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Local teams use World Cup as coaching tool
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Once every four years, Christmas comes twice for Rick Howard.

As the coach of two soccer teams, including the Gainesville High boys, Howard will see plenty of the sport over the next month.

The World Cup kicks off today in Brazil. During that same span, he’ll also be running a camp through his club team in Athens, complete with World Cup-themed practices and events until the end of July.

“It’s all going to be centered around the World Cup,” Howard said.

It’s a prime opportunity for Howard to not only be immersed in the sport he loves, but also learn a thing or two from a coaching standpoint.

Fresh off a 14-3-1 season with Gainesville this past spring, he’ll be keeping mental notes of new strategies being utilized by national teams, from attacking formations to defensive marking.

“The World Cup sets the tone for the next big thing in terms of tactics and style of play,” Howard said. “You just kind of watch the trends of the game, and get little ideas. You say, ‘OK, how can I incorporate this? How can I adopt this?”

Howard, who coached Gainesville to state championship shortly before the last World Cup in 2010, has been doing this for quite some time.

He has VHS recordings spanning several decades of World Cup action, including one of his favorites: the 1982 semifinal between West Germany and France, which ended 5-4 in favor of West Germany on penalty kicks.

“It was just an unbelievable game, and I’ll watch that,” Howard said.

“I just like to watch a good bit and kind of see where the game is going, and to see some good soccer.”

Howard says the style of play in the World Cup sets the standard for how soccer will be played on multiple levels across the world for the next four years.

His best example of this is Spain’s style of play in 2010, when it won a title using quick, short passes to create scoring opportunities.

“You look at the last World Cup with Spain, it was a lot of ticky-tack short passing,” Howard said. “That’s beginning to evolve into the next thing. The other thing going into the last World Cup was four in the back, three core center mids, two wings and one up high.”

Howard isn’t alone when it comes to using the World Cup as an informative coaching tool.

West Hall coach Tim Gale, who led the Spartans to the Class AAA state semifinals during his first season as head coach this past year, pays special attention to how national teams use fundamentals to conduct their defense.

“I try to watch formations and watch how they come off the ball,” Gale said. “How the defense works together and how they work out the back, and how they’re getting marks.

“As a coach, I try to think ‘are we doing that?’ There are some things that I try do try to correlate.”

Gale plans to watch this year’s World Cup surrounded by a small gathering of die-hard soccer fans — his family.

His daughter, Elizabeth, is a rising junior with the Piedmont College women’s soccer team. His sons also play soccer.

“My family has a vested interest,” Gale said. “There’s been a lot of discussion about favorites and who they think is going to win.”

Of course, his family can only analyze so much soccer for strategy purposes. Much of what the national teams do is simply too advanced for younger players to implement on high school and club fields.

“It’s certainly not the same skill level — those guys are unreal,” Gale said.

That’s why Johnson boys coach Brian Shirley doesn’t necessarily see the World Cup as a coaching clinic.

The Knights are loaded with talent, with the majority of his starters returning next year after finishing the 2014 season ranked No. 2 in Class AAAA and No. 7 overall in the state. They reached the Class AAAA state finals in May.

But trying to mimic the style of a national team isn’t exactly what Shirley tries to do in the spring. Instead, he develops strategies based on his players’ strengths, which varies from year to year.

“In the World Cup, everybody is pretty much on par with each other in size, strength, speed,” Shirley said. “It’s hard to take something they’re doing and implement at the high school level. There’s just little things that they do with the personnel they have.

“It’s a square peg in a round whole — you work with what you have on your teams, and you play to your strengths.”

Shirley does, however, utilize fundamental training regimens created by the U.S. national team, which have been passed down through their youth program and youth academies.

Nevertheless, he has kept a close eye on the U.S. national team and its warmup matches, which the Americans swept. He was in Jacksonville, Fla. last weekend for the final pre-World Cup friendly against Nigeria.

“I think the big question has obviously been their defense,” Shirley said. “If they can shore up that side of their game, they have a chance to get out of the group and advance into the knockout rounds.”

So what are the local coaches’ final World Cup predictions?

It’s not that easy to decide.

“I’ve been going back and forth,” Howard said. “Originally I was going with Brazil, but recently the past week, I’ve watched their warmup games and I’m beginning to lean towards Argentina.”

Gale echoed Howard’s preference for Argentina, but isn’t counting out teams like Germany, Portugal, the Netherlands and Uruguay.

“A lot of teams are going to sneak up and bite somebody,” he said.

Shirley is taking the safe route, and going with the defending champ.

“Spain is Spain,” he said. “Four years ago, they showed everybody they were the best in the world. Up to this point, they’ve proven it time and time again.

“It’s their Cup to lose.”

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