NYCFC puts us through our paces at its brand-new training facility
ORANGEBURG, New York -- "Take part in a once-in-a-lifetime training experience led by Patrick Vieira," the invitation read.
It sounded like one of those ads you used to see for fantasy sports camps with stars of yesteryear. Equipment would be provided, though there was no mention of whether it included a defibrillator and a pair of titanium shin guards, which in my case might come in handy. Regardless, I decided to participate along with about 20 other journalists, and if I managed to survive with ligaments and tendons intact, I was declaring victory.
The invitation was a means to an end of course. New York City FC was unveiling its new state-of-the-art training facility, complete with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, and the "training experience" would allow for a more up-close view of the setup.
The thought of a new training ground conjures up visions of a vast expanse of buildings and field after field stretching off into the distance. So as I exited my car, I was a bit surprised to see a modestly sized facility, with one low-slung building and the practice field off to the right.
To hear various NYCFC staff describe it, this is intentional, even though team vice chairman Marty Edelman joked that there was "no budget" when it came to building the facility, the third such project that owners City Football Group have embarked on worldwide. Everything connected to the facility is only as big as it needs to be, not as big as it could be. Throughout the day, there was constant talk of flow and versatility.
"There's nothing over the top that we don't need," Vieira said. "Every single room makes sense."
The locker room is circular, the intention being that it inspires inclusion. A comment uttered on one side of the room can easily be heard on the other.
"There's no corner where people are hiding, or you can't see," said NYCFC forward Tommy McNamara. In other words, if there is any gossiping to be done, it will have to take place elsewhere.
The staff have been kind enough to put my name, as well as those of my fellow journalists, on various lockers; jerseys, too. The swag is nice, but my thoughts are too preoccupied wondering whether my thrice-surgically repaired knee will hold up to think of anything else.
The session begins with NYCFC physical performance coach Matt Cook leading the group through about a dozen functional exercises designed to warm up and stretch out various muscles. This would be the key to me getting through the day without hurting myself, though the exercises could have counted as a workout on their own.
Then everyone takes a short walk -- the layout of the place is such so that everything is a short walk -- to the training field. Vieira is there, exuding the presence of a four-star general, even as he greets everyone with a smile. Performance coach Kristian Wilson soon takes over and insists that we need to engage our minds as well as our legs.
Good thing, I know which one is stronger.
He starts off with a drill I'm familiar with from my days as an amateur goalkeeper; hands on the head, while your partner drops the ball and you have to react quickly to catch it. My partner in the drill, YES Network's Sarah Kustok, is excellent at this, which is no surprise as I find out later she is a former collegiate basketball player. Next we're given numbers and instructed to toss the ball to the next person in the sequence and complete a short sprint around a nearby pole. It gets a little chaotic, but the brains are working at least.
We then break into three groups and have three drills to complete. The first is an exercise in finding the open player. Everyone stands in a circle with a ball at their feet, except for one player. The person in the middle is fed a pass and then must pass it to an open player on the outside. Everyone picks it up pretty quickly, but we have our first pulled muscle of the day that sidelines one of my fellow journos.
There but for the grace of quads go I.
Next is a drill involving three versus three plus a spare player who is always on offense. We're instructed to keep a diamond shape when we have the ball, but my lungs could care less about the diamond. Not even Vieira's entrance into the drill can inspire me to run. Mercifully, the next drill, a passing exercise emphasizing proper passing angles, allows for a bit more rest.
And that's it. I've not only survived, but lunch prepared by the team's chef is waiting for us. But there is one more potential humiliation; a video analysis of the session. There are four different video cameras mounted around the field, and sure enough it picks out my inability to "maintain the diamond" during the video session afterwards. That quickly gives way to video of NYCFC broadcaster Glenn Crooks missing a sitter.
But as we joke about our collective lack of ability on the field, it's impossible to not be impressed with the facility. A player's every need is catered to, from the onsite chef to the training staff to the locker room to the video analysis to the field itself.
"I think it helps me to be even more demanding of players," Vieira said. "It helps show the club's commitment in the long term, and for me to show to players that the club is behind us, and I think it's important to have this facility.
"The previous one (at SUNY-Purchase), it's not like it was bad, but we didn't feel like we were at home, and the quality of what we have around us, from the food, the gym, players come early because of the breakfast here, or they stay a bit longer because of lunch. Some of them stay a bit longer because they will go to the gym to do some work with the personal coach.
"They can be more professional, shall we say, they can look after themselves a little bit more. But for me as a coach, it is to challenge them to be more demanding and not [make] excuses."
NYCFC's facility is not unique, mind you. Real Salt Lake and LAFC both recently opened training facilities joining the likes of Toronto FC and Atlanta United and others around the league. This is what it takes these days to keep up with the aristocracy in MLS, and for the players to be at their best.
"I see the difference in players, the way they conduct themselves, they come in a little bit early, leaving quite late," Vieira said. "We see them more often to do one-versus-one on the tactical side or to do the unit work because we have the camera within the training. We as a staff are working much better because we have all the tools to allow us to do what we want."
The players appreciate it, too. No less an authority than David Villa called it the best facility he's ever experienced.
So even for him, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.