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THE BREAKDOWN: THE IMPORTANCE OF SQUAD ROTATION

By DJ SWITZER, 05/11/16, 8:15PM EDT

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The Breakdown is a weekly piece where FC Cincinnati Director of Communications, D.J. Switzer, gives an in-depth look at the previous match. In the latest installment, he looks at the merits of the changes in the team selected to face Harrisburg last Sunday.

Three matches in seven days.

That might not sound like a lot of games, at least when compared to what some youth players might face in a weekend tournament or a major league baseball team who might play five or six times in that same time frame.

But for a professional soccer player, that kind of schedule can be a grueling marathon. The average professional player runs upwards of seven miles in a match — multiplying that times three is roughly equivalent to running a marathonwhile playing soccer. All the stopping, starting, sprinting, jogging, physical confrontations is a lot harder on the body than just straight running. So when you add all that in, you can start to see how playing that many matches in that short of a spell can take a toll on the players.

Now toss into nearly 2000 miles of travel between those matches, and you get an idea of what FC Cincinnati dealt with last week.

Harkes and his men kicked off that busy seven day stretch with a 1-1 draw with Wilmington at home two Saturday’s ago at Nippert. Three days later the team boarded a plane for Florida for a Wednesday evening match against Orlando City B. They eventually pegged back the hosts with a 3-1 win after a lengthy rain delay pushed kickoff back to 9:55pm. The next morning, back on a plane the team went ahead of Sunday’s match in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Ultimately, the match against the Harrisburg City Islanders finished a 1-1 draw, courtesy of a goal from Pennsylvania-native Jimmy McLaughlin. The tie earned FCC five points from the busy week, a tally not at all disappointing considering the travel and short turnarounds.

But one of the most interesting aspects of that match was the squad that trotted out for the Orange & Blue in Harrisburg, featuring three changes to the squad selected the week before and lining up in a completely new formation. Three players made their first starts of the season, as Derek Luke came in for Tyler Polak at left back,Antoine Hoppenot for Andrew Wiedeman on the wing, and forward Omar Cummings swapping out a midfielder Ross Tomaselli.

For some perspective on why that is interesting, consider that in the seven previous matches this season, FC Cincinnati has started only two different starting XI combinations. And that would most likely be the exact same starting elevenevery match had Paul Nicholson not needed to come in for an injured Austin Berry.

Squad rotation, as these type of larger scale changes from one match to another are often called, is a fairly common occurrence in professional soccer. The phenomenon itself is also most prevalent when teams face a congested portion of their schedule, so Coach Harkes’ choosing this busy period to be the first time to rotate his squad in itself isn’t that surprising — it was even predicted in the match preview for Harrisburg.

But what is interesting is to look at what the changes to squad might tell us.

To start, consider Hoppenot’s insertion into the XI. The attacker made 24 appearances for the City Islanders over the last few seasons while on loan from the Philadelphia Union, so it’s possible Harkes might have been trying to tap some extra motivation Hoppenot might have for facing his old side. But the coaching staff also added that Antoine had looked particularly sharp in practice recently, and they wanted to reward his efforts.

For a player like Cummings, it was a first start after a slow and methodical return to fitness after offseason injuries. The opportunity also presented a chance for the Jamaican international to make a case for inclusion in further starting XI’s.

Too, there was defender Evan Lee who made not only his FC Cincinnati debut when he came on for Harrison Delbridgeat the half, but also made his full professional debut at the same time. Lee’s entrance into the match provided several interesting viewpoints: it was a good way to give Delbridge a rest, reward Lee for his work in training, and also give the technical staff a chance to evaluate their depth in defense in an actual game environment.

And lastly, the rotation of the squad presented Harkes an opportunity to get a look at a new system — a 4-4-2 — than they had used in previous matches.

So while it remains to be seen if the changes we saw against Harrisburg will stick around for matches in the future, doing so gave the coaches a great opportunity to rest some of the squad, give other guys valuable playing time, and — perhaps most importantly — learn a lot about what their options are moving forward.