Feb. 9, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
In football there is often a correlation, during the course of a season, between the improvement in skills by individuals and overall success of the side. The correlation is ideally positive, meaning your kids are more easily and consistently able to translate what they have practiced on the training ground onto the game pitch, executing these maneuvers from muscle memory. Football is a distinctly technical game, along with the physical rigors.
On the other hand, if enough of the players cannot perform their passes, runs, and tackles to a satisfactory degree, i.e., fail to execute under pressure of the real game as opposed to the practice session, the results will usually come clear.
With that in mind, it could be said that the latest North outing, at home against Econ, illustrates that the work of Coach Elias Moran and his staff is starting to bear fruit. This year’s Cougar bunch was a relatively new crew coming in but is starting to show the positives from the training sessions, however few and truncated they have been in 2020-21, that the program has been able to partake in.
Moran was willing to share some of the trade secrets he has learned, both as a former player and now as a highy successful coach.
“I’m a big believer that as a soccer coach, I have to place a lot of emphasis on the cognitive aspects of the game,” he said. “How can I make a player smarter to understand what the game requires? I like to say that we do this by creating the proper training environment. Here, players are challenged every day to solve objectives. They will make mistakes, but I also like to clarify with everyone that every time they experience failure, on the next ball they get, that’s when learning is about to happen.”
The workouts, contrary to popular belief, consist of more than just running around kicking a ball. There’s a lot of mental/emotional action going on, too.
“As a coach, I like to provide multiple opportunities for players to accomplish some type of success during practice,” Moran explained. “I strongly believe that this increases their self-confidence. I tend to encourage my players, especially my wingers and forwards, to take risks on 1v1 opportunities and to challenge themselves to attack those spaces. I believe that it’s only when we take those risks that the real opportunities actually happen.”
The main case in point during the team’s 2-0 victory Tuesday over the Jags came in goal, where freshman Adrian Alvarez was challenged heavily at times by the onrushing foe, itself trying to launch up the learning curve this year after the graduation of 19 seniors. Every time the Jags ran into the attacking third, Alvarez had an answer, generally the right one, and he kept the clean sheet to help his Coog side increase its point accumulation to 17 and stay right in the District 31-6A race.
On one such sequence, Alvarez came roaring out of the goal mouth and realized en route that he was dangerously close to exiting the 18-yard box. With this knowledge, he continued out to meet a bounding ball (a Jaguar close behind it) and produce a quality kick-away out of touch. His mates got the chance to regroup for the restart, which was very important.
At another juncture, Alvarez, whom Moran says has all the makings of a top-flight keeper despite his youth, stayed on his line in a similar situation, reading the play and coming up with a catch on an Econ shot attempt. Staying put is sometimes tough to do for a green net minder; one has to assess quickly and commit to one ploy or the other, and the floppy-haired youngster is making great strides at doing so.
Moran is very pleased with his new charge in net.
“With Adrian, I am doing a lot of psychological work. The kid is tall, and physically fit, but he’s a fishy [freshman] and his mind is still at that level as well. I like to create scenarios of different field sizes where he can experience multiple shooting from different distances, speed, and power. This way, he has those chances to make his own decisions and learn from his mistakes.”
The Coogs are responding well. On the right flank, defender Juan Rodriguez is another Cougar who is short on fixtures played but not on ability or willingness to learn. He has improved his tackling ability as the season’s worn on, finding the right balance between the slide and the cut-off; a player who always goes to ground runs the risk of the foul, or worse, the dreaded yellow or red card, and sometimes it’s expedient to stay on the feet and close the space, or to stay between one’s goal and the man with the ball.
Rodriguez is exhibiting sharper positional control these days, and at least twice Tuesday employed the sideline as a guard against an approaching Jag, getting himself between the ball and the man well enough to come back upfield with possession.
While goals are usually the fan’s coin of the realm, obviously, such details in maneuver and tactic can be the deciding factor of a football match; this much has been a truism in the game for more than 100 years. Moran knows that part of his job is building relationships with the kids, as players and as young people.
“I also like to spend a couple of minutes with every player individually during practice,” he said. “I like to talk them about different things other than soccer. Just to pick up their enthusiasm and positive attitude. However, I like to focus for a moment, questioning them about their best performances. What exactly were they feeling in those moments? The point is to make them realize where their confidence comes from and use this learning in key moments of the game.
“At the same time, I like to ask the older players to be great role models of hard work and commitment. And in moments like for example Adrian’s game mistakes, to always be there for him to offer him support to keep going. I believe that the training environment that we have created helps a lot with our players’ personal growth. I really don’t believe in drills and placing 100 cones to pass the ball all over the place. I believe that the creation of game-related situations is the best teacher. I think that by creating scenarios that include objectives to solve; for example, switching the point of attack; offense/defense transitional moves; understanding the concepts of spreading out; overlapping; staying compact and staying disciplined while defending … will help the players have a better understanding of the game as a whole. Not just the direct game, or pelotazo.
The more practice time, the more learning, and also more camaraderie opportunities, Moran noted.
“When players’ brains are challenged every day, they obtain lots of learning experiences,” he concluded. “The best part is that we are also working the physical, technical, and tactical elements without even noticing. Just the fun of the game.”
The North victory was assured, along with its hold on third place behind Lincoln and EHS, by some luck and some skill, actually bothon the same late first-half sequence. With about a minute to go in a scoreless half, the Coogs wanted to sub. Right winger Dibanhi Villarreal thought he was the guy to come off and started to do so. But the official noted that another Coog was to be relieved, so Villarreal stepped back on. Seconds later he was flashing into the box to deliver a strike that found the net with 21 seconds left. Suerte y habilidad.
To that point it was an even match, though the Jags had suffered a blow when exciting freshman Bryan Garcia was knocked out with a knee injury. Picking up the slack was left wing Charlie Lara, who was box to box all night, creating chances and tracking back to defend, and Econ gave as good as it got through 39 minutes of the opening period. Ulises Zuniga had just missed a superb volley attempt while defensively, Pedro Vallejo made some sharp clearances.
In the second half, the league’s leading scorer, senior Axel Saenz, chipped away at the Orange defense looking for the slight opening, which is all he usually needs. Econ countered with Zuniga tearing into the area only to see North’s Rodriguez slide into the challenge and break up the opportunity. Gabriel Herrera of Econ then chested one down for a strong shot on goal, but Alvarez, a very busy freshman in the second half, was there.
Edward Mejia performed well in the midfield for the Coogs Tuesday as did Ivan Calderon and though North had to withstand some fearsome runs from the Jags, the result was ensured on a set piece late in the day. Moran’s side sent a free kick from the left side and when it hit a pack of defenders, Fernie Ortiz was on the spot for the rebound goal.
As the clock ticked away, Brian Martinez of Econ got off a wicked half volley off a throw-in, but it went to the keeper, Alvarez finishing his spotless work over 80 minutes.
The Coogs are two points behind EHS as of now, and a single digit ahead of a surging Vela side that has quietly put together a very impressive league slate so far. The SaberCats’ most recent results: a 4-2 win against Mission followed by a 7-0 demolition of Pharr North. The next match for Vela was supposed to La Joya at The Stadium Friday, but that game is possibly going to be postponed, not COVID this time as the culprit, but inclement weather.
Miguel Solis scored twice against the Raiders while Job Juarez and Emiliano Luna tallied a goal each in both the recent decisions. At this midsection of the season, Coach Rodolfo Pichardo’s club is looking more and more like a playoff squad, having issued a plus-9 goal differential through eight 31-6A contests.
With the loss on the road Tuesday, Econ was stuck on nine points, tied with P-SJ-A and La Joya in fifth.