2015 USL Championship Preview with John Harkes


The Rochester Rhinos will host LA Galaxy II in the 2015 USL Championship tomorrow evening at Sahlen’s Stadium. If you aren’t able to be in attendance, odds are that you’ll be watching on ESPN3 or YouTube. The color commentary for the broadcast will be provided by John Harkes, who recently left a media position to assume the helm of FC Cincinnati. Harkes was gracious to spend some time with StP, providing his insight into the championship match-up.

Whose idea was it for you to be a part of the broadcast for the USL championship match?

Jake Edwards, President of the league, mentioned it to me a couple months back, about a month after our launch of FC Cincinnati,and just asked if I would be interested. I said when you switch from the media and you want to go into coaching, it’s very important that you commit all your time and effort into that because it’s a huge task to take on. It’s a big challenge, everything from building a club to recruiting players, negotiating contracts, things like that. I said I don’t know if it makes sense to do it.

As we spoke more recently, it’s kind of exciting and I think it makes sense. It could be a lot of fun. joining a league that is the fastest growing league in the country right now, to be able to get the landscape a little bit more and commentate on a game. There’s just a lot of win-win situations with it. I’m happy to be involved.

Mike Cohen is the producer of the show. Mike Cohen has tremendous amounts of experience. I’ve known him for years, when I’ve done media at Fox, ESPN, or even beIN Sports. Mike has produced Olympics on his own with his staff. He’s a great guy, and it all just kind of came together.

Given your role as Head Coach of FC Cincinnati, is it fair to say that you would have been watching this match with a lot of interest even if you weren’t in the booth?

Without a doubt. Absolutely. The scouting process and observing and assessing players has been ongoing, every single day, culminating in this final, which is going to be exciting to see these two teams go at it. I’m very familiar with the style of play, the players on the field, and the coaches as well. So, yeah, it makes sense. I would definitely be watching regardless.

Speaking of styles of play, in your prep for the broadcast what have you observed?

Talking about Rochester first, they certainly have enjoyed a great amount of success on the defensive side of the game in conceding very few goals, the fewest in the league.

I think Bob Lilley has done a tremendous job of his organization in terms of not just defending and dropping off, but in transitional defending, meaning when the ball turns over they’ve done a tremendous job of recovering the ball back in higher parts of the field. I think sometimes when people think about the defensive shape of a team, they think of the goalkeeper and the back four, or back three depending on the shape and formation. Throughout the team, I think they’ve all done a good job of working hard, sacrificing, and making it difficult to break down.

They’ve done well. They earned the early bye in the post-season. They played all their games at home. They haven’t conceded any goals in the playoffs being at home. It kind of paints a picture how difficult it is to break them down. I think Curt Onalfo, his staff, and the players of LA Galaxy II have a huge challenge on their hands when they face Rochester.

In regards to the Galaxy, it’s interesting because what Curt has been able to do is strengthen the mentality of them on the road. They were the fifth seed in the Western Conference and that meant they were going to be on the road all the time, and man did they perform well. The only game by default was against OC that they got to play at home I guess because OC’s home field was unplayable.

Very good attacking style soccer. It’s interesting to see these types of players with Andre Auras, Ariel Lassiter, and Kenney Walker in there, guys that have played and had a mixing combination of major league soccer experience, but also some of the younger players coming through the system. I think Curt has done a good job of managing that because it always difficult.

You get players thrown at you when you’re an LA II team, sometimes on a Wednesday or a Thursday. Bruce Arena and his staff say this guy is coming back from injury and he needs to get some games with you, or he is not getting first team action as much as I need him to and I need him to stay fit. Managing that aspect of it is very difficult. I think people overlook that from a coach’s standpoint. You have your team set, you look at the tactical formation of it throughout the week, you’re building relationships, and then all of a sudden another player or two comes from the first team. You’ve got to manage that without disrupting the dressing room and also the tactical on-field lineup. I think he’s done a tremendous job of getting to the final.

Hopefully they’ve got that chemistry together. It seems as if they do. It could be a tale of one attacking side is good enough to break down the defensive shape of Rochester being at home. The travel aspect of it is going to benefit Rochester, I would think, but having said that, I think the mental aspect of LA Galaxy has been very well in terms of being on the road. I could be interesting to see the clash between these two.

Are there any other players on either team that you’re interested in seeing this weekend?

From the Rochester side, [Grant] Van De Casteele has been the guy that has really lifted up their strength in their back line. He’s a leader. He was a Notre Dame player. To me it’s been pleasant to see his maturation as a player and as a leader back there for them in the way that they dig in and fight. Especially when they played against Louisville City FC, it was a battle without a doubt, and the way that he organized the back line, I thought he did a very good job, both he and Vassilios [Apostolopoulos]. Vassilios getting a goal was interesting. I think together they’ve been a formidable back line, really tough to break down. and understanding each other really well.

Another thing I think is a huge miss for Bob Lilley and Rochester is the Steevan Dos Santos red card. This is a player to me that I see a lot of potential, almost to an extent of how is this guy not playing on the first team in the MLS or competing for a spot. The athleticism that he has, the physicality, but also the touch on the ball as a big player. He does a very good job of understanding the rhythm of the game and linking up with other guys. Big body up front that holds the ball well and brings other guys into the game. I think they’re going to miss that. That’s going to be a tough one for them, and maybe the Galaxy take advantage of that fact, that they’re unable to have a player hold the ball up. Maybe they apply a little bit more pressure to the back line.

Pat McMahon has been a good player, great high energy, experience in the league as a fullback. He’s done extremely well.

On the other side of the coin you look at Andre Auras. I really like this player from the LA team. His vision. His awareness. His skill set. The ability to link up with players is tremendous.

I already mentioned Lassiter, the pace that he gives. He’s risen to the occasion. He’s a young player who’s been given opportunities, and he’s making the most out of this opportunity.

I think Jack McBean has completely changed the scheme for LA II. I think he’s not a great job, not only in the stint he had in the MLS two years ago under Bruce, but in the way that he has taken on a leadership role within this club. He holds the ball up extremely well. Dangerous off set pieces. Provides a spark with the ball. He’s really matured quite a bit.

There are a lot of dangerous pieces out there for sure.

Are you brave enough to give a prediction?

I think it will be nil-nil before it starts. It’ll be zeros before it starts.

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