It’s called Tournament Day, and if you believe Jesse Marsch, its origins could date back to the beginning of soccer’s relevancy in this country when Bob Gansler was the United States national team coach from 1989-91.
Or maybe even prior to that, when Gansler was the U.S. U-19 and U-20 coach.
Or maybe it started during the early years of Major League Soccer, when Gansler coached the Kansas City Wizards from 1999-2006.
But whenever it began, it’s alive and well these days with the Red Bulls. And it’s one of the most competitive days of training, and some of the best bonding times, the team has had all year.
“Tournament Day has been passed down. I believe it started with Bob Gansler, and it was passed down to Preki, and Preki put us in Tournament Day at Chivas, and then from Chivas I brought it here,” Marsch said. “I joke around that often those days are a bloodbath.
“What it does more than anything is that it cultivates the competitive spirit. We just basically split up teams. It’s not a coaching day, it’s not a concept day, it’s not a tactical day. It’s which team wants it more.”
And the Red Bulls love it. Well, sort of.
“Tournament Day is a frustrating day for a lot of people,” midfielder Dax McCarty said. “It’s a day where coaches put together four different teams. It’s just a round-robin tournament. It’s tough, it’s aggressive, it’s for pride. Obviously as professional athletes we all have a lot of pride, so we never want to lose. There’s a lot of controversial calls made by our questionable referees, aka the assistant coaches.
“There’s only one winner at the end. It’s certainly an interesting day that riles a lot of people up. But it’s all good. It’s competitive. We want it to be competitive because that’s the type of team we are.”
Marsch remembers what it did for him as a player. How it got him fired up to train. How it brought teams together. So when he became coach of the Red Bulls this season he continued the tradition.
“We just split the teams up into four groups and we try to make the teams as balanced as we possibly can, he said. “We play short, small-sided games. We play for 12 minutes each game. We play a round-robin, and at the end there’s a winner, there’s first, second, third and fourth place.
“They’ve (the players) have taken total ownership of it. They know how important it is. They want to win those games. They want to talk about winning those games in the locker room, so I do think that that’s been an important part of our process of becoming good competitors.”
And nobody wants to be on a losing team. Marsch sure didn’t, but he knew how it brought teams together and increased the players’ level of fitness, not that he ever had a problem with that.
“As a player I was pretty fit,” he said. “I took a lot of pride in my fitness and I knew that was something that made me good, so I knew that I needed it. But I think the game’s advanced a lot, certainly with the way we play here and in our approach here that we’ve tried to build in a lot more sophistication in how we deal with those kinds of things.
“The resources of this club mean that we have a nutritionist who helps us with hydration, we have GPS units and we have our fitness team that keeps track of that. We’ve invested in the technology of apps and other diagnoses to see where everybody’s at every day, so we’d be foolish not to use it, and we’ve found it beneficial for us and our players.”
McCarty is as competitive as any player on the team, and as captain there’s a side of him that wants to show his leadership and fitness at all times, so he takes these competitions seriously. Or as seriously as he can while still enjoying the moment.
“Obviously (there’s) bragging rights, and the coaches decided it would be a good idea to keep a little running tally of what place every guy finishes throughout the whole year,” McCarty said. “You definitely want to be towards the top of that list at the end of the year. We’ll see what happens.”
With the constant motion Marsch puts the players through every training session, and with all the energy the players put into staying fit and training hard, is Tournament Day the most competitive practice they have?
“Usually,” McCarty said. “It depends on the week, obviously. It’s a tough day because there’s like 10-, 12-minute games. That’s a heavy load on the legs when it’s just 5v5. It’s not once a week, it’s just whenever they can find some free days to do it. It’s definitely the most competitive day – and the most frustrating day.”
It’s a day Marsch enjoys, perhaps even more now that he doesn’t have to go through it himself. And with individual grades involved, no player wants to be at the bottom of the list when the season ends.
“This team trains hard, really hard, and that’s exemplified every Tournament Day,” Marsch said. “Right now the ranking is Roy Miller and Sacha Kljestan at the top.”
And at the bottom?
“I’m not telling you,” Marsch said with a laugh. “If they want to divulge that, I’ll let them. Everything comes into question on Tournament Day. Sometimes it’s the officiating, often it’s the play.”
So as the players slug it out on Tournament Day, Marsch sits back and smiles. He has experienced how it increases fitness and bonds teams together. And this Red Bulls team is as close and with few problems in the locker room as any team in franchise history.
When you’re having fun and enjoying what you do, it there anything you can’t accomplish? Perhaps the answer will come in the next few weeks.