By Joe Curley
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Every coach has their own methods. Ask a coach about the particulars and they’ll likely respond that it is the ends and not the means that ultimately matter.
It is the communication of ideas between the coach and players that sometimes makes the difference between winning and losing.
“Every coach has their approach on things,” said Ziad Khoury, director of Slammers FC. “Whatever he’s done, he’s done it perfect because he’s gotten the message through. That’s the sign of a special coach.”
Whom Ziad is speaking of is Matt McDonagh, the 25-year Southern California coaching veteran who recently guided Upland’s Celtic F.C. to the boys’ Under-14 national championships. Unconventional, to say the least, the Irish-born McDonagh loves to employ the art of soccer psychology.
Before leaving the parking lot, he’ll instruct his players to take up as much space as possible during warm-ups, stretching all the way across their half of the field.
“(Then), I want to bark orders while the players move into space in such a way, and with such technical ability, that the opposing team has to stop what they’re doing to watch,” said McDonagh. “So that the mere sight of the uniform puts the fear of God in the opposing team.”
It sounds like some of the vintage quotes attributed to former Liverpool great, Bill Shankley, who first introduced an all-red kit because he thought it looked bigger and tougher. McDonagh doesn’t let his team feel smaller and weaker, even if about a third of his roster weighs less than 100 pounds.
“As far am I’m concerned, the opposing coach should be doing the same thing,” said McDonagh. “Man for man, at every position, I don’t care if you are half the size. We’ll be better individually because we’re a team. We’re like an Indianapolis racecar. We’re ready to go, all we have to do is put the pedal to the metal.”
He has a vast array of team talks at his disposal. One barely involves a word.
“Some coaches spend 15 minutes talking and never shut up,” said McDonagh. “Well, when you always do that, after five minutes you’ve lost them. Brevity can be more effective sometimes.”
He once gave a halftime talk that could barely be considered a “talk.” Trailing 1-0 at halftime of a regional semifinal, he used 90 seconds to tell his team “what a pathetic performance we were putting on.” He then instructed his players to get a drink and return to the pitch, where Celtic awaited for the second half together on one knee in silence, staring dead ahead.
It was eight minutes until the referee returned, 10 minutes before the opposition was present, and 25 minutes before Celtic had a 3-1 stranglehold on the match.
Which isn’t to say that McDonagh reserves the silent treatment for the biggest matches. He went back to the tried and true “Rambo” method in the U.S. Youth Soccer national final in Orlando.
“I explained to my lads that this mission is so secret that I couldn’t divulge its destination until the morning of the attack,” said McDonagh.
As they were heading to the field to play the game, he told his all-Mexican team, in his Irish brogue, to “look at ourselves as a Mexican IRA (Irish Republic Army) guerrilla troop heading for Belfast.”
After all, said McDonagh, after years of playing for him, his players “know more about the IRA and the philosophy thereof than the citizens of Ireland.”
McDonagh does not make the most politically correct statements during these days of the war on terrorism, but his players understood and now they’re national champions.
“It equates with the Hispanics in the sense that when you are down, you are never out,” said McDonagh. “If you have determination, if you’re goal-oriented, luck will find your way.