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Sporting Diaries presented by Audi: Kit Man Mike Flaherty sheds light on MLS is Back Tournament

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In the third edition of this behind-the-scenes series, Sporting KC Director of Equipment Operations Mike Flaherty—widely known among staff and fans as Kit Man—sheds light on his unique experience at the MLS is Back Tournament in Walt Disney World.

At the end of the day, our job is to make sure the players have what they need to play and the coaches have what they need to coach. From everything they wear to all of the equipment needed for a training session, it’s our job to ensure everyone is taken care of and in a place to succeed.

When we first heard about plans for the Orlando tournament, my initial reaction was excitement. I was just excited we were getting the season back on track. That’s the biggest thing for us. Peter Vermes has said that this club is about winning games, and you can’t win without playing.

I have always been concerned about COVID-19, but when the Orlando plan was first being discussed, I was glad and wanted to get going. I had no reservations about the tournament, although it was a pretty daunting task. I tried to coordinate with other equipment guys across the league about some of the challenges we might face. Once I felt good about the plan we had in place—getting our equipment pod shipped down there, sorting out the training field situation, knowing how many jerseys we would need—I was very confident that this was going to be able to work.

The MLS is Back Tournament has a similar feel to preseason, but it’s bigger than that because we have real games to play.

We play games in preseason, but we don’t wear real game gear. Guys aren’t wearing match jerseys in preseason games. We also had to add more sponsorships to the jersey, with Compass Minerals patches on both sleeves and a Children’s Mercy patch on the shorts. There were a lot of little things like that which took more planning and coordination. Getting stuff in and out of the hotel and training facility has been challenging, too, because MLS is strict about the bubble and rightly so.

Before we traveled to Florida, I made a few contacts with people who live down here to help us out with a few things—getting bikes, barbells and exercise equipment like that. We’ve had the help of a few equipment managers down here in Orlando who have even brought us beer, as well. That’s been huge.

We had enough lead time prior to departure that I never felt too stressed about it. Plus, we were pretty strict about how we ran things at Compass Minerals National Performance Center. We followed the league protocols, so when we got down here, it wasn’t a surprise to have to wear a mask. It wasn’t a big deal to have to be quarantined when we arrived at the hotel. We knew all of that stuff was coming, so it hasn’t been super challenging.

Once we found out we could stay in Kansas City for a little while and train before departing on July 5, that was a huge help. We shipped a pod to Florida with a bunch of mannequins, soccer balls, training equipment, massage tables and extra jerseys. We even packed a little Michelob Ultra kegger. We also have a storage unit here in Florida out by the training fields. Every team has one, and that has helped us out tremendously because we have everything we need for training.

We’ve become very comfortable with our routine at the hotel.

In our job, we understand that players aren’t always going to drop equipment off on time or pick equipment up on time. We leave at an earlier time for training to set everything up, and sometimes I’ll get a call from a player saying he needs an extra pair of shorts. But for the most part, the hotel makes it easy because we’re all in one place. The facilities have been good, too. The fields are very nice and they hold up pretty well. The people who help operate the facility have been really on the ball.

Something that’s been different down here is we have the hotel doing laundry for all of the teams. We have a room where all of the equipment managers drop off the laundry. Sammy Jaksen, our assistant equipment manager, has done a great job building a rapport with the hotel staff. They know exactly how we want it. They don’t have to fold our laundry or anything. We just ask them to wash it, dry it and make it smell good. Then we get it back and fold it ourselves.

As the equipment guys, we always need to be several steps ahead of the players and coaches. A typical day here in Florida has gone as follows…

I try to get up really early to work out, just something to get myself moving in the morning. We meet downstairs at 6:45 a.m. to get our COVID-19 tests, then Sammy and I head straight to the training fields to get all of the equipment set up on the fields. The team trains at 8 o’clock, 7:30 to get everything in order. After training, we get back to the hotel and give players 30 to 45 minutes to throw their laundry out in the hall. That way, by the time we’re unpacking their boots and putting them on the boot dryers, we can pick up all the laundry and get it dropped off.

At that point, you have some time to start planning for the next day, whether it’s training or a match. Then we get the laundry back and fold it. In the lead-up to games, we’ve been printing a lot of jerseys down here. When we have time to get out, I like to take a walk around the hotel area. We got outside the other day and did a mile-long lap, but then it started pouring rain as it tends to do in Orlando. We have a few pelotons and regular stationary bikes here at the hotel, so I’ll just wheel it into my room for an hour or two a day and just ride.

In the club’s opening match of the tournament on July 12, Sporting joined the MLS Black Players for Change initiative by wearing Black Lives Matter warm-up tops and wearing special jersey patches honoring those affected by racism, social injustice or illness.

Within our club, that experience had a big impact on me. The players who pushed that initiative on our team did a great job. Before traveling to Florida, our staff and players had a panel at the training facility where we sat down and all of the Black players talked about the issues they had experienced with racism. They were able to give us real-life examples, which was great and made for an impactful moment. Sometimes guys go through life without even thinking about it because they don’t have to suffer through it. I’ve seen my wife go through it. I’ve seen Sammy go through it in certain situations. That was very impactful.

Here in Florida, all of the players wrote a name on a jersey patch of someone who has been affected by racism, illness or COVID-19. Ilie wrote his father’s name and Matt Besler wrote Barb Goebel’s name, which all made perfect sense. Everyone was playing for somebody. The Black Lives Matter warmups are great, too. One thing I love about our team is how much we’ve embraced it. We’ll continue to warm up in those shirts and spread that message as much as possible every game. For the special jersey patches in our first game, it took us maybe an hour and a half to get those pressed onto the jerseys for all of our players. It was cool to be a part of that.

Assistant equipment manager Sammy Jaksen is one of the most enthusiastic and spirited members of Sporting’s traveling delegation.

I’ll take you to the very first day that we interviewed him. I had met him a while back when we had played soccer together a few times. I liked him—he was a positive guy and he would work his butt off. And you could tell he wanted to be around the game of soccer. He wanted to be involved from the start. For me, I knew I wanted him to join our staff. So I had him come out to a few trainings and get around the team for a little bit.

Peter Vermes was also able to meet Sammy, and when I got the chance, I told Peter that he was a guy I thought we should have on staff. Peter wanted to interview him, so we brought him in and Peter asked him two questions. The first question was, “What is a good day to you?” Sammy’s answer was “Any day that I get to be around soccer. Any day that I’m around the fields.” Then Peter asked, “What’s a bad day to you?” And he looked at Peter and said, “I live in the United States, so there are no bad days. I’m from Thailand and I could be out in the fields working all day. Instead I get to be around soccer. Even if we have to train for six hours and I have to do laundry every day, there is no bad day here for me.”

Sammy was hired on the spot. That’s been his mentality with everything. He brings a good light to things. Everyone has their days where they’re off, but Sammy comes in and brings a different energy. Sometimes it’s crazy and we have to reel him in, and other days we just let him go because it’s perfect. He and I have a great relationship in the sense that I don’t have to worry about him when I give him a task. He goes and does it. He’s a huge part of this organization.

Sometimes Sammy and I use TikTok as a way of giving people a real-life look at what we do on a daily basis.

Although it’s work, we can show that we do have fun. There’s a special relationship here. It’s work hard, play hard. To me, it’s an opportunity to show others why I like going to work. And it’s not stuff that we stage or make up. It’s really just the silliness that happens every day. It started with Sammy mispronouncing things or saying things that were just a little off. He kind of just makes up clichés and sayings as he goes, and it’s hysterical to me. It’s fun for us, plus we get a good response from it. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback, so it’s good to hear that people are liking it—at least for now.

One of the challenges of being in Florida for an extended period of time is being away from family.

Lately, my daughter has been going to work with my wife. We tried to quarantine ourselves as much as possible, especially the week before I left for Florida with the team. My daughter has been spending a lot of time in this back room where my wife works, so I’ll call her multiple times. She’ll send me text messages with little emojis, then I’ll FaceTime her throughout the day. I can tell when she’s getting bored because she’ll start to write to me, so I’ll just call her and we’ll FaceTime for a little bit. The last few nights she’s been reading me bedtime stories. She reads while I fall asleep.

While it’s hard being away from family, I’m not a home body. We were all ready to restart the season.

Part of quarantine was great because we went on a ton of bike rides and I spent a lot of time with my family. It’s strange because we went through months of being together every single day, and suddenly daddy is gone for a month. It was good to have three months of family time, but I also got antsy. I’m not used to being cooped up. I wasn’t used to not having soccer. I think my family is dealing with it well, too. We do stuff similar to this every year when we go to preseason and when we’re out of town every other weekend.

The group’s mindset is great heading into our final group stage game on Wednesday.

In many ways, we’re one big family. At this point in time, I feel like the trip has gone really fast. A lot of the other guys feel that way, too. There’s been some down time here and there where guys can go outside and enjoy some of the things the hotel has to offer. There are the video games for the young players and a ton of different soccer games—soccer billiards where you use your feet—a bags game and a lot of other activities in and around the hotel. The guys feel good about being here and they know they have a purpose, and that purpose is to win.