The Allure of the Rondo

The Allure of the Rondo

By: Jon Townsend



Call it “Piggy in the Middle”, 3v1, 5v2, 5v5+2 or any variation where a numerically superior group of players has the ball and a smaller group of players tries to win the ball back. Great players do this with precise and frenetic one-touch passes to someone else, creating dizzying pinball-like combinations and working those in the middle to exhaustion. Usually, if the players in the middle are split, they stay in again.

But there’s more to the rondo than organizing some players in a circle, putting two unfortunate souls in the middle and torturing them with a teasing game of keep away. The rondo is the reinvention of modern football. As a staple in the training systems of some of the world’s top academies like Ajax and Barcelona, the rondo’s effectiveness has become increasingly popular for the common coach to implement, partly due to its perceived simplicity.

What makes the rondo so useful is the close proximity it’s played in, which forces players to exhibit all the qualities required to succeed on a full-sized pitch. Players can’t hide by stretching the space to allow for more time on the ball. In the rondo, players must continuously identify and make decisions with respect to the shifting environment. That is, players are subject to instant decision making in close quarters based on what others do. Technical ability is paramount as is the ability to communicate, compete and anticipate while remaining composed offensively and defensively. The demands the rondo places on players are match realistic.

Johan Cruyff described the rondo adequately in Stan Baker’s book Our Competition is the World:  “Everything that goes on in a match, except shooting, you can do in a rondo. The competitive aspect, fighting to make space, what to do when in possession and what to do when you haven’t got the ball, how to play ‘one touch’ soccer, how to counteract the tight marking and how to win the ball back.”

It’s obvious why the rondo is a coveted discipline. The transition from attack to defence is instantaneous, accomplishing training principles that are the underpinning of the fluid passing style that clubs like Barcelona, Ajax, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Bayern Munich employ to great effect. Initially instituted by Johan Cruyff at Barcelona, the rondo’s usefulness has sparked a belief that the drill is the secret of possession-based football. Conceivably, part of the formulaic success behind tiki taka football is found in the rondo.

The modern game is dictated by effective possession on both sides of the ball. The modern defender operates as a playmaker while the cerebral output of midfielders has increased to accommodate possession-based football. The days of defenders merely hoofing a ball forward with regularity are gone. Outside backs tend to occupy a starting position at least 10-15 yards more advanced than a decade ago. Nearly every player is expected to be technically adept and play box-to-box. Total Football’s revitalization means quick interchange and passing are the norm. In a national side profile from UEFA’s official website in 2008, El Rondo was credited with being “used to develop and refine the quick passing style is El Rondo. It breeds quick passing, short-distance sprinting, stamina, intelligence of movement and speed of thought.”

In Simon Kuper’s book Soccer Men, Pep Guardiola stated, “Without the ball we are a horrible team. So we need the ball.” In context, Guardiola was referring to Barça’s smaller physical size and superior technical ability against oftentimes physically dominant opposition. The ability to keep the ball and resist playing panicked football in possession has long been valued. However, when the collective nous of a team is built upon using possession to devastating effect, the game transcends the conventional.

In an interview in with the Guardian in February 2011 referencing Barcelona’s philosophy, Xavi Hernández, one of the great passers and technicians of the modern game stated, “Some youth academies worry about winning, we [Barcelona] worry about education. You see a kid who lifts his head up, who plays the pass first time, pum, and you think, ‘Yep, he’ll do.’ Bring him in, coach him. Our model was imposed by [Johan] Cruyff; it’s an Ajax model. It’s all about rondos. Rondo, rondo, rondo. Every. Single. Day. It’s the best exercise there is. You learn responsibility and not to lose the ball. If you lose the ball, you go in the middle. Pum-pum-pum-pum, always one touch. If you go in the middle, it’s humiliating, the rest applaud and laugh at you.”

Perhaps the most famous Barcelona rondo was seen at Wembley before the 2011 Champions League final. In that match, Barcelona played Manchester United off the pitch in a blustering display of incisive one-touch passing combinations that forced United to chase shadows. As Barcelona’s warm-up footage spread around social media, the rondo garnered attention. Most videos show players groomed at La Masia display an unrivalled silky first touch, balance, mercurial creativity and flair. That match also demonstrated how teams mastering the cognitive and technical abilities the rondo hones can translate a simple game of “Piggy in the Middle” into an exercise of segmented isolation and decimation of opposing players all over the pitch, nullifying opposing teams unable to cut off passing lanes. Passing of such tempo and precision is akin to exacting a “death by a thousand cuts”-style of football torture to teams subjected to its hypnotic and frustrating effects.

In his post-match 2011 final comments, Sir Alex Ferguson candidly stated, “[We were] well beaten, there’s no other way to address the situation,” he said. “They do mesmerize you with their passing.” The legendary Scot went on to say, “They’re the best in Europe, no question about that. In my time as a manager, I would say they’re the best team we’ve faced. Everyone acknowledges that and I accept that. It’s not easy when you’ve been well beaten like that to think another way. No one has given us a hiding like that. It’s a great moment for them. They deserve it because they play the right way and enjoy their football.”

Predictably, coaches on the outside looking in are keen to emulate the magic on display. At a national coaching convention, I witnessed a slew of coaches create entire training sessions based on the rondo. Initially, their rationale was unclear. Top academy players were used as training subjects as top level coaches attempted to teach those in attendance the “secrets” of the mystic movements of the rondo.

In one particular training demonstration, a coach from an established academy assembled players in a 10×10-yard grid and said, “OK, today we’re working on 5v2’s or the “FCB Rondo”. This is exactly what they do there, but to start, we’ll allow two touches. If you get split you stay in the middle. Got it?” Everyone nodded. “Last two down are in the middle,” the coach said as players suddenly dropped to one knee to avoid being on defence first.

The trepidation of the players was surprising. These players were considered the area’s “elite talent”, many of whom were touted to play at top universities or, according to their coaches, go on to play professionally. These claims of grandeur are not as far-fetched as one might imagine. This particular medley of handpicked talent included four players who had earned a Youth National Team call-up.

From the start, rarely was there more than five passes strung together as the players engaged in a haphazard series of 5v2, 3v1, and 5v5+2 rondos in the 10×10-yard grid. However, there was no shortage of elaborate flicks and attempted nutmegs on display. Rather than playing simple passes, players opted for the complex. What was more troubling, however, was the players seemed conditioned to fear being in the middle. Perhaps, years of misguided coaching have associated being on defence with being punished.  As the intermittent quality on display continued to plummet, the coach grew frustrated and resorted to spewing off incessant instruction to the point that all anyone could hear was his voice, making him the focal point of the rondo.

Inevitably, the players began to criticize one another. Communication turned to borderline ridicule for those taking more than two touches, kicking the ball out of play, or taking a poor first touch. With each roar of “Let’s go!”, “The split’s on!”, and “Get the damn ball!” the players in the middle recklessly chased the ball while those on the perimeter panicked. Defensively they weren’t dictating or shaping the offense with any intent. The beauty and hypnotic rondos mastered by the world’s elite had morphed into an exercise in sloppiness and pure panic. It was hard to imagine the players gained much from the exercise.

After twenty painful minutes, as the speed slowed to a mind-numbing, gelatinous crawl, the tackles flew in. Each split sparked audible blame. At this point, instead of working as a unit, those in the middle jogged around lazily chasing the ball individually, praying someone on the ever-expanding perimeter would make a mistake and grant reprieve. Was this the exposing of exhibitionists and scared players? Most poorly-executed tricks seemed to stem from something most players have seen on YouTube and it’s painfully obvious these tricks and flicks are equated with true footballing quality.

After a ten minute lecture from the pontificating coach, the players continued and followed the cliché of passing the responsibility, not the ball. Again, the rondo’s perimeter grew, swelling to accommodate poor technique and lack of adequate footwork. “I want to see better rondos!” the coach bellowed. Not once did the coach set an objective for the players.

Better rondos? The thought perplexed me and it was clear this coach (and countless others) expected professional-grade skill and execution out of teenage players. So, how could this simple drill performed by young players at Basque and Catalan Canteras at Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad, Espanyol and Barcelona’s youth academy, La Masia, have gone so far off the mark with these players? Culture and coaching are part of the answer.

Young players in the world’s top academies take a great sense of pride and responsibility on being technicians on the ball. They are seldom seen without a ball at their feet. Each training session warm-up involves a ball instead of rote running at academies like De Toekomst and La Masia. Ball work is precursory to most other movements and subsequently, a player’s ability to control the ball with polished touches becomes natural and is proportional to the amount of time they spend with a ball in and out of formal training.

Leaving that convention I surmised that a new wave of coaches underestimated the rondo. Had they thought it that simple? Coaching lectures, training breakouts, and side conversations seem hell-bent on extracting a single part of the total approach used at the world’s top clubs. In short, coaches want to see their young players do flawless and flashy rondos like Barcelona without working on the basics of passing, receiving, and movement off the ball. As a result, they implement training sessions from La Masia hoping for overnight success. Training practices like the rondo necessitate hours upon hours of deliberate training. The rondo is less about flashy skills than it is about utilizing sound footballing basics. The best players play a simple game, thus minimizing the frequency of their mistakes. The rondo stresses the importance of individual responsibility in possession football.

So how do players with less skill perform this drill? The systemic issue is rooted in an abundance of coaches expecting players with less skill to play overly complicated possession games over the expanse of a large field. Such practices only serve to hide the lack of technique under the guise of athleticism. Players simply aren’t getting enough touches on the ball and the ebb and flow of their involvement hampers their progress. The lower the level of skill, the simpler the game should be. A lot more time must be dedicated to the basics. At all levels, it’s glaringly obvious who has spent additional time working on technique and who has not. Contrary to conventional belief, as players, artists, musicians improve they must dedicate even more hours to the basics. Mastering the basics has been devalued as impatience plagues the youth game.

What coaches overlook is the process involved in something like the rondo, which seems simple. The failure to institute methodologies with consistency and patience results in overly complicated drills circulating coaching circles. Sure, these drills look great, but without proper implementation the only place those drills will ever look good is on paper. Long-term development can’t be sacrificed by rushing the process. In an age of global connectivity, it seems everyone and anyone can parade around with training plans without fully understanding the basic principles. The rondo’s assumed simplicity uncovers its true complexity.

Great players aren’t born with a ball at their feet. Their culture demands they take pride in their technique. What one will rarely find in top academy training sessions is the ostracizing of players who make mistakes. In these environments, mistakes are accepted, processed, and then corrected, but not at the expense of quality. Players are given more reps with a specific skill set for longer periods of time. The goal is skill acquisition, not rushing through a developmental model. Young players need more involvement and it’s no surprise they learn better with small-sided games, evidenced by the technical proficiency of recent generations of Spanish and Dutch players groomed in technique-focused academies. But this development isn’t rigid. Brazilian and Uruguayan players grow up playing futsal on small courts or football in the streets, and the current golden generation of Belgian players has been armed with a restructured possession-based footballing education curriculum.

The disconnection between the purpose and employment of the rondo extends to the psychology behind possession football. Where one finds technically proficient players, they will find players who excel at the rondo. What one is less likely to find in advanced environments are players who allow fear to affect their play. While the focus is the circulation of the ball and operating as a unit offensively and defensively, teaching something like the rondo is made possible by engaged and prepared players capable of performing at high levels with consistency, not the fear of being “in the middle”. There’s no shame in defending against larger numbers, yet young players tend to view it with disdain.

What is seldom mentioned by impatient coaches are the defensive principles the rondo teaches. Defenders can control the game as much as the players with ball. With the rondo, high level players on defence shape and dictate the direction of the passes, effectively forcing the predictable pass the ball to the ‘weak link’ most likely to concede possession. Players stopping the ball, panicking, who are stationary, or fail anticipate generally end up in the middle, and rightly so. It would be no different in real match play. Watching proper rondos, it’s clear the exercise scales down possession football to the molecular level.

Confined areas of play aren’t exclusive to football. In basketball, training sessions and pick-up games often take place on half of the court. As a student-athlete at the University of Kentucky, a powerhouse in collegiate basketball, I often spoke with members of the basketball program and was able to watch training sessions on occasion. I witnessed many of the country’s elite basketball players, many vying for careers in the NBA, literally deconstruct their game and rebuild it so they could play in the specific system a program like UK demanded.  Activities included players focusing on their weak hand on the dribble for entire training sessions, shooting on modified hoops without backboards; hundreds of basic jump shots were commonplace. Processes were deconstructed and focused on in isolation and in depth before players were allowed to advance onto more complicated drills. The sooner coaches focus on deficiencies, turning them into strengths, the sooner they can expect players to perform at advanced levels.

Football comes in all forms. There’s the unpolished version slogged out on muddy Sunday league pitches the world over. In perfect juxtaposition is the intricate and artistic kind of football radiating off the pristine pitches in the top leagues at the weekend. Much like art, football gets away with being undefinable. Once you “get it”, the game never quite looks the same again. From every vantage point and for every apparent movement on the pitch, there remains much we simply do not see at first glance. The rondo beautifully epitomizes Leonardo da Vinci’s words, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”


This article first appeared on the on September 14, 2014. 

The Game is Free

“There is a time and place for organized soccer, but if that is all players play, then enjoyment, creativity, leadership, and fun will have to be ‘coached’ into players, instead of being developed organically”

I have this memory of my father showing me a clip of Pelé juggling a grapefruit when I was a boy that reminds me how simple the game really is. Like any young boy who loved to play, seeing Pelé do anything with a ball was nothing short of magical. That memory recently coincided with a scene from the movie Escape to Victory where Cpl. Luis Fernandez (Pelé) juggles a ball on his head while Captain John Colby (Michael Caine) asks, “Where’d you learn to do that?” to which Cpl. Fernandez says, “When I was a boy, in Trinidad, in the streets, with the oranges,” while continuing to juggle the ball. I immediately ran out to the orange tree in the backyard, plucked an orange from a low-hanging branch and unsuccessfully tried to juggle it like Pelé. To this day, my record of juggling an orange like a soccer ball is 12.

 What’s the point of this little anecdote?

 Each day I follow a routine. Part of this routine involves driving 35 miles across a state line to the office where I work. Along the way I drive by a total of three public parks, one suburban park near the town I live in and two city parks, all with an abundance of real estate and plenty of soccer fields with goals and nets. On the weekends, I often make this same drive and there’s a troubling sight. The soccer fields are devoid of anyone playing pickup games in an area known for a rich history in the sport in the United States.

 This summer, I decided to drive up to the fields of each park. What I found was troubling. The suburban park had a sign that read, “Keep off the Field” and another that said, “No Play Except on Game Days”. The city parks had no such signs but we still left vacant. Keep off the field? No play except on game days? Over the summer months, when kids are out of school and seemingly have more free time, I visited these parks again and still found them empty. Other areas of both the suburban and city parks were bustling with people playing recreational games of gridiron football and the basketball courts accommodated recreational basketball games.

 On occasions, I visit where I grew up; the same park pitches I used to frequent after school now sit empty. However, it was not always this way. In the last 10-15 years, pickup soccer has become a lost game. Whether it was Jumpers for Goalposts in the park or a game my friends and I played called Three Bar (a common game in pickup ice hockey), most of the hours previous generations accumulated in the game were outside of structured games and training sessions.

 The reality is the hours spent at practice are simply not enough for maximum improvement. What else has changed is the value placed on pickup soccer. We exist in a time where one could argue that too much infrastructure is in place. Suburban players typically do not partake in pickup games for a variety of reasons, including technology and parental interference. According to the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission, most American kids spend about three hours a day watching television with additional “screen time” accumulation through tablets, computers, and smartphones. The finding states that all types of screen time can total five to seven hours a day. In addition to the time lost, kids are more apt to eat junk food during these hours. Lethargy and extended periods of sedentary time have become a lifestyle.

 The next contributing factor is the community. Parks that have signs up prohibiting people from playing on the fields is problematic, but not out of the realm of understanding. Facilities managers want to maintain the condition of the fields, nets, and goals. Signs with “Keep Off” emblazoned on in bold lettering send a message that parks have become places where playing is viewed as prohibitive

 Next on the list of culprits are parents. Parents are guilty of competing with one another and using their children as leverage. The result is a type of systemic parental competition where parents overschedule activities for their kids in an attempt to reinforce the assertion that their child is the most talented and well-rounded of the bunch. The over-involvement in so many activities has resulted in a generation of exhausted, robotic, and unmotivated kids that have grown up needing constant prompting.

 For players in more urban environments, access to safe places to play is a problem. In a recent blog post titled “Small Space, Big Impact” by Jim Hannesschlager, Grants Coordinator for the U.S. Soccer Foundation, an organization that aims “to enhance, assist and grow the sport of soccer in the United States, with special emphasis on underserved communities”, he addressed the topic of the lack of soccer-dedicated courts and settings. In the short post, he took feedback from both new and experienced coaches in addition to players who cited “facilities are hard to come by and that a small, intimate, soccer-specific space is the perfect forum for youth to participate, grow, and fall in love with the game. The U.S. Soccer Foundation’s Mini Pitch Initiative is set up to enhance, assist, and grow the beautiful game in places it has traditionally struggled. Whether you want to call it a soccer court, a mini pitch, futsal, or 5-aside, we are all speaking the same language – creating safe places to play the game in a soccer-specific venue.”

 In sport, music, art, or any dedicated discipline, however, the main onus should be on the participant. Aside from the by-products of a technology-addicted, overscheduled society, a player who sees soccer as a chore is a player who has most likely only played in “controlled environments”. Good players play with an eye to get better next time whereas great players play with an eye to get better every time. To be candid, youth players today are more likely to pick up their smartphones than a soccer ball after school or at the weekend. Part of what separated the good players from the great players I played with and against was the additional work they put into their craft. And most of those players excelled academically as well as athletically because they eliminated distractions. The simplicity of the solution is astounding, but the complexity of the problem is even more remarkable.

 I recently called ten coaches from various clubs and high schools of varying ages and talent levels to gain some perspective on the current state of coaching. We discussed the upcoming season and the expectations and goals for their teams. In each conversation I made sure I asked this poignant question: “How many hours a week do the players spend playing with the club (or school) each week?”  The answers surprised me. The four high school environments were comprised of two public schools and two private schools, with three boys’ teams and one girls’ team. All four coaches held training sessions lasting 90 minutes to two hours on four days (immediately after school) with two 80 minute-games a week. On the high end, players are in a “controlled environment” for around 10 hours and 40 minutes.

 At academy clubs in four states, each in a different region of the U.S., I asked the same question. Each club coach said he followed the U.S. Soccer Development Academy guideline of four mandatory training sessions weekly extended across a 10-month season with approximately 30 games. The average time players spent in the “controlled environment” for the academy was around 12-13 hours a week. One added caveat was, per U.S. Development Academy rules, players must abide by the “No outside participation for full-time Academy players”-rule each club reinforced. The last two clubs were admittedly recreational with a lower level of play and more inclusive setting for the U11-U13 (boys) age range. These coaches held two practices a week lasting 90 minutes with one game on the weekend where everyone received playing time. These players spent around five hours with their clubs.

 In comparison with top players in Europe and South America in particular, the actual applied hours spent playing the game in a controlled environment was considerably less in the U.S. environments. At established South American clubs such as Gremio, Fluminense, and Corinthians in Brazil as well as Boca Juniors in Argentina, players typically train twice a week until the age of 15 when they join a residency program (provided they are good enough) allowing them to train five days a week for around three hours a day. At famed academies in the Netherlands, most notably De Toekomst (Ajax)and Varkenoord (Feyenoord), and in Germany (Borussia Dortmund), a similar system exists to ramp up the hours young players have in the controlled environments. For young players in these elite academies the quality and intensity of the training is not comparable to the teams of coaches I spoke with whatsoever.

 But there is a bigger differentiator at play here than elite academy structures — free play. In strong footballing nations, most players get a large percentage of their dedicated hours in on their own across the talent spectrum. Prospective professionals and average players partake in pickup games in community parks, in city centers and football cages to get supplemental training. The best academy products are seldom born with the mercurial gifts of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Most great players dedicated hours to playing the game without the constructs and oversight of coaches outside of their dedicated training in a controlled environment. Free play and pickup games teach players to be creative and tough.

 The story of Raheem Sterling’s discovery in the book The Nowhere Men by Michael Calvin details the magnitude pickup games had in Sterling’s development prior to and during his time with Queens Park Rangers’ Centre of Excellence. Along with allowing time for intense repetition training (10,000 touches), it forces players to improvise and augment their own training approach. It is no secret that free play creates better leaders and eliminates coach-induced pressures that affect player performance. This environment helps players identify who they are as individuals away from label-heavy team settings.

 The Tahuichi Academy is located in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Santa Cruz suffers from drug-related criminal activity in addition to high crime rates and many of the players at the academy aim to use soccer as a way out. Tahuichi is everything that a conventional academy is not. There are no nice practice pitches. Instead, players train on dusty and bumpy pitches daily. Products of Tahuichi’s academy use the poor playing conditions to great effect and the result is the development of players with a deft first touch and supreme ball control. Players run through streams and up sand dunes to build strength. Much of the equipment is secondhand and donated. The approach is minimalist, but the results are extraordinary.

 In my life, I have played against Tahuichi teams in Europe three times and found their teams to be some of the toughest, fittest, and most skilled opponents I played against on European soil. And the players were humble and reserved. Most moments of free time I spent in the company of these players was enjoyed playing pickup games with players from other teams. Perhaps these players with no material goods or money to their names had a richer understanding of the essence of the game.

 The current generation of players has more access to the game than any previous one, and yet that game remains on the screens of their televisions and smartphones. The heads of established professional leagues, Development Academy club teams, and the federations themselves, do not seem to recognize that over-coaching creates under-developed players. We are at a crossroads where the sport is growing but the parks remain vacant. Street soccer is still so niche in the United States – and possibly Great Britain – that it might as well be non-existent.

 Players exposed to street soccer or playing enough pickup games remain an anomaly. The US Development Academy stresses that players can take part in no outside participation other than activities with the Academy team which sets a precedent that the hours in a controlled environment are sufficient. The current generation of young players has to be weaned off the need for constant praise from parents and coaches. Instead, they need to covet self-approval and reaffirmation of their own need to improve without the dependence of “needing” a coach. In providing seemingly everything to kids, society has stripped away their creativity, self-motivation, and willingness to put the extra hours in through continued and sustained pampering.

 The call to action is a simple one. We can do more with less. For some reason, the sport here is largely treated as an overly-organized sport whereas the rest of the world regards it as a lifestyle. Organized soccer will continue to drive the direction of the game, but the games largely exists outside this organized structure even if people fail to realize this.

 What is perplexing is how little the pickup game is valued by this generation and how little free play is valued by high profile coaches. Most coaches, whether it’s intentional or not, become the active participant in each drill. Many a training session is filled with “rehearsed” phrases and constant on-the-fly critiques and instructions that players begin to frame training with a chore. The current crop of coaches can say so much more by saying very little. The game is meant to be played freely.

 There is a time and place for organized soccer, but if that is all players play, then enjoyment, creativity, leadership, and fun will have to be “coached” into players going forward instead of being developed organically.


This article first appeared on and on August 27, 2014


The Face of American Soccer

The announcement was inevitable. Seeing Landon Donovan score against Bayern Munich in a meaningless game somehow signified a type of finality reserved for movie scripts. When Donovan announced his plans to retire at season’s end, the outpouring of support and gratitude for arguably America’s best ever soccer player was immense. I found it a bit odd and capricious seeing as just over six weeks ago, the majority of Americans acted as though Landon Donovan was not deserving of a chance to represent his country in Brazil because he dared to take a break and admit he was mentally exhausted.

Admittedly, I was a bit sad when Donovan announced his retirement, but not because of what happened this past year and a half. I was sad because of what has happened for the past fifteen years, the good and the bad, coming to an end. Sitting in traffic, I resisted the urge to listen to anything sports-related and put on a classic rock station and heard a Neil Young song. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”. At the risk of channeling the oft-used cliché line made famous by the Neil Young song, “My My, Hey Hey”, the sentiment applies to Landon Donovan’s exit from the world of professional soccer. His presence in Major League Soccer and for the United States Men’s National Team was something most took for granted — including Donovan himself.

The Ontario, California native, at 32-years-old, is the leading scorer in USMNT history, with 57 goals in 156 games for the national team. As a veteran of three World Cups, Donovan the player will be remembered for both dramatics on the field and off it. After being controversially left out of the final 23-man squad for this summer’s World Cup by Jürgen Klinsmann, his subsequent retirement from the national team seemed inevitable.

Donovan’s accolades are many, but they pale in comparison to the responsibilities he shouldered during his illustrious career. When Donovan burst onto the scene for after at the 1999 U17 World Cup in New Zealand, his play led to the young American being recognized as the Player of the Tournament and made him the media’s selection for the adidas Golden Ball award. In 1999, the timing was almost perfect for the United States to welcome a fresh face to its international program after the embarrassment at World Cup 1998. Unbeknownst to a country whose palpable apathy for the world’s game was the fact that Landon Donovan would become the face of American soccer. And what transpired over the next fifteen years was a career that embodied all that was promising and to some, disappointing about the archetype of the American soccer player.

Donovan broke no new barriers as a young American player heading overseas to ply his trade. A generation of mainstay American players had to go abroad to get paid to kick a ball before Landon Donovan ended up in Germany at Bayer Leverkusen. After being spotted by Leverkusen at a youth tournament, he signed a six-year contract with the German club and in doing so, consigned himself to the spine-snapping pressures of performance that other young American players at the time simply were not face with on a daily basis. When Donovan started his career, the state of American soccer was in tatters, MLS was on life-support, the national program was stagnate (again), and a generation players who helped redefine the American game where on their way out.

Here was a young man whose remarkable promise and potential seemed held back by his failure to assimilate to life in Germany. What many forget is Landon Donovan was part of the inaugural group of promising young talents amalgamated under a pilot development program in Bradenton, Florida, dubbed “Project 2010”. The objective of placing players in a residency program was to mimic the training and lifestyle environment of successful footballing countries. That initial class that had a rich crop of players including DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey, Oguchi Onyewu and Kyle Beckerman to name a few. The “plan” itself was laughable, both at the time and in hindsight.

While the other members of his class stayed in the United States either playing college or finding time in a struggling Major League Soccer, Donovan languished in Germany until finally being loaned to the San Jose Earthquakes for the 2001 MLS season. Stateside, Donovan’s immediate impact with the Earthquakes and with the USMNT suggested he needed to play domestically. At this point, however, Landon Donovan was not just a talented player; he was the budding icon of the men’s game, which drastically trailed the women’s in terms of on-field success internationally.

One of the most troubling conundrums regarding Landon Donovan lies not in his statistics as a player, which are telling his of quality, but in the role he played in American soccer’s growth and success. Many associate and credit the players from the 1990 and 1994 World Cup teams for putting soccer on the map in a tumultuous and overtly anti-soccer professional sporting landscape. Even some of those original troupe members turned media pundits bask in the idea they played the pivotal role in creating a modern soccer culture and established league in the United States. The reality is Landon Donovan, by becoming the face of American soccer and staying the course and remaining with Major League Soccer, has more right to this acknowledgement than anyone else in the modern men’s game in the United States.

Regardless of why he stayed in Major League Soccer, Landon Donovan shouldered the task of being the league’s talisman. His play on the field both with the Earthquakes and with the LA Galaxy placed Donovan in California, his home state. He was made to play second-fiddle to the David Beckham circus when it came to town, and he found a way to perform alongside the most marketable footballer on the planet at the time. He has continued to perform alongside Robbie Keane and other big names for the LA Galaxy.

His goals in the 2002 World Cup and the injury-time winner against Algeria galvanized a nation of soccer converts who either watched Landon Donovan grow up, or grew up with him. What is most peculiar about his evolution is it mirrored that of the MLS and US Soccer. He broke records and played with and against some of the world’s great players who chose to continue or end their careers in MLS. Landon Donovan, for all his quirky characteristics, made his team and teammates better. His ability to play a variety of attacking positions both highlighted his quality all the while casting him into the shadow of criticism often reserved for players whose production numbers fluctuate.

The former Leverkusen youngster will always be a figure shrouded in criticism and, as a player he could not win for losing. His subpar loan spells suggested that his potential had hit its ceiling due to his staying in Major League Soccer to many in the soccer world. We will always question what Landon Donovan we would have seen had it worked out in Europe. Would the United States be as drawn to its national team stars if he had achieved most of his success on the pitch in Europe, thousands of miles away from home? Or, was his staying in a league that is still by its own admission growing a decision that consigned Donovan to a career trajectory whereby any decision he made was the wrong one? Leaving MLS for Europe would have placed Donovan in a talent pool of attacking players much deeper than that in MLS; would he have just been average there? Staying in MLS meant the world and his own people perceived him as a figure lacking ambition to challenge himself against the best.

There is no right answer and Landon Donovan, unlike many of football’s greatest stars, performed at the international level in big tournaments with alarming frequency. He’s scored some of the most important goals in U.S. Soccer history and in multiple World Cups, a task that some of the best players in the world simply have not done. The accolades, the success, the failures have seen the mainstay of American soccer lose his motivation. Soccer, to him, has become less of a passion and more of job and for a player who has carried the weight of a nation and helped convince it to care about the game, there’s nothing left in the tank. At 32-years old, Landon Donovan will hang up his boots. This is hardly a case of a player succumbing to the physical demands of the game. Players who retire at 32 are either plagued with injuries, loss of form, or simply cannot find a club.

Donovan’s ailment is mental and emotional exhaustion. When other players in American soccer were able to hide in the shadow he cast forth, Donovan soaked up the attention, the criticism, and the spotlight. A year and a half ago, when he decided to take a break from the game that spotlight really turned into an act of spotlight hunting against a player who admitted it was becoming increasingly more difficult to find the same motivation to train hard consistently and perform during a World Cup qualification cycle. The public and media jumped all over him.

To hear him talk about soccer, his tone suggested he has grown bored of the routine. The other stars of American soccer, most notably Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, went abroad to play and Landon Donovan stayed in Major League Soccer. Upon their return to MLS, they were greeted as messiahs championing Major League Soccer, whereas Landon Donovan was the pariah. Neither one of them has had impact that Landon Donovan has in the domestic game and on the international stage.

So who is next in line to shoulder the responsibility of being the face of American soccer? The current crop of well-known U.S. players have shown age is not on their side, so perhaps one of America’s young dual-nationals or homegrown talents must emerge. The American sporting public is fickle regarding its athletes. To suggest one of the greatest players in American soccer history, the man who holds the MLS and USMNT goalscoring records somehow hasn’t done enough or dare lose motivation after starting his career as a teenager is telling of the disparity between expectation and reality for American soccer. Donovan embodies a player born and raised in the U.S., who found his way to the professional ranks and performed in an age where it seems all U.S. Soccer really wants to do is find the  next young talent developed abroad and convince him to play for the United States.

The fact of the matter is American soccer will not understand how good Landon Donovan was until the search for the next Landon Donovan becomes more elusive and difficult. Sure, the powers-at-be will use some clever marketing to attempt to make someone the face of American soccer, but the likelihood they live up to the standard Donovan set is uncertain.

Will the next player have to play in Major League Soccer for the best years of his career, a move that will almost certainly set him up for the same trajectory as Donovan’s? Or, will they be afforded the patience to try to play overseas and only have to perform internationally for the USMNT to be considered the next Landon Donovan? I ask because Landon Donovan did both — he helped grow the league, helped the national team’s resurgence, basked in the limelight, and absorbed the criticism.

And now, Landon Donovan would rather burn out than fade away — and for once, on his terms, not anyone else’s.

This article first appeared on on August 8, 2014

Assessing College Soccer

For players growing up in the United States, the opportunity and possibility of playing for a high-profile and high-calibre university has long been the end goal. During a player’s teenage years either playing high school soccer or for a competitive club, they learn that statistics matter more than performance. Yes, for recruiting purposes, statistics supersede performance during these pre-college years. It can be argued that statistics are a true measure of performance, and that’s partly true. But, the reality is coaches and recruiters often base their recruiting decisions on statistics rather than performance.

 Here’s a dose of reality: American soccer is plateauing. The level of play, the calibre of player, and the collective technical ability in the American game isn’t improving at the rate it should or could. The reasons are aplenty, but college soccer is one aspect that needs to be addressed and assessed.

 Right now, college soccer is about athleticism and results. Technical development and tactical awareness are compromised and give way to a run-and-gun style of play that’s become commonplace for the college game. For example, in my freshman year of college soccer the ‘number one recruit’ (what a great label) was recruited on the rumour that he “could run 25 miles per hour on a treadmill”. Seriously, that was what the coach at the time based his decision to award this player a full scholarship at the NCAA Division One level on; his ability to run on a treadmill.

 But there I was, entering the college game ready to take part in a hurried pre-season of conditioning and fitness tests wondering if Division One soccer was a misnomer for Track and Field. In the locker room, I looked at this “number one recruit” and he stared at the rest of the team with trepidation, as if his performance hung on the tenterhooks of expectation and, lest we forget, the treadmill statistic, which we all knew was absolute nonsense.

 The Beep Test quickly whittled down the player pool. One of the first to drop out was the aforementioned treadmill king. After the Beep Test, we took part in a two mile run, or The Cooper Run, which proved to be disastrous for many players. I finished the run in 9 minutes, 50 seconds and a few other players finished with respectable times as well and collectively, we were on hodgepodge scholarship packages that really amounted to cover the cost of a few books and nominal fees; but we were grateful to be “on scholarship”. In a team of 25 players with 9.9 total scholarships, the player awarded a full scholarship finished near last.

 During our first team training session, I looked at his footwear. They were football foots, no, not football boots, but gridiron football boots. This guy had a pair of cleats suitable for a member on an American football team’s Special Teams unit and honestly, he looked more like a Tight End or Cornerback than a midfielder. This was ridiculous at an NCAA Division One institution. So, what’s the point of this narrative? It’s simple; statistics and athleticism should not replace soccer-specific performance with regards to the college recruiting process.

 So, what place does college soccer have in the larger context of the American game when it’s clear the NCAA doesn’t fully care about the sport? To compound the enigma of what has long been the traditional route an American player takes, college soccer is being challenged by the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, and rightly so. College soccer isn’t about developing talent. It doesn’t exist to keep the student-athlete safe and better their athletic experience. The college game is rife with under-educated coaches and trying to produce thoroughbred athletes, not soccer players. It also has great coaches and players being suffocated in a confining system.

 In the chaos that is the NCAA-formatted season, in hindsight, it makes sense that “the athletes” are preferred over soccer players – they hit harder, run faster, and jump higher. But do they have a first touch? Not a chance. This lack of development during the ages of 18-22 is irrevocably detrimental as evidenced by the lack of technical quality in the professional ranks of the American game. It’s not an opinion, but a fact that until technical development is valued in the youth and college game, the quality of play will remain the same when it could improve tremendously.

 The reality is college soccer does have a place in the American game. In fact, when the NCAA and the U.S. Soccer Federation decide to recognize this and work together, the rewards will be in the form of a better prepared player pool throughout all divisions of the college game ready to either go onto the next level, or appropriately enter the working world.

 I’ve sat in many coaching conventions listening to academy coaches tell parents and players not to play high school soccer because it will hurt their chances of playing collegiately. They frame a college soccer scholarship as the ultimate mark of a player’s worth. It’s a charade, a facade wrapped in the lunacy of the modern business practices so common in American youth soccer- selling empty dreams at wholesale prices. This stale rhetoric has done nothing but fill the bank accounts of these “academies” whilst inflating the egos of players and depleting a family’s bank account. Parents, put that exorbitant fee towards your son or daughter’s college fund because chances are, they aren’t getting a full scholarship and will not play professionally.

 It’s no secret that college is expensive as it operates both as a business and revenue producer for the institution and as an academic institution for the consumer, the student. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics post in the Economics section of the New York Times as of 2012, “College tuition and fees today are 559 percent of their cost in 1985″. Well, it’s 2014 and that figure is unlikely to decrease. It’s easy to see why parents and players clamour and salivate over the possibility of a scholarship playing college soccer.

 Another problem with the perception of college soccer manifests well before a player heads off to school. Parents must pour massive amounts of money into clubs attempting to provide a platform of exposure to a system (college soccer) that’s not only limiting in scholarship monies, but in the quality of the soccer experience. College athletic complexes in the United States are some of the best in the world and yet, our college soccer products are under-prepared and underpaid for and by Major League Soccer, which has enjoyed utilizing the pipeline of cheap labour for years.

 So, what’s the solution? For starters, recognizing the infrastructure is in place to product great players who are earning a degree must lead to a decision to lengthen the season from a condensed three-four month rapid-fire flurry of games to a Fall to Spring season with an extended Winter break. The current format places heavy physical demands on the student-athlete whilst compromising their education with travel, fatigue, and the decreased chance for an injured player to recover.

 The next step is realizing that instead of competing with the Development Academy system, college soccer, with direction from the U.S. Soccer Federation, should work with the academies and professional leagues (yes, plural) to help find a way for even the perceived “late bloomers” to play at the next level. Realistically elite players will always be elite players and should be on a track that expedites their path to the professional game if they choose to pursue it. They belong in a dedicated academy.

 But what about the rest of the players taking the college route who, if given a chance with a longer season where development can be stressed and performance can be maximized, would be better prepared to play at the next level? College soccer coaches don’t have the time or compliance contact hours to develop players. They need players to be ready out-of-the-box to perform and play three games a week with travel while attending classes. The reality is not every player can or should become a professional, but the amount of players who hang their boots up at 22 years-old is amazing, and quite sad. Currently, collegiate players experiencing a poor season are shoehorned into early retirement due to a lack of opportunity to recover from injuries or the inability to find form in a condensed season.

 According to data from the NCAA compiled by Dr. David Geier, an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist, compiled in May 2012 on men’s soccer injuries, the common ones include: muscle strains (25.8%), ligament sprains (25.3%), contusions (20.3%), and concussions (5.5%) all of which require extended periods of time for recovery and safe reintegration into competition. The significance of these findings is the current condensed season forces players to make the decision to either play injured, or settle with missing significant time out through injury to the detriment of both the student-athlete and quality of play. Players would be afforded the chance to recover from a concussion or body injury in an extended season. Furthermore, development and recovery can finally become factors in the college game.

 There is a belief that college soccer isn’t conducive to producing professional players at the requisite level for the modern game and that’s true in the current system. The days of the top American players being college products are long gone, but players will still matriculate through the college pipeline and become professionals. The infrastructure exists to make college soccer another development academy system. The facilities, the training and medical staff, the environment are already in place, they’re just being under-utilized. Student-athletes should be playing a longer season without such stringent NCAA-imposed training restrictions. Per NCAA rules, coaches can take only 20 hours a week in-season for training. Out-of-season – during the academic year – teams are allowed only eight hours of training a week.

 The college game at the Division One level is frenetic but is rich in raw quality in terms of the product on the pitch. After all, it’s a collection of the best young players outside of the professional and academy ranks in the country. However, there are too many limitations placed on the college game to fully realize the potential of this facet of the sport. If the NCAA isn’t on board with promoting college soccer, perhaps the U.S. Soccer Federation should move to allow college teams an opportunity to play in domestic tournament competitions like the U.S. Open Cup starting from the qualifying rounds, which begin in the Spring as to not interfere with the dedicated college season.

 By even allowing the Elite Eight of the previous year’s College Cup to take part in qualification, development becomes a reward in the college game at the top level. College teams would gain valuable opportunities for exposure and experience and any money won could be used for the programs’ scholarship, travel, or equipment budget, which are vastly underfunded. As it stands, many top college teams play friendlies against top academy, national, and professional teams, so allowing these college teams to compete in the USOC isn’t shock to the system for a strong collegiate player.

 The major stakeholders here should be the U.S. Soccer Federation and the NCAA. As the governing body of the sport in the United States and with affiliations with MLS, NASL, NWSL, USL (and its seven sub sections), USASA, USYSA, and the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA), the U.S. Soccer Federation should be making a move to add the NCAA to this list of affiliates. Unlike big revenue producers like college basketball and football, college soccer needs exposure and potential competition against top domestic sides could prove to be a step in the right direction to promote interest in the college game.

 The end goals should not solely be aimed at the top stratum of the American game. If the level of play and quality of the college game rise, the professional game will follow suit. The youth organizations and associations serve college soccer just as college soccer serves the professional game, but under the current, fragmented and condensed format, the search and utilization for talent will remain elusive in a country with so many resources, talented players, and an established infrastructure and quite frankly, it’s time to utilize each of these for the betterment of the game.


The Captain Before the Armband

It’s often the players who seek the elusive who find only the ‘what might have been’s’ in football. Some players are simply part of the wrong generation. This generation is one where club loyalty is a rarity and a nation’s World Cup hopes didn’t hinge solely upon expectation, but rather continue to sway in the wind, dangling from the hangman’s noose. Steven Gerrard, the player, and Steven Gerrard, the captain is one of this generation’s tragic heroes.

If football was a Greek tragedy, Steven Gerrard would fit the classic characteristics of its tragic heroes. A tragic hero is not without his faults. Perfection is a myth and no man is perfect. Each is plagued by decision and indecision, haunted by their failures, tenants of the mind refusing to vacate the premises. Steven Gerrard fits the playbill. He has: hubris, the sense of extreme pride or self-confidence that manifests into borderline arrogance resulting in decisions and actions that are deemed as an offence spoken or carried out against the Gods. The on-camera rallying call that seemed to offend football’s Gods after victory against Manchester City comes to mind. These decisions are harshly punished. Football’s Gods made an example out of Steven Gerrard as the Premier League trophy escaped through his fingers like grains of sand from an ever-tightening fist.

The next characteristic of a tragic hero is arête; the insatiable pursuit of excellence wrapped in a notion a man must live up to his full potential. The Ancient Greeks held a belief that one’s mind, body, and soul each must be developed and prepared for a man to live a life of arête – excellence. Steven Gerrard’s play over the years, for both club and country, has given football’s audiences a display of this pursuit of excellence. Physically, Gerrard, a soldier clad in Liverpool red, through his relentless running, made bounding from box-to-box, putting in tackles, winning the ball, and delivering a perfect driven ball to switch the field of play a standard of his game, not the rare highpoint.

Such displays became the norm, all with a freakish sense of beauty and frequency that threatened to hide the complexity of his play. When many players seemed to shy away from striking the ball with conviction as the match hung in the balance, the Whiston-born midfielder arrived on the scene, after running seventy yards in transition to drive a shot through a tangled web of defenders and clinch the winner from outside the box. Be it a surging run forward, or a simple pass that unlocked the most complex defences, Gerrard has played the match on his terms. Since 1998, countless displays of technical and physical brilliance have wowed the crowds from Anfield to Istanbul, spoiled his teammates by making their lives on the pitch easier, and tormented opponents as the boy from Merseyside went on to become England’s third most capped player, but more importantly, its captain.

Like all tragic heroes, Steven Gerrard waded the murky waters of até; a moment of supreme madness stemming from hubris, ultimately leading to a hero’s downfall. Steven Gerrard, the standard of consistency and commitment on the pitch, has faltered on and off it. The flirtations with a move to Chelsea, a nightclub punch-up and, of course, the slip, are but a few of the moments that betrayed him. A career without a Premier League title to add to his collection of accolades combined with the ever-present pressure of playing for the Three Lions saw Gerrard become England’s Atlas, the man carrying the weight of perpetual disappointment for the national team. The tireless fresh-faced boy the world saw take the pitch against Blackburn Rovers in 1998 has been replaced with the grizzled and weary countenance of a man who’s been to war and in so doing, become a battle-hardened general seeking victories threatening to remain elusive.

And then there is nemesis, the Greek goddess of retribution, the force of resolute and implacable justice from which no person escapes. Steven Gerrard’s career is not without victory and excellence. He has certainly tasted the spoils of victory from many a chosen cup, but his nemesis may be that he could never recover the glories of the past his club and country so desperately crave. Domestic league titles remain unconquered for Liverpool. World and European Cup glory are lodged in England’s past and Gerrard’s legacy shouldn’t be tainted by these shortcomings. But football is filled with cynics and critics, and its players must accept criticism with plaudits.

Gerrard is a member of a select fraternity of players who were captains before receiving the armband. He led by example from his earliest days marauding up and down the pitch, leading the charge. I once wrote about the death of the on-field general, the player who lives and dies on the pitch every week for his club, his teammates, and his supporters. Steven Gerrard embodies this ethos.

If the world of modern football could be given a novel’s title, Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age is fitting. Like the story, gilded is a word used to hide the underlying surface of something. One can paint over a baser metal with gold, creating the illusion of purity, but modern football is anything but a pure product. Steven Gerrard, however, is one of the rare exceptions. Players like him have become increasingly rare. It’s not so much that Gerrard failed to win the Premier League with Liverpool, but Liverpool through a myriad of poor ownership and buying decisions, failed Gerrard.

After he chose to stay at Liverpool instead of moving to Chelsea, where the skipper needed a worthwhile supporting cast, he received very little compared to players of his generation playing in teams regularly winning or challenging for the Premier League title. A similar point can be made with regards to England. As its leader, when he needed the sum to be greater than the parts, they underperformed. Gerrard, as the skipper of both ill-fated sides, naturally takes the brunt of the criticism, the harshness of his own self-analysis, and has to live with the fact both sides he’s devoted himself to haven’t matched his level of intensity and application on a consistent enough basis.

The trade-off, however, is Steven Gerrard plays for the club he loves and that loves him. Players like that are rare. Captains like Gerrard are a once-in-a-generation occurrence. For every stellar performance, match-saving tackle followed up by a match-winning goal, the likes of the next Steven Gerrard has yet to appear from the tunnel leading to the pitch or emerge from the shadows. Where Gerrard is made of cast iron, the current generation of players seems to be made of glass. When Liverpool needed a captain willing and able to be a tireless worker, talisman, hard man, and consistent performer, and a leader of the people, from the people – Steven Gerrard embraced that responsibility. Where England needed a skipper who wasn’t marred with off-field incidents, hadn’t lost the respect of his teammates and fans, and wasn’t distracted by celebrity status, it found Steven Gerrard.

In football, players come and go. Some win everything, others go home to cabinets devoid of trophies, but full of ‘what might have been’s’. England’s former captain need not worry about this; he’s a proven winner. He is not defined by the absence of Premier League titles. Steven Gerrard’s story doesn’t end here, nor does his influence on English football. He just happens to be one of football’s gifts, tarnished through years of wear and tear but in those magical moments, is as good as ever.

There will come a day when the Liverpool skipper hangs up his boots and walks off the pitch at Anfield for last time. There will also come a day when Steven Gerrard takes off the captain’s armband for the last time. But there will never come a day when he won’t be considered the players’ and the peoples’ captain.

This article first appeared on on July 28, 2014

A Simple Game in a Complex World

A Simple Game in a Complex World

By: Jon Townsend

Soccer: It’s really a simple game in a complex world. The year was 2001, and I sat in my high school cafeteria with my buddies and I noticed many of the prestigious and not-so-prestigious national and regional universities had ceased their visits to our school. The flyers and pamphlets were gone as were there the tables and university reps there to answer any and all questions for a clueless seventeen-year-old who knew just as much about the real world as he did that calculus quiz he probably bombed. Soon, in place of the university booths at the cafeteria were the branches of the United States Armed Forces.

The United States Marine Corps talked to me and my classmates, all of us willing and able to crank out pushups for a USMC t-shirt. Some of my friends took the shirt and wore it with pride. Coming from a family with strong ties to the Marines, I knew better than to accept the shirt and wear it without enlisting and serving. To do so was simply unacceptable. The Army recruiting officers spoke of providing college assistance to eager students and the Navy spoke of offering adventures of a lifetime and an opportunity to see the world. The United States Air Force spoke of new technologies geared towards the engineering students. And I sat at my lunch table watching a movement banking on the emotions of seething high school students reeling from the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Many of my friends enlisted in various branches and served proudly. At the time, the attitude was so saturated in forced patriotism that I began to feel “un-American” for accepting a college scholarship to play Division I soccer and not picking up a rifle and charging into battle in the impending war. So what does this all have to do with soccer? It’s simple; it has everything to do with soccer.

This past weekend, the United States celebrated the Fourth of July while the world continued to celebrate the World Cup. Most, if not all of the World Cup-based chants and fervor in the U.S. have ceased as many citizens have either tuned out or opted to support their “second pick” in the tournament. I listened to the cracks and screams of the cheap fireworks and the raucous laughter outside and I couldn’t help but recall a conversation I had with a Second Lieutenant in U.S. Marine Corps named Brandon Winslow. I met Brandon in graduate school a year and a half after his third tour of duty in Iraq. We found ourselves in a graduate-level course titled: War Poetry and Literature.  At the time, I still played soccer for a few competitive teams in Chicago and he noticed an old t-shirt I wore from my playing days.

After our three hour class, he walked up to me and said, “You like soccer?” I looked at him and his thousand yard stare was as honed as ever and I nodded. He continued, “I used to play as a kid.” Again, I nodded and took stock of his unfinished tattoos that adorned his forearms along with the ropy veins that seemed to carry race fuel instead of blood to his muscles. His mandible jutted as he clenched his teeth and what he said next is something I’ll never forget and it wasn’t the first time I heard someone say these words.

“Soccer saved my goddamned life,” he said, grimacing before proffering a fake smile. I looked at him and could see he had a story to tell and I was his intended audience.

“What?” I stupidly asked in reaction. Brandon went on to tell me of his time with Regimental Combat Team 1, 3rd Battalion/1st Marines, 3rd Battalion/5th Marines and the 2nd Battalion/7th Calvary of the U.S. Army positioned themselves to assault the western half of Fallujah from the north. Brandon told me how he joined the United States Marine Corps after graduating college in 2000 and finished Officer Candidates School (OCS) and was commissioned as a Marine Officer and, before he knew it, found himself in his first of many battles that subsequently left him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“After Fallujah we patrolled areas by foot in the Al Anbar province. For weeks we saw nothing but heard things…especially at night. Oftentimes, your mind wanders. One afternoon, we were tasked with patrolling a small village northeast of the city near the banks of the Euphrates River. We walked up to this small village and it was quiet. Marines don’t really like quiet, man. But after a prelim scan and survey of the place, our Iraqi guide helped us meet the locals. After thirty, forty minutes I see a small boy running around with a soccer jersey on…but it wasn’t anyone famous, man. It was kids’ jersey…I recognized the badge. He noticed us and ran away. I put it out of my mind as we did a sweep of the streets and spoke to more locals. All these stray dogs followed me, which is normal there. I walked down a small path and that boy stood there, smiling…with something under his shirt.”

Brandon paused and began to well up and I told him, “Hey, buddy, you don’t have to talk about this…” but he continued.

“He ran up to me smiling and giggling…and I yelled, “Stop” and I lifted my rifle and pointed it at him. I put my hand out to signal stop and yelled in fucking Arabic for him to stop and he just ran toward me, man. He got within ten meters of me and I…” Brandon stopped talking for a few seconds before continuing, “I couldn’t put my finger on the trigger and before I knew it this boy was hanging on my leg and pointing to the patch on my rucksack.”

“Your patch?” I asked.

“Yeah, man…for some reason I traded patches with a guy in Camp Baharia (also known as Camp Dreamland or FOB (forward operating base) Volturno) and pinned it to my ruck. So this boy has this thing under his shirt and he’s hugging my leg. Everyone’s telling me to get him off and I pry him off and he lifts up his shirt and it’s a fucking deflated soccer ball. The patch on my ruck matched the faded AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) insignia on his jersey. He pointed to me and then the deflated ball. He just wanted to play soccer, man.”

Brandon stopped talking again and I sat there, with my own heart racing as he mustered up the conclusion of his story.

“I found our Gunny (Gunnery Sergeant) who tracked down our mechanic to pump this kid’s ball up. The boy pointed to his patch and the patch on the ruck and in my heart, man, I think he maybe saw me as a friend. Because of soccer, or something…and man, when I saw your t-shirt, it took me back there,” he said.

Brandon and I spoke for the next hour about how he played soccer for the first time in fourteen years with this boy in Iraq and how he would have never survived the war if he had panicked and pulled the trigger on that pathway.

“We played all day…we were on patrol anyway and the village was clear,” Brandon said, “These people were good people, man. Just caught up in a world of shit, like all of us, but after that day, I thought about the sport more than I thought I ever would. It sounds stupid when I say it, but to me, a kid from north Georgia who played it as a kid and never was any good…but that game saved my life.”

For another hour we continued to talk. Brandon told me how sleep is hard for him due to nightmares and how he found his way to Chicago because his wife was from there. The course itself seemed to be cathartic for him, as we discussed conflict in published form often and he had the chance to write about his experiences. In hearing his story, I knew I could never wholly relate to his experiences, but I could listen and try to understand a world different from my own. And I think that’s all we can ever do as the world’s tournament enters its last week of play. We live in a world of clashing emotions, politics, and sporting preferences, but the reality is the sport is more than a game. Brandon Winslow said nothing else about the war and told me what could easily have been his worst nightmare became his best memory from his time fighting a war.

Soccer: It’s really a simple game in a complex world.

This article first appeared on on July 14, 2014