No USL League One club is hotter than Forward Madison over the past month, and coaches and players alike attribute that to the training ground.
After starting the season 0-2-1, the Flamingos are unbeaten in their last four, and have outscored opponents 12-2 in that span.
“It’s coming in training,” head coach Daryl Shore said in an interview days before today’s critical tie at top-of-the-table Greenville Triumph. “I think the competition that we have going on with our group of guys in training is carrying over now into our games.”
Shore said the club’s 1-0 loss to Richmond Kickers, who finished the 2019 campaign toward the bottom of the table, was a turning point.
“We told our players after the Richmond game that there are two ways the season can go, and the coaching staff was going to do everything in their power to make sure that it didn’t go the wrong way, and credit to the players, they responded to that,” Shore said.
Team captain Connor Tobin, who considered retiring at the end of last season, echoed that sentiment.
“Not that there was panic, but it was, hey, we need to have urgency about how we turn this around, and it starts with our training habits and it starts with our mentality and how we approach things,” Tobin said.
“It’s a special group that we got,” said forward Michael Vang, who sat out those first three games due to a hang-up in international transfer paperwork. “We’ve been on each other more at practice and I think that’s what transitioned to the game.”
Vang’s arrival in the club’s starting lineup coincides with the club’s turnaround, as he scored the opening goal just eight minutes into his debut, sparking a 4-0 rout of South Georgia Tormenta on August 14. He’s added another goal and two assists since then.
“Sitting out those first three games, it just built more fire in me to want to go out there and prove myself and show what I can do,” he said. He also said being the first Hmong professional soccer player in American history remains important, but the focus is on the game.
“I think it will always stick with me, but that’s not something I really put my focus on,” he said. “I don’t really think about all of the firsts, seconds, or thirds Hmong professionals. It’s all about just playing right now and just helping the team win and bring a championship to Madison.”
The club also added two more scoring threats in the past four weeks — 20-year-old forward Noah Fusan and veteran midfielder Adolfo Ovalle, who captained Toronto FC II last year and scored the Goal of the Week on his debut for Madison, a screamer from 25 yards out against New England Revolution II last weekend.
Certified freak / One day a week
— Forward Madison FC (@ForwardMSNFC) September 5, 2020
“Those are players that not only compliment what our group has and add something, but they’ve added to the culture piece of this,” Tobin said. “They came in right away and added to the competitiveness of training. Sometimes you can add competitiveness, but it can be divisive to the group. Those are the two guys that have come in and actually made our group more cohesive and more together, which I think is, for me, positive signs about where this thing could be headed.”
The history between Madison and Greenville has been one of defensive struggle — four meetings over the past two seasons have yielded only one goal. Greenville, last year’s league runners-up, currently sits atop the table with 19 points from six wins and two draws in nine matches. Madison, meanwhile, sits in fifth, with 11 points and a 3-2-2 record — but Madison also owns the highest goal differential in the league at plus-eight.
“It’s a game where we can’t afford to make any mistakes because they’re a team that capitalizes on that,” Shore said of today’s tie at Greenville. “But at the same time, I think if you asked them, they would tell you that they can’t afford to make mistakes.”
“We know it’s going to be a battle, but I think guys are excited for it,” Tobin said. “I think the confidence is going in the group a little bit and we feel like things are going the right way. So I think (the Greenville match) is more a challenge that guys are excited for. Confidence isn’t something you turn off and on. Confidence in something you earn, and over the last few weeks … we’ve been doing a better job of how we train, and I think we’ve earned the ability to have a little bit more confidence in how we’re playing games.”
“We always got to believe that we can get three points,” Vang said. “It’s going to be a tough one, but I think that this group we’re in, we’re in really good form right now. You can’t deny that we’re in good form.”
With a win today, Madison would move up just one spot from fifth to fourth, just two points behind unbeaten Omaha for the second spot in the title match halfway through the shortened 16-game season.
Today’s match kicks off at 2 pm on ESPN+ or locally on TVW. Follow Madison365 on Twitter for updates.