Soccer success is about skill according to new university research

This comes as no surprise to many of you that already ‘get this’ intuitively from having played and watched this beautiful game your entire life. And you’ll also understand why I used the above image for this blog post.

Without an appreciation of and commitment to the artistry of soccer we won’t be able to credibly compete at the international level and the growth of soccer here will stall.

Some day the majority of coaches, players, and parents in our country will hold this truth to be self-evident. We still have some way to go, unfortunately, but we have to keep chipping away at this folks. Keep the faith!

The peer-reviewed study, conducted by researchers from Australia and the U.S. in collaboration with elite soccer academies in Brazil, was published last week in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.

This new study used analytic techniques developed in evolutionary biology to determine the impact of a player’s skill, athletic ability, and balance on their success during a game.

The researchers found it was their skill — not speed, strength, or fitness — that was the most important factor.

“Higher skill allows players to have a greater impact on the game”, Professor Wilson said.

“Accurate passing and greater ball control are more important for success than high speed, strength and fitness.

“It may be obvious to soccer fans and coaches that players like Lionel Messi and Neymar are the best due to their skill.

“However, 90 per cent of research on soccer players is based on how to improve their speed, strength, and agility — not their skill.”

Professor Wilson is collaborating with elite soccer academies in Brazil, where he is testing new protocols for skill development in junior players.

“Our research shows that skill is fundamental to player success in soccer,” he said.

“Skill is complex and multidimensional — and we need to measure all aspects of it — with the next step to work out how to improve these aspects in developing players.

“Brazilian football academies understand the importance of developing skill in young players, which gives us a great opportunity to test our ideas and find new ways to improve youth training.

“Professor Wilson hopes to bring his knowledge back to Australia to improve the nation’s international standing and World Cup potential.

“Australia will only become a successful footballing nation if we innovate rather than replicate,” he said.

“There are kids with an incredible amount of skill who aren’t being selected for teams and training programs because they can’t run as fast at nine, 10, or 11 years old.

“These kids need to be given a chance and the science of skill is on their side.”

State of U.S. Soccer according to former FC Barcelona Academy Director

Albert Puig wrote the following open letter in English and Spanish on Oct 12, 2017, following the elimination of our MNT from the World Cup:

One year after my arrival to the United States, with your permission, I intend to reflect on the situation of the U.S. Soccer.

I want to do it without criticism. Just stating the facts, since the will of the development of soccer in the United States, it is, and so it must be, of the Americans themselves.

I think it may be interesting to both the American public and to the rest of the world, to understand the situation, of course, always in my humble opinion.

The elimination of the senior national team for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, is no more than a consequence of the current soccer development system in the country.

A development system unable to define which is the objective. In the rest of the world, soccer becomes a factor of maximum social roots. Accordingly, their level is compared with other countries, and in that competition is where the challenge is created.

In the United States, the structure is very different. Without social roots at the base, its objective is transformed from collective to individual.

The formation of the player has a clear objective: get a scholarship for American universities.

Thus, we move from a collective challenge of a society, to a challenge more alien to it: the individual success in a team sport.

The development player becomes a parental investment; not so much, as in the rest of the world, because of the possibility of an economic and social future, but because investing a monetary amount now and multiplying by ‘x’ later, may become money saved for the university.

This leads to an exaggerated individualization of the vision of the parents on the development of the player. Every game has to be the result of my economic investment this week, therefore, it has to be the best, because the individual vision goes over the collective one. I invest, so I would like to see immediate results.

Sports structures are at the service of this idea. Plenty of competitive rules that only seek to follow the marked path: to arrive at the university.

Here a parenthesis. The American university is part of a big business economic development of the country, and acts as the real connector from youth to maturity within both social and jobs industry point if view. This is different in other countries.

In that individual objective, the methodology of the coaches follow the path. Practices where the focus are on the individual technical and physical development of the player, without understanding that soccer is a language, where the most important thing is to understand that language, understand it and speak it.

Two styles very defined. The combinative, usually robotic and without any hint of motivation by the creativity; and the physical, the body size and a direct game with speed to the back of the defenses.

The final goal, that could well be as in other countries, the arrival to the professional soccer, here the MLS, it is a way without any kind of future work.

Business takes over sport. Low salaries, not attractive to the American player, pure marketing, and tickets with the price of European soccer.

Result? Maximum economic benefits for the owners of the clubs, very low level of competitive quality. And those players are the basis of the national team.

Cases like Pulisic, which I personally know well because I was Director of the academy for FCB, are exceptions; in this case it was successful thanks to the strong will of the family, and the risk they took going for the adventure of professional soccer in Europe; as I said, in this case was successful, but unfortunately many more did not achieve their dream.

And what is the way forward? Only the social will of desire. And in these moments, and in the past, the United States, does not want to, as a collective, be a reference for the world of soccer.

US really has all the ingredients; large population, very smart players, with good physical anatomy for the sport, creative, collective….. only one thing is missing….to want, and to know, how to do it well.

SPANISH VERSION:

Un año después de mi llegada a Estados Unidos , con vuestro permiso, me dispongo a reflexionar sobre la situación del futbol estadounidense, aquí llamado soccer. Quiero hacerlo sin critica. Solo exponiendo los hechos, ya que la voluntad del desarrollo del futbol en Estados Unidos, es , y asi debe ser, de los propios americanos.

Creo interesante para que tanto el publico americano , como el del resto del mundo, entiendan la situación, evidentemente, siempre desde mi humilde opinión.

La eliminación de la selección absoluta del mundial 2018 de Rusia, no es mas que una consecuencia del desarrollo actual del futbol de formación del país. Una formación donde no esta definido cual es el objetivo que persigue, o si. En el resto del mundo ,el futbol, pasa a ser un factor de máximo arraigo social . En consecuencia , su valor es comparado con otros países, y en esa competición esta el objetivo de superación.

En Estados Unidos, la estructura es bien distinta. Sin arraigo social en la base, su objetivo se transforma de colectivo a individual. La formación del jugador tiene un objetivo claro. Conseguir una beca económica para las caras universidades americanas. Asi pues, pasamos de un reto colectivo de sociedad, a un reto mas ajeno a ella. El éxito individual en un deporte colectivo.

El jugador de formación se convierte en una inversión paterna, ya no tanto, como en el resto de países del mundo por un porvenir económico y social de futuro, sino por invertir una cantidad monetaria para multiplicar por x después, en el ahorro de la tasa universitaria.
Eso conlleva a una individualización exagerada de la visión de los padres sobre el desarrollo del jugador. Cada partido tiene que ser la consecuencia de mi inversión económica de esta semana, por ello, tiene que ser el mejor , ya que la vision individual prima sobre el colectivo. Invierto, pues quiero ver resultados inmediatos.

Las estructuras deportivas están al servicio de esta idea. Infinidad de reglas competitivas que solo buscan seguir el camino marcado. Llegar a la universidad. Aquí un paréntesis. La universidad americana es parte de un gran negocio económico de país, y actua como eje real vertebrador del paso de juventud a la madurez dentro del ámbito laboral y social. Diferente en otros países.

En ese individual objetivo, la metodología de los entrenadores siguen la estela. Practicas donde se busca el desarrollo individua técnico y físico del jugador, sin entender que el futbol es un lenguaje , donde lo mas importante es entenderlo , comprenderlo y hablarlo.

Dos estilos muy marcados. El combinativo, mas bien robotizado y sin ningún atisbo de motivación por la creatividad. Y el fisico, imperando la talla corporal y un juego directo con velocidad a la espalda de los defensas.
El objetivo final, que podría bien ser como en otros países, la llegada al futbol profesional, aquí la MLS, es un camino sin ningún tipo de futuro laboral. Impera la ley del negocio. Bajos salarios, no atractivos para el jugador americano, marqueting en estado puro , y entradas a precio de futbol europeo.

Resultado? Máximos beneficios económicos del los propietarios del los clubes, nivel muy bajo de calidad competitiva. Sus jugadores son la base de la selección americana.

Casos como Pulisic, que bien conozco personalmente por mi antigua dirección de la academia del FCB, son excepciones, mas por voluntad firme de la familia, y del riesgo de la aventura del mundo profesional europeo, que en este caso si ha tenido exito, pero por desgracia muchos mas no consiguieron su sueño.

Y cual es el camino? Solo la voluntad social de querer. Y en estos momentos, y en el pasado, Estados Unidos, no quiere como colectivo ser referente el el mundo del futbol. Lo tiene todo. Poblacion, jugadores muy inteligentes, con buena anatomía física para el deporte, creativos, colectivos….. solo fatal eso….querer y saber hacerlo bien.

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.

“There is nothing about soccer we don’t know.”

When Bruce Arena was appointed US MNT coach last November I had serious doubts. We were taking a big step back in my view, but I suspect that this probably was the ‘safe’ option for Sunil Gulati. At a minimum it lacked leadership.

Bruce has now left the arena (pardon the pun) but the coaching quality issue goes much deeper and broader than this. It’s one of the fundamental weaknesses of player development in our country, across all age groups and levels, including all the way up to our elite academies.

I’m going to share below parts of an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in March about Bruce Arena that explains much of what is comically deficient about the breadth and depth of coaching quality in our country. Bruce’s views are shared by too many soccer coaches in our country.

And during the news conference immediately after the elimination Bruce Arena had this to say: “There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing. Certainly, as our league grows, it advances the national team program. We have some good young players come up. Nothing has to change. To make any kind of crazy changes I think would be foolish.”

It is frankly unbelievable that our soccer leadership would even remotely consider a coach with these kinds of views to lead our national team to compete in today’s soccer world. If we want to move forward we can’t have any coaches like this at any of our youth academies.

In fact, this should disqualify any coach from being involved in ANY player development environment. There might be a place for them at high schools or college soccer programs.

In other words, if the coach of your competitive/travel youth team has this kind of background and/or has shared this kind of views on soccer coaching then you should be very wary.

Sit down before you read this. And your jaw might hit the floor by the time you’re done – place some padding just in case.

Here goes:

“I could learn as much or more from Bill Belichick as I could from the manager of Manchester City,” Arena, 65 years old, said in a recent interview. “I think it’s critical to understand what coaching is and how to manage a team, and the sport is immaterial.”

By the standards of international soccer, Arena has zero pedigree. He had barely heard of the sport until his first years in high school, when he saw one of his teachers, a Ukrainian, juggling a ball effortlessly in a business suit on a steamy June day.

He didn’t join his high school team until his final years. He played goalkeeper at Nassau Community College and Cornell, then peaked at the semi-professional level. At Cornell and the University of Virginia, he was hired to coach both the soccer and lacrosse teams.

To believe that he is now the best person to lead the U.S. men is to believe that soccer knowledge and coaching can be learned, rather than lived. But Arena believes that coaching is mostly about molding and motivating a team rather than exploiting technical superiority.

“Sports is sports,” Arena said.

Arena has had some interesting chats with Chelsea’s Antonio Conte​ and follows Manchester United ’s Jose Mourinho and Bayern Munich’s Carlo Ancelotti. But he says nothing he learns from them can compare with his time at Virginia in the early 1980s, when his office was cut in half to make way for a new visiting locker room for basketball.

That enabled him to eavesdrop on locker room talks by the likes of North Carolina’s Dean Smith, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Maryland’s Lefty Driesell. He also spent hours trading coaching ideas with a young women’s basketball assistant named Geno Auriemma, now a legend at the University of Connecticut.

Even today, Arena can’t name a soccer book that influenced him. Instead, he studies other sports hunting strategies for soccer. He sees a full-court press in basketball as not-so-different from blitzing in football or pressing in soccer; the pressure at the front of the defense usually leaves someone unmarked in the back, creating a coverage problem.

The folks in Europe can obsess about their biggest sport all day and night if they want, Arena says. The U.S. is just as good a place to learn to coach, he said, because of the diversity of sports.

“There is nothing about soccer we don’t know,” Arena said. “A lot of coaching is just about having an eye for players, and knowing what they do well and don’t do well, and communicating with them.”

[The article also quotes Kasey Keller who shares Bruce’s views:] “It’s about getting the right combination of players on the field with the right attitude and mental approach who can execute better than the other team. The game isn’t that complicated. Mark the unmarked man. Fill space. Work harder that the opponent. And hope a deflection goes your way in a key moment.”

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with taking ideas from other sports and comparing notes with coaches in other sports. And learning how to motivate players is very important too, of course. But that is elementary school stuff.

You cannot coach soccer at any meaningful level unless you have a deep understanding of the game. And you need to study it year in, year out. You need to stay current. You need to breathe it. You need to understand the deeper fabric of the beautiful game, and be able to teach it to players.

It takes decades of watching, playing, studying, and coaching to achieve mastery and even then only very few ever reach the elite level.

It’s time to wake up and demand more of your coaches, across all levels and age groups. Don’t be fooled anymore!

U.S. Men’s Soccer: What Happened?

I’m sharing the full text of an excellent Oct 11 Wall Street Journal article on the state of U.S. Soccer following elimination from the Word Cup. Here goes:

“A failure of imagination and player development ultimately cost the Americans a spot in next summer’s World Cup.”

And now comes the reckoning for U.S. men’s soccer.

A day after a decade’s worth of mistakes came home to roost, the U.S. federation now needs to clean up a program that for too long clung to aging talent and false hopes.

Or at least that’s what is supposed to happen after the debacle of Tuesday night, when in the space of 90 minutes, on a soggy field in a sleepy stadium in Trinidad, the Americans lost to a last-place team with nothing to play for and were denied a spot in the 2018 World Cup.

Whether the U.S. has the resolve to confront its problems, however, remains unclear. Tuesday’s defeat illuminated all of the deeply entrenched issues that close-watchers of the team have long complained about.

There was the failure of player development that left the team relying on a core of 30-somethings left over from two World Cup cycles ago.

There was the failure of imagination that caused the team to return, in the middle of qualifying, to a manager, Bruce Arena, it had fired a decade before.

And finally, there was the tactical naiveté that caused that manager to misjudge bottom-of-the-group Trinidad and Tobago and send Team USA out with an unsuitable plan and vulnerable in the most obvious places on the field.

“It was all there for us. We have nobody to blame but ourselves,’ said captain Michael Bradley, who, at 30 years old, is unlikely to get another chance in the world’s most popular sporting event.

In any other soccer country, the protocol now would be clear. The first order of business is firing the manager. The president of the federation occasionally resigns too, just as the Italian coach and federation president did in a wild news conference after the Azzurri’s exit from the 2014 World Cup.

Then, the federation orders a review of its development practices from the ground up. England, for instance, likes to call this “root and branch reform.” A parliamentary inquiry might even be in order.

It has yet to work for England, but versions of that thinking have paid off elsewhere. After the twin disasters of the 1998 World Cup (knocked out by Croatia) and Euro 2000 (eliminated in the group stage), Germany redrew its entire youth soccer structure, invested massively in facilities, and realized that a primary failure was in educating youth coaches. This wasn’t a quick fix. But in 2014, with a generation of talent grown in the new model, it won the World Cup.

How U.S. Soccer got here is a long tale of a broken system.

At the grass-roots, good young players are treated vastly differently in this country than virtually anywhere else in the developed world.

Everywhere else, a young player with promise joins a local club and is trained and cultivated throughout childhood by the club itself. In the U.S. a good young player joins a travel team and his parents are told to foot the bill for coaching, travel, uniforms, equipment and any additional training.

“We have to get to point in the U.S. where, when you are a good young player interested in the game, the first thing you get handed isn’t an invoice for several thousand dollars,” U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said two years ago.

The U.S. Soccer Federation invests millions of dollars each year to increase participation and train coaches, and Major League Soccer’s franchises have in recent years begun to open youth academies. But those efforts are a pittance compared with what happens in so many countries, where local athletic clubs view raising the next generation of players as both a civic responsibility and an investment, because one of them just might turn out to be the next Lionel Messi.

The U.S. has failed to cultivate even a couple of true international stars over the years—something that probably should have happened almost by accident given the size and wealth of the U.S. It’s been 40 years since Pele landed in New York and jump-started the soccer boom.

When Jurgen Klinsmann took over the national team in 2011, his scouts began combing rosters, especially in Europe, for players who might be eligible for an American passport and a spot on the U.S. national team.

Klinsmann’s teams relied heavily on German-Americans, players who were often the children of former American servicemen who had spent time in Germany. One third of his starting lineups were reliably German, with players like Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Danny Williams and John Brooks, none of whom were in the lineup Tuesday. He left Landon Donovan, arguably the best player the U.S. has ever produced, off the U.S. roster for the 2014 World Cup in favor of the unproven 18-year-old Julian Green.

Klinsmann urged every player to flee the U.S. and try to break into the top or even second-tier leagues in Europe, where the quality of play is far more challenging than in MLS. U.S. players, many of whom had spent their late teens and early 20s playing collegiate soccer, would only improve if they faced better competition, he preached.

Just as Klinsmann was pushing for U.S. players to fight for roster spots in Europe, however, MLS teams generated enough money to sign the top U.S. players to lucrative contracts.

Clint Dempsey returned to play for Seattle. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore returned to play for Toronto. Alejandro Bedoya left France for Philadelphia. Matt Besler eschewed opportunities in Europe for a rich deal in Kansas City. Striker Jordan Morris blew off Germany for Seattle.

Few of these players have improved since 2014. And they don’t face the weekly challenges that 19-year-old Christian Pulisic and striker Bobby Wood face in Germany, and defenders Geoff Cameron and DeAndre Yedlin confront in England.

After five years, Klinsmann’s criticism of the U.S. players wore thin, and the bulk of the team began to tune him out, leading to a series of poor results that culminated in several losses to open the final qualifying tournament.

“I had no problem with Jurgen challenging Americans to be better,” said Alexi Lalas, the former U.S. international who is now an analyst for Fox Sports. “But it began to feel more personal. Combine that with his results and that is where the problems came.”

When Arena was brought back in November, he seemed like the perfect antidote—a prideful veteran of U.S. soccer, who believed strongly in the value of MLS, having won its championship five times. But Arena’s conservative approach made the Americans vulnerable, especially on the road when Concacaf opponents felt emboldened to attack.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard, 38, looked every bit his age, getting beat from the flank 40 yards out on Tuesday’s winning goal.

Now, there are no quick fixes, and the U.S. will likely spend the next year and a half completely turning over its roster. They have to hope their next generation that is trying to break through in Europe continues to improve. These are players like 21-year-old Emerson Hyndman of Bournemouth, 22-year-old Matt Miazga of Vitesse in the Netherlands (on loan from Chelsea), and 19-year-old Cameron Carter-Vickers of Sheffield (on loan from Tottenham).

“It’s not going away anytime soon,” Bradley said of the disappointment of this year’s failure. “It’s not something you just forget.”

Thank you Matthew Futterman (matthew.futterman@wsj.com) and Joshua Robinson (joshua.robinson@wsj.com) for the research and writing.

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

One pro player’s traumatic experiences with head injuries

My teammate and I were standing outside RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. It was April 2003, our first home game of the season against the Chicago Fire. It was my first official appearance as a professional soccer player. It was a dream come true.

“Let’s take a picture,” he said. “I feel like this is a day we definitely want to remember.” He handed someone his digital camera, we posed together and smiled.

[Click here for the original article @ThePlayers’Tribune]

I was a 20-year-old rookie — picked No. 1 by D.C. United in the MLS SuperDraft just a few months prior. I hadn’t played against Kansas City in our season opener, so I had made sure to bust my ass in practice that week.

A few days before the game, Coach had even pulled me aside to let me know that he was going to try to get me some minutes. So I put the word out to family and friends.

My parents drove down from New Jersey, my cousin flew in from L.A., some friends came up from the University of Virginia.

But I don’t remember seeing anyone at the match. I don’t remember my name being announced over the loudspeaker. I don’t remember the roar of the crowd and the bright lights.

I don’t even remember stepping onto the field.

Shortly after I came off the bench in the 65th minute, I found myself on the wrong end of a major collision while jumping for a header. I got undercut, flipped over and landed on my head.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the first game of my rookie season was the beginning of the end of my professional soccer career.

The photo we took two hours before the match would be the last thing I remembered until I ended up at the hospital later that night.

I was told that after the game, my mom and dad were waiting outside the locker room for me, but I walked right by them. I didn’t even acknowledge their presence. My team doctor had to explain that I had suffered a head injury and would be heading to the hospital to make sure my brain was not bleeding.

You know when someone claps their hands in front of your face to snap you back into reality? Well, an hour or so later, out of the blue, that’s what I felt happen as I suddenly became aware of where I was. I looked around and noticed my family and friends beside me in the hospital waiting room.

“What are we doing here?” I asked.

“He is still pretty out of it,” I heard my mother tell my father in Armenian. Her voice, and then seeing my family and friends gathered around me, are the first things I can really remember since taking the photograph.

But I still had no idea what had happened.

“Alecko, you hit your head,” the doctors told me.

After a few hours of tests, all the scans on my brain had come back negative for any major brain injury. The only outward sign that anything had happened was the cast on my hand for the three fingers I had broken in the collision.

As for my head, I was told to go home and get some rest, and if there were any problems, to call my team doctor immediately.

I didn’t have any idea how bad the fall was until I got to practice two days later and my coach pulled me into his office.

“Have you seen the video?” he asked me, his voice cracking and eyes welling up with tears. “You’re lucky to be walking, son.”

l2jhwzlv0cq0k2kp6

 

He showed me the tape. The slow-motion replay of my entire body weight crashing on top of my head and neck made me nauseous. It wasn’t until then that I also realized I had actually stayed in the game.

I didn’t remember any of it. I just thought, I never want to see that again. And I wouldn’t for the next 12 years.

The crazy thing is, I still didn’t really understand the damage it had done to my brain.

Besides the doctors in the hospital, nobody ever mentioned the word concussion. And after a week of rest, I was back out playing and training with the team. Bullet dodged.

That is how my nightmare began.

Soccer brought my family to this country. My dad, Andranik, grew up an Armenian Christian in Tehran and became one of the best defenders in the history of the Iranian national team.

After playing for Iran at the 1978 World Cup, he was selected to the World All-Star team that played an exhibition game at Giants Stadium against the New York Cosmos.

Immediately after the match, the Cosmos offered him a contract. Despite interest from other top European clubs, my dad decided moving to the U.S. would be the best thing for our family.

So my parents moved with my older brother to New York, and a few years later I was born, more or less with a soccer ball at my feet.

Not a single day went by in my childhood where I didn’t play soccer. Whether in our backyard, or in our basement, or at the park down the street from our house, or with my dad and his teammates — Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto, Hubert Birkenmeier, even Pelé. To me, they were just friends who were always ready to kick the ball around with me.

Soccer was life for my family. In my elementary school yearbooks, my classmates and I had to write what we wanted to be when we grew up. Other kids wrote the usual: doctor, astronaut, police officer, and so on. Next to my name were three words, “Professional soccer player.”

Even off the pitch, soccer was an integral part of our lives. In 1982, Hubert had opened up Birkenmeier Sport Shop, one of the first and only soccer shops in the U.S. But in 1985, as the Cosmos roster went through a major upheaval, Hubert and my dad both got traded and had to relocate to continue their careers.

My father had a different idea – he would instead choose to retire from pro soccer, buy the shop from Hubert, and plant our family roots in New Jersey.

The shop became my second home — and the place where everyone came to talk soccer. Almost every serious soccer player from northern New Jersey — including men’s national team stars Tony Meola, Tab Ramos, John Harkes, Gregg Berhalter, and Giuseppe Rossi — grew up coming to the shop.

Sure, Dad’s store sold the newest cleats or kits, but mostly people would come by to talk soccer with my dad and Hubert, who had returned after finishing his playing career.

Meanwhile, I was busy following in my dad’s footsteps as a player. I was New Jersey’s high school player of the year in 2000 and won the Hermann Trophy as the top player in college soccer in ’02.

By that time, I had already represented the U.S. in the FIFA U-20 World Cup. In ’04, I led the U.S. in scoring during Olympic qualifying. Despite getting my own trials with several European clubs, I knew that I wanted to be close to my family. After my junior season at UVA, I decided to enter the MLS draft.

My first game in MLS was supposed to be one I would never forget. Instead it was one that I cannot remember.

I was fortunate that Carlos Bocanegra, a defender for the Fire in that game, was looking out for my well-being. After I stayed on the field following my injury, he and other players actually alerted the referee and medical staff to get me out of the game.

I’ve since been told that I was saying things that did not make any sense after the collision, cursing at guys, saying we were in San Francisco even as I was standing on the pitch in Washington, D.C.

Most people don’t really think of soccer as a contact sport, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. As the game has gotten more physical, and players have gotten faster and stronger, collisions have become more violent. The number of head injuries has been growing rapidly.

Still, most don’t realize the seriousness of head injuries, how to identify them and most importantly, how to treat them.

 

EARTHQUAKE DC UNTED

After getting knocked unconscious in my first game, I was back on the field in a week. All I needed to hear was that I had been cleared to play and that was enough for me.

It was the same story the following season when I was hit in the back of my head after a scuffle broke out during a match. “Just take a week off to get some rest,” our trainers told me.

Once again I thought, As long as I’m cleared then I should be fine, right? That certainly seemed to be the way it worked out. I scored 14 goals that season, made the All-Star team and was named MLS Cup MVP as we won the championship. I was called in to represent the U.S. Men’s National Team.

Everything was going according to plan. Or at least it seemed to be.

What I didn’t know, however, was that those two hits had done lasting damage to my brain. So when I suffered my third concussion less than a year later in 2005, it had an immediate and devastating effect.

With no more than a couple minutes left in a match against the New England Revolution, the knee of their goalkeeper slammed into the side of my head.

It felt like getting hit with a baseball bat.

And then everything went silent, except for the throbbing and pounding inside my head. It was as if my heart had replaced my brain and all I could feel was it beating inside my skull.

“Esky, are you alright?” I heard the referee ask as he stood over me.

“No,” I muttered. “This isn’t good.”

My trainer took me straight into the locker room and for the next few hours, it felt like I was drunk. Time seemed to slow down and my balance was unstable.

As I did after the first two concussions, I took some cognitive tests, and just like the first two times, I passed every one.

But something was different. This time, I felt a pressure in my skull that I had never felt before. Our team doctor noticed my concern and made sure a friend drove me home.

I thought that — again, just like with my first two head injuries — if I just laid low and got some sleep I would feel better in the morning.

But this time I didn’t.

When I woke up on Sunday morning, it felt like there was a cinder block in the back of my head, like blood had just pooled there overnight. The throbbing was still there, too.

I met with a neurologist on Monday. More tests, more passing, more reassurances that everything would be O.K. More instructions to just take it easy and to take some Tylenol if the headaches persisted.

And a week or so later? Cleared to play.

Alecko Eskandarian

But I still felt that something wasn’t right. The pain, the pressure, the weight in the back of my head — they just wouldn’t go away.

I returned to training, where all my coaches and trainers and teammates knew that doctors had cleared me to play. So the mental warfare began. Do I just suck it up? If I’ve been cleared I must be fine, right? No athlete ever wants to be “that guy” sitting out. Ever. Especially for “headaches.”

I felt like I had no choice. I began playing again. I had never before depended on painkillers, but suddenly I needed them badly. After training, my symptoms would get even worse. How many Tylenol am I supposed to take before the pain goes away?

The locker room was not a good place for me to vent my frustration. Every guy in there was playing through some sort of injury. Any mention of my discomfort and the ribbing would start.

Man, you’re sitting out for that?

Oh, trying to get another vacation day?

I wish I could get a day off every time I had a headache.

Nobody understood what I was going through. But I was determined to beat this thing. I focused all my energy on sucking it up, getting back on the field — for my livelihood, for my career. After missing games for three straight weeks, I was back training and finally set to return to the starting lineup.

But a few days before the game, as I was driving home to my Georgetown apartment after practice, I suddenly experienced a headache so sharp that I could actually hear it. You know that sound when a microphone screeches? That terrible, piercing ring that keeps rising?

I had to close my eyes. I swerved across three lanes of traffic. How I didn’t end up in a car accident I’ll never know.

I immediately called my trainer and asked to meet with a new neurologist in order to get a second opinion. The next day at the doctor’s office, I told him everything I had been through, starting with the collision in the first game of my rookie year. He just looked at me in disbelief.

“If you play soccer and you get hit in the head again, you might die,” he said.

He told me that I would have to be shut down for a minimum of two months, until I was completely symptom free. No physical activity — nothing that would raise my heart rate until the headaches went away.

For the next 10 months, I was a ghost.

20161031_sm_alecko_232b

I stopped answering the phone. I stopped going out with my friends. I used to be the happiest guy in the locker room, always ready to share a story or play a practical joke.

Now, I would sit in my apartment and watch the hours go by. I struggled to eat more than one meal a day. It was torture to go to games at the stadium to support my teammates. The atmosphere at RFK — which I had once thrived on — now triggered headaches.

The thing I loved most in this world had been taken away from me and I didn’t know what to do.

I just felt isolated and helpless. And honestly, I was terrified about not knowing what was going to happen. If I was going to recover, or if the depression was going to consume me.

The worst part about my recovery was that no one was able to see what I was going through. To the naked eye, you would have thought I was fine.

I wasn’t. I didn’t know if the headaches would ever go away. If I’d ever feel like myself again. I didn’t know if I’d ever return to the field.

Most people thought I was done. About a week before one of the last games of the season, I got Facebook messages from members of the Screaming Eagles and Barra Brava, two D.C. United supporters groups.

“At the next match just make sure you have a good view of our supporters’ section in the 11th minute.”

That weekend, I went to the match and looked to where the Screaming Eagles sit. At the 11th minute, they held up a huge banner.

 

918086_rapids_v_united

I got pretty emotional about it. I mean, of course it was an incredible gesture from the fans to let me know that they hadn’t forgotten about me —but it was also like, Holy shit, it’s as if I’ve died.

At that point, it actually felt like I already had. I was pretty much ready to risk my life for the game. I was only 22, and I might have been romanticizing things a bit, but more than once I had thought to myself, I’d rather die on the field than never play again.

It all sort of reached a boiling point when I went back home to New Jersey for the off-season. I’d always been close with my parents, but because of everything I’d been going through, I was not a pleasant person to be around. When I was living in D.C., I had grown increasingly frustrated any time they would call to ask if I was feeling any better.

“No, I still have headaches. Every day is the same. Please stop asking.”

Being back home, I had family support to lean on, but I rejected it. I started to feel sorry for myself, and with the holidays around the corner, I became annoyed about how cheery everyone was.

I thought, My life’s work is being taken away from me. I have no idea if I’ll ever get better, and you want me to buy presents, put up Christmas decorations and sing carols?

I knew that I had to start digging myself out the hole I was in — not just to play soccer again, but to have any sort of life period. I set up a treadmill that my brother and I had gotten for my parents and started running.

Two minutes without a headache. Next day, five minutes. The next, 10 minutes. I started doing crossword puzzles to keep my brain active. I made sure my brain was at full rest for a certain number of hours a day — no TV, no reading, no straining whatsoever. I basically re-calibrated my entire life.

Soon, the weight and the pressure in my head started to subside, and life felt more … normal. And when preseason rolled around in February, I had been symptom-free long enough to rejoin the team.

We took things easy at first, but eventually, I found myself back on the pitch at RFK Stadium for our season-opener — and scoring off a left-footed volley.

I knew there were still uncertainties with my head, but I made the All-Star team again that season, and was one of the league’s top goal scorers. I even scored in an exhibition game against Real Madrid in front of 70,000 fans. I was back. My teammate Josh Gros started calling me “the Truman Show.”

“Your life couldn’t be any more scripted,” he said.

I have to admit, everything felt so surreal. I thought, Am I still concussed and dreaming all of this? I played every game and celebrated every goal like it was my last, because I knew it could have been.

LA Galaxy v New York Red Bulls

And four years later, on July 19, 2009, I did play my last game. Call it piss-poor luck or a heartbreaking twist, but I suffered my fourth concussion while playing for the L.A. Galaxy when an opposing defender inadvertently cleared the ball into my face.

Once again, everything went black. I couldn’t breathe. It felt like I was swallowing my tongue. I had broken my nose and started spitting out blood. My old symptoms had returned. This time, worse than before.

I tried to convince myself that I could pull off another comeback. But this time, my doctors and coaches weren’t willing to take the risk. I wasn’t cleared to play.

“If you were my son, I’d tell you to stop,” my coach at the time told me.

I went from living in paradise in Hermosa Beach to once again being consumed by depression — steps away from the sand and the ocean, but confined to the darkness of my apartment.

I tried to fight it as best as I could. I kept myself busy and started doing some TV broadcasting work. I started taking business courses. I was making new friends. But none of it helped me escape my reality.

I could feel myself spiraling downward and I knew I needed change. So I moved back to Charlottesville, to finish up my degree at UVA and find an escape from soccer.

At school, new challenges awaited. The damage to my brain was worse than before. I struggled to focus and began experiencing vertigo.

One day in Charlottesville, after finishing a light workout my body suddenly went into shock. My head began pounding. I started shaking. I felt nauseous. I was fading.

Sitting in the passenger seat of my friend’s car while he rushed me to the hospital, I quickly ruled out any thought of a comeback.

“It’s over,” I said as we drove up Route 29. “I’ll never play again.”

“Dude, what?” my buddy said.

“I’ll never play soccer again.”

“Uh, yeah? I’m taking you to the hospital to make sure you don’t die and you’re worried about whether you’ll kick a ball again?”

The next day, I wrote it down. I’m never going to be a professional soccer player again.

When I look back on my career, I think about dribbling a ball around my dad’s soccer shop and dreaming about playing in front of thousands of people.

I think about the great teams and teammates I played with. I think about how I got to share the field with some of soccer’s biggest stars — Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Pirlo, David Beckham.

Yet something else also happened on those fields that changed my life. And it’s still happening.

It wasn’t until I went through head injuries myself that I realized how many people are struggling with the aftereffects of concussions.

Even over the course of my own recovery, I haven’t wanted to open up about what I have gone through. I didn’t want to talk about the dark places my concussions took me, the depression, the isolation, the helplessness. How could I help others if I couldn’t help myself?

It wasn’t until I went through head injuries myself that I realized how many people are struggling.

But, I’m finally at a point where I have learned to manage my brain injury, and it’s time I start sharing my story about concussions in soccer. It’s time that all soccer players do.

As I’ve started to be more open about my own struggles, dozens and dozens of players of all ages have reached out to me asking for guidance or advice.

I remember when I was recovering from my third concussion, I got a call from my agent. He told me that former MLS midfielder Ross Paule wanted to talk to me. A few days later, my phone rang.

“This isn’t the life you want,” Ross told me, and warned me not to rush to come back. He’d suffered concussions while playing for the Columbus Crew and had tried to play through them — until they eventually forced him to retire.

“I can’t drive after dark,” he said. “I can’t play with my little girl. You don’t want this.”

I remember I was sitting in the Galaxy dressing room after my fourth concussion when David Beckham approached me.

“Mate, I’m so sorry you’re going through this. Same thing happened to one of my teammates at Manchester United. He sat in a dark room for a month.”

As an assistant coach now for the NASL’s New York Cosmos, I sat down recently with one of our players who had suffered a concussion. I told him about my experiences and how he needed to be careful.

He just stared back at me. In his face, I saw the same 20-year-old I had been. I knew how much he wanted to be on the field and how all he wanted to hear was that he was cleared to play.

It hurt me that he couldn’t see what I had gone through. If only there was a scar to show….

For all the progress we’ve made in the last few years, education about head injuries still needs to be emphasized more by leagues, coaches and trainers. There is still no clear-cut diagnosis process or treatment method.

I still can’t sit in the back of a car without feeling nauseous. I can’t yell throughout practices or games. I can’t raise my heart rate too high without getting headaches.

But I decided a few years ago to focus on what I can do. And much of that is not taking things for granted anymore — like being able to go outside and run, which led to running in my first marathon this past month.

And another thing I can do is talk about a serious problem — one that is growing —in our sport. We all need to keep talking about it — so that no one has to experience what I did.

ALECKO ESKANDARIAN

alecko-sign

A 3,000 mile journey in search of real football: a coach’s education

These Football Times published a must-read article a couple of weeks ago on the big gap in coaching quality here compared to countries like Spain.

It describes one US coach’s experience with three Spanish guest coaches during a summer camp on the East Coast and then his three years of learning about soccer in Spain.

Here are key sections from that article (edited slightly for brevity and clarity):

The three Spanish coaches each taught me more about football than I had previously learned in my 15 year playing career through a variety of different settings including travel teams, premier clubs, summer camps, high school soccer, college soccer and ultimately men’s league.

My coaching career, which included US Soccer national courses, club and collegiate experience, and working summer camps, had been as educationally disappointing as my time as a player.

Between playing and coaching, I had been a part of the US Soccer Federation for 16 years, yet what had I really learned?

In the two weeks I had been working with the three football wise men, I discovered football had a game cycle, it had four phases, each technical ability had a specific tactical intention, it could be simplified in 2v1s and 3v2s, training finishing didn’t mean you’d score goals, defending was more than your stance.

They were showing me through their actions that coaches facilitate learning not with their instructions, but their well-crafted sessions.

Coaches don’t teach creativity but nurture it.

I witnessed how they played chess with their players whilst empowering them to be more than pawns. They demonstrated that coaches are in the spotlight for the losses and in the shadows for the wins. This was merely the tip of the iceberg and I wanted more.

These three Spanish coaches did something US Soccer never had: they inspired me.

At that point, I came to the conclusion that I knew nothing about football. US Soccer had failed me. I had dedicated the majority of my life to it and it had let me down.

Throughout the years, on countless teams with a myriad of experiences and numerous coaches, I was betrayed with a lack information, inspiration and motivation.

Footballistic unfulfillment fed my yearning to learn everything there was to know about my childhood passion, and the only place to achieve this was 6,000 kilometres away.

So I went to Spain three years ago to study football and I finally understand it.

There is an exorbitant amount of mental and physical elements that concern a player’s development over the course of a year, and more so, their integral career. To assign an unqualified and untrained individual to be responsible for a team of young football players would be detrimental to the sport and the integrity of the children.

In order to train any team at any age, the Spanish Football Federation requires coaches to have completed at least the UEFA B license (465 hours over at least nine months of theoretical and practical learning and evaluation). A coach in possession of a US Soccer National ‘D’ license (36-40 hours) is allowed to train any team at any level younger than 15.

How do we expect an individual who’s been prepared for a mere 40 hours to be capable of growing young players into exceptional footballers?

To read the full article click here. It’s worth it!

Thank you, David, for sharing your experiences. It helps push us along here!

What’s troubling with this?

The above image is from the France vs USA game at the U20 Women’s World Cup on Sunday. It shows our team during a goal kick. Every goal kick was like this.

What do you see?

I was watching the game with my 14 year old daughter. We glanced over the first goal kick. During the second goal kick my daughter said that it looks funny how bunched up they are. Twenty adult-sized players in roughly 10% of the field!

And then during the third goal kick it hit us – our national team can’t play out from the back!!!

This stunned us. My daughter’s U15 ECNL team plays out from the back – 90% of the time. It has been part of their player development for years, but it’s rare unfortunately.

[Post-publication update: my daughter watched the Stanford vs Santa Clara Women’s Soccer College game last night at Stanford. Guess what – these teams did the same bunching up on goal kicks as the U20 national team!]

Playing out from the back is fundamental to modern high-quality, possession oriented soccer. It’s been the standard for quality soccer for a decade at least.

I’ve included a great educational video at the very end of this post – it shows playing out from the back all the way down to the U10 level.

And click here for a good article on this topic. To quote a key passage:

“Football is besieged with coaches and players lacking technical ability and tactical awareness to start with the basics before implementing this methodology and the results can be catastrophic.

A team with players lacking the technical ability or composure will require these players to take risks that cannot be overcome if the ball is lost so deep in the defensive third.

Without a midfield comprised of players willing and able to receive the ball under pressure, playing out of the back is a fool’s game.

From a developmental standpoint, teams excelling at playing out of the back are comprised of players whose footballing education focused on technical ability and proficiency at a young age.”

It was obvious to my 14 year old daughter (and even my 10 year old daughter) that the French players had better touch, skill, composure, movement, and soccer IQ than our players.

Yet, this U.S. Soccer press release referred to the game as being “a physical match” and head coach Michelle French commented “what an absolutely incredibly athletic team France is”.

Were we watching the same game? Hopefully Michelle had to say this for the press release and is having very different conversations behind the scenes.

And can it really be true that our most elite players don’t have the technical ability, soccer IQ, and confidence to play possession soccer?

Don’t our elite goalkeepers have the foot skills needed to support teams playing out from the back?

Global soccer powerhouses such as Germany, Spain, England, and France are applying their world-class coaching and deep understanding of the game to a growing number of girls now playing soccer in those countries. France in particular stands out for me at U20 and below – this bodes well for the future.

And there is one country doing an even better job than the Europeans: Japan.

The Japanese U20 team is playing beautiful soccer. They are playing with technical ability, tactical understanding, creativity, teamwork, and discipline far above anyone else. It’s a treat to watch. And this ability exists across all age groups, not just this U20 team.

[By the way, you can watch these games at http://www.foxsoccer2go.com. Live and recorded.]

Girls have traditionally been marginalized in those countries because soccer was a “man’s sport”, like (American) football here in our country. That started to change about a decade ago and will continue to change going forward.

So world-class player development plus a rapidly expanding pool of raw talent = trouble for us unless we improve our own player development.

Might this be one of the reasons why U.S. Soccer is taking control of elite player development with the launch of the U.S. Development Academy for girls this coming summer?

I strongly suspect that U.S. Soccer will relatively quickly extend the USGDA down to U12/U13 (from the initial U14/15) and then eventually U10/11. Developing world-class technical ability – the foundation for everything else – can’t start early enough.

This begs another question: what have our top clubs and coaches been teaching our girls these last ten years?

Mostly how to win games using the most athletic and physically mature girls possible plus a low-risk ‘kick the ball up the field’ approach.

This reminds me of the coach of the U14 ECNL team that beat my daughter’s U14 ECNL team in the semifinals of the most recent Surf Cup.

He kept shouting “get corner kicks” during the second half because his girls were physically superior to our girls (but technically inferior).

They scored two goals from corner kicks and advanced to the final, but we played much better soccer.

Frankly, from my many years watching and officiating ECNL (and EGSL) games across all age groups, it’s primarily about ‘winning’ and rankings and trophies and player recruiting. There are exceptions, of course, but I believe that the overall picture holds true.

The rivalries between ECNL clubs in each geographic sub-region is intense and often politically charged as clubs compete for local talent. It can get nasty at times.

This dynamic is a disgrace for (elite) player development, and a massive disservice to our girls and our country.

What doesn’t help is that the vast majority of parents even of top girls (and boys) only understand the game at a superficial level and have little patience for true longer-term player development.

Parents shop around for winning teams/clubs without looking closely at how the team is winning and what the youngsters are being taught.

And let’s not forget that coaches need to earn a living in our pay-to-play system. Much of their earnings (and the club’s health and growth) depend, unfortunately, on winning games to attract more talent.

So we need to be careful who to blame. This isn’t necessarily the coaches’ fault – they have to put food on the table after all.

Let’s compete, of course, but the elite level in particular has to be about longer-term player development, not simply ‘winning’.

It has to be about risk taking, not risk avoidance. About creativity and artistry and smarts, not primarily athleticism.

Time to do the hard work of true world-class player development, folks!

And teaching our youngsters the technical ability and tactical understanding to confidently play out from the back is integral to that.

 

Clarifying rules for development academy players (boys and girls)

With the recent expansion of the US Soccer Development Academy (DA) to the younger U-12 age bracket (which will actually be the ‘old’ U-11 age bracket starting Fall 2017) for boys and the launch of the Girls’ Development Academy in the Fall next year, it might be helpful to clarify the rules for DA players doing non-DA activities.

The rules are more difficult to understand and interpret than I expected, and even emailed clarifications I received directly from the DA aren’t necessarily 100% clear, at least to me.

Please let me know in the comments below if you think there are inaccuracies and/or missing pieces of information.

With that in mind, here are the rules for all DA players, boys and girls, starting at U12:

DA clubs are responsible for developing an individual development plan for each player. This plan is meant to have each player’s best interest in mind to further his/her soccer development.

With that in mind, the DA is very focused on an appropriate train-to-play-to-rest ratio for the longer-term healthy development of players. This ratio is understood by all DA clubs and is taken into consideration when designing the individual player development plans.

Given that the DA-mandated activity load is already substantial, any additional outside activities are cause for concern.

Therefore:

DA players are not allowed to compete in *any* non-DA league or tourney. This includes activities such as high school soccer, beach soccer tourneys, and winter futsal leagues/tourneys. In fact, this applies to any *sport*.

DA clubs can apply for exemptions to compete in elite non-DA activities such as Dallas Cup, Surf Cup, and tournaments in Europe, but this is at the club/team level, not for individual players. Approval requires a written request by the club to academy staff for decision making.

And any non-DA *training* done outside the club’s training program such as additional strength conditioning sessions, private clinics, or weekly futsal practices are at the discretion of the player’s club and have to fit into the player’s overall development plan.

In other words, the player’s club can make a case-by-case decision to allow non-DA *training* if the DA club believes it to be beneficial for the player’s development.

However, my understanding is that any training exemptions are rare, so for all practical intents and purposes you should assume that non-DA training won’t be allowed.

During the DA off-season from mid-July (after Nationals) to the first week in September (about 6-8 weeks), players are permitted to get outside training and attend outside camps (ID camps, soccer, camps, college camps etc.).

But any consideration of outside training even during the off-season has to be brought to the attention of the club and discussed with them to make sure the training is in the best interest of the player.

I’m in two minds about this.

On the one hand, having flexibility to pursue soccer activities outside the regular DA structure could help youngsters enjoy the game more and for longer. For example, traveling to Spain during the Christmas/New Year break to train and play futsal at FC Barcelona (with a Bay Area non-DA futsal group) would surely help motivate a soccer-passionate youngster.

But on the other hand, the schedule for DA players truly is heavy already. The time commitment and physical exertion is considerable. And how many parents are in a position to make the right decisions regarding their youngster’s possible over-exertion? Many of us might think we can make the right decision “because we know our son or daughter best”, but I’m not sure about that, at least not at this elite level.

And then there are the resources that USSF and the DA clubs invest in the development of our elite players. Shouldn’t the DA and the clubs be able to protect that ‘investment’ for the longer-term?

Nevertheless, clubs need to do a much better job providing individualized holistic player development, not just focus on improving team-level play. And this is supposed to set the DA apart from non-DA programs – individual player development.

In contrast to non-DA players, who have a lot of flexibility to change teams/clubs/coaches and engage in a range of different soccer activities, DA players have to put a lot of trust into their DA club and coaches to truly take care of their entire player development needs and interests.

This isn’t easy – there are many points of view supporting both sides of this debate. Please let me know what you think in the comments section below. Keep in mind that we are talking about the most elite girls and boys players in our country when you consider the pros and cons of these DA rules.

Thank you!

Here are some relevant links and pasted information from those sources:

From http://www.ussoccerda.com/overview-program-benefits:

No Outside Activity/Competitions

To maintain a focus on club training environments, Academy players and teams do not play in any outside competitions without written permission from the U.S. Soccer Development Academy staff.

This includes any other leagues, tournaments, State Cup competitions, ODP or All-Star events. Development Academy players for all teams must choose to participate in the Academy full-time and forgo playing for their high school teams.

Full-time Academy players can only participate on their designated Academy team, with only two exceptions: U.S. Soccer Training Centers and Youth National Team duty.

The Development Academy upholds this rule because we believe elite players require world class environments. The Development Academy’s 10-month Program allows for a greater opportunity to institute style of play and implement a system according to U.S. Soccer’s Development Philosophy.

It also gives teams increased opportunities for younger kids in their club to “play up” against older players in both training and matches, thereby accelerating their development.

From http://www.ussoccerda.com/overview-academy-structure:

Outside Activity/Competition

Academy players and teams cannot play in any outside competitions without written permission from the Development Academy staff. This includes any other leagues, high school season, tournaments, State Cup competitions, ODP or All-Star events. There are two potential exceptions to this rule, provided they are approved by Development Academy staff:

  1. Domestic and international tournaments: Domestic & international tournaments may be permitted if they meet Academy’s technical standards of one game per day and elite competition. Examples of permitted events include the Dallas Cup, Surf Cup, Disney Showcase, and other International events
  2. Possibility for friendly games: Academy clubs can schedule friendly games to provide players with a heightened development experience. The games must not be part of an organized competition (i.e. tournament, league or camp) as defined in the non-participation regulations, and all competitions must adhere to all Academy standards and guidelines.

From http://www.ussoccerda.com/faq:

Can Academy players participate with non-Academy teams during the season? Full-time Academy players are only permitted to participate on their Academy team, and National Team duty.

Which teams participate in 10-month programming and do not allow high school participation? The entire Academy program does not participate in high school programming.

The American Soccer Culture Problem (3Four3)

Some of you might be familiar with the Kleiban brothers already. Brian is a coach at LA Galaxy’s youth academy and Gary writes about soccer in our country through their blog 3Four3.

They have a reputation for, shall we say, ‘rocking the boat’ and their most recent post definitely hits hard. You might not agree with everything they say below, but their views are worth reading if you’re interested in the broader debate about coaching quality and player development in our country.

I wanted to re-blog their post, but couldn’t figure out how to do that, probably because we’re using different blogging platforms. So I decided to simply paste their post here.

To be clear, full credit for all of the content below goes to Gary @3Four3.

I suggest you first watch this clip and then continue reading Gary’s comments.

First, I want to applaud both Colin Cowherd and Jason Whitlock for bringing an important truth about the state of American soccer to the masses. It speaks volumes that these sports generalists call it like it is, while entrenched American soccer media doesn’t.

American soccer media, hence its consumers, coddles our players.

You don’t hear much public criticism for a variety of reasons

1) Incumbent American soccer media has been practically curated by the establishment. An establishment that naturally doesn’t want to be critically examined, particularly not at the foundational level. Hence, it neuters its media. How does it accomplish this? Well, it  holds a monopoly over the ecosystem. Anyone who doesn’t align with its foundational narrative, its founding culture, is in danger of losing access.

2) Incumbent culture has a recreational mentality – a property that is the antithesis of the hardcore culture the rest of the world has. The soccer structure we live in has been built of, by, and for a casual soccer demographic. It extends from youth all the way to the pro level being addressed here.

When something is casual, there are no stakes. When there are no stakes, nobody gets too heated over things.

After all, “it’s just a game“. That phrase, right there, is the (convenient) foundation upon which American soccer has been built. It’s no wonder we’re mediocre, anybody with that kind of mentality will not achieve excellence.

Contrast that with the rest of the world, where a portion of people’s very identity and self esteem is hinged on their clubs and national teams.

Now, before you robotically react and think that’s sad, reserve judgement until you understand that clubs and national teams across the world represent people at a social, political, economic, and cultural level. It is their flag.

3) Most soccer-first households (the largest and most critical of demos) in the United States aren’t paying attention to American soccer. Because well, it’s low level, inauthentic, and most importantly has historically discriminated against them – preferring instead to cater to the soft suburban soccer-mom demo.

As a consequence, it’s that soft culture that both dominates the narrative and creates policy when it comes to the American game – it has inculcated that softness into the very fabric of American soccer.

Yes, the soccer-first demographic, like 3four3, does call it like it is (e.g. as Colin put it in the above clip, “Michael Bradley is completely pedestrian”) but that has historically, and to this day, primarily occurred in relative isolation – as anyone from this demographic is not hired and graced with a large media platform. If one is hired, they are systematically neutered.

But there is someone with a heavyweight platform that has dipped his toe in the culture challenge.

Jurgen Klinsmann

Jurgen has criticized the players, and has been trying to send the message of “not good enough”, and lists reasons.

The result of his action and criticism?

The soft soccer-mom media turned on him and (at the behest of its master, MLS) launched a smear campaign against him that continues to date.

  • Prior to the World Cup, he stated the US can not win it. In other words, he told the unvarnished truth. He was real.
  • He deemed Landon Donovan not a good fit for the 2014 World Cup squad. (Note: Assessment of a player goes beyond his ability on the field, there are other critical factors a coach considers in making selections. This is a team game, after all. It’s not about 1 player.)
  • Players should go overseas to challenge themselves. This was an indictment of MLS, and the domestic culture.
  • He transmitted disappointment when he saw some of his key pieces coming back to MLS (e.g. Dempsey, Bradley, Altidore).
  • He said many moons ago, and continues to say, that our players are naive and “need to be nastier”.

There have been a variety of other incidents where the soccer-mom culture looked at him as “throwing players under the bus”.

They were also pissed when he suggested the media needed to further educate themselves in the game.

See, the culture here is precisely as Cowherd observes. The culture is soft. Even the words and phrases we use are soft.

If you look at what incumbent soccer media’s reactions/responses to Cowherd & Whitlock’s comments were, you a hard-pressed to find support for their observations.

Quite the contrary, most that’s been published whether on established media outlets, or social media commentary, was crafted to undermine these observations and uphold the soccer-mom status quo.

“We need to tell US soccer players, coaches, and fans the truth” – @WhitlockJason

“We’re not catching up with the rest of the world as long as soccer’s a sport for the upper class.” – @WhitlockJason

Alexi Lalas represents the establishment’s (convenient) myths

Jason Whitlock hits the truth, again.

Absolutely. Absolutely that certain cultures are a better fit to becoming great at soccer than others. Those coming from an affluent suburban American culture, in general, just don’t “have it”.

Those coming from a socio-economic strata below affluence, in general, are better suited. There’s a particular mentality and set of values the latter has, and the former does not.

Some of the biggest inhibitors the suburban players face are:

  • The “it’s just a game” mentality. The other demo treats it as an arena to “best” others, since from a societal perspective they are looked as ‘lower class’. It’s personal.
  • The suburban players are brought up in an environment where ‘following the rules’ of the traditional American industrial complex is sacred, where self expression is only ok within narrow boundaries. In other words, being robot-like automatons vs flavorful full-range humans. Top level “creativity” isn’t being stifled by coaches on the field, their cultural upbringing is doing that job.
  • The suburban player derives his self-esteem from things other than how good he is in sport. For instance, getting good grades on some standardized test. They measure themselves on how good they are at following societal norms. They don’t need to be great at soccer.

“The people in our stands, at the MLS games, they’re wondering where their next glass of wine is coming from.” – @WhitlockJason

Alexi has it totally wrong about pretty much everything. And he really goes off the rails at the end of the video when he tries to defend the absurdity of expecting the US to beat Argentina. It’s completely disingenuous, derived from the campaign to fire Jurgen Klinsmann, and frankly condescending to all US Soccer fans.

“And I saw the 3 American [analysts] pick us to win [vs Argentina], I was like … ‘nah man, don’t lie to us’” – @WhitlockJason

When an admitted soccer layman like Jason Whitlock can sniff out the bull shit, you know we have a serious problem.

Italian youth soccer “calcio” culture

SoccerAmerica published a great article on one Bay Area family’s experiences in the Italian youth soccer scene. It’s written by Chris Pepe who’s son plays on the U12 Juventus DA team here in the Bay Area. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Chris!

Click here for the full article. For brevity, I took the liberty of posting only the key parts of Chris’ article below. I recognize immediately what Chris describes from my time growing up in Europe. The same observations apply to Latin America.

The difference between a soccer culture that is deeply embedded within society and one that is just another scheduled sports activity shows itself on the fields of play.

If you’re interested in my views on this please click here, here, and here for additional articles.

Ok, here are Chris’ observations in Italy:

“At some point in the evolution of soccer in the USA, it seems we all became convinced that our children could or even would play professionally … statistics be damned! A truly American belief, born out of our eternal optimism and sometimes nauseating can-do spirit.

Despite the lack of a broad-based structure to scout and identify young talent, we still believe our kid will be the one. Irrespective of the millions of kids playing soccer for countless hours every day, we think the two hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday is enough.

Despite the desire buried deep inside the impoverished kid that needs to play to find a better life, we are convinced it can be done. It’s a matter of expectations, and if there is one area where the USA over-indexes against its soccer-rich counterparts, it’s in confidence and its closest offsprings: expectations.

In Italy, instead, it is generally accepted at an early age that your kid won’t play for Inter or AC Milan. The best talent is selected early on, in some ways lowering the level of expectations that your son will become a professional player, and easing your desired outcome for this weekend’s game.

Nationwide rankings are not discussed or, to the best of my knowledge, even kept at the youth level here. The game is not played to bolster coaches’ ratings or build association points or prestige.

The Italian youth soccer game forms part of an intricate social structure that contains layers of amateur teams and professional associations that neatly ladder up to the professional Serie A.

Every town and village has its own top-flight squad, and a structure below that ladders its way up. Whether the top team plays in Serie A, B or C, or somewhere below, matters little other than the fact that it enables every player in every town to continue to play for as long as they may choose.

In our adopted town in Italy, knowing that the ‘best’ and most connected kids were playing for our local Serie B youth team, Vicenza Calcio, weekends have become much more relaxing. Oh sure, you do get to play against them, if only to see how the game is properly played.

And, yes, exposure is possible even at the lowest levels and in the smallest town, but is identified early on freeing the mind and the soul to play for the love of the game and with no particular professional ends in mind.

My son’s new school in Italy is attached to one of the many local churches, Chiesa del Carmine. As tourists, we had often marveled at the number of churches in Italy, rarely seeing the hidden courtyard sheltering a small calcetto court behind. Think small-sided 5v5 games on a basketball-style court. [Side note from this blogger: click here for a similar neighborhood court I came across wandering around downtown Barcelona recently.]

The Carmine courtyard has a small-sized soccer field, and numerous well-spaced trees that act as goalposts for any number of after school pick-up games. As the courtyard turns into a public park in the afternoons, kids from the neighborhood rush to pick teams, wearing last years Juve or Milan shirt bought at the market for 10 euro.

They Ro Sham Bo to determine teams, and proceed to play with reckless abandon. There is no structure or hired coach, there are no fees or scheduled breaks. Kids only stop play to cheer the slickest new move, or to get pointers on how to execute the latest trick. Older kids look out for younger kids, and younger kids test their toughness against older kids.

No meals will be missed, but kids play until darkness descends and their hearts are full of the beautiful game. It is here among friends where new moves are tried, individual skills are honed, and confidence is built.

In the USA, I would drop off my son at assigned times to run and kick and learn soccer’s structured basic skill-set. I would then rush to bring my daughter to her practice at the same time; do a bit of shopping; or maybe sneak in a run.

There was never an after school pick-up game or other opportunity to play. I could often convince my friend Marvin, a Salvadoran-American, to bring his three sons and meet at the local park. But even then, we never had enough players for a spirited match, and would make up games or run through drills.

I have often believed that U.S. youth soccer is dominated by ‘organized’ babysitting, as opposed to spontaneous play, and this notion has been reaffirmed while living in a country that has soccer as part of its very DNA.

While soccer remains perched on the cusp of a real mainstream following in the USA, we continue to excel at ‘soccer-by-appointment,’ rather than evolving into a sport driven by passion. Kids in Italy, while not quite filling every piazza with neighborhood match-ups, still play calcio more for the fun of it than for the appointed necessity of it all.

On my son’s Italian team (San Lazzaro), sponsored by the local pizza joint (Pizzeria Albera), there is no one outstanding athlete that can out-run the pack, and score off a long ball sent from the defense. It helps of course that, at this age (until age 13), kids play 9-a-side games on small-ish fields, with even smaller goals. There are three periods of 20 minutes a-piece, and little substituting.

At the start of each game, kids line up and walk to the center circle, while parents applaud both sides in an effort to set a standard for fair play. Once play begins, the focus is on playing the game properly and as one cohesive unit, one team. When the ball does cross the end-line, the keeper, no matter his skill level, must always play the ball from the back to his expectant defenders.

The team will then work the ball up through the midfield, and across the halfway line. Sure, this leads to countless mistakes and numerous unaccounted-for goals; irrespective, the emphasis remains the same, and the game must still be initiated from the back. It’s a rare match when the keeper punts the ball more than twice, and even more rare for a long ball to be played.

Winning remains an objective, however it’s the appearance of play, the ‘bella figura,’ that matters most. Losing well and looking good are acceptable; losing bad and looking bad are not.

Calcio and life are inextricably intertwined in so many ways here. Here you learn from a very young age that soccer is much more than a game. It’s a way of life.”

Sportsmanship message from NorCal Premier Soccer – unfortunately too easily forgotten as the season unfolds

As we head into the fall season, we would like to encourage players, coaches, family members, club officials, and referees to take a moment to consider how they will behave around their upcoming soccer games. All play an important role in our small piece of the “World’s Game”, all deserve to be treated respectfully.

While we absolutely encourage everyone to give their best effort, trying to win, we also believe a sense of soccer fellowship should be maintained at all times ­among opponents, opposing fans, and referees.

Treat each other with courtesy, remember your opponents are just like you, fans of the game, only in a different uniform, playing for a different club, supporting a different team, or in the case of referees, with a different role to play.

Whatever part you play, be a role model. Set an example. Your positive example is incredibly valuable to those who witness it!

The rules must be respected – they maintain a player’s health and safety, provide everyone a fair chance to win each match, and provide necessary checks and balances to govern a game full of emotions.

Referees must be respected and treated properly ­- without them the games cannot be played. Remember they are sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers. They are our fellow soccer fans and they deserve our patience. Our praise, respect and admiration should be shown to them for taking on what is often a thankless task.

Finally, respect the game! Soccer, futebol, fussball, football, whatever you may call it, is the greatest sport in the world – for it to continue to grow and remain healthy in our country it absolutely needs us to respect… its fields, its players, its fans, its referees and its coaches.

Thank you very much,

Norcal Board of Directors

22 more clubs get Girls Development Academy status for a total of 74

Cedar Stars Academy – Monmouth (Tinton Falls, N.J.)

Indiana Fire (Westfield, Ind.)

Real So Cal (Woodland Hills, Calif.)

Empire United (Rochester, N.Y.)

La Roca Futbol Club (Kaysville, Utah)

SC del Sol (Phoenix, Ariz.)

FC Fury New York (Bay Shore, N.Y.)

Burlingame SC – MVLA (Burlingame, Calif.)

Sereno Soccer Club (Phoenix, Ariz.)

FC Kansas City (Prairie Village, Kan.)

Nationals (Royal Oak, Mich.)

Sporting Blue Valley (Overland Park, Kan.)

FC United (Northfield, Ill.)

Oakwood Soccer Club (Glastonbury, Conn.)

Texas Rush Soccer Club (The Woodlands, Texas)

Houston Dash (Houston, Texas)

PA Classics (Manheim, Pa.)

West Coast Futbol Club (Laguna Hills, Calif.)

Houston United (Houston, Texas)

Pateadores (Costa Mesa, Calif.)

Western New York Flash (Elma, N.Y.)

PSV Union (Palo Alto, Calif.)

U.S. Soccer’s Gender Wage Gap

28 more Girls’ DA clubs announced

As expected, here is a second batch of clubs that are getting Girls’ Developmemt Academy status:

Boca United (Boca Raton, Fla.)
FC Stars (Acton, Mass.)
San Juan Soccer Club (Rancho Cordova, Calif.)
Charlotte Soccer Academy (Matthews, N.C.)
FC Virginia (Chantilly, Va.)
Shattuck-St. Mary’s Rev SC (Faribault, Minn.)
Clay County Soccer Club (Fleming Island, Fla.)
IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.)
Sting Soccer Club (Addison, Texas)
Dallas Texans (Plano, Texas)
Jacksonville Armada Youth Academy (JFC) (Jacksonville, Fla.)
TSC Hurricane (Tulsa, Okla.)
LA Galaxy San Diego (San Diego, Calif.)
Davis Legacy (Davis, Calif.)
LA Premier FC (La Canada, Calif.)
Virginia Development Academy (Woodbridge, Va.)
Eagles SC (Camarillo, Calif.)
Legends FC (Chino, Calif.)
West Florida Flames (Brandon, Fla.)
East Meadow SC (East Meadow, N.Y.)
Lonestar Soccer Club (Austin, Texas)
Weston FC (Weston, Fla.)
Eastside FC (Preston, Wash.)
Match Fit Academy (Morris Plains, N.J.)
World Class FC (Orangeburg, N.Y.)
Eclipse Select (Oak Brook, Ill.)
Midwest United FC (Grand Rapids, Mich.)

Click here for the USSF announcement.

I suspect there will be more in the coming weeks.

Mini-documentary on Iceland’s shocking Euro 2016 run

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.

We have no excuse! Tiny Iceland’s soccer miracle.

Iceland, with only around one-third the population of San Jose (!), played Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal to a stunning 1:1 draw in the European Championships yesterday.

And this wasn’t a one-off fluke. To qualify for Euro 2016, Iceland beat World Cup semifinalists The Netherlands home and away (!) and took the maximum six points from home games against Turkey and the Czech Republic, both strong soccer nations.

We are 1,000 times (!) larger and wealthier than Iceland:

Iceland pop 0.330 Million. GDP $15 Billion.

USA pop 330 Million. GDP $17,000 Billion.

And another shocking fact: Iceland only has 20,000 (!) registered soccer players. How many do we have? Around 5 million are registered with U.S. Soccer and around 25 million Americans play soccer.

So what might account for this massive, almost unbelievable, overachievement?

The Icelandic soccer federation works hard to ensure that practically all coaches have either a UEFA A or B coaching license, the highest coaching qualifications in the world, apart from the UEFA Pro license needed to manage/coach European pro clubs.

And this license is used even for teaching kids as young as six. If you don’t teach well from the beginning it is very difficult to teach the fundamentals later and difficult, if not impossible, to build further on a weak foundation.

Iceland has around 200 UEFA A-qualified coaches and around 600 B-coaches – one for every ~50 registered kids!

And then from age 14 or 15 the top talent is encouraged to move to the continental European youth academies.

So it isn’t a lack of athletes or money or facilities that’s keeping us from fulfilling our potential. We have all the resources we need (and more) to become a global soccer powerhouse.

But our human capital isn’t where it needs to be. At least three issues are arguably holding us back in my view:

First, we need many more qualified coaches that truly understand the game at the deepest level and can teach it. And we need better coaches to teach our youngest kids so they have solid fundamentals in place by the time they turn 10. And we need to teach technical skills, creativity, and soccer IQ. We need ‘complete’ youth players that enjoy the game and are willing to take risks and experiment.

Second, we need to discover and then nurture our talented underprivileged and economically disenfranchised youth players. Our expensive pay-to-play model works against finding and developing our best talent. More on this topic in another blog post shortly. Note that youth soccer is free for anyone in Iceland…and Germany, Spain, Portugal, Brazil…the list goes on.

Third, we need many more kids to play the game every day during school breaks and after school in neighborhood parks. We can’t expect to have players that can compete with the best in the world when all our younger kids do is go to structured one-hour practices twice or three times a week.

There’s more we need to do, no doubt. But these three are obvious to me.

We have no excuse!

You MUST watch this movie

If you have any interest in soccer and want to understand the essence of the beautiful game then you ABSOLUTELY have to watch this movie. Trailer below.

Watch it with your sons and daughters. And then share it with your friends and teammates…and your coaches!

It’s about much more than Pele. It’s about the heart and soul of soccer – about ginga, about technical skills, about creativity, and about enjoying the game.

“I don’t know if we will win, but we will show them a beautiful game.”

Brazil Head Coach before taking the field in the Final of the 1958 World Cup

If you know my blog you will know that I’ve written about this many times, including here, here, here, and here. I could go on.

Let’s talk about money – lots of it!

It’s the end of the Spring season and some clubs are already asking for commitments for the Fall season. So it’s that time of year when parents are reminded again about the cost of youth soccer.

Competitive soccer is expensive, especially if your youngster plays on the top couple of teams in his/her age group at his club. And this cost increases as your youngster gets older.

According to my Quicken software we spent about $20,000 (no typo!) on soccer related cost in 2015 on our three comp soccer kids (U10, U12, and U14), excluding a big soccer-related trip we did during the Christmas school break. And some time ago I posted an article on another family’s similar spending level – click here to read it.

As a rule of thumb, I estimate that at one of the big clubs here in the Bay Area you can expect to pay around $2K-$3K per year when your youngster is 8 or 9, then around $3K-$4K when he/she is 10/11, and $5K-$7K at 12/13. It can easily reach $10K per year or more if your 16 year old daughter or son is on an ECNL or USDA team. Both travel a lot.

This is a lot of money! And a lot of parents get upset, of course. And some point the finger specifically at coaching fees. I will get to coaching fees a little later in this post.

First let’s take a step back for a moment and start with what many, probably most, parents want for their comp soccer youngsters:

  • great coach who really knows the game and how to teach it, fully committed to making youngsters the best they can be, in a positive environment, while also communicating frequently with parents;
  • good fields for practices and games, ideally all-weather artificial turf instead of bumpy and/or muddy grass;
  • quality equipment (balls, training accessories, etc.);
  • supplemental private or small-group clinics through the year;
  • variety of league games that develop the youngster and entertain the parents;
  • tournaments for that extra drama and team bonding – some medals hopefully too;
  • well-organized club – efficient software for registrations, effective and timely communications, sufficient oversight by the Director of Coaching to make sure coaches are doing their job well, ongoing development courses for coaches, both in-house and, probably more importantly, externally organized for a fresh perspective;
  • for well-developing youngsters a structured/organized path to higher-level teams within each age group, more challenging leagues such as ECNL and DA, and more challenging tournaments (local, region, state, national);
  • efficient and effective league and tournament organization;
  • qualified referees – while this is mostly a volunteer role referees do get paid some to cover their cost and to earn a little on top

The list goes on.

Now let’s be clear that all this costs money. Somebody has to pay for all this and because there are no subsidies for what is ultimate a private enterprise it’s the families that have to cover all of the cost (some clubs offer merit and/or needs-based scholarships but those are negligible).

It’s simple math.

And like all private market products and services this ‘youth comp soccer’ service we purchase from clubs and leagues (and individual coaches sometimes) is driven by the perceived quality of the service and the availability and cost of alternatives (i.e. other clubs/coaches and non-soccer activities).

Money is a medium of exchange and cost/prices reflect ‘value’ driven (mostly) by demand and supply. And there are apparently enough families that are willing to pay the going rate.

Are there imperfections in this youth soccer market? Sure, like in pretty much any market, and discussing those go beyond the scope of this post. But, for all practical intents and purposes, families have a choice how much and where to spend their soccer money.

Now let’s talk about the coaching pay.

Keep in mind that for the majority of comp soccer coaches at the bigger clubs this is often their livelihood or at least contributes materially to their income. It’s how they put food on the table and pay for their kids’ clothes. It’s how they pay for rent. It’s how they cover their cost of living. And our Bay Area has one of the highest cost of living in the country.

I estimate that typical comp soccer coaches make anywhere from $20K to $50K per year, depending on how many teams they coach per season, how experienced they are, which club they coach for, and how many private lessons they do per week.

And I further estimate that top coaches with a good amount of teams and maybe also some club-level responsibilities can earn up to $100K, even $200K at the very top. Some of this additional pay comes from offering clinics outside the usual team practices and and elite coaches can charge $50 (and more) per player per hour for a small-group clinic with, say, four players. That’s $200+ per hour.

But let’s focus on the ~80% of coaches that coach most of our kids.

Living on $20K in the Bay Area is very difficult even when you’re young and single. It’s not much better with $50K. And it’s even difficult with $75K-$100K if the coach has a family.

Great coaches that work hard and are committed and/or have broader responsibilites such as Director of Coaching roles deserve to be compensated for the work they do. Just like in any other profession.

There are some volunteer coaches that do a fine job, of course. I know of one team that is still keeping up with wins and rankings with the elite group of teams in that age group and the coach is a volunteer. The players aren’t nearly as proficient because they lack the technical skills, for example, but this volunteer coach knows how to maximize the odds of winning. So there are exceptions to the rule, of course, if winning is your primary goal.

But if longer-term player development, quality, efficiency, sustainability, and scalability are important then comp soccer needs professional coaches and clubs.

But like any business a soccer club (and also individual coaches) have to continue to offer the best possible product and strive to continuously improve and innovate to satisfy its ‘customers’, the players and families. If the quality drops too low and/or the club doesn’t handle its families and players professionally then the club will sooner or later lose its customers.

So if the product offered by the club and/or coach is perceived to be superior and families are willing to pay for it, then why should the club and/or coach not be ‘allowed’ to make as much money as possible?

Why should this be any different from, say, a financial consultant charging as high an hourly rate as possible for his or her services? Or the cleaning lady trying to negotiate the highest possible hourly rate for her services? Or you and me negotiating the highest possible salary and bonus in our professional lives?

If what you do is valued highly and someone offers you double or triple what you’re getting now and you can therefore buy that four bedroom modern house in a neighborhood with great schools then why not charge for your services?

Money is a reflection of the value you deliver. There’s nothing bad or dirty or questionable about that.

There are non-monetary measures of ‘value’, of course, and those are important motivators in some professions, but money is a strong indicator of delivered value in private markets, including youth soccer.

You have to continue to deliver a great work product, of course. If you don’t then the payments will stop quite quickly because parents will go elsewhere for a better product.

Like with all purchasing decisions, families need to make a decision about what’s important and affordable for them.

If a club’s activities are simply too costly and your youngster isn’t talented enough then you need to find another club. Or move your son/daughter down to a lower team that doesn’t train as much and only plays games within driving distance. The cost for this second or third team should be lower. Don’t waste your money!

For example, the annual cost to play on an ECNL team is much higher than the cost for the second or third team. This is mostly because the ECNL team travels much more.

So take a step back and honestly assess your youngster’s soccer potential and decide on what’s important to your youngster and your family.

A good friend of mine with tremendous knowledge of competitive sports, including soccer, keeps reminding me of how delusional we as parents can be. Here’s a good blog post on DPD – Delusional Parent Disorder. Love the term!

If your youngster isn’t heading for an ECNL team (girls) or an USDA team (boys) then don’t waste your hard earned money chasing the wrong goal. The same applies for any other level of play – if he/she simply isn’t going to make the first or second or third team then stop chasing that with money and sacrificed time.

Instead, focus on having a great time at soccer together. Make sure your son/daughter learns to enjoy the game for a lifetime. He/she doesn’t have to play on the ‘best’ team or club for that to happen. And it doesn’t have to be expensive.

But it’s ultimately your choice in this private market called “youth soccer”.

P.S.: There are very problematic issues arising from this ‘pay-to-play’ market model we have here in our country, which exceeds the scope of this blog post. I will post separately on that in a few days. Stay tuned.

 

Soccer Flourishes – The Economist

The Economist published the below article on the continued growth of soccer in our country. Soccer still has some way to go, of course, but many metrics point in the right direction.

We have everything we need to become a global soccer powerhouse: very large population, amazing facilities, huge financial resources, deep and broad athletic culture, diversity, and the largest group of youth soccer players in the world.

Our women already lead the world and there is no reason why our men can’t eventually achieve the same.

We are open to learning best practices from overseas. Our understanding of the game will steadily get better, the coaching quality will steadily improve, and more money will flow into soccer with every passing year.

We will eventually see homegrown male players that can compete at the international level. For me Pulisic is probably the first such player, but we need many more, of course.

More and more Americans like watching people kick round balls

The Economist – May 28th 2016

Despite its name, the Copa America has never been played north of the Rio Grande before. On June 3rd the international soccer tournament kicks off in Santa Clara, California. Games will take place in ten cities across the country over the next four weeks.

It is the latest effort to cement the sport into the mainstream consciousness. Soccer still lags behind America’s four leading sports: baseball, basketball, hockey and American football. But several measures suggest that the game is gaining ground.

Much of the hard running took place in the 1990s, when the successful hosting of the World Cup coincided with a surge of young players and the formation of Major League Soccer (MLS).

According to a poll for ESPN, soccer has become the second-most popular sport for 12-24 year olds, after American football, and is the standout leader among Hispanics of the same age.

Last year soccer-playing among boys in high school grew more than any other sport, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (perhaps capitalising on fears over the safety of American football, where numbers fell).

The success of the national teams, in particular the women’s side, has been a boon. Last year, the Women’s World Cup final attracted a domestic TV audience of 27m—roughly the same as the record-setting college American football championship game in 2015.

Until recently, the challenge had been to keep people interested between World Cups. A rise in the number of games from other countries that are broadcast live has helped. According to Stephen Master of Nielsen, which measures such things, there is now more live soccer available on American TV than in any other country.

Partly as a result, average attendances at MLS games have grown by 56% since 2001. In the past five years they have risen 29%. More people go to MLS games than go to an NBA games or National Hockey League ones (though both basketball and hockey are played in smaller stadiums with higher ticket prices).

When it comes to revenue, soccer is still a minnow: MLS generates just half the revenue of Japanese baseball and a tenth of what the NBA does.

There is also depth to this growth among fans. In May FC Cincinnati, a freshly minted team playing in the third tier (the United Soccer League, or USL), registered one crowd of more than 23,000. In 2015, newly formed New York City FC sold 15,000 season tickets before they had kicked a ball.

The league is set to grow from 20 to 24 teams over the next two seasons, and one of the youngest, most eclectic fan bases of all American sports—52% of MLS fans are aged 18-34, the highest proportion of any professional sports league.

Viewing figures for MLS also have a long way to go before they can compete regularly with the big four. But TV audiences are growing (tying domestic fixtures in with English Premier League games, which attract larger audiences, has worked well) and networks see the potential, signing a $90m-a-year deal to 2022 for broadcasting rights.

Still, MLS has still not fully dispelled its image as a retirement home for clapped-out European stars. Only Sebastian Giovinco, a player for Toronto FC, can be considered a foreign star in his prime. With a new surge of spending on soccer in China, it may become even more difficult to attract stardust.

America churns out more world-beating athletes than any other country, but none of them play soccer. Yet.

[Please note that I don’t agree with this last sentence. This post ‘The Myth of the Athlete Deficit’ gives you my perspective on this.]

The myth of the athlete deficit in U.S. soccer

One of the most common explanations for why we cannot compete on the international stage is that our ‘best’ athletes don’t play soccer. If only our football or basketball or baseball or track athletes played the game!

That is a fallacy in my view. Here’s why:

First, soccer is not a sport where large size, strength, bulk, and speed make for elite players. Do those skinny  5′ 7″ to 5′ 9″ superstars in the above photo look like football and basketball players? Soccer is as much artistic as it is athletic.

The better soccer players have a range of skills and technical ability, quickness, great ball control and touch, and a vision for player movements and space. Soccer players have to creatively solve the many hundreds of micro-problems they encounter during a game, which goes well beyond just speed and bulk.

Second, unusually large or tall athletes that tend to be successful in football or basketball or track don’t necessarily have the right physical attributes for soccer. For example, most of them would not be quick, agile, and light-footed enough.

Many of them would be able to muscle smaller players off the ball (if they can get close enough), or shield the ball, or outrun many/most soccer players in a straight-line sprint, but those are not meaningful predictors of success in soccer, especially for quality soccer.

To be clear, if soccer became the number one sport in our country then one would expect the pool of raw talent available to soccer to improve/expand too, of course. And it would most likely help us move up the rankings, but for as long as we focus on the athletic attributes that we celebrate in football and basketball and track, we will not be able to compete internationally against soccer powerhouses.

Might there be a way to roughly estimate the best we could achieve by focusing primarily on athletic attributes we’re familiar with from football and basketball and track?

A good comparison might be the English national team. It is generally accepted that English players are physical, athletic, fast, but lacking in technique, skill, creativity, quickness, and a deeper tactical understanding of the game.

England has similar athletic raw material as here in our country and soccer is by far the number one sport. Most of the ‘big guys’ start playing soccer when they are young.

The result is that England won the World Cup in 1966 as hosts, but their best performance since has only been a semi-final appearance in 1990.

England has never won the  European Championships – their best performances being semi-final appearances at the 1968 and 1996 Championships, the latter of which they hosted.

At the most recent World Cup (2014) England was eliminated at the group stage for the first time since the 1958 World Cup, and the first time at a major tournament since Euro 2000. England’s points total of one from three matches was its worst ever in the World Cup, obtaining one point from drawing against Costa Rica in their last match.

Another good, primarily athletically focused, underperforming soccer comparison might be Russia. It is generally considered to be one of the top ‘athletically talented’ countries and also has a deep soccer tradition.

But Russia has achieved little at the international level – reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2008 marks the only time that they passed the group stages of a major tournament these last ~25 years. Their best finish at the World Cup was fourth in 1966. At the European Championships they finished second three times (1964, 1972, 1988) when athleticism and brute force played a much bigger role in soccer.

Germany tends to have more athletic players also, but they’ve invested heavily in the artistic/technical aspects of player development these last twenty years. And even elite German soccer players are, by and large, not like our football and basketball players.

In other words, if soccer becomes the number one sport here and can draw on a larger pool of athletic ‘raw material’ (and everything else stays the same) then the best we can expect to achieve is arguably the English success record (which is better than the US record, but I’m assuming we want to aim for the top).

So to join the best in the world we have to look beyond our typical U.S. view of athleticism and add the many non-athletic elements that make for truly world-class soccer in countries like Spain, Germany, Argentina, and Brasil.

All this is good news in my view. We can become World Champions without having to wait for soccer to overtake football and/or basketball in popularity. Waiting for ‘our best athletes to play soccer’ is a fallacy.

Athletes especially suitable for football and basketball are not necessarily especially suitable for soccer, and vice versa. All sports can co-exist without materially cannibalising each other.

We have enough diverse athletic ‘raw material’ of different shapes and sizes to be internationally competitive in all sports. We just need to focus on the right player attributes for each sport.

It’s all there. We just have to do it right.

Why have our women dominated internationally and might that change soon?

Our women’s national team has an impressive record. According to this Wikipedia page, the U.S. WNT has three World Cup titles, four Olympic gold medals, seven CONCACAF Gold Cup wins, and ten Algarve Cups.

The WNT has been ranked either 1st or 2nd in the world these last 20+ years. Click here for more information on rankings over the years.

So why are our women so dominant given the relatively limited soccer culture in our country and the lack of international competitiveness of our men? The relative difference between our women and men is enormous.

I believe there are two key reasons – both are cultural. By way of background, I grew up in Germany during the 70s and 80s, and played and watched soccer in Europe during the 80s and 90s.

First, the role of women in society started to change here much sooner than in other countries. More so than in any other country girls and women were encouraged to grow up confident and equal to men, including becoming athletes.

Yes, we still have some way to go before there’s true equality, but for all practical intents and purposes from a soccer perspective the opportunities for girls and women opened up much sooner here than in other countries.

This process started in the 70s and accelerated in the 80s and 90s. Other countries, including those in Western Europe, changed too, of course, but typically trailed the U.S. by a decade or two, depending on the specific country. And some countries such as Mexico are arguably further behind still.

If your pool of potential players already has a big fundamental cultural mindset advantage then it’s going to be easier to turn them into world-class athletes. The ‘raw material’ here was so much more suitable to competing in sports.

Second, our women were able to flourish precisely because we never had a strong soccer culture. Soccer culture outside the U.S. is very ‘macho’. You would never see girls or women play the game – ever. Not even a pick-up game in a neighborhood park or on the school yard during breaks.

It was and still is a man’s sport in most of the rest of the world and especially in soccer-mad countries. This massively discouraged girls to play. Think ‘American Football culture’ when you reflect on ‘soccer culture’ outside our country.

These two reasons provided the foundation to which we added relatively ample financial resources, a large population, and broadly available quality facilities.

And the college system provided a good development environment for our girls to mature into competitive women. The various pro-leagues over the years also helped post-college.

In a nutshell, our girls were free to play and learn the beautiful game much sooner than in other parts of the world. They were more athletic, more confident, had more experience playing from a young age, and there are many of them in our relatively large country.

So far so good. So very good, actually.

However, our dominance might come to an end sometime in next five to ten years unless we re-think player development and selection for our girls.

In my view, our women are playing an athletic style of play with too little technical skills and creativity. We’ve dominated the world this way because, frankly, the competition was so weak physically and mentally.

Here’s an excellent article on this very topic, published a couple of weeks ago: “As a women’s soccer nation, we have a skill problem.”

It worked well and fitted nicely with our American focus on speed and power. We also didn’t have to match the coaching quality and understanding of the game that soccer-mad countries like Germany and Spain have because those countries did not apply any of that know-how to their women. So our coaching here was good enough.

But this is now changing.

The national soccer federations in Europe recently made developing women’s soccer a priority. This started about five to ten years ago in Germany, France, and Japan. Latin American countries such as Brazil are taking this seriously now too. England also recently started to develop a competitive women’s soccer program.

And what sets these countries apart from us is more emphasis on the technical and creative aspects of the game. I haven’t done a detailed analysis of this nor can I point to any hard evidence to support my claim, but it is apparent to me when I watch international games.

I also see a strong bias toward athleticism and speed watching girls teams play in leagues and various tournaments, including the top ECNL teams.

The smaller, slower, technically superior ten, eleven, or twelve year old player isn’t valued as highly as they should if longer-term player development is the goal. The perfect player has both athleticism and excellent technical skills plus lots of creativity, of course, but that is rare.

So if we don’t start to focus much more on technical skills and creativity then we might sometime soon lose most games against up and coming women’s national teams such as France.

And these countries do have a tremendous depth of understanding of the game that we don’t (yet) have here in our country. Transfer all that to the women’s side of the sport and you should end up with very competitive teams.

If we don’t change will we end up in a similar situation that our men’s team is in. Athletic and solid, but no creativity and understanding of the game at the deepest level.

It seems like USSF leadership recognizes this too and it’s the main reason for launching the Girls’ Development Academy to replace ECNL, without collaborating with ECNL. This article summarizes is nicely. I’m quoting a key passage:

“The aim is to standardize coaching and development in order to push the best players up through a system that can feed the national team with highly-skilled players.

What U.S. Soccer hopes to mitigate are the uncoordinated ways in which the best American youth soccer players are coached. There’s too much screaming on the sidelines and too much emphasis is placed on winning while development of individual talent of the best players is secondary. This move is overdue.

Five years ago, Heinrichs and Ellis said they “flipped the model upside down” about what kinds of players they wanted to see come through to the senior women’s team. Instead of merely seeking out the strongest, biggest, fastest and most athletic players, the new emphasis was on tactical and technical ability. The new academy will standardize practices to make sure the best young players get consistent coaching and training.”

Let’s see where things stand in five to ten years!

Just announced: structure of new Girls’ Development Academy

U.S. Soccer released more details for the Girls’ Development Academy which will launch in August 2017. Click here for my post on probably why USSF doesn’t want to collaborate with ECNL.

The application process for clubs will open in May.

The guidelines for member clubs will feature increased training requirements with fewer, but higher quality games. Clubs will be expected to train a minimum of four times a week.

From the start, the program will feature three combined age groups: U14/15, U16/17 and U18/19. The use of combined age groups will require clubs to form teams with a balanced roster of players from two distinct birth years. [Note that the Boys’ DA now starts at U12 so it’s likely that the Girls’ DA will too at some point soon.]

In addition to combining the most elite players from each birth year to form the mixed age group player pool, coaches will be encouraged to play their most elite players “up” on an older age team within the club to help accelerate development.

The players in the Girls’ Development Academy clubs will play exclusively within the Academy program and will not play in any outside competition, such as ODP or high school.

The games will be scouted by U.S.Soccer and the program will serve as a pathway to U.S. Soccer’s Youth National Teams.

The competitive framework will focus on the core values of the program, which emphasizes quality coaching and teaching in a positive learning environment for players with zero tolerance for poor behavior from coaches.

The program will feature local and regional matches as well as regional and national events with playing rules based on international standards, e.g., no re-entry, limited substitutions and proper rest and recovery periods.

The season will be structured over a 10-month period, likely from September through July, and as in the Boys’ Development Academy, the clubs will be organized by divisions and conferences with national and/or regional events incorporated into the overall program.

USSF declines to collaborate with ECNL. Girls’ Development Academy launching Aug 2017.

It looks increasingly likely that the ECNL days are numbered. According to this SoccerAmerica article, ECNL leadership met with the U.S. Soccer Federation last week and was told that USSF can best raise standards at the elite level without ECNL.

The new Development Academy for girls will launch in 18 months, in August 2017, and will mirror the boys’ Development Academy structure.

I strongly suspect that USSF is going it alone because it gives them full centralized control over all aspects of elite girls player development. In general, it is much easier to rapidly make changes through a centralized structure.

Having to deal with a more collaborative structure where clubs have a say wouldn’t make it nearly as easy nor fast to make fundamental changes to training methods, selection processes, accreditation, league and tournament and showcase structures, etc.

Clubs compete, at times fiercely, often in a political environment. And while ECNL can, in principle, revoke membership if a club underperforms for too long, ECNL cannot force clubs to change coaching methods and styles of play or generally raise their standards before it becomes glaringly obvious.

And new ideas (for example, through coaches from outside the U.S.) might be threatening to some of the more established ECNL coaches that might also have quite a bit of political influence within ECNL.

In addition, maybe ‘winning games’, ‘keeping score’, and rankings play too big a role in ECNL, which doesn’t always help with player development.

So I can see why centralized control over how players are developed is very important to USSF.

‘Collaboration’ sounds good in an email or public statement and makes us feel good, but reality is probably much messier, especially when tough changes have to be implemented that threaten long-established stakeholders.

And the argument that “our WNT is dominating so don’t change” doesn’t take into account big changes coming globally to women’s soccer.

A nation’s federation needs to look ahead ten years or more and implement changes early enough to be well positioned for changes looming on the horizon.

For example, it is likely that the women’s game will become more technical and creative, driven initially by soccer powerhouses such as France and Germany who have recently woken up.

Our youth development has to adjust accordingly and that is easier to do in a centralized system, and probably also one less geared toward feeding colleges.

I predict that pretty much all of the ECNL clubs will apply for DA status and that the large majority of them will get it.

There will be new strings attached, of course, including a willingness to be dictated to and supervised by USSF, annual assessments and ratings, but the big clubs cannot afford to be excluded from this.

Curious to see if our MLS clubs jump into the girls side now also. Maybe USSF will mandate that any club with a boys’ DA also has to support a girls’ DA?

Note that many pro clubs in Europe, like Bayern Munich, now have women’s pro teams, but I’m not sure how much those pro clubs get involved in girls’ youth development.

And I’m wondering if the launch of this USSF controlled girls’ DA might also eventually give girls the opportunity to make the National Team without having to go through the college soccer system.

This is increasingly also the better option for boys if a soccer career is to be maximized. There are some differences between boys’ and girls’ longer-term financial prospects, so this isn’t clear-cut, but it’s worth discussing at least.

Anyway, these are my thoughts on what might be driving USSF’s decision. There should be a way to introduce the Girls’ DA and still have ECNL. ECNL might, for example, become a second-tier league for the top one or two teams in each age group, but excluding the DA players.

The next twelve months are going to be interesting.

What is creativity in soccer?

Creativity is used a lot to describe the better soccer players. And many of us probably recognize it when we see it during a youth or pro game. I have posted many times about the importance of encouraging creativity in our youngsters, most recently an article on the lack of top midfielders in our country and a post about risk-averse defenders.

The impact of creativity cannot be underestimated. It massively impacts the quality and entertainment of every soccer game across all age groups and levels. It’s as relevant for lower-level U9 games as it is for elite pro games.

And a lack of creativity isn’t just an issue here in our country. For example, it’s arguably the single biggest reason for England’s relative underperformance on the international stage (and until recently, but to a lesser extent, also in the country where I grew up, Germany) and why the English Premier League is so dominated by elite foreign players. (English teams have the resources to buy talent from all over the world because more than in any other country England focused heavily on the business of sports these last two decades. So the English clubs and the League are doing well, but not the English national team.)

According to one English youth soccer coach: “So many England internationals from the past 30 years have grown to become more functional than creative, and the fact that I have to hark back to players like Hoddle and Gascoigne to remember truly creative, unpredictable, England players is a concern for English football. This rigid, predictable footballer is a product of the coaching they received when they were young.”

But what is ‘creativity’? More technical elements such as dribbling or super skills? Or more team-based elements such as pass-and-move patterns? Or something else?

Before I suggest a definition of ‘creativity’ let’s take a step back and read this excerpt from a recent article on how U.S. Soccer is attempting to improve coaching quality (slightly edited for clarity and brevity; blue font is my emphasis):

“Soccer is a player’s game. The 22 people knocking a ball around a big field are bound by few rules. Predictable patterns rarely occur. As a result, coaches can’t succeed by designing plays and ordering players to execute them, as they can in, say, football. Players have to make judgment calls in the moment, on their own.

This means that rote skills, while essential, are not in themselves adequate. The thing that makes better players is decision making. They need to integrate not just how to do something but whether, when, and why. There are parallels to the difficulty many students have solving problems independently. If you give kids a math problem and tell them how to solve it they can usually do it. But if you give them a problem and it’s not clear how to solve it, they struggle.

Jürgen Klinsmann, a former German world soccer star, World Cup winner, coach of the German National Team, and currently coach of our U.S. men’s team, has remarked that it’s hard to get Americans to see that a soccer coach cannot be “the decision maker on the field,” but should instead be a guide. “This is a very different approach. I tell them, ‘No, you’re not making the decision. The decision is made by the kid on the field.’ ”

Outside the U.S., most soccer players learn to play independently very early on.  We don’t have a lot of unstructured play where kids can develop creativity. It’s a lot of tournaments and pressure and sideline parents and trophies.”

So with that background in mind let’s turn back to ‘creativity’. When you break down a soccer game into its smallest, most fundamental elements it comes down to this:

Players are faced with an endless series of problem-solving micro-moments during games.

These micro-moments could last anywhere from a split-second (for example, controlling the ball in very tight spaces or a goalkeeper reacting to a sudden shot on goal) to a handful of seconds (for example, a midfielder moving with the ball looking for passing options).

Some of these micro-moments repeat themselves over time and youngsters simply learn from experience what to do in those moments.

But many of these micro-moments are new or different and force a player to make immediate decisions about how to solve them. And as the standard of play increases the player has to use increasingly creative ways to deal with these micro-moments.

For example, simply physically shielding the ball against a physically inferior and ‘simpler’ player won’t work against clever/crafty players (physically inferior or not) because they know how to fake you out and poke the ball away. Or clever players know how to use teamwork to double up on you and take the ball away.

Another example is that athletic youngsters can have much success simply touching the ball into space past a defender and then sprinting past them toward goal, especially when they are younger and/or playing against inferior players.

That’s certainly one way to repeatedly solve those how-do-I-get-past-a-defender micro-problems. But this won’t work anymore when matched up against athletic defenders and a defensive team working well together to cover each other. So now what? Is this athletic youngster able to get past the defenders other than through speed and/or physicality?

Often ‘unpredictability’ goes hand in hand with creativity. In general, the more unpredictable the way the micro-problem is solved the more likely it is that he or she will outfox the opponent and succeed.

And, just as important for the longer-term growth of the game in our country, the more entertaining it is to watch the game across all levels and age groups.

And what does a youngster need to creatively solve those micro-problems?

  1. Soccer IQ – a fundamental understanding of the game, including the relationship between the ball, the players, space and movement;
  2. Large toolkit – broad and deep technical skills, ball control and touch, accurate passing, ability to shoot, ambidexterity, off-the-ball movement, etc.
  3. Mental agility – is the youngster constantly paying attention and reading the game, processing split-second decisions, coming up with clever solutions, imagining a couple of moves ahead;
  4. Confidence – especially with the ball in tight, pressured situations in your own defensive third; does he or she have the confidence to do the unexpected and experiment with new solutions or is he or she worried about making mistakes?

So ‘creativity’ is not just one thing. It’s not just dribbling skills or accurate passing movements or sprinting or great shots on goal. It’s all of the above (and more) applied at the right moments to solve the endless series of often unpredictable micro-problems players face during games.

And the earlier and more often our youngsters attempt to solve those problems creatively the sooner their conscious thought (which is measured in seconds) becomes instinct (which is measured in a second or less), further speeding up and improving the quality of their game.

And it’s the coach’s job to help his youngsters develop as large a toolkit as possible and the positive mental attitude to become smarter, more creative players over time even if that means losing many more games.

Encourage that eight, nine, or ten year old defender to dribble past an attacker even if your team is more likely to lose possession.

Celebrate the attempted Maradona move by the midfielder even if a simpler touch past the opponent would have had a higher chance of working.

Applaud your speedy attacker for working with his teammate on a series of two or three wall-passes instead of simply using his or her speed to leave that obviously slower defender in the dust.

Admire a beautiful sequence of one-touch passing movements even if two touches would have retained possession for longer.

The list is endless.

For the good of this beautiful game, coaches and parents, please teach, encourage, and celebrate creative problem solving across all age groups and levels. Coaches will develop better players, parents will be more entertained during games, and our youngsters will enjoy playing more and for longer.

And then one day in the not too distant future we will bring the World Cup trophy to our country.

Big investment in futsal

Mark Cuban has jumped into futsal here in the United States. And, according to the Dallas Morning News, FC Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Corinthians, and Boca Juniors will all own individual franchises.

In addition, some of Cuban’s NBA peers are also getting involved, including the Buss family, owners of the LA Lakers, and Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian oligarch owner of the Brooklyn Nets.

The aim is to put together the preeminent futsal league in the world, bringing the best talent the game has to offer to the United States.

The attraction is the money spent on sports and, increasingly soccer, here. Our facilities are also typically very good and existing venues can easily be converted to futsal arenas.

And click here for an article discussing some of the rules modifications.

It’s early days, but let’s hope this works out!

Here’s a photo taken at the UEFA European Futsal Championships that is currently underway – 11,000 in attendance!

futsaleuros

And here’s a clip showing the dramatic 2:1 quarterfinal win by Serbia over Ukraine with 0.30 seconds left on the clock. Note the electrifying atmosphere!

You have to click on the link to YouTube unfortunately. And the deciding goal is at 2:25.

 

Our Biggest Struggle

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The end for ECNL? USSF launching Girls’ Development Academy.

From TopDrawerSoccer.com, published on Monday, Jan 25, 2016:

On Dec. 29, SoccerWire.com dropped a bombshell report on girls soccer development in the U.S. Citing multiple sources, the site claimed the U.S. Soccer Federation has plans to launch a girls’ equivalent of the Development Academy in time for the fall of 2017.

U.S. Soccer confirmed to TopDrawerSoccer.com that the program announcement is coming soon, perhaps as early as this week.

While America waits to see what the program entails and how it takes shape in the firmament of American girls soccer, one organization waits with particularly baited breath.

How exactly would the ECNL, the current forerunner of the ‘girls Development Academy model,’ fit into a landscape with another league for top girls players?

Since flinging open its doors for the first time in 2009, the ECNL has gradually developed into a force in women’s soccer development. At the 2014 U20 Women’s World Cup, 18 of the U.S.’s 21 players had direct ties to an ECNL club. At a recent U14 GNT camp, 28 of the 35 players called in were ECNL players. A recent January U15 camp (19 of 24), a February U16 camp (20 of 24) and a February U17 invitational (16 of 21) were brimming with the league’s products.

But the news U.S. Soccer has its own girls programming planned leaves things in a precarious place. If the federation blazes its own path, the ECNL – which has an established nationwide infrastructure and developed championship-level U14 to U18 age groups among clubs all over the country – will have to find out where it fits. And fast.

“The ideal would be to have a program that does a great thing for the federation’s national teams, for the pro teams and all of their impact on development, and also with this hugely successful club structure we have that’s represented by the ECNL,” said ECNL president Christian Lavers. “It seems like there should be plenty of ways to put those things in collaboration together and kind of rises the water for everybody.”

In 2014, a task force finished a run of meetings that had been brought together for some of the top decision-makers in the country to discuss, among other topics, how the girls development apparatus can improve to help the U.S. Women’s National Team win World Cups. With a broad range of members discussing what amounted to an open-ended question, the group met a handful of times before dispersing after the last meet-up in October 2014.

Among the task force’s conclusions was that a Development Academy answer for girls soccer wasn’t necessary, mostly because of the strides the ECNL had made since 2009. According to Lavers, that was the last piece of formal communication the ECNL and U.S. Soccer had on the matter. On a conference call four months later, U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati floated the idea of a girls Development Academy-like operation on a conference call to the media.

Turns out it was a forerunner for the future.

The ECNL has been deliberate in cultivating a professional, positive relationship over the years with U.S. Soccer. After all, the vast majority of the top girls youth players in the U.S. Soccer youth national team pipeline right now either did most of their development in the ECNL or are still playing in the league today. The most visible public face of that bond on the club side was, for years, longtime ECNL commissioner Sarah Kate Noftsinger. Before the Women’s World Cup in 2015, Noftsinger was bullish on the relationship between the two organizations.

“In the six years the ECNL has been around, that relationship with the federation has become stronger and stronger, and it’s very collaborative,” Noftsinger said. “Because at the end of the day, we’re not the federation, but we are here to support them and help them be the best in the world.”

Noftsinger left the ECNL in November to take a front office role with the new Atlanta United FC franchise beginning MLS play in 2017, leaving former top assistant Jen Woodie as the acting commissioner for now.

As far as the ECNL is concerned, the issue of redundancy is particularly problematic. If U.S. Soccer opts to bring its array of resources to bear on a youth league that looks like the ECNL model, that presents players with a choice that will inevitably leave one league in the lurch over time. That would essentially pit U.S. Soccer’s resources against the ECNL’s already established reach in its communities.

The hope among ECNL administrators is a more collaborative model that allows both to exist with unique, distinct benefits for players that don’t necessarily overlap.

“If you start from, ‘How do we make what’s out there better,’ I think you come to a very positive place,” Lavers said. “Because it’s not 2007. It’s not the same environment that existed when the Development Academy was created for the boys, because at that point there was no organization, there was no real national league that provided the meaningful competition… The boys DA was designed to fix, in 2007. You would say, I think, that many of those things have been solved very positively.
“But it’s not 2007 anymore. The ECNL was created to fix a lot of the same problems that the DA was created to fix on the boys side, and I think quite honestly a lot of those problems have been fixed.”

Given the lack of communication with the ECNL since the task force dispersed 15 months ago, it seems unlikely the two are merging outright, which gives the federation’s announcement a heightened glow of anticipatory radiance.

However dramatically, the state of girls soccer development in the U.S. is about to change. We’re about to find out how much.