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United Soccer Coaches Convention Special: Curtin breaks down training methods behind the Union’s transition game

Curtin’s keynote closed out the Digital Convention earlier this month

Carl Gulbish

Jim Curtin spoke about his team’s strengths in “Transitions in the Modern Game” in the final session at the 2021 United Soccer Coaches Convention on January 15.

Backed by statistics and video analysis, Curtin shared an insightful presentation with the virtual audience of coaches into the development of the Union’s transition game, one of its more significant improvements over the last three seasons.

Looking back at an incredible 2020 in which the Union won the Supporters’ Shield for the first time, several goals come to mind. Nearly all of Sergio Santos’ goals, including his double against Sporting Kansas City and two of his three against Toronto FC, Kacper Przybylko’s counterattack goal against Inter Miami, and Anthony Fontana’s and Alejandro Bedoya’s goals against FC Cincinnati, all of which, among others, were featured in Curtin’s presentation as evidence that the transitional game was clicking.

But some coaches may ask how does a team reach this point of targeted success and to what extent are these types of goals trainable?

While coaches may focus on possession, tactical defending, and free kicks because all are influential in the outcome of games, Curtin made the case for offensive and defensive transitions as distinguishing qualities that made a difference in his title-winning team.

“Transitions are something you can train every day at practice,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s with four year-olds or with professionals.”

To prove his point, Curtin displayed a graphic that showed the Union’s significant separation from the rest of the league in transitional goal differential, with a majority of the playoff teams in the positive and many of the non-playoff teams in the negative.

As further evidence, Curtin showed another graphic of the Union’s open play goals per game from the 2018 to 2020 seasons. Since 2018, the Union went from 1.09 open play goals per game to 1.44 open play goals per game. Even more dramatic is the rise from .43 open goals per game in under four passes and eight seconds to .81 in 2020, nearly doubling the team’s transitional output and well above the MLS average.

But according to Curtin, a strong approach to transitions begins with identifying key principles of play that should become uniform and habitual throughout a team. With the use of technology, these principles can be identified and measured, then structured in training sessions so the behaviors may become automatic on the field. Something unique for coaches to understand is that out of the three categories of transitional principles of play Curtin identified in the session, three of those are without the ball, which correlates with the amount of time players spend during a game moving into positions as opposed to having the ball. The principles do not show up on the field by accident but through an articulation of training methods sustained throughout multiple sessions in a season, and Curtin shared his blueprint for building those behaviors.

Principles of Play

5 vs 2
At the start of a transition-day training session, the Union begin with a 5 vs 2 game with intense pressure and movement referred to as a “Rondo.” Many of us have seen the countless videos of Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Mbappe, or other players using crafty moves or nutmegs to embarrass teammates during Rondo games. The numbers advantage games can help build quick touches and create a fun atmosphere with an emphasis on self-expression, but for the Union, Rondos serve a larger purpose. “We want our guys to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Curtin said.

The 5 vs 2 exercise is a structured 5 vs 5 but with a 2 vs 2 inside a small hexagon with about six to eight yards on each side. With two teams of five, three outside players on the attacking team are live while the three outside players on the defending team are inactive, anticipating a turnover to quickly jump into play. When defending players win the ball, the team transitions to offense and the outside players switch from inactive to active and vice versa, so at any time, there is always a numbers advantage with the players in the middle doing most of the work. After about one minute, the inside players rotate out, and the game continues. Curtin says the game creates lots of turnovers and mistakes, which is good because it creates a high rate of repetition. The 5 vs 2 hits all of the principles and easily progresses as the games grow larger in scale over the course of the session.

Counter Press Game
In this game, Curtin creates two 17x24 grids with a middle channel in between and three channel goals. The game has three teams of seven players, with two teams occupying each grid and the third team beginning in the channel. When a coach passes a ball into a grid, the defensive team sends four players to counter press while two stay to block the channel goals. One player sits out so there is always an open channel goal.

The teams play in specific positions so that the backs are where they’d be relative to a game with midfielders and forwards pushing closer toward the channel goals. The attacking team must complete eight passes in the grid to unlock the channel goals, trying to play through the goal to the team on the other side. If the defensive four wins the ball, they may counter to a goal located another twenty to thirty yards away from the grid, resulting in a quick transition where the seven must try to win the ball back. If the attacking seven does win the ball back, the game transitions again, and the offensive seven must connect the eight passes in the grid again.

If the offensive team does connect eight passes and is able to score through the channel, the defensive four must transition into the new grid and re-organize its players. If the defensive team wins the ball and scores, the dispossessed attacking seven transitions into the defensive team and must organize its players and defend the opposite grid. Each competitive burst ranges from 45 seconds to one minute, keeping the energy level high and the defending frantic.

4 vs 2 Into 5 vs 3 Into 7 vs 7
In this game, Curtin sets up two adjacent playing areas, a condensed 7 vs 7 field and an extended 4 vs 2 grid. Three goals are used with goalkeepers in each goal, and two teams play at a time with the third team resting.

The game begins with four players attacking two to goal in the smaller grid. The attack must be quick, no more than ten seconds, and if the attacking team delays, a coach will play a ball into the 7 vs 7 field to start the next sequence. If the ball goes out of bounds, a goal is scored, or the defensive two wins the ball, the game transitions into the larger field.

From the 4 vs 2, the four attacking players will perform a recovery sprint, joining their three teammates on the next field who are now defending the 5 vs 3 while the two defenders link up with their five teammates who are now on the attack. The new attacking team will have a short time with a 5 vs 3 numbers advantage until the players from the 4 vs 2 grid recover, so there’s an emphasis on both attacking and defending transitional principles until the game becomes a 7 vs 7. The 7 vs 7 may continue for up to three minutes, keeping the pace intense and the action chaotic. Curtin stressed again that there are multiple turnovers, which causes a high repetition of reactions and transitions.

In addition to transitions, Curtin also shared other coaching points toward the end of his presentation during a live Q and A.

On preparing for teams who sit in a low block
“I’ll put my hand up and say that was something that was very difficult for us,” Curtin said. He suggested using the time in training to adjust to teams who play a low block, setting up scenarios where the players must break down complex defenses. These situations usually result in failure for the attacking players during training, which Curtin re-emphasized is not a bad thing. “It’s one of the hardest things in the modern game. Everybody can defend now.”

On training set piece transitions
“Set pieces are a big part of the game. They are something that should be touched on at every training session,” Curtin said. He added that coaches should spend ten to fifteen minutes, find ways to make it fresh, and with opposition.

On attacking and defending the red zone
Curtin spoke about the red zone, an area of the field that forms a rectangle from the corners of the six yard box to the top of the D where 85% of all goals are scored. He often paints the area on the field as a visual for attackers to get into that area with more intention and for defenders to react with more desperation. He called it one of the most important areas of the field.

On training exercises unopposed vs defenders
Curtin’s philosophy on opposed exercises versus unopposed exercises at the professional level has changed in recent years. In his earlier days, he said he would design elaborate technical passing sessions but has since shifted to more game-like, high-intensity situations as a way to avoid bad habits. He emphasized maximizing time with the players and reserved those technical sessions for individual and/or backyard training time.

On players buying in
“The one big thing that always comes back, more than the tactics, more than the formation, more than the training methods, is the relationships you create in your group.” Curtin spoke about the importance of recognizing everyone’s strengths and weaknesses as well as getting to know players as individuals.