Hindsight Is 2018

Hindsight Is 2018

By Jonathan Townsend
@jon_townsend3

“Soccer has arrived in the United States! And it’s here to stay… just look at the watch parties, full stadiums stateside watching the United States Men’s National Team play in the World Cup! Check out the television ratings! More viewers tuned in for the game versus Portugal than the Stanley Cup finals and the NBA finals…” If you listen closely, you can literally hear the optimism ooze out of every Budweiser-soaked pore of the average American soccer fan and media personality.

The United States survived the perceived Group of Death which, while an impressive feat, masks a slew of issues related to the state of the American game. The victory against longtime nemesis Ghana in Natal had all the guts and glory we’ve all come to expect from a USMNT performance. The near victory against a wounded yet talented Portugal side in Manaus was drenched in as much sweat as it was in “what might have been” as the Portuguese equalized in the dying seconds of the game. And never had a defeat to Die Nationalmannschaft felt so much like a victory as the assertive Germany seemed to show mercy and stay in second gear with the understanding that the U.S. wouldn’t try anything too bold lest the vaunted Germans lay siege upon their legendary striker and former coach’s brave team of underdogs. All of these melded so well with the mania and euphoric re-assertion that “soccer has arrived in America”, but has it?

Without a doubt, soccer is as American as baseball, basketball, and American football and to suggest otherwise is a blatant attempt to ignore fact, figures, and reality altogether. The incredible escape from a tough group bumped both beer sales and soccer-related business in the States and allowed the United States Soccer Federation and Major League Soccer to pat themselves (and each other) on the back for such amazing progress — but let’s peel the paper so freshly laid over the cracks in the American soccer system.

The pageantry and football-laden delirium has definitely taken hold of American audiences, no thanks to the fanatical support group dubbed The American Outlaws and Sam’s Army (to name a few) combined with extended television coverage ESPN and Univision Deportes provided to ensure the World Cup was in the periphery of every pub, corporate space, home, and NFL stadium hosting a watch party. Soccer in the American sporting and cultural periphery is arguably where it threatens to return as American interest in the World Cup flickers out.

It’s interesting to hear “soccer has arrived” in the United States to the ardent supporters who heard the same thing when the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994 and in 2002 when the USMNT bravely found themselves in the quarter-finals of the tournament after an embarrassing showing in France ’98. To both the newly-converted and introduced fan, this World Cup encompassed everything needed to generate buzz. In essence, to the casual fan, Brazil 2014 was hook, line, and sinker to a resistant country’s audience. But was it really?

Salvador, Brazil – the United States faced off with one of the tournaments dark horses in a fully-loaded Belgium side that proved to the world that even with supreme individual talent, the sum is greater than the parts, and it didn’t take the entire 120 minutes against a dogged and tireless USMNT side to prove it. It took less than thirty-seven seconds as Kevin De Bruyne sliced through the American midfield and slotted a beautiful pass to Divock Origi who did well to get a shot off and Tim Howard did even better to save. That play didn’t require a goal to exemplify what the Belgium excels at and what the United States excels at in world football.

The opening seconds of the match saw superior individual technical talent combining with intelligent attacking movements for the Belgians clashing against one of the quality mainstays of American soccer for decades in excellent goalkeeping. Anyone who’s played or seen the game at a high enough level knew this was going to be a long day for the United States. For the casual and newly-converted or introduced fan of American soccer — this was going to be really exciting.

The match produced one of the most heroic goalkeeping performances (and not the first heroic goalkeeping performance of this tournament) the World Cup has seen in decades. Tim Howard exemplified where America really is with regards to competing on football’s world stage. Belgium exposed the gulf between the two sides technically and tactically. While American fans and media groveled over how hard the team worked and how many miles they ran, the rest of world simply looked at the scoreboard and win/loss record as an indicator of performance. When the match was over, Belgium had its fourth win in the bag and some of its top stars still fresh on the bench, while the United States had a single victory, a draw, two losses and an injury-ridden, exhausted squad to boot. The Americans competed and personally, I admired that they never put their heads down or looked like giving up.

The glaring issue heading into this World Cup for the United States was never the omission of a Landon Donovan. The glaring issue during the World Cup was never how the team  would cope without Jozy Altidore or how much mileage will Michael Bradley be required to log for the good of the cause. No, the glaring issue was the fact that like many iterations and cycles of the national team before this one, hard work was an accomplishment, not an expectation. Every team works hard at the World Cup.

Very few supporters were brave enough to point out that a team should be more embarrassed that they allowed so many shots on their own goalkeeper lest the ravenous and newly-formed “soccer authorities” jump at the critique with knives out. Debates are good. It means people who’ve always cared still care. And it means those new to the party care enough to defend what they know and love. But what most fans of this World Cup haven’t quite realized that if U.S. Soccer is to improve, people must demand better and must balance the plaudits with being critical — even if there are plenty of excuses in the arsenal of U.S. Soccer coaches and fans.

Here’s the reality: the moment American soccer as a whole begins to value technique the same way it values sweat-soaked adjectives like hard work and determination, their overall level of play on every level will improve. There was a time a when American sides couldn’t compete with other teams technically, but they could outwork them. In the continued trajectory of the sport in the United States since 1989 when Paul Caligiuri’s famous goal hit the back of the net against Trinidad and Tobago, qualifying the U.S. for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years was dubbed “the goal that changed soccer in the United States”, the expectation has not really ascended in unison with the product on the pitch.

The United States is a country that has an unrivaled level of infrastructure and both talent and resources in abundance, yet the echo chambers claim America can’t mimic what Spain and Belgium have done for a myriad of pessimistic reasons. Perhaps the social inequality, the vast size of the contiguous United States, and the “competition” with other notable sports (those are my favorites) do pose a problem that would repel any change.

A number of Americans vehemently claim, “We shouldn’t just copy what foreign countries do… we should build our own system,” to which I say, “That’s precisely what other countries do: adopt and adapt other models in an effort to not only seek, but achieve marked improvement.” That is what American culture, the American populous, and American history has relied on since the country’s inception — inclusion and adaptation of what works elsewhere.

Costa Rica’s glorious run may or may not be a testament their hard work or determination. However, their progress surely speaks of an ideal of furthering their expectation beyond working harder for longer periods of time. Many Costa Ricans suggest they survived the real Group of Death and the country’s proud slogan, Pura Vida (Spanish for “pure life”) has definitely breathed new life into Los Ticos as they prepare to continue their run against Holland in the quarter-finals.

On paper, the United States garnered success in Brazil and captivated the hearts of millions of fans, naysayers, and people back home. In reality, the next cycle of USMNT players will have the opportunity to build off the momentum of this tournament going forward knowing that the team can survive a tough group with a blend of fortune, fitness, unity, and guts — but now that “soccer has arrived in the United States” the expectation will rise as will the bar for performance. Or at least it had better.

Long after the chants of optimism and belief die down, the chants of expectation will begin ring down from the rafters of every sports bar and stadium in the United States. The role of the underdog isn’t a compliment. It’s one laden with built-in excuses at the ready. The time for excuses is over. For many, it has been over for years. It’s time to improve. U.S. Soccer needs to seriously consider what the path forward looks like. Every four years the United States can’t just “work hard”. Perhaps it should study Belgium’s or Spain’s model (and modify it, who knows, it might work!), build a center of excellence, re-think the Development Academy system (targeting 14 to 18-year-olds is too late), or open the league system.

One unassailable point is 2018 will be here sooner than we think. Whatever path U.S. Soccer decides to take, know this; it doesn’t have to worry about the world watching because now, the American people will be watching closer than ever before.

This article first appeared on http://www.thesefootballtimes.net on July 4, 2014

The Futsal Shadows

The Futsal Shadows

By: Jon Townsend

@jon_townsend3

Football has and will always be a game of contrasting styles, evolving philosophies of play and trendy paradigms that captivate the world only to be emulated, bastardized, found out, and written off as obsolete. There was a day when direct, Route One football was all the rage (for some, it’s still the default style). We’ve seen the magic oftotaalvoetbal, the efficiency of gegenpressing, the security of catenaccio, the flair of tiki taka, and the blunt effectiveness of what some have come to call anti-football, or more popularly, “parking the bus”.

I’ve always contended that styles and systems of play don’t expire – players do. Football, being the organic and evolutionary sport that it is, is often judged by enigmatic teams who ride a system’s success until it’s found out. But, something else is at play that might yet shed some light as to why some teams, primarily out of COMEBOL and CONCACAF have played some of the best football in the World Cup thus far. The ‘something else ‘is futsal.

Futsal is a variation of football played on a small court (usually indoors) that has long since been ignored in countries that have struggled to establish themselves in both international and club football. In the United States it’s simply indoor soccer, in Great Britain it’s five-a-side but there’s a profound difference. For example, in the United States, indoor soccer is played with walls which ultimately take away from the purpose of emphasizing technique and ball control. With the walls, players with poor technique, tunnel vision, and who would never excel without the walls eliminate much of skill required to flourish.

Futebol de salão (Futsal) has its origins in Montevideo, Uruguay, when, in 1930, Juan Carlos Ceriani, a professor of Physical Education devised a five-a-side version of football for youth competition in YMCAs that combined the rules of water polo, basketball, handball, and of course, football. He drafted the original set of rules that regulated the sport. Coming off the Uruguay’s victory at the inaugural World Cup, the sport flourished in South American countries – predominately Brazil where grass pitches were scarce, but impoverished favelas and barrios played football in the streets constantly.

But what makes futsal such an anomaly outside of South America? I asked a colleague of mine from Brazil with whom I played collegiately about his upbringing in São Paolo with regards to futsal. Growing up, Marco Dos Santos told me before he played for the youth teams of São Paolo Futebol Clube, Força Esporte Clube, and Nacional Atlético Clube his development was lodged heavily in futsal. He said, “Futsal is part of our culture! Every soccer player grew up playing futsal. When you’re younger futsal was the type of football that you’d start playing. The hard court, small heavy ball, smaller goals, and it being four outfield players plus a goalkeeper challenge a player’s technique.  As you know the game is played in a fast pace with a lot of transitions and constant communication by all players on the court.”

The takeaways are obvious, but the real crux of what futsal instils into young players is the transitional play and understanding that they are always involved in the play. There is no stopping. Futsal requires players to think two to three steps ahead of the play in a condensed area where they often must pass their way out of trouble or dribble to retain possession. There is no hoofing the ball down the court.

“Players need to be skilful and fast-thinking. They need good timing and know that the game transitions every play so they must defend and attack over and over. And they must be comfortable working in tight spaces and be really fit. The difference between countries that are great football countries and those are not is simple: people would play every day for as long as they could! Kids play before and after school, lunch breaks, on our club teams, and most of all, kids play on their own for hours and hours. The reason all the big time players in Brazil are so good and skilful is directly because of futsal…. Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Robinho, Neymar, Rivaldo, Diego, Oscar, Kakã and many more. Anyone can look them up and find videos of them playing futsal at a small age!”

To the outside world looking at Brazilian football, especially with the World Cup, all of what Marco says isn’t unknown, but its application seems to be lost in translation until quite recently. Marco’s message reveals more about the game than a description of footballing variant, however.

“I played all the time, on my own, with friends, my brother, club team, in the street, in my apartment complex. No excuses. Our birthday parties become futsal parties; we played at school as much as I could and any time I could. The game requires so much from you. Getting comfortable with the small ball on your feet and letting it stick on your feet is an ability that you develop from futsal and transfer to outdoor football on a bigger pitch.”

Accessibility is a key differentiator in connecting the developmental divide between countries that produce technically adept players compared with those that do not. In Brazil, for example, more people tend to play futebol de salão than conventional football for a variety of reasons. One important reason being the availability of pitches for recreational use in Brazil is staggeringly low compared to that of futsal courts. But futsal isn’t exclusive to Brazilian football development.

In the United States, the sport is arguably the key to developing a technically proficient generation of American players. Right now, American players don’t have the technical ability to be considered exceptional talents. According to my discussion with US National Futsal Coach, Keith Tozer, who has deep roots in the American indoor game, the United States is really a futsal mecca – we just don’t know it yet.

The sport is taking hold in the United States with Tozer leading the charge. He cites the conversion of seldom and unused tennis courts in urban areas like Los Angeles to futsal courts being one of many steps in the indoctrination of the game in America. “The United States Soccer Federation has bought into futsal and by targeting talent and working closely with the U.S. Soccer Development Academy program to stress the importance of concentrated, technical development. But U.S. Youth Futsal values the grassroots level player, which is essential. We focus on the young ages – immerse the kids early because kids, in futsal want to be creative.”

Keith Tozer wasn’t shy about the fact that the best players in the world played futsal. “If you look at a futsal player, they play freely. They don’t have names for their moves because it’s part of the game. Futsal players who find themselves in trouble with the ball don’t panic, they don’t go backwards. They find a way through. That’s unique to futsal. You put a kid on a field, he or she will want to go backwards to the goalkeeper or hit the ball out of bounds. Not so much in futsal.”

Another aspect of futsal that appeals to the world and hasn’t yet caught on in the United States is futsal is an inexpensive game. It requires a weighted ball, a basketball court – which there’s no shortage of in the U.S. – and players stay involved during the game. The ratio of playing time to touches on the ball is almost five times what the average player gets in the conventional game. Young players from both urban and suburban environments with little-to-no experience playing organized football show dramatic improvement in not only their technique, but their comfort on the ball in not a matter of weeks or months playing – but in a matter of hours.

“An accomplished golfer hits thousands of golf balls a week in practice – perfecting their technique,” Tozer says. “When it’s time to compete, they’re only hitting the ball a fraction of that amount. You do the math. Repetition is part of futsal. The number of not only touches, but quality touches on the ball a player receives is astounding compared to the outdoor game.”

What Tozer says isn’t rocket science, but it’s absolutely spot-on. Players cannot improve without repetition and gaining confidence on the ball. They need to play on faster surfaces to increase their speed of play and it’s simply not happening in American soccer at the moment – at any level.

There’s no secret that Brazil leads the way in the futsal world but according to Tozer, the United States isn’t as far off as many think. The reality is countries like the United States and Great Britain have a copious amount of players who lack the requisite amount of the time required to be technically comfortably and creative on the football – but they do have access to courts or facilities where they could play futsal. The trick is recognizing what works in Uruguay, Brazil, and many Latin American countries, who at the moment, are enjoying a wonderful showing at the World Cup and using that knowledge effectively without branding the game and filtering out an entire generation and socioeconomic  class of players by trying to sell the game to them at wholesale prices. As Tozer correctly points out, futsal is the people’s game – which is why some of the poorest countries have the richest amount of talent in abundance.

So, what’s the proof that futsal could help transform a country’s football outside of South America? Spain. The country many saw as the Europe’s great underachievers have been the team with the target on their back with regards to the national side winning two European titles and a World Cup – that’s real progress. Spain is a nation with its own dedicated futsal leagues broken down in a pyramidal hierarchy as follows: Primera División de Futsal, Segunda División, Segunda División ‘B’ and Tercera División.

Each division below the Segunda División has groups with teams representing each of Spain’s regions competing in an open system with promotion and relegation, and cup competitions. So, since the formation of the established futsal leagues in 1989, Spanish futsal has been instrumental in the country’s player development and we’ve seen a generation of players redefine possession football to great effect. If we’re going to talk hard metrics, think about the number of teams competing in each lower division trying to gain promotion. The Segunda División ‘B’ has approximately 147-150 teams while the Tercera División houses upwards of 337 teams. In total, the country’ has around 520 active professional and semi-professional futsal teams. The amateur teams amount to the thousands and futsal is used as both a primary and supplementary tool for total football development.

These numbers indicate the obvious need for re-evaluation of the nation’s game by the Spanish Football Federation. The world has also seen one of the best generations of footballers stake a claim as the best national side ever, despite their disastrous World Cup run this year. The next generation of players in the Spanish system are not only fully indoctrinated into the futsal culture, but they’ve learned the best and worst lessons the current and outgoing generation of tiki taka specialists has proffered – and it won’t be long until the next iteration of La Furia Roja begins passing their way back to the summit of world football.

The question remains, what other countries are going to figure this out, and when? After all, it’s a simple game in the most complex of ways.

This article first appeared on http://www.thesefootballtimes.net on June 23, 2014 

Possession is Nine-Tenths of the Game

Possession is Nine-Tenths of the Game

By: Jon Townsend 

@jon_townsend3

We can look at the United States’ victory over Ghana in Natal through rose-tinted glasses and be happy with a job well done. Three points in the bag against all odds (cue Phil Collins) and on to the next game. Clint Dempsey scored a classy goal and John Brooks scored off a set piece against the run of play to kill off the game. Such is the resounding joy that not only American soccer fans, but American sports fans have expressed since the final whistle that one could come to the conjecture that America slayed a resistant foe in a tough Ghanaian side with confidence. This result along with Germany’s destruction of Portugal alters the complexion of Group G before the next set of matches, but not much has changed.

If one were to live by the aptly-used phrase, “You’re only as good as your last game,” then the United States will have to reevaluate what this match really showed. When we strip away the American media plaudits and baffling punditry that has become so commonplace and synonymous with U.S. Soccer, a plethora of issues become talking points that need to be addressed. For the casual observer, the match versus Ghana had everything we’ve come to expect from the USMNT—hard work, grit, dogged defending, a bit of luck, a touch of class (albeit far too infrequently), and the chance to live to fight another day.

But as this match put one demon to rest (defeating Ghana in a World Cup), it breathed life into a slew of others that will undoubtedly need to be remedied before Sunday’s match against a ravenous Portugal side in Manaus.

Fitness

Prior to the World Cup, the biggest talking point outside the Landon Donovan soap opera was how fit the United States was coming out of camp. Some pointed out that the European-based players were already match fit having come off their season, while the homer crowd raved about the fitness of the Major League Soccer contingent—who were supposed to be fresh having only started their season in March.

The evidence, however, is fitness is still an issue. A big issue. The heat and humidity are a factor, but they are a factor for both teams. The United States did themselves no favors by opting to chase the game with reckless abandon. Jozy Altidore’s unfortunate injury may be due a lack of minutes at a game of this pace (yes,this pace is faster than the three friendlies), but hamstring injuries are common. Matt Besler’s hamstring trouble is indicative of a few things: he hasn’t chased an opponent as fast and strong as Ghana.

Or, these are all signs that the USMNT was over-trained prior to the World Cup. Alejandro Bedoya ran himself into the ground and did his job tonight. DeMarcus Beasley was exposed all-too often on the wings, but kept the Ghanaian attack at bay.

Possession

This, for many astute observers—Portugal and Germany included—is the kicker (pardon the pun). A team that fails to hold onto the ball and force the other team to chase is asking to be punished. Had Ghana decided to keep the ball on the deck and sharpened their finishing instead of crossing the ball incessantly, we might be talking about a lopsided score line favoring Ghana.

Michael Bradley might as well have had a cloaking device on tonight as the American many consider the best player on the team (debatable) was invisible and failed to retain the ball and settle the game down by playing composed passes and giving Ghana a problem to solve.

As much as Bradley’s long ball that sent Jozy on his way down the pitch (and onto a stretcher) seemed like a great idea, it was too cavalier against a side with more athleticism and speed. Decisions like this are integral especially against technically superior teams where the game necessitates responsibility on the ball—when to counter and when to control the tempo. Bradley has been tasked with this responsibility and he must do better to both find the ball and hold it for his team.

The American midfield, when it plays simple—is a formidable collection of players. We know they’ll tackle and work like a pack of dogs. When that same midfield chooses to chase the ball instead of cutting off passing lanes, they look a disorganized bunch. But to lay blame solely on the midfield isn’t fair. The backline is guilty of coughing the ball away and the players up top don’t hold the ball nearly well enough.

Progress

We must also ask if this is what progress really looks like? Jürgen Klinsmann, in his post-match interview, was honest in his recognition that the team didn’t possess the ball enough. Looking at this performance it’s very easy to get caught up in the moment—and fans of American soccer should celebrate a wonderful result in a tough group.

As an aspiring footballing nation, we cannot let a result like this paper over the cracks that exist in this national side and more importantly, in that national program. The technical side of the game is still absent and is evidenced by the U.S. team failing to string any serious combinations of passes together. Even other teams in CONCACAF have shown the composure to possess the ball and create.

Costa Rica and Mexico both played with tact and possessed the ball well enough to string passing combinations together regularly to relieve pressure, open the other team’s defense up, and ultimately score goals. These are teams the United States outperformed in qualification, so perhaps the issue could come down to nerves and the importance of getting a result against Ghana. In that regard, the USMNT did itself and the nation proud—but the stage is set and the bar will only continue to be raised.

The United States is a capable team, but it can’t be its own worst enemy going forward. We expect Clint Dempsey to lead and perform through the lumps (and kicks to the face) he’ll take. Tim Howard is going to make excellent saves and everyone is going to put in an honest shift. But I think we’re at the point where hard work, effort, determination, and all the clichéd buzzwords associated with “trying hard” should be expectations, not accomplishments.

It’s an exciting time for American soccer because we should demand better from the USMNT and best part is—they have the ability to deliver on that demand.

 

This article first appeared on http://www.12soccer.com/ on June 16, 2014

The Cost of Development — Tom Byer’s Effect

What The US Can Learn From Tom Byer and Japan

A hero in Japan for his profound effect on youth football coaching, we look at what US Soccer can learn from Tom Byer and how his methods have successfully developed many essential skills in young players.

The Cost of Development

By: Jon Townsend

@jon_townsend3

Part of what motivated me in football was the drive to improve. Growing up, I was afforded an unconventional footballing education, one that took me from the gritty and talent-rich leagues of south San Jose during the dotcom boom to the suburbs of Chicago. My parents never made football easy for me. When I was 13, I was playing in a U-18 team. I spent a year or two getting the shit kicked out of me against older teammates in training and older opponents in matches—and it did wonders for me as a player and person. I learned to play faster, with my head up, one or two touches was the name of the game. Some summer months were spent playing in Holland, Germany, or back in California—where I’d first learned the game. I was lucky to have parents who made sacrifices and worked overtime to provide me with a chance to experience the global game. I was lucky. Not every kid has parents willing or able to help them the way my parents helped me. But this story isn’t about me, or my belief in Dutch-based technical training methods requiring a young player to devote 10,000 touches a day on a ball to achieve higher degrees of mastery and technique; no this is about a sense of responsibility.

Every four years, all the salient talking points come to head. Criticisms bottleneck to the point of eruption as every armchair coach, overpaid troll analyst, and even the casual fan, some who’ve never kicked a ball, proffer their opinion and insight. That’s what makes football great. It’s the world’s game and everyone, no matter how radical and ridiculous, has an audience and an accompanying soapbox. In my research and writings on the topic of player development stemming from an idea that sparked my 10,000 touches article, I’ve scoured the pages of coaching manuals, watched and analyzed hours of film, visited some world class training sites, watched hundreds of games at all levels, and interviewed a plethora of players, technical directors, snake oil salesmen posing as coaches, and re-evaluating my stance on why some countries thrive in football and others do not.

I recently spoke to an American colleague who lives in Osaka, Japan. We conversed about America’s chances in Brazil and to my surprise, he told me, “I’m supporting Japan.” He then went on to explain why he’d be supporting Japan and not even watching the US play. “Listen, I’m no ex-patriot, I love my country, but with regards to soccer, the Japanese have closed a gap and do it right with the players who matter—the kids.” I could tell I was in for something astounding. He mentioned the name Tom Byer, or as he’s known in Japan, “Tomsan”.

Tom Byer is a journeyman footballer who found his way to Japan in the late 1980s to play and eventually work as a youth coach. In Japan, Byer receives a lot of praise for promoting Japan’s seemingly rapid rise in football in both the men’s and women’s game. Byer found a way to reach hundreds of thousands of not elite players, but children (they are the future after all), and teach them the fundamentals of technique and skill acquisition. When he first started networking in Japan, the country’s football was in a state of disarray. By 2011 the Samurai Blue won their fourth Asian Cup and the Nadeshiko Japan, won its first Women’s World Cup title—defeating the heavily favoured United States in the Final.

So, what makes Tom Byer’s success noteworthy? I like to think of him living the American Dream—a notion where anyone can be successful through persistence and graft—in Japan. Byer began by running a grassroots football camp and by using his own knowledge of the game in the United States, tapped into a market that had very little success in world football—much like the United States. Byer traveled to English speaking military bases and schools to teach football, but was quickly running out of options until he fortuitously contacted the father of a boy who attended one of his clinics. The boy’s father happened to be the president of Nestlé and agreed to sponsor Byer to expand his reach with the Japanese grassroots football populous. After gaining some financial backing from Nestlé, Byer was introduced to the Coerver Method, which allowed him to have an established coaching platform and philosophy.

What’s worth noting is not the Coerver Method, but Byer’s understanding that technique, skill acquisition, and ball mastery are foundational skills that all young players must learn if they are to achieve any amount of enjoyment out of the game. I use the word enjoyment and not success because football in America is framed in wins and losses at the youth levels at the expense of development. In Japan, like Holland, Spain, and now Belgium, the whole dynamic of football at the youth levels isn’t about putting young players on a full-sized pitch and watching them chase the ball like a bunch of crazed terriers commanded by their masters (parents). Rather, Byer utilized Japanese media and cultural outlets to put himself and his teachings in print and on television for every child to have access to and to learn from weekly.

Tom Byer, like many coaches, learned that teaching technique must come before teaching tactics. In America, for example, I’ve often questioned how kids can enjoy a game, with all due respect, many aren’t technically comfortable playing. By diverting the focus away from competition in the formative years and focusing on close ball control, situational creativity, a balance between moves that beat an opponent instead of moves that “look cool”, a generation of technically astute footballers has a chance to then become tactically proficient. I’m not suggesting every coach print a comic book spread or put themselves in a television timeslot right after Saturday morning cartoons, but it might not hurt to have an inexpensive and accessible coaching model for young players to absorb.

By placing importance and accessibility on football development through media and away from the extreme pay-to-play model, Byer and many coaches around the world have a chance to motivate kids to place value in the technical side of the game. One lesson I learned abroad was the vigor and importance players my age placed on practice. To them, it was a valued time—an opportunity to learn something, away from the judgment of their parents, and to perfect their skill. In the United States, training is still seen as a chore; a timeslot filler between school and SportsCenter highlights who’d rather make a mockery of the game than provide analysis.

So, what can we learn from this American who revolutionized the JFA’s approach to football development, and who helped produce scores of professional players including Shinji Kagawa? The answer isn’t as farfetched as many looking to cash-in instead of developing talent might suggest. Byer raised the baseline of youth football in a country where baseball was the most popular sport. Sound familiar? To become an elite player, a child must be resilient, open to learning, willing to fail, strong enough to accept criticism, have accessible and affordable coaching, and have a target to strive for so as to not become complacent thus stalling their own development. By raising the bar for the lowest talent pools and challenging the elite to be even better, Byer, like many of his European and South American counterparts, has tapped into one secret of producing a deeper pool of professional players.

However, the takeaway here isn’t all about coaching; it’s about teaching kids to train on their own. In Japan, focusing on individual achievement in the academics is a pillar of cultural importance. Tom Byer put football on a similar level of value to a culture with an industrious work ethic—and he made it fun. An undeniable truth of this type of individual training, or getting 10,000 functional touches a day, is that it’s not fun all the time. It’s demanding both of time and energy and short on external praise. There is no trophy or ribbon. In good footballing countries, the kids don’t care—something American kids can hopefully learn to emulate. The criticism is valid, however, and it’s important to note that until the United States produces players of the caliber of Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinji Kagawa, Shunsuke Nakamura, or Keisuke Honda (the list could on and on), Japan’s football development is doing something that the U.S. Soccer Federation is not. The U.S. Soccer Development Academy, aside from the pay-to-play, amalgamation-based criticisms, stems from the age requirement being U-13 for a team to even participate. This puts American-based players at least eight or nine years behind players in other countries in terms of focused, technique-specific training and reinforcing the value of individual supplemental training.

Youth soccer is the most popular participation sport in the United States, but the product seen on the pitch in Major League Soccer and for the U.S. Men’s National Team is technically deficient. Paraphrasing Byer’s own words, if the U.S. Soccer Federation and its dominant league would view grassroots soccer not as an obligation, but as an opportunity, the game would grow as it has in Japan. The American youth soccer landscape is a minefield that many parents and players must carefully navigate to ensure they receive quality training and opportunities. American sporting culture still praises what the rest of the world sees as standard with regards to accomplishments and tasks on the field. For example, hard work, fitness, retaining possession, and displaying composure on the ball should be expectations and demands—not something to be lauded and pithily celebrated by a team of pundits who seldom “call a spade a spade”. You can hear it in the crowds at National Team or MLS matches, Clint Dempsey does a move that “looks cool” but leads nowhere and the crowd erupts. Jozy Altidore “posts-up” and manages to hold the ball and somehow that receives a raucous applause and commentator praise ad nauseam. Entertainment cannot come at the expense of quality. America needs to raise the bar.

Closing the talent gap with the world’s best is a challenge that requires better attention and accessibility for children to learn the game. For example, the Royal Belgium Football Association, under then Technical Director Michel Sablon looked at the state of Belgian football and prompted a revamp of how Belgian players were coached, developed, and marketed by looking at countries like Holland, not as neighbors, but as targets. The current crop of Belgium’s golden generation is merely the start of a bigger movement. Under the restructure of its football philosophy, the coaches worked closely with urban planning committees to build “football cages” to promote football as an activity whilst producing players willing to spend hours playing on their own. Additionally, the Koninklijke Belgische Voetbalbond, (KBVB) built a National Football Centre in Tubize for the Rode Duivels to train while continuing to reach the affluent, middle class, first generation immigrant, and lower income talent pools. Football became part of the country’s culture and it tapped into what worked in other countries like Holland, which uses its limited space to stress small-sided games. Sablon’s vision drove out the “win-at-all-costs” mentality that American coaches and players are guilty of banking on, for a more aesthetic and technically adept style of football that produces better players and a higher level of play capable of winning more matches.

If a player cannot control or manipulate the football at will, then how can he or she be asked to perform at the highest level? Based on feedback from academy coaches questioning my 10,000 touches article and its purpose in player development, many have concluded that all it produces are performing robots, which goes back to the cultural mindset and lack of value American players place on training. What is viewed as “extreme” in America is the minimum requirement in the best footballing nations—the entry fee, if you will. I highlight that this method was instrumental in the development of not one or two great footballers, but generations of great players. The U.S. Soccer Federation may or may not live up to the demand as evidenced by the laughable and seldom-mentioned Project 2010 (USSF’s plan to win the World Cup by that year), so the onus lies on the coaches and players to educate themselves, be open to trying what works elsewhere, and to think of progress as the need to create football players not kids who play football. Football is as much a cerebral game as it is a physical game, so instead of placing kids on teams based on size instead of ability, place them in environments where they can thrive and develop. Competence trumps complacency on the football pitch and players who have fun, are willing to challenge themselves, and have a system that works for them, not the other way around, are usually the ones who continue playing for the love of the game and have the talent to boot (pardon the pun).

This article first appeared on http://www.thesefootballtimes.net on 5 June 2014. 

A United Front

This article first appeared on Thesefootballtimes.net on May 23, 2014

Foreign-Born National Stars

And A United Front

Previously featured on the Guardian Sport Network, Jon Townsend looks at the problems of foreign-born players dominating the USMNT World Cup roster and solutions.

By Jon Townsend | 23 May 2014

Fronting, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is defined as: to act as a front or cover for someone or something wishing to conceal something. In the context of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) and its effort to improve the national team program, it sure is concealing something.

America is country that prides itself on being a cultural and sporting melting pot and the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) is the embodiment of that concept with a number of foreign-born players filling its roster spots in the 30-man training camp prior to the World Cup. These players are: Terrance Boyd, John Brooks, Timmy Chandler, Fabien Johnson, Jermaine Jones, and Julian Green (pictured), all of whom were raised predominately in Germany by at least one German parent. The other prominent figures are Mix Diskerud, who was raised in Norway but is eligible for the US because his mother is American, and Aron Jóhannsson, who was born in the United States and moved to Iceland when he was just three years old.

Although highlighting these players seems exclusionary, it is anything but. The pipeline of German-American players comes as no surprise with a German coach in Jürgen Klinsmann, who for all intents and purposes, has done his due diligence and identified the most talented, eligible players to best represent the United States in Brazil at the World Cup. Some were born and raised in America and others were simply born in America. And therein is the obvious point; the scouting system for US Soccer is either not equipped or able to scour the vast nation looking for potential talent deemed worth investing massive amounts of time and resources in to make the USMNT competitive.

On the footballing front, a tournament like the World Cup is about competition. Win and progress, or lose and go home. Jürgen himself measures success on wins and losses in competitive environments – which is why he was less than thrilled when his captain, Clint Dempsey, and Michael Bradley, both returned to Major League Soccer instead of remaining in Europe. But the United States isn’t the only country to pull from a resource of familial ties in an effort to strengthen its national side… Germany does this to great effect too.

But there’s more at play than relying on players who ply their trade abroad and who happen to be American by either birth or relation. The stark realization isn’t new to many domestic and loyal supporters and critics of American football. For a nation of over 300 million citizens with hundreds of thousands of youth players participating in football and with Major League Soccer continuing to expand rapidly, America has yet to produce a player that can be considered ‘world class’.

Subjectively, many can argue that goalkeeper Tim Howard has proven to be very consistent and dominant in the Premier League. Perhaps many would argue that Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey are exceptional players who have proven themselves in Europe before returning home to play in Major League Soccer. But, with all due respect, they aren’t world class.

As the build-up to the World Cup reaches fever pitch, American media has highlighted a number of player profiles in both an all-access television documentary, ‘Inside: US Soccer’s March to Brazil’ and through a multitude of articles highlighting topics related to the national team. One such topic of discussion has been the emergence of Michael Bradley as a stalwart of the US midfield and a player whose tenacity and work rate embody the grit and determination of American soccer.

Michael Bradley’s route to professional soccer was anything but conventional or typical and is extremely unlikely to be reproduced by any other American players. Bradley’s journey was no doubt expedited and overseen by his father and former national team coach, Bob Bradley, who also coached three Major League Soccer teams in Chicago Fire, MetroStars, and Chivas USA.

Bob Bradley drafted Michael as the thirty-sixth overall pick in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft. Michael played in MLS for a year and was then sold to SC Heerenveen where he gained invaluable experience in a league stressing technical development. Bradley, however, has gained ample experience in his career abroad subsequently playing for Borussia Mönchengladbach, a brief and unsuccessful loan spell at Aston Villa, before successful stints at Chievo, and to a lesser extent, Roma, before ultimately returning to MLS by securing a big-money move to Toronto FC.

The misconception that many major American journalists are guilty of typifying is the suggestion that Michael Bradley’s development and route to the USMNT is “the standard” for all American players. In fact, that could not be farther from the truth, which is evidenced by Jürgen Klinsmann’s proclivity to bolster the squad with the foreign American players.

Much has also been made of the Julian Green saga, which to many fans, has taken attention away from the real issue – and it’s not Julian Green, but rather the lack of exposure and scouting success for American players born and raised domestically. Julian Green’s decision to play for the United States guarantees him a chance to excel with a program that won’t chew him up and spit him out like Die Mannschaft could do with impunity.

Just last month, many ardent national team supporters and American football-talking heads suggested that another player, Gedion Zelalem, might declare he’d play for the USA. Zelalem’s story isn’t that atypical in the current American soccer system, which places more emphasis on integration than it does on development. The Berlin-born midfielder of Ethiopian descent came to the United States when he was nine-years-old where he played for about six years until being spotted by Arsenal scouts in the famed youth tournament, Dallas Cup.

There are many unresolved questions surrounding his eligibility to become a U.S. citizen under the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 whereby he would be allowed to gain citizenship since his father held permanent U.S. residency and intended to apply for U.S. citizenship, but the biggest question might be how MLS team scouts didn’t pounce on Zelalem when they had the chance – and an Arsenal scout did.

The glaring point is although America has developed talented players in previous generations and iterations of the World Cup, some of whom are members of the current national team scheduled to compete in Brazil, the USSF is still glossing over a major issue that has consistently plagued the national program. The best American players of often find themselves in relegation-embattled teams or in the second-tiers of European leagues. And most of them leave MLS for these environments simply because they seek more a bigger challenge, more pay, and greater competition. Surely, Major League Soccer must play a factor in this arena of football in America.

It can be said that there may be more foreign-born and raised players on this iteration of the national team than any other since Major League Soccer’s inception. The glass half full perspective is that MLS has improved US soccer such that non-resident Americans want to play for the US. The glass half empty perspective is that MLS has worsened the quality of US soccer or found itself in a state of stagnation such that the USMNT needs those players. An even more cynical view is that those players are simply deemed surplus to requirements to the German system, for example, and thus opt to play for the United States as a fallback and almost guaranteed opportunity to have an international career and play in a World Cup. No fault can be placed on these players; their decisions are their own and are no doubt very difficult on a personal and professional level. They chose to represent a nation they have ties to and that’s what international football is all about.

In its 18-year existence, Major League Soccer has been run in a single-entity, closed system to ensure strict investment practices will yield fiscal sustainability. On the business side of things, it works, but on the footballing side, perhaps the closed system has opened the door to stagnation. The USSF and MLS are definitely intertwined entities, but what about the remaining tiers of American soccer?

What of the North American Soccer League which plays a split-season schedule and is considered by many to be below MLS but above USL-Pro, the third tier of the American soccer pyramid? Would promotion and relegation help stress development? In Major League Soccer, no two teams can compete for a player’s signature, the draft allocation system, and the forgiving playoff structure where more teams essentially get a shot at the title, ensure parity in MLS. The result is also the abysmal record of MLS teams in the CONCACAF Champions League. Such a poor showing in a regional league highlights the disparity of MLS scheduling and its level of play compared to regional teams operating in open systems without salary cap restrictions.

The debate is growing in the United States with many dedicated MLS fans who are part of the Old Guard who have watched the league since 1996 and have since grown tired of the closed system and lack of genuine attention toward development until MLS’ revival post-2007. Their views clash with the enthusiastic view of the new MLS fan. Both sides vehemently defend their principles. In many respects, from the outside looking in, it’s The Eurosnobs/Elitist Football fans versus MLS Fanboys – and the rift between the two is growing.

Every MLS team has an academy aimed at promoting and fostering talent within the league instead of constantly importing players beyond their prime coming in from abroad for a swansong season.

While it may be too soon to judge the newest MLS clubs on their contributions to the USMNT, the fact remains that many fans of Major League Soccer along with the MLS Executive Board, would like to retain the league’s best players and not be considered a selling league. But that’s part of the issue; the league owns the players, not the clubs, which means clubs aren’t rewarded for development. In other countries, the clubs develop the players and reap any financial benefits of the sale of that player, which is very profitable and a normal business practice in Europe and South America.

Another point of contention involves the salary cap with a set number of teams with a set number of roster spots opportunities are few and far between for up-and-coming young players. The rationale seems to hinge itself upon the notion that the influx of foreign talent keeps the quality of the league increasing while implementing stronger academies, in hopes that the youngsters will step up in quality and continue to strengthen the league itself. Perhaps, but there is no system of checks and balances (no promotion or relegation) and a huge problem persists: what if the academies don’t do their job and develop players?

Additionally, many academies, including those affiliated with MLS and the U.S. Soccer Development Academy operate on a pay-to-play basis, which is a stratifying filtration system that cancels out a whole populous of players who can’t afford the ever-increasing exorbitant league fees. The league and clubs are making money, but are they producing players who are good enough to compete at the international level? So far, the answer is no. For every player that’s discovered overseas and fast-tracked to the national team only highlights the lack of talented players coming through domestic academies that should feature in a strong national team program.

Another question is the whether the U.S. Soccer Development Academy places emphasis on winning over development. When the U.S. places emphasis on technique over athleticism and development over winning, its football will improve dramatically. Until that happens, its unlikely up-and-coming academy products will develop with the technical ability to integrate and succeed at the professional level.

A solution, and there could be many, would have MLS mandate that at least twelve players on the 30-man roster must be developed by a U.S. Soccer Development Academy team and another four players must be developed by the club itself to ensure development is properly overseen and stressed. The USSF has the authority to implement such a rule and has the authority to enact sanctions on the league if it doesn’t comply. But, MLS is a business first, and it does what it needs to do to try to improve the quality of the product on the pitch, which is the bread and butter in every other footballing country.

Is an open system the answer or is American soccer headed toward a split with NASL and other leagues going one way and MLS the other? Only time will tell. As with many countries, the onus is up to the Federation itself and US Soccer must ensure the domestic leagues (not just MLS, but NASL and USL-Pro) comply and continue to develop players for the betterment of not only the national team, but for the sport itself throughout every level in America.

Does the United States have a world class player within its borders? In all likelihood, it doesn’t even matter until US Soccer, MLS, and the U.S. Soccer Development Academy step up to the plate, scout more thoroughly, and stress development over winning at the youth levels.

 

Losing Ugly

Losing Ugly

By: Jon Townsend

I’ve sat there with you, watching each team’s wingers burn up and down the pitch, the center midfielders operate as true terriers in every sense of the word while the defenders maraud around chasing shadows and smashing each striker’s shins. We hoped we’d win but knew we could lose.

So many times we watched this maddening game and you sat there biting your fingernails and I stood in dank submission and reflection being pissed on by the rain chewing on my shirt collar — these are not moments of sophistication. The wave of anticipatory happiness can only be rivaled by the tsunami of sobering reality that comes from the mere possibility of losing.

This is losing ugly.

Each time I played, a bit of life bled off my brow and soaked into the cold mud of the pockmarked pitch underfoot because for me, the game was a bit like life. For years I trained and my sweat was evidence of effort. For years, I learned and every single time, it was the heartbreaking loss that hit hardest. The sport matters because the force that can most easily break concentration is the one players rarely see or predict — but they can feel it. That surge of worry in coursing through the veins and the cauldron of apprehension brewing in the gut.

I’ve felt those feelings, too.

For some, the passion is so strong that their side’s crest has long been burned over their hearts, searing itself into the flesh.

It’s a funny old game. The Devil’s gift of losing, God’s blessing of victory, and a heap of confusion that leads one to lose faith in both entities.

In winning we are somehow elitist, but in losing we are all the same: flattened, deflated, and cut down to size. At the start and end of each campaign, it’s the Hope that kills. Losing is the ultimate educator. Losing is the school teacher who will not relent until you’ve learned the damn lesson; losing is the ghost lurking in your basement that chases you up the stairs when you turn off the lights, and believe me, you’ll never sprint faster as when you’re trying to reach that door that takes you out of the darkness. I remember watching many of my best friends hang their boots up after a heartbreaking loss and they never recovered. Losing hurts enough to drive us mad. Perhaps they got out early enough to maintain some semblance of sanity.

I was only four years old when my father first laced up the boots for me; and I was only four years old when I learned what losing meant. It meant inadequacy and weakness. Losing meant the luck and happiness you chased around the pitch as a hare-brained child with a singular purpose could only be found in the back of your own net. The game is fickle in these ways; it reduces grown men to tears and makes young people feel old. Nothing, and I mean nothing, hurts more than losing.

Sixteen years on, there was that match I remember playing — a battle in the mud and the sleet, and the scouts were there with their clipboards. I wasn’t known for bagging many goals but that day I scored a worldly. Tie game, one all. It was the type of match where the ball stuck to my boots and my first touch was as deft as ever. It was a complete performance, or so I thought as the 89th minute ticked past, “How much time left, sir?” the captain asked the referee, who held up a single index finger. One minute. Sixty seconds. An eternity. Their goalkeeper collected and smashed the ball into the clouds before it descended out of the atmosphere like a hexagonal-paneled meteor. The center midfielder let the ball bounce — never let the ball bounce! Their striker collected the ball and the right back tackled him. The ball bounced and clattered off everyone’s shins until it fell to the captain.

“Back, back, give it to the goalkeeper!” was the order we heard from the sideline. As soon as the ball left his boot, their striker was in. I can’t recall who told our skipper to pass it back and it didn’t matter. This was the match slipping away like grains of sand escaping a clenched fist. I did what I had to and fouled their striker; it was only his third touch of the ball all game. In that moment I saw red, figuratively, and tackled him out of desperation and I saw red again, this time literally, as the referee sent me off.

He converted and rightly so — he was the hero. Three whistles sealed our fate and married us to defeat. The tears came for some, especially the skipper, whose face was covered with anguish and creased with mud. His tears parted the dirt on his cheeks. He’ll sort himself out, I thought. I was too angry at myself and the situation to cry. Some looked for the scouts in the stands but found only their empty seats. They had vanished. Game over. We had lost. Our goalkeeper shook his head, the other team celebrated in front of us, and all we could hear was the concussive echo of defeat.

The thing about losing is it gets worse with age. Losing is the soul’s rheumatism, but it’s also a reminder that you still care enough to cry, to swear, to go on a tirade, to go to the pub and cry into a pint. Losing is a reminder to hold your tongue and reflect. Losing reveals the million things we feel without us saying a single word. What does one gain in losing? In some respects, winning is the palpable embodiment of success. It matters but it doesn’t quite educate us like losing does. Losing galvanizes friendships and rivalries. Losing makes a person question their own sanity and we inevitably come to the conclusion we are just this side of crazy and to us, that’s acceptable. In this regard, losing reminds us we still draw breath in this crazy ride called life.

The smart ones don’t follow soccer with any vigor or rigor. They are immune from losing. The rest of us sit in the stands, alone on the couch, slumped over a bar stool, and each of us is filled the rigor mortis of defeat when our lads fall short. When they fall, we fall and when they win, surely, we are the victors of the day, too. Somehow, football cruelly bridges the continental gaps between supporters because it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter if you were born in the same city as your team or you’ve never seen the sight of the stadium, heard the roar of the crowd in person, or smelled the freshly cut grass of the pitch — soccer has given you a family and it has sentenced you to a lifetime dealing with a handful of loathsome rivals. You don’t have to hate them — but you do. And the feeling is mutual. Sometimes, in a strange twist of fate and circumstance, you respect the enemy.

Losing makes liars out of us all. We assume we could do better, and sometimes, we’re right. People cry and die by their soccer allegiances and there are no words to make losing acceptable. But, I contend that losing is a gift. With every loss, I learn and reaffirm who I am and where I stand. Defeat reminds me why I love soccer. Defeat reminds me why I’ve spent some of the greatest parts of my life immersed in a game that has taken from me as much as it has given.

It reminds me why soccer is more than a game — it is life itself.