting out of this awful-looking fitness test, but Morgan wanted to run it and did, "like the true professional that she is," as Parlow Cone put it. "[The beep test] was a fun welcome," Morgan quipped after training.
Of the 18 players running the test (goalkeepers were exempt), Rachel Buehler lasted the longest of the allocated players. Kerr and fellow midfielder Becky Edwards were the final two players, with Edwards ending up the last woman standing. Or sprinting, as it were.