ST. PETERSBURG — FC Tampa Bay coach Ricky Hill stands, arms crossed, in the sliver of shade provided by the Al Lang Field scoreboard.
As the team prepares for tonight's first playoff match in franchise history, Tampa Bay is practicing on the smaller left half of the outfield grass, focusing on direct, one-touch passes and moving the ball faster than the tightly compact defense can keep up.
It's a drill the team has repeated ad nauseam since the first days of training camp in late February. In those early stages, the ball was often misplayed, bouncing around pingpong-like with no real purpose.
The team's competency completing the drill has mirrored its midseason surge, resulting in a No. 3 seed for the North American Soccer League postseason and tonight's home knockout match against Minnesota.
As Hill watches, his soundtrack is at once encouraging and demanding.
"Yes, Jeff … Show for the ball, Yama … Find the open space … That's unlucky, Mike."
Hill's demeanor is familiar, too. Indeed, little has changed from those early-season training sessions, other than the aptitude of the team performing them.
"I think their understanding of the team principles of the game, I think more people understand that," Hill said. "…If you can control and pass and move quickly, you're going to create problems for any team. But everybody has to be reading off the same page."
The team that won nine of its last 16 regular-season matches will stay largely unchanged. The 4-4-2 setup remains but Hill isn't bound to a formation, saying: "When we have the ball, we're all attackers, and when we don't have the ball, we're all defenders."
Tonight's lineup will look much like last weekend against Fort Lauderdale with only a minor tweak or two. The team is playing at a high level, and Hill wants to avoid disrupting continuity.
That said, there is one major difference tonight. Win, or the season's over. Whichever team can remain calm under those circumstances will likely advance.
"Five games left. That's the motto for us right now," midfielder Pascal Millien said. "We just have to take each game like it's our last game."
News and notes: D Andres Arango suffered a mild concussion in practice and his availability is a game-time decision. … Miss Florida 2011 Kristina Janolo will sing the national anthem and sign autographs on the concourse from 6:45 to 7:15 p.m. … Donna Crawford, widow of slain St. Petersburg police officer David Crawford, will serve as Tampa Bay's honorary captain. … The Al Lang box office will open at 4 and gates will open at 6.