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.

The General’s Death

This content was written for http://www.thesefootballtimes.net and appeared there first on April 4, 2014. 

The General’s Death

By: Jonathan Townsend

 

I recently found myself watching a replay of the 1988 FA Cup Final between the ‘Crazy Gang’ of Wimbledon and a heavily-favoured Liverpool side on late-night television. As the footage cut out, I flipped the channel to see another film lost to history, General Douglas MacArthur’s farewell speech to Congress where he poignantly proclaimed, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away”.

Somehow, that FA Cup Final with the grit and grind of Wimbledon battling against the then Kings of English football, Liverpool echoed MacArthur’s words. I watched as Peter Beardsley streak down the left flank only to be confronted by a blue wall of Wimbledon players blocking his advance. Beardsley’s shot smashed off a defender and bounced to John Barnes who crossed to a waiting John Aldridge and Ray Houghton in the box only for a gut-busting run by Alan Cork to put off John Aldridge. In many ways, it was an example of surgical football by Liverpool against defiant football by Wimbledon. A team of magicians versus a team of gritty grinders. Grit won that day.

Watching modern football, one realizes the game is now a lithe blend of speed and fluidity on the pitch. Today’s game requires smoother movements combined with a higher level of requisite technique across every position on the pitch. Today’s footballer has to show some degree of dexterity as the game continues to rely on interchange and technical ability with increased speed of play.

Defenders need to be technically adept rather than masters of hoofing the ball out of the stadium, midfielders must combine finesse and fitness, and strikers are required to be the embodiment of athleticism with an assassin’s aim. But, regardless of what team is playing and in what league, there’s something, or rather, someone, missing in the modern game; the on-field general.

The man who urges his teammates on when all seems lost, the team’s soldier, the man who demands that his teammate pull themselves up by their bootstraps and fight to the end. These gladiators of football are the ones who look up at the scoreboard – realize the result may be lost – and then look through the others on the pitch and fight past the final whistle. For them, the losses aren’t purely statistical – they’re engrained on a man’s character and absorbed in his eyes. To this legionnaire of league football, regardless of level, there is no giving up. They wear defeat like a shroud on Tuesday morning’s training session and let everyone know how unacceptable giving up is at their football club.

But are these types of players nothing more than glorified cheerleaders whose enthusiasm and toughness make up for their lack of technique and finesse on the pitch? Has the modern game changed the modern player to the point that only internal motivation and individual reward pushes them onwards as they are not programmed to compute any external on-field instruction?

Would a Roy Keane-like figure have saved the Red Devils from the apathy choking Manchester United at the present? Does Arsenal need another Tony Adams, someone to lay the boots down and grab players from off the delicate Emirates pitch surface and hurl them back into battle? Does this type of player still exist in an age where diving and simulation, feigning injury during a capitulating defeat, and a lack of personal accountability are a normal sight for the supporters? Do we value the battlers, the grinders, and jacks of all trades in football anymore?

For all their faults as men and sometimes, as teammates, there’s a nostalgia associated with the no-nonsense footballer. The uncompromising tackler who snubs doubt and stares down defeat in a tragically heroic way as to suggest to his opponent, “You may win the game, but you won’t defeat me”.

One can argue that these players still exist, but they’re better versions of this archetypal on-field general. Liverpool have Steven Gerrard and Manchester City have Vincent Kompany; two gifted stalwarts whose talent is only eclipsed by their rejection of anything less than total commitment from their peers. For all his personal issues, John Terry has shown a proclivity to lead his Chelsea sides to great heights, but he’s also been known to flop and show far too many inconsistencies when many suggest he’s a better footballer than that.

The aforementioned types of leaders are also captains of their respective sides, which many might suggest is a prerequisite for such displays of leadership and regular impassioned performances. But there has to be more to it than wearing the armband. Players like Tony Adams, Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira and the like of yesteryear were not saints. Surely, they battled their own demons off the pitch as well as on it.

Tony Adams, for example, has fought his way through a harder battle than any football match in his struggle with addiction and alcoholism. Roy Keane, for all his bravado and midfield presence qualities, has brought the game into disrepute and can’t seem to check his ego at the door. The Irishman’s fiery temper and willingness to publically criticize his teammates at United and expose the inadequacies of the FAI have cost him dearly, in a sense. Steven Gerrard was fortunate to escape harsher punishment for a nightclub punch-up in Southport in late-2008. Perhaps what makes these men quality leaders also accounts for their enigmatic personalities. Football is not a sport for the angelic and the professional player is not a commoner.

Leadership is a quality that surely ostracizes the trailblazer and forces him to swim against the stream lest he risk drowning himself in the waters of mediocrity. The problem with having leaders in modern football is the game is bigger than it was a decade ago. The world, in many ways, has grown overly-sensitive as have its players. Egos are bruised with any public criticism and the hairdryer treatment is often seen as a lack of control instead of a motivating call to action. Modern football doesn’t want soldiers; it wants magicians and wizards. Supporters must balance whether they want battlers or exhibitionists.

Where is a player sans the skill of a Steven Gerrard or the quality of a Vincent Kompany, but with their leadership qualities factor in a present-day Arsenal or Manchester United squad? Would they even be picked? Have football academies and attitudes shifted and evolved in such a way that a team’s ‘hard man’ is not only far from being the first name on the team sheet, it’s not even in the squad?

Football is a game of delicate balance. For every flamboyant player capable of dazzling the world with the magic in his boots, there should be an unwavering presence to defend the bulwarks. Quite frankly, the evolution of the game has been so rapid in the past decade that many of the tackles and confrontations on the pitch back then would not be tolerated in today’s game. I’ve often wondered what’s more fascinating: the soft fouls and pitiful theatrics in modern football, or the over-the-top, no-nonsense tackles of yesterday’s football.

Candidly speaking, there will always be ugliness in the game, but there was something more redeeming from seeing the players care so much off the field. In 2005 at Highbury, Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira brought the tension to a crescendo in the tunnel before the match in a spat that galvanized even the neutral. Even if the confrontation was overdone for the camera, it provided the world with a front row view of the game within the game. What was the fight over? Two captains defending their teammates. Keane defending Gary Neville, Vieira defending Robert Pirès.

There’d be no pulling out of tackles. The fans wouldn’t allow it because the generals on the pitch wouldn’t allow it. These days, there’s something refreshing in seeing a defender wear black boots instead of neon green or hot pink ones. Players like Liverpool’s blue collar academy product, Jon Flanagan, or Crystal Palace’s less-than-flashy, part-time rugby fly-half (I jest) Mile Jedinak remind supporters and viewers of Premier League football that there is a place for the orthodox, old-fashioned player in the game.

But there’s an ugly side to the on-field general. A selfishness that oftentimes leads to reckless action that costs the team dearly. A personal vendetta gone too far that proves to be more a distraction and hindrance than benefit for the team like Roy Keane’s horror tackle on Manchester City’s Alf-Inge Håland, which effectively ended the Norwegian’s career, and for what? A comment made in a previous match – a chance to physically crush the “enemy” out of personal savagery? One might think that football has no patience for petulance, but if that was the case, the diving and cheating would be punished with more severity instead of being met with more tolerance and regularity.

Every week, pundits argue and squabble over the flair in the game and the controversy surrounding a penalty decision or rash tackle. To advocate for more over-the-ball, knee-high tackles is foolish, but there should also be a place in a side for the general. The impact of great leaders has impacted the best teams in leagues outside of the Premier League.

What Carles Puyol is to Barcelona and Gennaro Gattuso was to AC Milan cannot be taught. The Fabio Cannavaro’s and Paulo Maldini’s of the world have faded into the shadows. Where are the players striving to emulate the likes of Franco Baresi and Franz Beckenbauer? The reality is players with the leadership and consistency of those players is seen less and less in football.

One cannot buy a “leader”, but if it was possible, if leadership was an attribute modern football still valued as a premium, perhaps there would be some solace for the supporters of clubs like Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, and Manchester United to name but a few sides who desperately need a general to rally the troops against all odds.

Performance counts for everything in football. Teams and players are judged on results, not character traits. The soldiers of the game are disappearing and in their place is the football mercenary, the glory-hunting, heavy-earning, often responsibility-shirking player with more talent at their disposal than many of the on-field generals could ever hope to muster.

The game has never seen more skill across the broad spectrum of players that step across the white lines every match. The game has never been faster, more fitness-focused, and more dependent on money than it is now. There is a saying that natural leaders are born, not made and judging by the modern game, the role of the on-field general looks consigned to fade.

By Jonathan Townsend.

Follow Jon on Twitter @jon_townsend3

Up in the Air

Up in the Air: Is it Time to for MLS to Hit its Ceiling?

Since its inception in 1996, Major League Soccer (MLS) has become a league many thought would implode in its infancy. As the 2014 season approaches, the league’s vitality is increasing while the number of teams in MLS has more than doubled. For MLS, the reality is still up in the air. Literally.

The league’s proclivity to introduce soccer-specific stadiums and programming to a once soccer-ignorant country whose denizens once only gained their exposure to the sport through two main channels: first generation immigrants and recreational leagues geared toward children. Of course, the North American Soccer League (NASL) existed prior to MLS, from 1968 to 1984, and introduced North America to the world’s finest players on their way out.

The past decade has seen a resurgence of talent and interest in North America, but the league, which currently follows the NASL modus operandi of acquiring foreign talent as keynote signings, must heed the warnings of the past. The league’s most recent decision to add more teams to the league should be cause for concern. In many ways, the league is still in its embryonic stages of development and talent-based output. Sure, its growth has been exponentially beneficial for the latest generation of aficionados of the game in America and to a lesser extent, Canada, but Don Garber and the hierarchy of MLS and the USSF need to address two main issues.

The league is slated to include 21 teams when the 2015 campaign kicks off with the two newest teams being New York City FC and Orlando City Soccer Club respectively. At this point, the league’s growth must be culled before too many teams are introduced in areas that still lack interest in the league itself. Supporters’ groups are on the rise, but the cause for concern rests not with the passion of these supporters, but with the preference most educated fans and players of the game have to foreign leagues. The glitz and glamor of the Premier League is unrivalled. As American fans tuning-in to watch the Premier League religiously as the television rights being awarded to NBC and the influx of North American-based preseason tours, their preference still rests with one of the world’s power leagues.

For the league to fully hone its talent pool, structural changes need to occur in the lower tiers of the North American system. Relegation should be implemented seeing as many teams in the second tier of soccer can compete with MLS teams in club competitions and friendlies. Where they cannot compete is financially. The structure of MLS is designed to foster parity within the league via the Drafting process, trade allocations, designated player rulings and single-entity ownership. Each element has proven to work wonders to grow the league, but now, the powers at be would be well-advised to think about the sport in terms of “trickle-down economics”, whereby the vitality of the leagues is based on controlled expansion up top. One doesn’t build a house starting with the roof.

The quality of the game will continue to rise in North America — even if most of best young talents opt to ply their trade abroad. With an expanding league, certain necessities must take place such as: a simple relegation-promotion system, single table standings and with it, the elimination of the play-offs. Stability on par with the rest of the world’s leagues will come through drastic changes, but the fact remains that MLS is ironically still too foreign to its own purist fans who follow the top European leagues. The allure of bridging the gap between divisions benefits all participants in each league. The infusion of better talent, more sponsorship, bigger stadia (and with them, bigger crowds), more television money needs to trickle down the ranks of North American soccer. It may surprise many, but eliminating the “Americanized” aspects of the league will bring more continuity to a working formulaic design.

The sky is truly the limit for the sport on North American shores, but the best growth is controlled growth. By expanding the sport back to the state of Florida where the league’s only two defunct teams resided, MLS is taking a calculated risk. The American southeast may or may not be ready for professional soccer. Garnering support from the grassroots level in this area should increase with Orlando City FC’s inclusion to MLS. In recent weeks, David Beckham and LeBron James have both expressed interest in owning a team in Miami, which would increase interest, but what the league needs now is stability and reformatting. The American southwest could certainly benefit from a team in Arizona or New Mexico, where the number of latino players has always been high.

Explosive interest in the league’s growth is both dangerous and exciting and only time will tell how the ball rolls in the coming years for MLS and lower tiers of North American soccer.