THIS!

Last Saturday’s Atletico Madrid vs FC Barcelona game was a perfect example of modern top-level soccer.

It had everything – skills, technique, creativity, excellent off-the-ball movement, great defending and goalkeeping, playing out from the back, spacing, pressing, shooting, passion, pace, team work….the list goes on.

This is how huge the gap is in our country. This is where we need to be if we want to compete internationally.

And to reach this level of soccer sophistication requires a fundamental revamp of how we teach, play, and organize soccer. It starts with our coaching quality, and includes finding a way for our best/better players to avoid college soccer.

I’m including here a 12-minute highlights clip, but it doesn’t do the game justice. I strongly encourage you to find a recording of the full game and watch it with your soccer-playing kids. It’s very entertaining and a great learning opportunity.

Disgraceful – time to cut the BS!

This is my first post in many months – I’ve simply been too busy at work and with family. But Tuesday night’s US MNT elimination from the World Cup jolted me into posting again.

I have not felt this angry in a while. This is a national disgrace, an international embarrassment.

Let me be very blunt: what a joke of a team and coaches. USSF lacks leadership that understands this beautiful game deeply enough. The quality of soccer in the MLS is poor and the incentives in that league are not aligned with developing players to compete internationally. And don’t get me started on college soccer.

Time to stop the BS and start with a complete and deep revamp of how we teach, play, and organize the beautiful game here.

We need to hold our coaches more accountable and support only those that truly understand the game and how to teach it. This also means that we as parents and the leaders of our youth clubs educate ourselves about what it means to learn and play futbol properly.

In contrast to pretty much all soccer powerhouses such as Brazil and Germany and Spain, we’re paying our coaches and clubs a lot of money, right? So if we have a pay-to-play model here let’s at least demand a service that can justify these cost.

This applies to all levels of coaching – national, pro, college, and youth. And it applies to US Soccer leadership as well as us parents.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while then you know that this doesn’t come as too big a surprise to me, but I still feel angry about it.

We have inmates running the asylum and it needs to stop.

In contrast, tiny Iceland (pop 335,000) qualified for the World Cup yesterday in first place (!) in its European (!) qualifying group. And remember their recent remarkable European Championship performance?

That’s a country only about one-third the population of the City of San Jose here in NorCal.

Let’s do that again: 335 thousand people with limited resources on an icy island in the Atlantic ocean near Europe perform better than 335 million people living in the wealthiest country in the world with unbelievable facilities and resources and brainpower and a deep and pervasive tradition of sports.

When will there be enough evidence to finally trigger deep changes in how we train and play this beautiful game in our country? Have we finally reached a tipping point?

I’ll leave you with these three clips to reflect on:

#ussoccer #soccer #futbol #usmnt #mls #ussf

Massive waste of talent because of pay-to-play

This is probably one of the most important blog posts I’ve written, triggered by an excellent article in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago: “It’s only working for the white kids: American soccer’s diversity problem.”

Here’s a quote from that article to summarize its key point:

“Well-to-do families spend thousands of dollars a year on soccer clubs that propel their children to the sport’s highest levels, while thousands of gifted athletes in mostly African American and Latino neighborhoods get left behind. Soccer is the world’s great democratic game, whose best stars have come from the world’s slums, ghettos and favelas. And yet in the US the path to the top is often determined by how many zeroes a parent can write in their checkbook.”

We probably all agree that soccer in our country is expensive. I posted on this topic a couple of weeks ago – click here to read about the cost of competitive youth soccer.

And the higher the quality of coaching and the higher ranked a team is, the higher the cost, partly because of considerable in-state and then out-of-state travel. Talk to someone who’s son or daughter plays on one of the Development Academy or ECNL teams to learn more. But even the second and third teams at the bigger clubs are expensive and travel quite a bit.

To be very clear, I am not saying that soccer clubs are doing anything ‘wrong’ in terms of the fees they charge. And some try to make needs-based scholarships available to talented players and organize fundraisers.

It’s simple – the bills have to be paid by someone and in our private market called ‘youth soccer’ it’s the parents, of course. And there are also many indirect cost to consider beyond just the direct cost such as club fees. To quote from the article:

“Scholarships often cover the cost of the league but little else. They don’t provide transportation for the player whose parents might work during practice, or don’t have enough money for gas to drive to games. Some families don’t have email and can’t get the club announcements. Resentment builds.

“The parents will say to scholarship kids – and I have seen this countless times – ‘Why did you miss the game on Saturday? We are paying for you to be here,’” Lusson says. “What does a kid say to that? Or what happens if they are late to practice? Or who is going to pay for them to travel to that tournament in San Diego? That’s like the moon to some of these kids. We have kids here in the East Bay who have never seen the beach.”

They drop out and drift away and we lose them and that’s terrible because they were really, really talented.”

The other key point this article makes is that some of the best soccer is actually played in the ‘ligas Latinos’. Click here for an article I came across describing one of those ligas.

I have refereed countless games across all age groups and levels, and see the difference between teams from Latino neighborhoods across NorCal and teams from middle-class and well-to-do neighborhoods.

These relatively well-off teams tend to be more disciplined and ‘solid’ throughout, and often also consistently fitter, but seem to lack that extra level of soccer understanding, technical skill, and creativity that many of the Latino teams have.

As a rule of thumb I see better individual talent on Latino teams, often much better.

It’s a level of play you only reach if you grow up playing street soccer pretty much every day at school and in your neighborhood, and are surrounded by a futbol culture that encourages skills and creativity, and draws you into watching international soccer games on a daily/weekly basis.

You can’t get this from just going to structured team practices three times a week that the kids from middle-class and well-to-do neighborhoods typically pay their club fees for.

They tend not to have time for more soccer anyway – there are other extracurricular activities that help them grow into ‘well-balanced individuals’ and strengthen their college applications.

Throw in extra tutoring to do well in school and a busy social life too, of course. Most don’t even have time nor interest to watch top international games on a weekly basis.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with these priorities, of course. It’s a smart approach for these kids given that practically none of them are aiming to turn pro, but it should be clear to everyone that these youngsters can never reach the elite level.

Yet our player development system is supporting them as though they will and ignores those that actually have a realistic chance to join the elite.

And then we also have the college system that distorts the discovery and development of true top talent. The well-to-do teams travel to college showcases and have the grades to get into college, especially the top college programs (with the better facilities and coaches typically, because those pay best).

For many (and probably all top) clubs the college placement rate is a key selling point so their programming is at least partially influenced by what colleges are looking for.

And I don’t blame the clubs for that. They are simply operating within the system. Why should coaches that dedicate their professional lives to the game not maximize their financial return, like you and me?

Being a martyr for a cause is easy to say, but impossible to do when you have to make a living, support a family, and save for retirement. And that coach will be remembered by very few for ‘fighting the good fight’.

Truly talented underprivileged kids, that are never seen at these college ‘showcases’ because they simply can’t ‘pay to play’ nor have the grades because they had to help support their families, simply vanish.

And that’s a massive loss for our country, not just in terms of becoming World Cup contenders at some point, but also in terms of making our MLS games more entertaining.

Entertainment is the lifeblood of soccer (and any sport). The better the entertainment, which is a direct result of talented players, the more money will flow into soccer. It’s a virtuous cycle.

In my view, the USA game against Colombia (Fifa Rank #4) in the Copa America two weeks ago made all this painfully visible. It’s not so much the fact that we lost, but rather how we played.

Yes, we won the next three games against Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Ecuador, mostly because we simply played with more heart and energy and against much lower ranked teams than Columbia, but there simply is no player or coach in our country who can credibly compete in the top 10 internationally. Period. We rank 29th, by the way.

Watch the USA v Columbia game again and then the Argentina v Chile game. And finally watch the 0:4 semifinal loss against an Argentinian side that was playing at only about 50-75% of what they are capable of.

Quoting an analyst (with some edits for clarity and brevity), “we had just 32 percent of possession, our midfield lost the ball quickly, we had zero shots (not zero shots on goals – zero shots total), and we were out-played in every way possible. It’s not so much that the U.S. got beaten as it was that they weren’t even in the game.”

We battled and never gave up, but the difference in class along pretty much any soccer dimension, individual and team, was obvious.

That’s the chasm we need to cross and we won’t be successful until we’ve figured out how to discover and then nurture truly our best and most passionate futbol talent wherever it might be.

There is no easy solution to this pay-to-play problem, but I strongly suspect that the only feasible way to truly discover and develop our best soccer talent is to have at least some type of large central funding source with aligned incentives that can support a broad scouting net and then pay for a very large number of youngsters’ development.

U.S. Soccer will have to own this – government funding won’t be available for this. Many other countries, including soccer powerhouses such as Germany and Spain, provide taxpayer funded government support (sometimes a lot and even the entire cost), but we don’t operate like that here.

In addition, clubs that develop talent need to be compensated by the pro clubs for that development. Right now the bigger clubs, especially those with USDA and ECNL status simply suck up the talent that was developed by smaller clubs.

And then the MLS clubs in turn mop up the top talent without owing one of the lesser clubs anything for their player development work.

Here’s an article that describes that well. This article also describes how tough it is to make a decent living running most youth soccer clubs.

And once you have a system in place to identify the best talent how do you then best develop them? Insert them into the existing youth clubs (with external funding support) or maybe have a centrally organized system of development through US Soccer?

It’s relatively easy once you’ve identified those that are truly elite – they can join one of the fully paid USDA teams at one of our MLS clubs, but there’s the millions of 5 to 12 year old underprivileged kids that need to be nurtured. Or at least a good portion of them.

It’s the only way to identify the diamonds in the rough and an important part of the changes we need to eventually be able to help fulfill the enormous potential of this massive, sports-obsessed, and wealthy country of ours. We have no excuse!

By the way, click here if you’re interested in some wealth distribution data. This Forbes article is just one source – there are many and they all tell the same story.

P.S.: And then we have to make sure that creative talent isn’t suffocated by shallow, risk-averse coaching that suppresses this creativity, but that’s another topic for another day. If you’re interested, I’ve shared my views on this many times including here, here, and here.

Quality of college players according to superstar Andrea Pirlo

“Young players arrive in MLS from colleges. They don’t know tactics and very little technically. Physically, a lot.”

-Andrea Pirlo, one of the best playmaking midfielders of all time. Won pretty much everything there is to win with AC Milan, Juventus, and Italy, including the World Cup in 2006. Currently playing for New York City FC.

via @Gazzetta_it

Homeless girl succeeds in (and with) soccer against all odds

Here’s a real-life story to share with your son or daughter next time their attitude needs some, shall we say, adjusting. We have this challenge from time to time at home.

There is no excuse for healthy boys and girls with stable families, especially those that can pay for pretty much everything youngsters ‘need’.

The Orange County Register – Oct. 6, 2015

The soccer field isn’t just a field to Christina Burkenroad. It’s more than two goals, freshly cut grass, scattered cones, teammates running, coaches shouting and soccer balls whirling into the back of the net.

This is her refuge.

With a Sharpie she wrote a few lines on her Nikes inspired by the Bible verse Ezra 10:4. On top of the lime and pink swoosh: “Rise up, take courage, and do it”; On the inside of the shoe: “Trust in your ability.”

The senior midfielder and reigning Big West Conference Tournament MVP for Cal State Fullerton women’s soccer (8-2-1), has always had to rise up to challenges off the field that never seemed to relent. Years of financial instability that at one point left her homeless have caused Burkenroad to cling to the field even tighter.

“The stadium is my sanctuary,” said Burkenroad, 22. “I definitely consider it my home.”

Burkenroad prays before every Fullerton game. Her thoughts circle back to her mother: to be with her, to give her strength. Burkenroad’s mother passed away when she was 4. Once, after praying before her first Big West Tournament her freshman year, Burkenroad looked up and saw white fluffy spots floating around. Her mom was with her. The feeling seized her body and armed her with newfound strength.

The San Diego native has yearned to access that strength for years, because losing her mother forever altered the course of her family’s life. Her mother’s death caused her father to spiral into a deep depression, struggling to cope financially and emotionally amid the growing needs of Burkenroad and her older brother.

Meanwhile Burkenroad thrived in tennis, swimming, softball (her mother played semi-professionally), basketball and golf before discovering soccer. Falling in love with scoring goals, she never wanted to leave the field.

Unable to make ends meet, her father drove himself and the then-9-year-old Burkenroad to North Carolina to stay with her aunt and four older sons for support.

By 16, she and her father moved back to San Diego, but their financial prospects remained bleak: “Eventually money just ran out,” she said. “Literally down to zero.” The pair moved back in with Burkenroad’s aunt, who had recently relocated from North Carolina to San Diego. Yet soon after, they were out on the street, with nothing but a garbage bag full of clothes.

As a junior at Mission Bay High School, Burkenroad and her father lived out of his Land Rover for several weeks. They showered at a local beach and parked in the beach’s lot at night. She had never prayed so hard in her life as she did in that car: for a home, for consistent meals, for a normal teenage life. Her grades suffered and her hope dwindled. “It was hell,” Burkenroad said. “I thought my life was over.”

But on the outside, Burkenroad was the perfect girl. The one classmates predicted would go far. The one who always had a smile on her face. By that time she had been twice named All-CIF and thrice named all-league. She had set the school record with 27 goals as a freshman, then broke that mark as a sophomore with 35 goals en route to earning Central League Player of the Year.

Few knew her predicament. “She would always make up a little story that things were okay,” said Stacey Haerr, who has known Burkenroad since she was a first-grader. Haerr’s daughter and Burkenroad were childhood friends; Haerr considers Burkenroad like a daughter.

“She was so fragile and just so embarrassed that she was in the position she was,” Haerr said. “She didn’t tell anybody.”

Burkenroad turned to soccer for solace, as it was the one stable place in her unstable life. Practice would start and end at a certain time. The same drills were to be completed. Teammates and coaches embraced her, almost like a family.

“Soccer became her safe spot,” said Sally Custer, a family friend who, like Haerr, considers Burkenroad like a daughter. “It’s a place where she could always shine and she could depend on herself and she could depend on people around her.”

As a senior in 2012, Burkenroad moved in with her best friend’s family. Her prospects brightened and she was named league player of the year that season, totaling 31 goals and 18 assists.

Playing college soccer was always her dream, but nothing more. Burkenroad didn’t have the means to regularly play club soccer – which can cost thousands of dollars in hopes of getting scouted for a college scholarship – but she had raw talent.

“Most of the girls on these teams – I don’t want to say they’ve been coddled – but they’ve had really giant support systems,” Haerr said. “Christina’s really done all this on her own. She didn’t have anybody driving her to practice. She didn’t have anybody spending hours and weekends teaching her how to play soccer. She really did it all on her own.”

After graduating from high school, Burkenroad happened to be playing a game with NOMADS Soccer Club in La Jolla. Most of the girls around her had already signed to play college soccer (players often commit one to two years in advance). Burkenroad didn’t yet have a plan.

The NOMADS coach, Brian McManus, reached out to Fullerton women’s soccer coach Demian Brown about Burkenroad. As a youth, Brown had played for McManus on the NOMADS.

“I said, ‘I think you really need to look at this player. I think she could do well for you,’” said McManus, who is now the head women’s coach at UC San Diego.

“She read the game so well,” McManus said. “She was the kind of player that just went at people all the time. She had so much confidence. You could just see the expression in her – she just wanted to play, she just wanted to go at people.”

Brown decided he’d offer Burkenroad a scholarship before the game even began, based on her warmup.

“When you watch kids, they do certain things. They move in certain ways,” Brown said. “When you look at her, she’s 5-10, athletic-looking, good with the ball – we watched her that game and a game after and offered her a scholarship and thanked Brian the whole way.”

Burkenroad had a full scholarship to college. A new team. A new family. “It was just a miracle,” she said.

***

The midfielder took her chance and ran with it. With her instincts and technical ability, plus her athleticism and length, the reigning all-region selection ranks fourth in Titans history with seven game-winning goals. She’s also tied for seventh in points (50) and tied for eighth in goals (19).

Totaling six goals and four assists in 2014, she helped the Titans win the Big West regular-season and tournament titles. The team advanced to the NCAA Division I Tournament in 2013 and 2014.

Burkenroad has been even more dominant this season. The senior ranks second on the Titans (8-2-1) with six goals and is tied for first in the conference with five assists, while her 17 points ranks third in the conference.

“I feel strongly that she is becoming, if not already, probably one of the best 1 v. 1 attacking players in the country,” Brown said. “Because when she gets out wide 1 v. 1, you might stop her once or twice in the game, but she’s going to go at least 15 times and you’re not going to stop her every time.”

Though coming to Fullerton turned her life around, it has not been easy for Burkenroad to leave her lifestyle behind.

Moving from place to place growing up, she didn’t have much structure. She didn’t have someone telling her to complete her homework or expecting her to bring home her grades. Once she came to Fullerton, she had to teach herself how to be a student: how to prepare for exams, how to manage papers, how to organize assignments, all the while juggling Division I soccer – a difficult feat for any student.

She’s had a few scares where she had to take summer school to retain her eligibility. She’s had moments where she’s lost her focus amid social engagements and outside distractions, Brown said.

But Burkenroad managed to pick herself up, get back on track and work harder. Her grades have improved, and she now eagerly shows her coaches her marks. She’s graduating this year with a degree in advertising and aspires to play professional soccer.

“Other people would give up, just say ‘forget it’ and walk away. But she didn’t give up,” Haerr said.

Burkenroad said her father is doing better now and regularly attends her home games. She still carries the weight of all she has endured, but on the soccer field, it’s almost as if she can shed the burden. Even if only for 90 minutes, Burkenroad is free.

“There’s no use in worrying about it or stressing about it,” Burkenroad said. “Because I’m in such a good place now. Nobody can take this away from me.”

The very very very low odds of making it big in soccer

Now that the fall soccer season is over it’s time for some of us ‘crazy’ soccer parents to take a step back and reflect.

Here’s a simple fact: no youngsters you know in youth soccer nor anyone you have ever watched or shared a tournament with all these years will make it to the top. This is a statistical certainty.

Here’s a full list of Arsenal youth academy youngsters over the last 15+ years and where they ended up:

https://arsenalyouth.wordpress.com/academygraduates/

Too much data for me to summarize here. You might want to take a few moments to browse around on that site.

Very sobering I think. Arsenal’s youth academy is highly rated, even amongst the elite clubs in the world.

Also keep in mind that very few of the Barca La Masia youth academy youngsters make it big in the end.

For some of you this is probably obvious already and you’re encouraging your son or daughter to participate in youth soccer for the right reasons.

But there are too many delusional parents out there that are behaving in ways that simply doesn’t make sense.

If you think you might be one of them please take a moment to take a deep breath and reflect on what truly is important for your son or daughter learning and playing this beautiful game.

We can debate what is considered ‘making it to the top’ of course. For example, it might be getting a soccer college scholarship which is quite a bit removed from the elite pro clubs, of course. But even soccer scholarships are not easy.

Keep a healthy perspective and make sure you focus on what’s truly important. Enjoy your time together with your children and make sure they enjoy the beautiful game…for a lifetime.

Very good post on what is holding us back. Read the comments also!

 

The declining role of high school (and college) soccer?

I came across this article from a high school soccer coach and I don’t understand what his point is.

It’s quite simple in my (simple) mind:

High school soccer is a great way to bond with classmates in your neighborhood and to learn what it means to be on a team. It can be fun and a confidence booster for youngsters. No question there is a place for high school soccer.

However, the standard of play, the coaching, the practices, the tactical understanding, and the opposition for high school soccer is so far from competitive soccer levels, especially the top level, that boys and girls that are pursuing soccer at the top level cannot justify taking time out to play on their high school teams.

The gap really is large and top players already have so little time left outside their clubs’ demanding practice & games schedule and keeping up with school work.

Top players need to focus all their time on top developmemt programs, avoid risk of injury that often comes from playing against opponents that aren’t quite in control of their movements, and avoid possibly adopting bad habits during the high school soccer seasons.

The high school years are often make or break years for top players to reach the elite level. High school soccer simply doesn’t provide what this kind of player needs. The social aspects are (unfortunately) just ‘nice to have’ for top players.

There surely is no question about this.

Losing a star impact player can make a difference for specific high schools, but high school soccer as a whole won’t be materially affected if, say, the top 1% of players skip the teams.

So I strongly suggest that high school soccer continues to focus on what it does best, recognize what it doesn’t do well, and support U.S. Soccer’s elite player development efforts. And vice versa, of course.

I don’t see why high school soccer should be in decline. The better we do at the top level in this country, especially internationally, the more soccer will grow here.

There is no reason for conflict. A rising tide lifts all boats.

The state of U.S. Soccer – food for thought

I came across this blog post today describing in strong words the state of soccer development in our country. Food for thought. Here’s an excerpt:

“Landon Donovan is painfully shallow and naïve calling for Jurgen Klinsmann’s firing if USMNT loses to Mexico in upcoming CONCACAF matchup. Firing Jurgen is akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Despite a player pool and youth pipeline chock-full of mediocrity, Jurgen has the highest winning percentage of USMNT coaches.

If the feeder USMNT pool/pipeline (MLS, college, and USSDA) is serious about success, it must genuinely look within to fix the problem and not symptoms, or to quiet dissent from the USMNT coach.

It’s without question the USMNT is an average team at the stronger World Cup international level, while dominant at the regional CONCACAF level against the likes of Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba, El Salvador, et al.

If Jurgen were shown the door and a new coach unveiled, there would have to be a corresponding seismic change in how we approach youth development, USSDA, college, and professional soccer.

Any change in coaching absent this would be in name alone. The underlying structure would be untouched as it has been since Sampson, Arena, and Bradley were at the helm of the USMNT.

To seriously have a chance to compete with the world’s elite in a generation or two, the men in charge (Gulati at USSF and Garber at MLS) must immediately lay the groundwork and scrap the historically ineffective system. A total bottoms-up revamp is required. No sacred cows. No gatekeeper status quo yes men to redesign it. Look for fresh ideas, benchmarks from European and South American gold standards.

Find alternatives to pay-to-play, rethink college soccer, reassess USSDA, implement pro/rel, find ways to expand the pyramid, establish a preferred style of play and supporting player ID and development philosophy and the coaching to execute it. Decentralize MLS and turn it into a club-oriented league. Synchronize with the international league calendar.

Drastic times call for drastic action. Think of how Germany and Spain fundamentally reinvented themselves.”

Klinsmann in 2010. Just as relevant today.

“Our dysfunctional developmental system emphasizes club soccer and the chase for college scholarships over true longer-term professional development. This is the only country in the world that has the pyramid upside down. You pay for having your kid play soccer because your goal is to get a college scholarship, which is the complete opposite in the rest of the world.”

My personal view is that sports and academics don’t fit well together, especially for soccer given that it’s a truly international sport. College soccer is NOT a good place for a 18 or 19 year old to become a world-class player. Education is good in principle, of course, but it has nothing to do with honing the young player’s soccer craft to an elite level.

So boys that have the potential to become professional players are at a fork in the road – they have to chose the academic route or the professional soccer route, like in the rest of the world. You can’t do both and expect to reach international standards. As simple as that.

To be clear, getting a college scholarship and the academic credentials that goes with that is a fine goal, of course, but it also means that this top youth player almost certainly won’t be able to fulfill their potential as a soccer player.

And that is a reasonable trade off, of course, especially since only a small percentage of top youth players that pursue professional soccer careers end up making enough money to support themselves during their lifetime.

For girls it’s different in my view. The college route is good for even elite girls because it gives them a better starting point after their soccer careers are over. Unfortunately, women’s professional soccer will almost certainly never be able to generate enough financial return for the players because there isn’t enough money in women’s soccer. And that’s a delicate topic for a future post…