Written by Ben Markus
Günter Kronsteiner sits, legs crossed, elbow propped on knee, his chin supported by the palm of a hand and three fingers. A natural, perhaps habitual intensity marks his face, aided by the minimalistic sophistication of rimless square eyeglasses and close-cropped white hair. He is a man whom, if you came upon in a classroom or at a library desk, you would think was deliberating possible solutions to an intricate math problem. And maybe he is.
Kronsteiner, the newly hired head coach of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, has been assigned the task of leading the Strikers, who earned just eight points in 12 matches during the NASL 2013 Spring Season, out of last place in the NASL standings. To do the job, Kronsteiner must mold 11 players, each a unique personality and set of skills, into one cohesive unit - a single brain.
It is a daunting task under the best of circumstances. Moreover, for Kronsteiner and the Strikers, the clock is ticking. “To work with the defensive line correctly so that they know what they have to do 100 percent… takes minimum eight weeks practicing every day,” Kronsteiner said days after his hiring, recounting the advice of the former New York Red Bulls (MLS) Head Coach, Hans Backe. “We have seven days.”
However, Strikers fans can take solace in the fact that Kronsteiner is uniquely qualified to handle the pressure that accompanies the demand for instant results. Raised at the foot of the Gesäuse mountain range in Central Austria, Kronsteiner’s father worked rescuing fallen climbers, frequently accompanied by his son, even as a small boy. Running and climbing in the mountains developed Kronsteiner’s aerobic and physical strength and, later, withstanding three years of hospitality school, at the wish of his mother, may have provided the foundation for his mental fortitude. It was during these three years that Kronsteiner decided to dedicate himself to the sport of soccer, to rise slowly but surely up the ranks and leagues of Austrian soccer. By that third year he was playing professionally in the Austrian Bundesliga, the country’s first division, and soon after winning league titles.
Strikers supporters should find further comfort in the fact that Kronsteiner’s thirst for success seems rarely, if ever, satisfied. While playing professionally, he held other jobs simultaneously, from insurance salesman to head coach of the team he was currently playing for. “It didn’t satisfy me, just to be a professional player,” Kronsteiner said. “Everybody else was happy with this, but I wasn’t. I didn’t think that just playing soccer was everything.”
After reaching the knockout stage of the 2004-2005 UEFA Cup as head coach of FK Austria Wien, he calmly and boldly told reporters that his team would defeat eight-time La Liga champion and heavy-favorite Athletic Bilbao. And that’s exactly what they did. The public reaction, evidenced by the next day’s standing-room-only press conference, Kronsteiner says, replays in his head constantly. “It was really amazing to me how people think about certain countries soccer-wise or certain teams,” Kronsteiner said. “That’s why I say to this [Strikers] team… nobody will believe that we can succeed, but this is exactly what I think is possible.”
Listen to Coach Kronsteiner tell his story
But how? What does a coach look for in players he’s just getting to know? The first requirement of a successful team, Kronsteiner says, is players of a certain skill and quality. He likened a team without players of baseline ability to a labrador retriever competing in a greyhound race: no matter the level of dedication or purity of intentions, the retriever will not win the race.
However, without dedication and commitment, Kronsteiner says, even highly talented players will not be successful. “What is, in my opinion, the most important thing is what the players bring themselves,” Kronsteiner said. “[The Strikers players] are really working very hard. I think I made it very clear already that if somebody wants to impress me, he has to work very hard always during practice.”
Listen to Coach Kronsteiner talk about the Strikers
Yet even after selecting skilled and hard-working players, fitting the individual pieces of a soccer team together, just like a 1,000-piece cardboard puzzle, takes time. And Kronsteiner has precious little of it. Ten days after his hiring, the Strikers faced the New York Cosmos in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 11,000, surrendering a game-losing goal in the 94th minute. Just a week later, the team fell at home to Minnesota United FC, 3-1.
Despite two underwhelming results to start the season, Kronsteiner said he wasn’t concerned and acknowledged that it takes time for tangible improvement. “The main thing for me is that we bring the players to a different playing-level tactically,” Kronsteiner said. “You cannot just put a hand on a shoulder and say ‘you are a different player now.’ It takes practice, practice, practice.”
Within weeks of Kronsteiner’s hiring, Strikers assistant coach Raoul Voss said the staff appeared optimistic and were already noticing differences in the team’s play. “I think we’re more stable overall, more balanced,” Voss said. “We have to do a better job of finishing our chances and scoring more goals… but overall we’re more stable and more balanced from the midfield.”
Although it’s still early to draw any firm conclusions about the team’s on-field future, that balance and stability is starting to show – and produce results. On August 17 the Strikers beat the San Antonio Scorpions, 2-1, in one of the league’s toughest places to play, San Antonio’s Toyota Field. Saturday’s 1-0 victory over 2013 Spring Season Champion Atlanta Silverbacks gave the Strikers back-to-back road wins for the first time since the 2011 reincarnation of the team. The Strikers are currently tied for third place in the league with six points, two fewer than all of Spring Season, through just four games.
No matter the final on-field result for the Strikers in the Fall Season, Kronsteiner seems to be cultivating a positive attitude inside the locker room, a workplace and overall environment his staff appreciates. “He’s a very relaxed guy,” Voss said. “He thinks it’s very important that the [Strikers players] feel comfortable in the locker room.”
Midfielder Manny Gonzalez said that the atmosphere in the locker room after Saturday’s win in Atlanta was almost euphoric. “Obviously we didn’t win a championship, it was just one game, but that’s how it felt,” Gonzalez said. “Everybody was happy, everybody had a positive attitude, and I think that’s good for our next game.”