Los Angeles Galaxy coach Bruce Arena reminds us every chance he gets: it's not about formations and tactics, it's always about the players.
Maybe the unconvinced will hear another voice singing the same song. Now it's FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman who is texting that message, so to speak, preaching the value of player management and building the right roster.
Hyndman just won MLS Coach of the Year for finally getting the FC Dallas bus pointed in the right direction. The club just claimed its first playoff series since 1999 by eliminating the champs, Real Salt Lake, and now meets Los Angeles on Sunday for the Western Conference Championship.
Each time I've talked to Hyndman since he took over at FC Dallas midway through the 2008 season, he has said something similar. He used to say "We've just got to find the right group of players." In explaining this year's success he now says, "We finally got the right group of players." In his mind, "Coach of the Year" probably just means "Player Selector of the Year."
Only two players remain -- midfielder Dax McCarty and backup goalkeeper Dario Sala -- from the day Hyndman ran his first professional practice after 34 years in colleges. Hyndman is good humored fellow away from the game -- but around the soccer field he's a no-nonsense guy, a martial arts master (literally) with zero patience for lax discipline.
So those who knew Hyndman wondered whether he could truly tolerate a pro sports landscape dotted with selfish prima donnas? Because his locker room and practice field are "no coddle" zones. Pro athletes get paid, he says, and need to comport themselves accordingly. Short of that, he'll wish them well and move them along.
Hyndman told me after one practice early in his FC Dallas days that he thought he had "left the boys for the men," in the transition from colleges to pros, but that he wasn't so sure anymore.
Ultimately, the answer was "no," he couldn't work with me-first professionals. So he didn't try. Rather, he built a roster that didn't include any -- or he convinced the susceptible that it was in their interest to behave.
"It takes time to get the core group of guys you want, to get guys you trust," said team captain Daniel Hernandez, an All-American formerly for Hyndman at SMU.
Signing Hernandez was Hyndman's master stroke. The longtime MLS and Mexican league vet was 33 when he signed at Pizza Hut Park in midseason last year, not ideal for a central midfielder. But Hyndman recognized a mix that still wasn't right. A combustible locker room was exacerbating accountability issues on the field.
Hernandez is a little busted up right now, aching from the wear and tear of a long season. He isn't distributing from his central spot with as much clarity as earlier in the year. But his steadying and leadership is vital, and he remains every bit as important to the team as league MVP finalist David Ferreira or goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, who just set a league record for goals against average (0.62) over a season. Hyndman's choice of formations this year, a 4-1-4-1 with Hernandez as the defensive screener, is largely about getting the captain on the field in a suitable position -- so he can keep teammates accountable.
Every successful team has a locker room cop (or cops) to professionally and calmly police the room. Any tight locker room has players who genuinely like each other, who would sooner bite off a finger than let their teammates down. So they fight like lions for one another. FC Dallas may not have won as many games as some teams, but it was a side that was, historically speaking, among the hardest to beat in MLS history with just four losses over 30 games.
Hernandez had been practicing with FC Dallas a few weeks last year when he signed. So he had already spotted the individuals who understood about team unity -- and the others who seemed in it for themselves. He also noticed that FC Dallas players didn't bond off the field the way other successful sides do.
So he threw a barbecue at his house, a way to say "I'm one of you, and I want to get to know you all better." Everyone was invited -- only two guys didn't show up, veteran winger Dave van den Bergh and team captain Pablo Ricchetti. Hernandez said later that he had suspected those two wouldn't show but hoped they would prove him wrong.
"It's no secret they are not here anymore," Hernandez said Thursday. "And they were good players. But the best players don't always make you a 'team.' They can disrupt your team, and they can hurt you worse because of locker room issues. They were here for themselves. They weren't here for the team, they definitely weren't here for coach [Hyndman]."
Only, fans and media didn't see that. So Hyndman came in for big criticism for not re-signing them, especially Van den Bergh, who had led the club with 11 assists. But he knew the profit in talent wasn't worth the potential hit in team chemistry.
"Those were huge moves for the club, because they were good players," Hernandez said. "As a club you always have to think about what's best for the team. Do you keep these players and take the risk or do you get rid of them?"
Coaching -- any sport, any level -- is mostly about people management, about getting the best from individuals. Yes, there was a learning curve from the college soccer game to the pros, but mostly just details at a higher level. Because at some point, we're just talking about soccer. We're not talking about cold case detectives straining to solve the unsolvable. It's a simple game; the side that traps, passes, shoots and defends better usually wins.
Houston's Dominic Kinnear and New England's Steve Nicol success in MLS hasn't been because they are tactical savants. Their teams don't do anything special. Rather, the coaches demand that players do the right things on the field. Along with savvy talent evaluation, that's pretty much it. So the real trick is in identifying talent that is willing to make the commitment, willing to invest, willing to be held accountable.
It's about building rosters of balance: some young, some old; some expensive, some cheap; a few leaders, a few more followers ... and finding guys who get along.
Hyndman didn't jettison everyone recklessly. Some "projects" were worth undertaking. McCarty, for instance, has been excellent over 180 minutes in the playoffs, covering ground, linking play and scoring the telling goal in last week's clincher at Real Salt Lake.
McCarty has long been a talent, an energetic two-way midfielder. Back in 2008 he returned from the U.S. Olympic team perhaps feeling a little too proud of himself, wearing an attitude that wasn't quite right. So Hyndman didn't play him. McCarty sat while less talented types got the minutes, and McCarty wasn't happy about it. But as Hyndman had said on more than one occasion, "I can deal with these problems now, or I'll be dealing with them later."
"Looking back, at first I didn't deal with that very professionally," McCarty said Thursday. "I dealt with the situation in an immature fashion. I was being selfish and not thinking of the team. Those are the experiences as a professional that shape who you are."
They also make a team what it is.