Colorado Rapids forward Dominique Badji (14) defends as Orlando City SC defender Amro Tarek (3) passes the ball in the second half at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Guillermo Sánchez knows communication is about more than just speaking the same language.
Soccer is a global game. Most clubs include players from countries around the world, so a language barrier is something players and coaches will frequently run into.
Communication on the field is one thing. Players can learn basic directions and navigate training sessions with a few basic words.
But when things go wrong, when players need to talk about things that are bothering them or pull a teammate aside, there must be a level of understanding that goes beyond just language.
“When you have a team of a lot of cultures — I think we have around 12 … if you count coaching staff and staff, we have a lot more than that — it’s important for them to get to know each other so any type of communication can flow better,” said Sánchez, Orlando City’s mental coach and video analyst.
“When you don’t know each other, it’s kind of uncomfortable to pull each other’s ear and say, ‘Hey, I need you to do this.’ If I know you, I know where you’re coming from.”
Cultural understanding is what makes the difference, Sanchez said. Everyone with the club is acclimating to the United States. Orlando City has players from 10 countries, including the U.S.
“What we see from people is only 10 percent of who they are,” he said. “The other 90 is what’s more important. That’s where you get to know each other. A lot, in preseason, we concentrated on that 90 percent. Can we get them to know each other so they can then start trying to communicate?”
Sánchez said the Lions are focused on creating their own culture and their own methods of communication. For example, something as simple as a pass from one side of the field to the other could be difficult if a direct translation is used.
Switching the field is a common tactic in soccer. The word for that in Spanish, according to Sánchez, is “cambio.” That translates to “change” in English. If an English-speaking player shouts “change” to someone who doesn’t understand, things can get confusing quickly.
To eliminate the confusion, Sánchez has gone beyond using just soccer — there’s psychology at work behind the scenes.
Sánchez earned a master’s degree in sports psychology from Capella University in Minnesota — he’ll receive a Ph. D. from a university in Greece — and has coached in the U.S., Venezuela and India and has seen cultures blend on the soccer pitch.
Of course, the flip side is seeing and recognizing key cultural differences.
Something as simple as a fist bump can have a completely different meaning to people not from the U.S.
“If I know you, I know which way I’m going to talk to you. It’s hard to get to know everybody’s 90 percent. That’s why we have to continue doing this,” he said.
“There’s a lot of science behind it. There’s not a right answer. That’s what makes it fascinating. You’re always trying to create. What’s more important than creating is adapting to the situation you have in front of you.
“I try to add some experience and science to the main objective of a team.”
Of course, picking up languages here and there certainly helps. It’s obvious in training the players have done what they can to help non-English speakers feel comfortable.
Midfielder Sacha Kljestan has helped French Senegalese center back Lamine Sané with interviews by occasionally translating questions into French. Rookie Chris Mueller shouted a few Spanish words to Cristian Higuita after a game of soccer tennis during a training session.
English and French are Kljestan’s two main languages and he can “get by” when it comes to speaking Spanish.
“I think, for the most part, most guys here can understand English, which is important,” he said. “Lamine, he can ask me for a translation every now and then, but I think he pretty much understands what’s going on around him. The same can be said for the Spanish guys.
“It’s good to have a lot of guys on the team who are bilingual and can speak a couple of languages. It certainly helps that I can speak to Lamine, especially about things off the field that he needs help with. Obviously, other guys that can speak Spanish, it helps as well.”
Uri Rosell, one of Orlando City’s newest players, speaks four languages — Catalan (which he speaks primarily with his friends and family), Spanish, Portuguese and, of course, English. He acclimated to life in the United States during his first MLS stint with Sporting Kansas City.
“When you are on the field, you want to communicate with them,” Rosell said. “Also, if you can help them to feel more comfortable on the field … it’s very good to know and try to help them.”
“With the Spanish guys, sometimes we say, ‘You just have to speak English now.’ They are trying. I know it’s difficult, more here in Florida where you can find a lot of Spanish [-speaking] people. I think they are on the right [path].
Coach Jason Kreis said he and his coaching staff embrace the challenge that comes with getting players on the same page.
“I think we have to over-communicate with everybody,” he said. “I think that’s a really important thing and a really good thing because, as coaches, we’re trying to sort of paint a picture of what you want.
“A lot of times, you have to say the same thing three different ways in order to get everybody to understand the picture you’re trying to paint.
“I look at it as a good thing and I look at it as now we’re involving many people in that communication. We have Guillermo that can do translation, but we also have guys like Yoshi [Yotún] and Jose Villarreal and PC and guys that know English and some Spanish. Now you’re using multiple people to spread the same message and so now there’s more people understanding than just you and the player.”
Because so many people are involved with communication and relaying messages from the coaches, more players are stepping up and becoming vocal leaders.
“We believe in a culture that really embraces leadership,” Kreis said. “That really embraces communication on and off the field and I think that by doing this, it helps to foster that.”
Sánchez said to eliminate communication errors on the pitch, the club goes through extensive reaction training in order to respond to words on the fly.
And Kreis doesn’t always need a translator.
“I took one year of high school German and two or three semesters of college German,” he said. “I took three years of high school French.
“I’ve taken 20-some-odd years of ‘Soccer Spanish,’ as I call it. Just from being around Spanish-speaking people. I know enough words to probably be dangerous in all three of those languages, but certainly not to carry on a real conversation.”
Sánchez said his role is made easier because Kreis is willing to listen.
“Our coaching staff is amazing,” he said. “Jason is a great leader. Great leaders listen, lead, adapt, grow every day. He’s got that amazing growing mentality, not only in soccer but in his philosophy of life. That’s one guy I look up to big-time because of that.”