Go on tour with the big-time bands and you’ll find a team of tireless experts that works behind the scenes to make sure that everything is perfect when the group steps on stage to perform for their legion of fans, from setting up the lighting and sound, to tuning instruments, to the organization of the food and travel. As the “team behind the team,” the members of that dedicated staff are the most important people you’ve never heard of.
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The U.S. Men’s National Team deploys a similar group, each having different responsibilities but working towards the same goal. To give you a glimpse, ussoccer.com went behind the scenes with MNT Equipment Manager Jesse Bignami (left above) and Team Administrator Jon Fleishman (right) to document three different phases of their work behind a successful 10-day gathering.
Photos: John Dorton and Mike Janosz / ISI Photos
On March 9, MNT Equipment Manager Jesse Bignami and Team Administrator Jon Fleishman are putting the finishing touches on a large shipment of gear that will go from its home at the National Training Center in Carson, Calif., to the MNT hotel in San Jose.
For Fleishman, it means packing up approximately nine cases that contain everything he needs to setup a mobile office at the team hotel, while Bignami works with the MNT medical staff to gather all of their equipment as well as the large amount of player gear needed to go on the road.
The MNT kit man packs up the usual items such as boots, balls, jerseys, goalkeeper gloves, casual wear, massage tables, and medical equipment. There’s also some more eccentric items, like a heat press, boot stretcher, power adapters for foreign countries, and even the game balls that will be used by our opponent on the road.
In total, he estimates they ship about 100 different trunks and cases to San Jose that add up to almost 10,000 pounds.
“We almost always are shipping prior to the roster being announced and we don’t have a home stadium, so we basically have to bring everything we need to be self-sufficient anywhere in the world,” Bignami told ussoccer.com “That’s different than any club team who travels 48 hours before a game. Jon has nine trunks that are basically his mobile office. All the medical stuff we travel with accounts for the fact that we obviously don’t have a fully equipped training room when we show up in a hotel. There’s a lot to consider.”
As he’s packing, Bignami keeps a meticulous list, tracking everything that goes onto the shipment truck.
After three long days of packing, the two see the shipment off to San Jose where they’ll collect it eight days later.
Flash forward to March 17 where Bignami and Fleishman are joined by MNT Assistant Equipment Manager Mike Zawlocki and other staff to begin setting things up at the team hotel before players and coaching staff arrive two days later.
As Team Administrator, Fleishman is responsible for liaising with the hotel and setting up functional spaces for all of the team’s different departments. That means booking guest rooms, as well as separate large conference spaces that accommodate equipment, training and treatment facilities, team meal and meeting rooms, as well as separate offices for coaches, administration and communications staff.
Once those are all organized, he digs in to making detailed player and staff arrival packets that include room information, a daily schedule, and a map that identifies different team spaces in the hotel so that when everyone hits the ground they are all on the same page.
“Organization is my job,” Fleishman said. “It’s not rocket science or brain surgery; it’s really just being able to multi-task and keep a lot of different balls in the air at one time. I’m here to make sure when a player, coach or staff member arrives in camp that their specific function space, their sleeping room, and the documents they need to do their job are all available to them so they can focus right away on what they need to do for the team.”
Bignami and Zawlocki move all their cases into a large hotel conference room where they sort through the variety of gear, get it organized and then place it into bundles that are ready to go once players and staff get to the hotel. They also add personal touches – a steady stream of popular tunes playing in the background adds to the environment.
While players are starting to arrive, Fleishman is adjusting and adapting to the inevitable changes that are part of arranging for 25 players, all of whom have played on the weekend, to come into camp from all over the world. In this case, Fleishman has received word from the MNT coaching staff that Sacha Kljestan and Matt Besler have been added to the roster, meaning he needs to book flights and update the rooming list. With the clock ticking before the first team meeting and training session, Fleishman must make quick calls to the travel agency hotline, set up the airport transfer, and urgently communicate with the clubs to coordinate the player movements so that each guy can arrive as quickly as possible to integrate into the group.
“If everything went to plan and there were never any changes, there’d really be no need for me to be on the trip,” Fleishman said. “I could tee everything up, get everything ready to go and they’d be on their way. That never happens.”
Even before the satisfying 6-0 win against Honduras, the MNT staff is already planning for the next day’s trip to Panama City. While the team enjoyed a relatively light Saturday recovering after a well-earned three points, Bignami, Fleishman and other staff spend the day packing up, separating the equipment that will board the flight to Panama that night from the gear that will be shipped back to Carson.
With a warm-weather destination and a roster now firmly at 23 players, the gear equation gets a little bit easier for Bignami.
“We didn’t have to pack cold weather gear or long sleeve jerseys and we’d already passed out the casual gear, so we were able to trim down our travel load,” he said. “At that point, we know the players that are confirmed and now we pare down the stuff to bring as little as possible to Panama. At the same time, we know that we can’t count on anyone to help us on the road. If we need it, we have to bring it.”
Bignami estimates about 60 percent of the overall shipment is headed back to Carson instead of traveling with the team outside the United States. That includes about half of the medical equipment and most of Fleishman’s administrative cases.
With limited space on the plane, there are several factors to consider on what goes to Panama City. There are items that are essential (blank uniforms in BOTH colors, a FIFA requirement), items that are useful (extra training gear in case of laundry issues, theft, etc.) and items that are nice to have (gifts for locals). Fortunately, Bignami has become an expert on how to load gear onto a plane.
“There’s usually a flight engineer who is responsible for the cargo. I meet with him and give an estimate of what we’re taking,” Bignami said. “That affects their calculations as far as gas and the weight they’re planning for. We know the gear, so I show him what we’re loading from the truck side and then I go up in the belly of the plane with him to see the space we’re working with.”
“From there, it’s a life-size game of Tetris,” he added.
“For the most part they put the heavier items towards the middle and back of the plane, and we load accordingly based on their recommendations. The goal is to have everything on the plane by the time the team bus arrives. That usually happens.”
Of course, once in a while someone leaves something they need in a checked bag. On this trip, a player packed his passport, which necessitated Bignami to go back under the plane and locate the bag, then Fleishman dug through it.
Let’s just call it team work.
“Everything you can imagine pops up,” Fleishman said. “I’m usually the first call when something is wrong, and I’ll sort it or put into motion the way it gets done.
“When everyone is able to focus on their own job in their area and do it to the best of their ability, we can have a successful team behind the team. You’d like to think that helps our players in some way be in a better position to win a game. That’s why we are here.”