Chasing the Leprechaun

Think about your first “wow” moment in the game. Many who love the game experienced that introductory moment of absolute magic while watching one of the world’s best players or teams, but I want to you reach farther back and hone in on that moment outside the professional game. Admittedly, it’s difficult to find a moment of pure magic away from what’s on television, but it’s possible.

My first “wow” moment that I recall was when I was six or seven years-old. My father and I watched a collegiate game between Santa Clara University and San Jose State at Buck Shaw Stadium. The “wow” moment occurred when a player on the touchline gathered the ball for Santa Clara and performed “a rainbow”

over the opposing winger and took off down the wing. I dropped my soda. I tugged my father’s arm and pointed to the vacant space in need of reassurance that he had seen it, too. The rest of the game was a blur. I replayed that move in my head over and over again.

After the game, we could not get home fast enough. I think practiced that move every day as a kid. I wanted to master it. I broke the move down into small steps. 

Plant my left foot here. Roll the ball up my left leg. Kick my left leg up towards my back. Where did the ball go? Dang it. Try again.

The first time I pulled the move off successfully I couldn’t believe it. It was a shame that the only witness was my red and white Siberian Husky, Apollo. It didn’t matter. I learned the move of all moves (at least in terms of what I’d seen at that point in my life). 

My father would regularly tell me to stop practicing the move and would direct me to a wall for some passing games and exercises, which I enjoyed too. But the move! I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Memories and experiences like that make soccer a bit more than a game for me. Every so often, I see it in young players today — that “wow” moment. The difference, however, is these days, the magic of the game manifests in odd ways. 

The game has provided me countless experiences (both good and bad) that have, oddly enough, taught me a thing or two. You see, my father was never one to applaud when I did anything fancy on the field. As I grew older and began excelling in the game, I got used to looking to the sidelines to see my father’s emotionless face after nutmegging an All-American defender or doing an elastico to make an opponent stumble over his own feet. I also got used to him clapping and shouting encouragement when I pinged a diagonal pass sixty yards on a rope to a player’s foot or chest.

I recall hearing the excitement in his voice when I fizzed a pass into a teammates feet and moved into space to collect the return pass. I really call to mind hearing him or my mother (she was just as influential) applaud a solid defensive play or a fifty-fifty tackle. You see, my parents got it all those years ago.

I’m a simple man and the more I play, study, coach, and watch the game, the simpler the game becomes. I also had an advantage over players today who see the game through a kaleidoscope lens of complexity, striving to be the next Neymar, Messi, or Ronaldo — and who no doubt look the part, practice the tricks, strive to become the focal point. I had my father to keep me honest and who worked with me on the basics: the passing against the wall, the dribble patterns on the hot California concrete, the hours of running laps on the cinder track with a ball on my foot, the exercises in turning and cutting with the ball at every crack in the concrete or faded yellow parking line — these were things we did together.

None of this was mandatory. It was a choice and it was fun. Creativity comes in mysterious ways.

The majority of the “drills” were just games and tasks my father made up on the fly. I think he saw the danger of a player focusing solely on the ridiculous skills that seldom get used in a game to any great effect. 

Today, I see a culture of players, coaches, and parents who want to know where the leprechaun lives

What does that mean? Think about the people who aren’t successful, who never get better and ask yourself why they never get better?

The first reason is they often lack the desire, focus, and ability (it’s a package deal, kids) to “hone in” on the important things on their journey in the game. Most of the time, I’ve seen that ability is the one component players have in surplus, but they lack the desire and focus to maximize said ability. Other times, it’s the external influences that derail progress. Parents who want to know the answers instead of working to find the answers themselves. Players who want success they aren’t willing to work for. Coaches who want to win without teaching themselves and the players how to win.

The second reason is finding and existing in environments of healthy competition. Not just competition, but healthy competition. I have a friend who’s an aspiring comedian. After a few years “out in LA” he returned to Chicago to perform at a comedy club’s open mic night. He fell flat on his face. After the show, a seasoned comedian asked him why he (my friend) bombed on stage. My friend told the seasoned comedian, “I think I did fine up there. Just a bad audience.” The seasoned comedian then said something I will never forget and something my friend still has yet to fully figure out. He said, “You aren’t competing with yourself enough. You think you’re funny because you aren’t turning your faults, your poor delivery, your flawed pacing — into strengths. When you’re real with yourself, they’ll laugh at your jokes instead of laughing at you.”

Another aspect of the game that perplexes me is this notion that players are immune to constructive criticism. I won’t go into “What the [failed] coach at my Coaching Certificate class said…” or “In Pep Guardiola’s book they said…” because it doesn’t matter. 

When Pep Guardiola gets on a plane and coaches your team, let me know. When you understand the mindset necessary to exist and thrive in La Masia, we’ll talk. 

This is about the real world — off Twitter, out of the books, on the pitch. Criticism is a necessary tool. And there’s a profound difference between criticism and cutting down. Any coach can yell. Any parent can deflect blame. Any player can hide from their own shortcomings. Those are easy cop-outs (that’s why so many take those routes). Accepting and processing criticism is difficult. Listening to the message instead of the delivery takes time. But, those who are real with themselves know what they need to work on — the trick is finding out how best to work on those things.

A word I hate is “hype”. Hype is what people hang their hopes on. Hype is the concentrating on what others say instead of what you do. Hype is gawking at “Amazing 8 year old player — the next Cristiano Ronaldo” videos on YouTube where the kid does tricks, but oddly enough we can’t find actual playing footage of the player. Hype is fluff and fluff is for marshmallows and down comforters and pillows. Fluff keeps a player in mommy and daddy’s good graces and unearned compliments. Hype builds a player up just so the game can knock them down and beat the fluff out of them.

All of this is what I call “chasing the leprechaun”.

Everyone wants to find the leprechaun’s pot of gold, but oftentimes they aren’t willing to get their hands dirty and dig long and hard enough for it, or they’re digging in the wrong place. People focus more on the result than the actual process. 

Too many people subscribe to some entitled belief that “wanting it” is some type of currency in the world. Two phrases that need to be eliminated from your mind are “wanting it” and “making it”. Those phrases are poisonous and are emblazoned on signs on the road to perdition. Quite frankly, I’m sick of people telling others that a kid who chooses to play for a scholarship didn’t “make it”, but a kid who flames out of the professional game after a year, “made it”. Only you know if you “made it” and guess what, that definition changes with the seasons. I’m sick of hearing people try to define “the best” — that’s another phrase we should probably eliminate since it’s too saturated in subjectivity.

Healthy competition is not about winning and losing so much as it’s about learning what to do and how to do it. Winning should be perceived in more ways than just the scoreboard or league standings. 

It’s rare that I meet a player who understands the importance of winning their individual battle on the field. To me, that’s the habit-formation that will lead to better results. It’s rare to see a coach shut up for an entire game and just observe the game so the players can figure out what’s going right and wrong. It’s rare to see a parent tell their kid to put some dirt on that scrape and get back out there and try again.

Now, back to your “wow” moment away from the professional game. Hopefully, that moment was something beautiful at a park, on a dirt patch, or on a field somewhere far from the television cameras. Understand that there’s something amazing about the game off the screen — at any level.

Oh, and I have a confession to make — I never attempted to pull off a rainbow in a competitive game during my playing days. But I did everything else I practiced for hours on end. Oh yeah, I have a little secret to tell you about chasing those leprechauns: I know where their pot of gold is hidden. 

It’s in your “wow” moment.

Passing is not Optional

What You Need To Know:

  • Communication and passing are inextricably linked. Any player can do one or the other. Players and teams that master the use of both are well-suited to produce better results, attain a better level of play, and have happier players with more involvement in the play.
  • There should be no conflict between passing and dribbling. Both are integral parts of the game — each skill has its use during match play. Although dribbling and passing are important, the ability to discern when and where to use each is equally important.

—-

“If you cannot pass the ball then you must find a new sport to play.”

I remember that phrase from a coach in the Netherlands when I first arrived. I looked around at the mini-grids and stations for the morning’s technical workouts and found the systematic layout daunting. Each drill stressed a few core principles:

  • Clean technique
  • Repetition training
  • Proactive instead of reactive movements
  • Attention to detail
  • Complete focus
  • Staying active the entire time

Players took pride in their ability to pass the ball. Was every pass perfect? No, but the intention to play quick, technical soccer was evident.

“Players who cannot pass the ball must learn. Players who do not pass the ball are bad. Try not to be a bad player.”

After a few training sessions, the value of passing and moving was stressed; not merely passing then moving. Not watching my pass the ball, move, repeat. The game we were taught was centered on possession. Should the opportunity arise to dribble, a player seized the opportunity to 1). beat the opponent so he could then look to pass the ball, or 2). beat the opponent to open up space for a teammate to occupy before releasing the ball, or 3). beat the opponent to shoot, cross, or continue forward advancement toward goal

Given the option to dribble or pass — most players passed the ball depending on the ‘zone’ they were in on the field. Training sessions revolved around these ‘zones’ where the emphasis changed depending on what zone a player found himself in.

Zones in the attacking third and on the wings encouraged dribbling as the opposition was isolated. Here the risk of losing the ball is lessened by the distance from one’s own goal and having players able to get numbers behind the ball to mitigate counter attacks.

All the drilling, extra training, ‘wall ball’, and direct/indirect instruction told us one thing: Passing is not optional.

During games, players refused to be known as “black holes” — the ball enters and has no hope of ever coming out. The collective attitude curtailed any selfishness as passing the ball produced winning soccer. Players who chose not to pass simply were excluded from the team sheet or removed from the team entirely.

That doesn’t happen here.

Exhibitionism is a problem as is the over-complication of a simple game. Here, soccer suffers from a “copy and paste” syndrome. Coaches attempt to implement something they’ve seen at a seminar, online, or on television without fully understanding the how and why of the process. The cart before the horse approach to the game stunts growth. It seems here that passing is a secondary option to dribbling for American players. The problem doesn’t just plague young players — it affects all ages. Dribbling out of bounds, into traffic, onto the highway (I’m kidding, but you get the point) — it’s all praised in American soccer. People actually think a player who dribbles at the wrong time, is doing the right thing.

“Good job!” and “Great effort!” followed by, “Dribble out of danger!” are common phrases that accompany dribbling attempts resulting in less than stellar results. Parents, coaches, and players love a one-trick pony. And, no, I’m not devaluing the skill and importance of dribbling. I’m calling out a major problem that needs to be addressed: Selfishness.

Personally, I believe this comes down to two things — ignorance and arrogance.

It’s ignorance that allows players to bypass mastering the fundamentals of passing and receiving. It’s coaching ignorance to allow players to take shots at an empty goal for a warm-up. It’s ignorance for a player to place more value in learning a complicated move over mastering the ability to distribute the ball consistently and with clean technique. Ignorance is defined as a “lack of knowledge or information” and in this case, there is always an opportunity for learning and improvement. As a player, I had no problem with mistakes as they are part of the game and the learning process. Some people truly need a formal and rigorous [re]education in the game. As a coach, I have no problem with ignorance as long as it’s true ignorance.

What I don’t have time for is arrogance. Arrogance is selfishly playing well beyond one’s capabilities. Arrogance is the refusal to play in such a way that benefits the team before the individual — it’s the refusal of instruction and teaching. Arrogance is the rejection of all input as an individual prefers to do it “their way”. Arrogance is deciding not to do the right thing because one doesn’t feel like it’s in their best interests to do so. Arrogance is repeatedly trying to dribble out of the back and getting stripped when passing options were on. Arrogance is not taking pride in one’s performance and making the same mistakes over and over expecting a different result. Wait, no, that’s insanity.

The “me first” mentality hamstrings American soccer. A culture built on entitlement, elitism, ignorance, and arrogance undermines progress. From the lowest to the professional levels players still don’t take pride in mastering the basics. The amount of time players put into supplemental training directly correlates with how much and how fast they improve. I often wonder if people think effort is measurable? Effort is nothing without application.

Communication is a undervalued skill in American soccer. As a coach, I have a rule: No shouting the name of the player with the ball. Growing up, the ability to communicate effectively was drilled into us by a coach from from Arnhem who played for Vitesse. He taught us to communicate where we wanted the ball with simple yet effective words: “To feet”, “to space”, “bounce back”, and “trail behind” — these were all phrases we used instead of shouting a player’s name. Only directional/instructional communication was allowed. For example, the cacophony of “Mike!” from every player tells poor Mike nothing. Don’t believe me? Watch a soccer game and you’ll hear the constant stream of inane shouts of the player’s name who has the ball. It’s much harder than shouting a teammate’s name, but it’s much more effective.

Why is that important? If that habit is broken, players learn how to pick their head up, think a step or two ahead of the play, and give actual useful input on the field. Another rule I had was players weren’t allowed to say, “my bad”. What the hell does “my bad” mean? Lose the ball, put your fire out. Win possession back, stop the attack, get your shape, get organized, then take the blame if you’re so inclined once the play is over.

Players who say, “my bad” are frauds. Of course it’s “your bad” when you mess up — why say it? This lesson was learned the hard way. I recall an episode where a teammate didn’t recover once he lost possession, opting instead to put his hand up and shout “my bad” as a cop out. This happened every single time this particular player lost the ball or made a mistake. It didn’t take long for us to tell him we didn’t care whose “bad” it was because it doesn’t matter.

A few years ago, I played on a men’s team vying for U.S. Open Cup qualification. It came as no surprise that we lost the game when a player decided to “do his own thing” and attempt to dribble out of our own box, get the ball taken, and say, “My bad!” as the opposition scored. Mistakes happen. Even though he had options to do anything but what he ended up doing, that’s the game. It’s unforgiving. Myself and the other midfielders made runs, found open pockets he should have passed to, but he had one thing on his mind — dribble.

The other team qualified for the U.S. Open Cup. We went home.

I’ve often tried to find real reason players say this ad nauseam. Perhaps, in some crazy universe, there exists a law where self-acknowledgment of an error makes it acceptable to play lazy, selfish, or reckless soccer. Make the mistake, own it through your play and effort to recover. That speaks volumes more than some adolescent phrase designed to let players off the hook.

You might be thinking I’m getting a bit crazy with such rules (or suggestions, because “rules” indicate punishment…) but there’s a method to my madness. More than the uselessness of the phrase is the damage it does to players who have neither the technical ability nor the nous to play effectively with useless talk directed at them every time they get the ball. When a player gets the ball and his or her name is shouted by ten other players and numerous more parents — that player panics. Watch it for yourself. Juxtapose that chaos with only functional/directional/instructional phrases and the player usually plays more composed. When players panic they concede possession, get frustrated, dribble recklessly, and performance suffers.

The takeaways here are simple:

  • Passing is not optional. Players who opt to continually dribble over passing with poor results are choosing arrogance — they’ll feign ignorance, but it’s a conscious decision for them to ignore instruction.
  • Passing and receiving should be trained together. Players who can’t pass and receive need to work on these skills to the point those players can achieve proficiency — this is achieved through supplementary and increased frequency and duration of passing and receiving work. The onus is on the player to improve on their own.
  • Remove the fluff talk. Vapid talk in the form of “my bad” and shouting a player’s name sans directional/instructional input is useless and increases the panic in players.
  • Players who pass well, play well. Teams that pass well produce winning soccer.

Walls

August 13, 2004

An annoying rain threatened to derail my mood on the morning’s run as I made way through a tiny village in the east of Ireland called Roundwood (an Tóchar) in County Wicklow. My sister, Laura, was due to be married in the Irish countryside that day, which happened to be my birthday. Following a road known as R755 to another called R765 I found myself crossing the Vartry Reservoir and ended up somewhat lost in the meadows and narrow pathways as the sky continued to mist.

It was August and I missed a crucial part of my preseason for the upcoming college season and I knew there would be hell to pay once I got back Stateside as my position would be occupied. As I ran through the Irish countryside I saw an old man out for a walk with his dog. He was well into what looked to be his sixties or seventies and this man carried a rather large rock his arms. The dog approached me as did the man. Admittedly, I stopped for two reasons. The main reason I stopped was because I was lost.  But I was also curious as to why he was carrying this giant stone.

“Good morning, sir. Can you tell me how to get back to Togher Páirc in Roundwood?” The dog, a border collie, licked my hand and rammed his head into my legs as its tail wagged.

“It’s that way, just a few kilometers,” he said.

I looked at the rock and could tell he was struggling with its weight. “Can I carry that stone for you, sir?”

“Don’t be daft. I’m carrying it just up the road to the wall.”

“The wall?” I asked as he started walking again as I waited for clarification.

“Well, come on Finny.” The dog trotted off to catch up with his master as I looked up, squinting in the rain. “You too, son. Come along,” the man said. I jogged up to him and began walking as the dog resumed its attention-seeking routine of licking and nipping at my shoelaces.

“He’s used to herding sheep. He’ll keep you moving, the little bugger. My name’s Brian. Yours?”

“Jonathan.”

“American, are ya? Well, welcome to Éire — sorry about the weather.”

As we walked Brian adjusted the rock several times but never released his grip on the object pressed against his chest. I kept looking for this aforementioned wall, but saw nothing. As we made our way down the road we talked about the weather, as strangers are apt to do. We also talked about football, mainly his favorite team, Shelbourne Football Club. The wind picked up, turning the fields into an ocean of green with a rolling tide. I finally had to ask the question.

“So where’s the wall?” I asked as we continued walking. Brian kept walking until we reached a small clearing.

“Here,” he said. “The wall is here. I’m making the wall. Each day I bring a rock from the quarry or from my field and walk it here. It keeps me young. Keeps me fit and active. And you know, son, walls don’t build themselves. They’re just like anything else.”

“What do you mean?”

288233-old-style-stone-wall-detail-note-the-balancing-of-some-stones-providing-gaps-kinvara-ireland

“Think about football — you ain’t out here enjoying the country for no reason. You’re putting a bit a work in. I can will the wall to build itself and those stones will stay put. But each day, I add a rock. Soon, I’ll have a proper wall. And when it’s built I know I have kept to my task, you know, stayed the course. Consistency, son. That’s the difference between good and great in anything. Each little wall I built with Finny here is a little symbol that I’m out for more than a walk. I used to walk with my wife. Well, my wife’s gone now, so it’s just me and this dog here. My kids are grown and live around Dublin. So I see no reason to keep myself fit and sharpish.”

With that, he placed the rock next to a collection of carefully arranged rocks and looked off in the distance and took a deep breath. We sat down on the “wall” and talked about his favorite Irish players like Ronnie Whelan, Frank Stapleton, and Johnny Giles while he packed his briar pipe and puffed away. Off to the west, I saw St. Laurence O’Toole Church, which meant I was near where I needed to be. After finishing the pipe, he tapped it lightly on a stone and stood up. Brian shook my hand, thanked me for the company and began his walk back to where ever it was he called home with his furry companion.

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

So, what’s this all have to do with soccer? For me, it has everything to do with an individual’s journey. A true footballer, someone who loves the game for what it is, not what it could or should be in their mind, understands that every single day presents them with the opportunity to improve. For example, aside from soccer, my other passion is running. Ever since that chance meeting with Brian, I have this little routine when I go running that keeps me consistent and disciplined. I start out my run with one task — find a small rock. Once I find it, I’ll run through the trails and country roads until I reach my turnaround point.

At that point is a pile of rocks. Each time, I add one more to the collection. Simple.

Progress doesn’t just happen. At the risk of sounding cliche, I firmly believe players and coaches over-complicate the game. There is nothing profound in how someone goes from good to great. In fact, I really believe when Brian said, “Consistency, son. That’s the difference between good and great in anything,” he was right.

I can’t count how many players who start a training program I create for them and lack the willpower, energy, motivation, or spine to finish it. In fact, I’ve grown rather skeptical of those who say they want to get better but never see anything to completion. Look, I never “made it” as a player and I am certainly not an authority on what works and what does not. Whether or not players listen to their “academy” coaches or dads over me doesn’t affect me. A former player of mine was discouraged by his academy coach to get supplemental work in because it would “take away from the serious game with the academy”. I’ve got no problem with that. I refuse to charge players for my coaching because I don’t believe in making it about money.

Most of the lessons I learned…I learned them too late. Most of the chances I had, I spurned or was too busy battling back from a broken neck to fully see through. Most of the bridges I burned or were burned for me are still in a heaping pile carnage in whatever river of chaos they once extended over. That’s life. That’s soccer. Nobody cares about your failures. Why should they when they have their own to wrestle with each day? And believe me, most people have to worry about things much more important than the game.

Recently, someone asked me why I still care and play the game. It’s a great question and for a long time, I couldn’t find an answer. The real reason is in life things get taken from you. Jobs, scholarships, people, freedoms and rights, opportunities, the list goes on and on. And as someone who at 17, was told his best shot at a “normal life” was being surgically turned into a quadriplegic, every Sunday league game, kick-about with my nephews, time spent kicking a ball against a wall alone feels like the final of some cup competition. The results don’t matter nearly as much as they used to; however, the time spent doing something I love means everything.

Whatever It Takes

“You want to play on a real team? A team of real players who need real competition?”

The questions were rapid fire. I tried not to think too hard as I wiped my brow after an indoor game at a place in Palatine, Illinois called Soccer City.

“Yeah, I think so,” I said. A man with a thick, salt and peppery beard stared back at me and nodded.

“The team’s full of lads like you. Lads who need a bit more competition. You can look the part against guys your age. Try doing that against men, you’ll see how far you’ve got to go.” He handed me a card with his phone number and an address on Chicago’s west side. “Training is Monday through Friday at 11 pm. Make as many sessions as you can. We ain’t got a schedule for games yet, but you’ll be in some cash tournaments in the city and around Milwaukee. This ain’t Mickey Mouse stuff, mate. This ain’t to be publicized to your “coach” out there,” he said as he looked across the field at my club coach. “This,” he said, “is off the record.”

Geordie was a simple man. He’d come to the United States after he married an American woman, and played a bit in the doldrums of American soccer after pissing away trials at Wolves, Fulham, and Notts County. He’d recently been divorced and presumably lived in his truck. He worked in the stockyards and loved the game. He hated the politics of the American soccer system. Geordie didn’t believe in coaching licenses. He didn’t want to play the favoritism game and certainly wanted nothing to do with club scene. He wanted to coach on his terms. The task was simple. Assemble a group of promising players aged 16 and up and enter cash tournaments. Any cash won was split among the team with Geordie taking a “coaching fee”. We didn’t care. Training was free. It was a chance for the players he’d seen to get better outside of the overly-structured and watered down American soccer system.

Our first training the ragtag group of players I called teammates looked at one another with disdain. We’d all been amalgamated and were crazy enough to show up to a warehouse to train at night in a tough part of town. The team was made up of Polish, Hispanic, Italian, Bosnian, Croatian players and me. I was the youngest player at 16. This was what underground development looked and smelled like.

“You lot want to do tricks? If you do then join the fucking circus.”

Geordie was rough around the edges, but he was a truly amazing coach. He believed in team play. Direct play differed from Route One under his tutelage. Pass the ball, move, share the work. When he didn’t feel we were circulating the ball quick enough or with enough authority, he would throw us a tennis ball and make us play with that. The passes became concentrated. Players actually showed for the ball. It pissed us off. In hindsight, I think he was just seeing how we would react.

I loved his sessions. One of my favorite places to train was a warehouse on the west side of Chicago. It had turf, steel goals, and sharp objects everywhere. We’d train from 11pm to 1 or 2 am. The older guys would go off to work, home, or to the bar. I’d catch a ride home with two players who were brothers and lived near me and worked in a furniture warehouse in Addison. I’d be in bed by 3 am up by 6 am for school. Geordie could play. His calves were the size of grapefruits and he had this ability to demonstrate what he wanted from us while coaching. I could never tell if he was right footed or left footed. I did know he loved using both — usually in the tackle. He oozed passion for the game and believed in tough and rough treatment when it was necessary. He’d motivate us when we needed motivating and nurture the younger ones when it was clear we’d had enough of getting the shit kicked out of us.

The field was amazing for us. Sure, it wasn’t Wembley but it might as well have been! Shoddy turf loosely laid down in an industrial warehouse. After training we had to roll the turf up and store it to the side. The industrial-sized fans buzzed and hummed while the lights overhead flickered and droned. Geordie was most likely certifiably insane. We played a few tournaments in Milwaukee and Chicago. We played in Chicago’s Metro League, against Polish, Croatian, Mexican, and Bosnian teams.

The truth is back then I would have done whatever it took to be a better player. As good as I thought I was, I realized that I was a late-bloomer in soccer. I still had the awkward lankiness of growing six inches over a four month span. My knees hurt from an overuse injury called Osgood-Schlatter’s disease (it’s not really a disease). I wasn’t exactly timid, but I wasn’t the raving psycho that Geordie wanted me to be. The whole experience, however, affected me profoundly. I trained with Geordie for around two years. Sometimes the group of players waned and changed, but I kept going to the sessions. I was learning what being a journeyman player was all about.

The nature of the warehouse pick-up games, the brutal combativeness of the environment, the late hours and early mornings turned me into a player carved of stone. Fitness was a non-factor as I was training double or even triple what players in my age group were. And the training was nothing they could fathom doing. But, I was a late-bloomer and for every accolade I earned with my club team, I discovered another “deficiency” against seasoned players at the warehouse. These were players who used to play professionally in Eastern Europe and Central America. My ride home was with two Guatemalan brothers who fled their country and won a lottery to enter the United States through a missionary program. The progress I made was exponentially greater than anything I would have been able to accomplish had I gone the “conventional” route. What I used to think about during games became instinctual. Tackling, ball distribution, shooting, communicating in different languages, working for my teammates was par for the course. I was becoming a player.

I found myself training in my basement, getting thousands of repetitions in before school. After my first training session, I came home and slept before jogging to a local park to meet Jose and Ricardo to go to the warehouse. My parents allowed this because they knew I loved the game and weren’t going to stop me from sneaking out to play anyway. None of us had any aspirations or dared think we could play professionally. The system wasn’t cut out for players the game had or, in my case, was going to leave behind. My parents didn’t have the money to hire someone to videotape my games let alone buy our own camcorder. My high school coach was clueless and routinely benched me when colleges came to see me. He didn’t get on with my father so he took it took on me. Geordie’s training sessions were the answer.

One of the last sessions I attended, Geordie said, “You’ve got to be willing to do whatever it takes to get something out of this game. At the end of the it all — and it goes quick — you’re left with fuck all. So, at the very least, enjoy it.”

On my way to training the next day a semi-truck blew a red light and smashed into my car. I was left with a broken neck, fractured skull, broken ribs, and massive concussion, and had to beg the surgeon I wasn’t going to sever my spinal cord by struggling to move after several Valium injections to prevent me from moving so much. I spent the better part of the next year in a back and neck brace — learning to walk, dreaming of playing, overcoming nightmares where I’d wake up a quadriplegic. The reality is I missed my window well before that accident. As it came to pass, I recovered and made the decision to play in college. Gone were the scholarship offers to my top choice schools, but it didn’t matter. I was happy to play again at the Division I level.

The first chance I had, I drove to see if Geordie was still at the warehouse training players. The warehouse had been converted to a Whole Foods. Where I used to play was now home to over-priced organic food. I inquired about Geordie for a few years but never did hear about where he went off to. Ricardo and Jose still talk to me. We still go out for beers when I go back home. And they still work in a warehouse stocking furniture on industrial-sized shelving units.

On the off chance I ever get into coaching again, I’m going to do it on my terms like Geordie did (just not as insanely). I would have done whatever it took to be the player I think I would be had it not been for that car accident. But, I wouldn’t trade my experiences training “underground” under the languid and unforgiving warehouse lights with a coach as mysterious as he was crazy for anything. I played with some of the best players in an environment that lives only in our memories.

Would you do whatever it takes to be the best version of yourself? Would you do whatever it takes to be the best player you could be?  If not, ask yourself why and remember: you only get one go-round at this game.

The Culture Wars of American Soccer

If you’ve played, coached, or watched soccer at any level in the United States and Canada then you’ve seen the worst pregame warm-up activity imaginable — the shooting line. The activity itself is a microcosm of the pedestrian misappropriation of the world’s game. Youth team coaches are guilty of allowing all of the players regardless of position to partake in a party of potshots. This “warm-up” is even used by high school, college and Major League Soccer coaches.

Such an activity is important for attacking players and goalkeepers before a game. Good teams and coaches designate a time and place for the attacking players and the goalkeepers to get their reps. They also organize position-specific activities for the other players, mini-stations, possession grids, rondos, and a plethora of other functional activities to get the team ready to perform. One difference, however, between a clued-in and a clueless team is identified by the amount of standing and static stretching taking place before competition. Most likely, you’ve seen that line grow longer and longer as players miss shot after shot and subsequently chase the ball across acres of parking lots and other fields.

The enemy is not the shooting line, but rather the coaches — charlatans embodying every bad coaching cliché that should have stayed in the 1990s-era soccer movies that made a mockery of the game — who use this as a primary function for warm-up or pregame activity.

This rudderless navigation of soccer isn’t limited to pregame shenanigans. In the United States, the odds are great that players arriving early to practice will take potshots at an empty goal with shots ending up everywhere but in the goal. Admittedly, I was raised in a culture where this insanity was all too common. Between the ages of 9-14, I learned early on that the activity was not only lodged “deep in the dumb”, but it was unrealistic. At no point were any of the players exhibiting the actual movements and skill that would even allow them to get such a shooting opportunity in a game, and yet, true to form, this activity is still done with regularity. Growing up, I often found myself opting to dribble the ball around on my own before games or at practice while my teammates took shot after shot at the goal until a coach showed up. I attribute my avoidance to the playing pick-up and street soccer.

You see, in the brand of pick-up and street soccer I grew up playing there were no giant goals, at least none with nets. If you shot the ball, there was no guarantee another group of players wouldn’t stab it with a pen or pocketknife, steal it themselves, or punt it onto Interstate 280. Games often turned into literal turf wars. Losing often extended beyond the scoreline, it meant losing respect and the opportunity to play there again. Growing up in an area of cultural tension soaked in racial and nationalistic rivalries was tough, but it emblazoned many of us with a steadfast desire to be better, tougher, and more savvy players. My neighborhood buddies were of Mexican, Bolivian, Nicaraguan, Portuguese, Kenyan, Vietnamese, Korean, and Bosnian descent. A few were refugees and brought with them their soccer talent and the savagery they were exposed to in their war-torn homelands. The tense culture of the time conditioned each of us to value the ball at all costs — taking pregame potshots was out of the question.

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Away from the skirmishes on the dirt patch parks or the vacant basketball courts with chain-linked nets in the world of “organized” soccer I discovered how different the game was regarded. I wouldn’t even call the brand of organized soccer available to me remotely related to the stuff we played in the streets, courts, and parks. Positions were too rigid in the organized version of the game. Coaches were too “all knowing” but when they demonstrated how to do something, it was clear they never played the game let alone kicked a ball. I don’t fault them for their lack of tact or playing experience. Soccer in the late-1980s through the 1990s was filled with a systemic disconnect with the world in an effort to Americanize the game.

I recall playing in a game where I dribbled the ball across half field and my coach screamed, “You can’t cross to the other half! That’s for NOT your position! Get off the field!” That was the last time I played for that team. But, the root of issues such as rigid positioning, pregame potshots, and out-of-touch coaches was the shoehorning of a global, free-flowing game that demands players be as intelligent and a “different” type of athletic in the mold of the sports dominating American culture. Warm-up activities in basketball involve shooting lines. American sports tend to have overtly-stratified positions that players do NOT vacate.

Growing up in the cultural melting pot of northern California’s Bay Area and later, Chicago and its surrounding suburbs, put the juxtaposition of soccer culture with American sporting culture at great odds. Deep down, I want to believe that American sporting culture includes soccer in a capacity extending beyond a “recreational activity” reserved for suburban kids of affluence and their accompanying “soccer moms” in minivans and Lexus SUVs. Watching a youth American football (gridiron) game, it’s evident that over-control, scripting plays, and parents and coaches donning the team’s apparel is an integral part of the culture. What is acceptable in those sports bleeds over to youth soccer and the result is a growing disconnect between the [North] American player and the global player.

Spending time abroad as a youth player afforded me a unique lens with which to view the game I love. When I arrived at training early, players passed the ball, got touches on the ball, performed variations of rondos, and jogged around with a ball — all uncoached and unprompted. Once a training session commenced, it was highly-organized but was free-flowing at the same time. We played mini-games instead of full-field scrimmages, shooting-specific drills where attacking players worked against defenders took precedence over static shooting lines, dedicated technical training was taught and performed for the sake of using the skills in a game, not for “oohs” and “ahhs” of helicopter parents.

As easy as it is to sing the praises of the game is played overseas and stating how far we have to go, the point is the culture today still have far too many remnants of the ignorant soccer culture I grew up combating. The main source of solace I find is most of the people getting into coaching and the overall soccer discussion played the game themselves. The importance of the experiential cannot be understated, nor can the importance of individuals willing to learn more about the craft of coaching.

Perhaps beyond any coaching point I could make, the onus lies on the American player. The American player does not play enough soccer. There is no shortage of praise for American players who “hit the weights”. The fact of the matter is the American player still needs to be prompted to get out and play on their own. If there is a pick-up or street soccer culture, I have not seen it and believe me, I’m looking for it.

One doesn’t build a house starting with the roof. It’s time to build a soccer culture across urban and suburban lines. We can talk about new coaching curriculum all we want, but until there is a stronger and more willing playing populous to challenge and push those coaches to be better, the cycle will repeat itself as will the obsession with average.

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The Disconnect of the [North] American Game

[North] American soccer is an anomaly in the most peculiar ways. For a country that has yet to produce a single world class player, it sure expects to produce world class soccer. Why? Americans, especially those involved or invested in soccer, are guilty of coveting the result without respecting the process.

Translation: People actually think Major League Soccer will produce its own Lionel Messi.

Of course, I responded by pointing out how far off the United States is from producing players half as talented as Leo Messi on his worst day. Unsurprisingly, I caught a lot of flack for challenging that video released by Major League Soccer and disturbing the murky waters of U.S. Soccer. The mainstream soccer media protects bad players and coaches, hides major flaws in the system, and has the audacity to parade around as an ad hoc PR and marketing arm for MLS and U.S.S.F. with alarming regularity. Every now and then, a great article makes its way through the muck and the mire. The problem is, I am a product of U.S. Soccer as are many who question it.

But back to this being “guilty of coveting the result without respecting the process” line. Think about what that means. The pretenders of [North] American soccer want players with the creativity and vision of the world’s best players yet won’t acknowledge the gaps of the U.S. Soccer system. This same group defending the status quo has excuses at the ready when things go pear-shaped, but has a hard time raising the standard for player development.

If only this was a USSDA problem, the solution would be at the ready. This is a grassroots problem. On January 11, 2015 I tweeted: “The problem w/ US Soccer is it aims to enact change at the wrong end of playing spectrum. Fix grassroots game you’ll have better NT players.” After 47 Retweets and plenty of great conversation on the topic of player development I took the backseat and let people continue the dialogue.

The solutions to the issues mainly revolved around:

All of these are valid. However, I contend the issue goes further. Over-coaching and pseudo-coaching. There are entirely too many idiots at the helm of the American and Canadian game. Many live-tweeted from the NSCAA Convention and did one of two things. On the one hand, they shared valuable information and giving feedback to those who could not attend. On the other hand, many (not all and certainly not anyone I follow on Twitter) took a breakout session or a lecture from a coach at a prestigious club and coveted the result without respecting the process. On example I use is the rondo. American coaches are guilty of expecting players to do this when they can’t pass and receive the ball consistently.

The United States is not a nation of patient people (I can’t speak for my Canadian friends). It’s unfashionable and “un-American” to respect and study what other countries do with their football programs from the ground up. I admit that I believe in building from the ground up. I believe in building a strong foundation of independent clubs producing high-level players that are appropriately compensated should a player be identified and selected by a professional team. No league should control or speak for an entire federation. I don’t believe in stepping on the necks of the poor so only the wealthy and affluent can play. The players who can best serve the country are the players the country under-serves most. I don’t know what America and Canada are afraid of. The minute these two great nations want to be a great at soccer, they will be hard to stop.

Closer to home, I believe in players getting their asses off the couch and getting to a wall and learning how to pass, receive, and turn with the ball for hours and hours. So maybe, just maybe they can play at a higher level and tempo. I believe in black boots. I believe in a return to the basics and the mastering of the fundamentals. Where have the players gone who took pride in carrying the piano? How many players watch a game with a studious eye — observing the play off the ball, studying how others play their position, thinking steps ahead of what’s on the screen? Sorry, kids, but if you get all your tactical “analysis” from Twitter, FIFA video games, or your buzzword-drooling “elite” coach, you are being duped. Read every book you can find on the history, philosophies, and narratives of the game. Find a team that isn’t one of the giants of European football and decide to follow them for a year. Learn how a club really operates. Learn the difference between a true football academy and the academies here.

Since when does every kid on an Academy team “deserve” a full scholarship, a professional contract, or any shortcut in a game that owes us nothing? I don’t believe in the kitchen table coaching session when it aims to hurt others. I don’t believe the typical American player is tough enough to truly be great.

Many view an established game as real competition. Some of the best competition I had as a player was derived from hours playing informal cage soccer under the floodlights. The best competition I had was generally against myself. It was either me versus the player I used to be, or me versus the player I wanted to become. Embracing challenge is a survival skill. I love talking to players I’ve coached and am saddened when they tell me they quit the game or that “soccer is too hard”.

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Playing at a high level isn’t for everyone and requires a degree of sacrifice most are not willing to pay. I spoke to a former player who told me the only reason he quit playing was because “soccer was too hard”. I’m sure there are things going on that are valid reasons he quit, but he asked me to re-tell a story about a friend I had growing up.

The brief story about a guy I grew up playing soccer with named Danny Haywood. Danny and I went to the same elementary school in San Jose, California. Danny’s father was from Nigeria and his mother was from the U.S.. Danny lived on the other side of the tracks and came from a shattered home. I was luckier and more fortunate. Danny and I played on many teams together and both were really good for our age. We walked home from school until we came to a fork in the road. I’d walk north to a nicer neighborhood. Danny walked west, under a graffiti-soaked bridge to a rougher side of town. At school, Danny was made fun of for having an African father and a white mother. There was seldom a time where I didn’t see him crying, yelling, fighting, or playing soccer. Danny carried his books and soccer uniform in a plastic bag which, at times, he’d tie up and throw in a nearby stream to avoid being mugged. Later on, we’d retrieve the bag down stream where the garbage collected. 

Every week, my father would pick up Danny for soccer practice. One day, Danny didn’t come out when we pulled up. I went to the door. There was an eviction notice on it. He stopped coming to my school and had been reassigned to the “city” school. His father worked as a valet driver at a hotel and a dishwasher at a restaurant. His mother worked as a seamstress. They were good people with not a penny to their name. But after a few weeks of no-shows, Danny suddenly returned to practice. He refused to participate in a “shirts and skins” game because he had cigar burns, bruises, and welts on his body — the toll he paid for being a new kid in a bad neighborhood. He refused to tell us or the coach where he lived because he didn’t want anyone to come looking for him or to see the conditions he lived in. He sprinted to practice to avoid being approached by bullies and gangs. He played his ass off and continued to play soccer because it took him away from the hell he lived in. Danny was punched in the face and beaten with a belt by a farmer who caught him picking apples in his orchard. When the farmer asked Danny why he was stealing apples, Danny said it was because he was hungry. I gave him clothes and shoes to wear. My mother took him shopping for school supplies. Danny cried out of embarrassment. 

Christmas came and Danny asked for one thing. A soccer ball. We bought him a soccer ball and he played every day. He dreamed of playing for AC Milan because of George Weah. Danny’s life was hard. Sometimes young players don’t realize how hard life can really be. I sure didn’t when I was young. Danny once told me, “I never knew how hungry I was until I had to steal apples off trees.”

Take from the anecdote what you will. I believe the American and Canadian game is full of Danny’s who are too silenced, priced out, ignored, and under-served. I believe that somewhere in these great countries are players who haven’t had the creativity coached out of them, who would be happy to be role players, who don’t feel entitled to anything, and who will find a way to beat their circumstance to play the game they love.

Just don’t expect anyone up top to lend a helping hand.

Shattering the Broken Cycle

“You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Read up on what others have done.” To me, this means doing what the best footballing nations are doing at the grassroots level first, then addressing it at the National Team level. American soccer has this really nasty habit of believing itself infallible. Why does American soccer have to try and swim against the current? The conspiracy theorist in me thinks it wants to remain sub-par to ensure those in control can maintain control and in positions of power and influence. The optimist in me thinks enough is enough, let’s figure this out at the bottom and work toward a common goal at the top. One does not build a house starting with the roof. I’ve said it before and I will continue to say it until we acknowledge and act to remedy the problems of our game. 

The base level of coaching is not good enough. Good coaching courses, curriculum, and leadership are entirely too rare, and for some, too expensive. At the minimum the entry level courses should be free. When the coaching education follows the business model of soccer here, there’s bound to be issues aplenty. It becomes a money grab and a money game. Those with the time, resources, and money to pay the fees get the education. I can see paying for good curriculum at the C-Level and above. We don’t have enough good coaches trained in the methods of today’s game. The relics of the past continue to mold the future, which is a problem. Addressing the coaching problems is a big piece of the puzzle to improving the quality of the game from the bottom-up.

There is also a culture of over-coaching. Players have turned into drones. They seek a coach’s approval in every task. There is no free play component in some communities. The game is free. Coaches in the United States must think soccer is gridiron whereby every play is drawn up in a playbook and every play is coordinated by others who are NOT playing the game. There is this latent need to “control” everything. Let the kids play. Let them make their mistakes and correct them on their own when possible. The average American player has a limited ability to think their way through the game. Creativity is coached out of so many youth players. This has to stop.

The next problem is the pseudo-coaching that is prevalent in the game. As stated in the wonderful blog entry by Innovate FC: “Pseudo-Coaching looks like good coaching. Players feel like they are learning and any observer might think that they are watching a great session. The only problem is, that very little learning is taking place.”

The easy thing to do would be to look at the recent US U-20 CONCACAF Champion performances and come to the conclusion American soccer development is big trouble. Personally, it begins well below that level, where the grassroots game is chained to the radiator in the basement of the American sporting landscape. American youth soccer can be called many things, but elite is not one them. Nor can it be called functional. The system is full of fallacies and charlatans.

The crux of the problem is open access to the game. What the means is the demolition of the current American system. Right now, too many young players and families are priced out of the game in a pyramid that is not only closed, but also upside-down. In the United States, some of the best players with the most potential are systematically priced out the game before a competent coach can even begin to help them develop. This is true for boys and girls, men and women. The number of players that hang up the boots at 22 is alarming. There are simply not enough professional teams to create a healthy and robust professional culture.

There is no reward for youth coaches to develop talent other than what comes in the Win/Loss category. A cognizant youth coach knows that his or her best players will be hawked and funneled away for free. No compensation is paid to a club that churns out wave after wave of great players. On the global scene, the best coaches know when to “let go” and do their best to prepare the player for the next level. And, they usually receive a payment or support from that next level club (of course, there are no guarantees, but the point stands).

Whenever I go to Central America, South America, or Europe, I know I will see kids playing the game 24/7 on any piece of available land in un-coached settings. I know that most established club teams keep their neighborhood roots intact and players learn how to defend their turf, play within a strong community, and sooner or later, the best players leave to play at the “next level”. To some, that’s a better club with more access to the next progressive level, the professional academy. I also know that when I’m Stateside, I will see kids playing basketball 24/7, in their neighborhoods, defending their turf, in un-coached settings.

And I know that basketball’s version of what is under-serving youth soccer, The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) is not without faults itself. They may even sound familiar as revealed by Kobe Bryant. His criticisms may sound frighteningly familiar to what one might say about the current state of American and Canadian soccer development.

In Europe, fundamentals and the pedagogy involved in teaching and championing the mastery of the requisite skill sets is directly related to how soccer is taught. In his criticism of AAU, Kobe Bryant said, “I just think European players are more skillful than American players. They are just taught the game the right way at an early age. …It’s something we really have to fix. We really have to address that. We have to teach our kids to play the right way.”

Concerning AAU and its something anyone involved in youth soccer could apply to the game. “AAU basketball. Horrible, terrible, AAU basketball. It’s stupid. It doesn’t teach our kids to play the game at all, so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap, and they don’t know how to post. They don’t know the fundamentals of the game. It’s stupid.”

American soccer is full of regurgitation. The same coaches are cycled through the system. When one is fired from a Major League Soccer team, he is likely to be hired and appointed in the National Team Youth set-up. One of the most troubling facets of the national soccer scene is how good coaches are find themselves on the outside looking in. Hugo Perez is a coach I admire. He is committed to helping develop and bring great Latino players through the American system, which is essential to the progress of a nation with such a diverse population and strong Latino communities. I know that Tab Ramos and many others have put faith into bringing Latino players through, but this one example of backwards politics and odd decision-making.

Anyone who tells me that a USSDA is “free” is mistaken or doesn’t have a kid in a Development Academy. As far as I know, MLS DAs are free. And if the murmurings are true, non-MLS DAs are doing more to alleviate costs. Yes, the league fee is covered. But factor in the real costs: equipment, travel, food, the cost of missing school, the cost of parent missing work to get a player to a USSDA environment. The only thing “free” about this is a player is “free” not to participate. But I don’t aim to vilify the Development Academies. We must accept that the system is imperfect. The amount of travel each Development Academy does should increase as the players get older. Traveling thousands of miles across the country for a U12 game is costly on the players, the parents, and the club itself. The leadership from U.S.S.F., however, is where I begin to shift blame.

Every few years, U.S.S.F. keeps the wolves at bay by proffering a new plan rife with buzzwords and check-boxes that accomplish so much…on paper. When Project 2010 was proposed, I was 13 and I knew it was a bunch of fluff. The thing is, most of the radical changes aren’t radical at all. They are common sense. To start an academy at the U13/14, U15/16, and U17/18 levels is ridiculous. Anyone who has coached teenagers knows the challenges of getting players who lack the skills of teens in other countries. So, U.S.S.F. will institute a U12 level, which is still too late. The best academies in the world are working with children at the U8-11 levels meaning those players are well ahead of those emerging from US Soccer Development Academies.

Additionally, it’s impossible to play “catch-up” with other nations in terms of development. When an American player is learning how to really use their weak foot at age 14, players in academies overseas are learning how to implement the same system of play that the senior team at the club uses. At Ajax, players are not lied to. When a player is not good enough, the parents and player are included in the rigorous evaluation process so there are no surprises if/when that player is released. Here, players’ egos are inflated and pumped full of nonsense to retain that player’s (or their parents) services (and revenue stream).

The problem is not that these “Action Plans” are published, it’s that they are not properly audited with the due diligence that any good Action Plan should be. When U.S.S.F. fails a generation of players, the same people somehow keep their jobs. I made a comment recently that the people in charge of coaches’ education are the people we need to remove from positions of influence. The cycle of mediocrity continues for a few simple reasons. American soccer is full of charlatans. People whose interest in the sport is purely to make money. That’s fine, but they should not be in positions overseeing development, nor should they be in charge of making decisions about this realm of the game.

Identifying problems is the easy part and these are but a few. A remediation plan is required to ensure that the state of the American (and Canadian) game improves. Open access starts with community involvement and the blessing and support of the United States Soccer Federation. A national directive beyond the national team programs should be supported by U.S.S.F. to raise the bar for the grassroots levels. The logic here is pretty linear. If the lowest levels of a talent pool improve, the top levels will HAVE to improve lest they get passed up. By failing at the grassroots level, the American game continues to perform a masterclass in mediocrity on the international level on both the men’s and women’s sides of the game. Creating a cultural shift away from the clueless while prying soccer from the clutches of the suits whose main interests are lodged in monopolistic control of the American professional soccer market is one step. Another way is to simply demand more from the American soccer media, which does more cheerleading than it does reporting.

Solutions I see as salient and realistic are things that I try to work with in local communities on a daily basis. Free kick-arounds for kids are important. Building soccer cages in communities that are safe and accessible is another step that U.S.S.F. could help with, but why leave it up to the Federation? Write to a local community leader and committee for funds and engage people who have the power and desire to help change the game in a positive way. For every unused piece of recreational real estate, there should be a land grab for soccer-centric facilities. One thing America and Canada have over most other countries is usable space and infrastructure. Other systemic changes include eliminating pay-to-play for all academies, eliminating “league standings” before the U14 level, and shifting the paradigm away from winning and placing emphasis on learning.

In the United States, there is an obsession with coveting the result without respecting the process. Everyone wants to look like a professional player, but nobody wants to train the youth players the way future professionals are trained. A great deal of self-analysis is required and it starts with the United States Soccer Federation. The people deserve better transparency. The players deserve better coaching. The coaches deserve better education. But, unless everyone demands these improvements, the American game is resigned to its current role of “hardworking underdogs” absent a true footballing identity.

I contend that the minute both U.S.S.F. and the Canadian Soccer Association decide to open the market up and lead the way, both nations will be major powers in the game.

It’s Not About the Shoes

“It’s 15 degrees outside and it’s snowing, you know that right?”

I nod and continue fishing through my closet for cold weather gear before telling my wife I’d be back in a few hours.

“Have fun!” she says with a sarcastic tone that suggests she’s convinced herself that her husband is insane — and I probably am. You see, I play in two leagues. One is outdoor, 8v8 and the other is indoor 5-a-side with no walls. Both teams are relatively competitive in their own ways, but the whole purpose is to just play. Both leagues play on Sunday. One in the morning and one on Sunday evenings, which makes Monday morning at the office full of reminders of how the opponents in these leagues might as well take to the field with meat tenderizers.

Once at the field my teammates look at one another with that “what the hell are we doing here?” look but that quickly fades as we play. I suppose as I get older I’ve learned to appreciate the simple act of playing and having something to look forward to in the mornings each weekend. Looking at the current state of youth soccer, I wonder if this generation of players regards the sport more as a chore than a passion. This feeling was reaffirmed this past Sunday night as I waited for my indoor game while I watched two of the “elite” teams (from the same club) in the area scrimmage. What should have taken one touch took three. The speed of play went from gelatinous crawl to breakneck kick-and-run chaos, or as we call it in America, “hustle”. The overall level of play was low enough to get stuck on the bottom of one’s shoes. Players dribbled instead of passing. One parent yelled, “Great creative play, Joe!” as a player, presumably his son, attempted to dribble out of the back only to lose the ball and shanghai his goalkeeper. Another player tried the most ridiculous and pointless moves I’ve ever seen off YouTube. After the scrimmage was mercifully killed, I heard a group of U-16/17 players talking as they exited the field.

“I need like, three more pairs of Nike Magistas…” said one player. The other glanced at his feet and said, “Yeah, those are sweet. I like the Nike Elastico Superfly for practice though.”

I scoffed to myself. In my hand was a basic pair of Copa Mundials. Nothing special unless you count the kangaroo leather uppers. I thought to myself, this is what these players value. In case you haven’t noticed soccer boots are ridiculously expensive and incredibly plastic these days. The Magistas retail for $275 and the Elasticos retail for a more “reasonable” $150. The boots I use cost $90. I concede that the color spectrum is better represented in their boots, plus, I’m sure in 2015 they are a precursor to the Nikes in Back to the Future 2.

I’d venture to say most players study this more than an actual training diagram these days.

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To me, it seems that today’s player is more concerned with looking good than playing well. I recall playing in an ethnic league named after famed Italian immigrant, Umberto Abronzino in San Francisco’s South Bay when I was younger. The league itself was full of players and teams with limited resources and money. I remember opposing Hispanic teams never had sidelines full of screaming parents and when I asked a friend on one of those teams why, he told me most of the parents worked multiple shifts in factories in South San Francisco or were migrant farmers near Hollister and San Juan Bautista in San Benito County. Several years on, closer to my new home in Illinois, I played pickup games with Polish immigrant workers in an abandoned warehouse in Chicago’s “Polish Triangle” near St. John Cantius Catholic Church when I was in high school. After each session, the older guys would drink beer before putting on their steel-toe work boots and heading off to another shift in a factory. These were serious players, too.

However, this isn’t about the shoes.

Here’s what I know: if a player can’t do the simple things [near] perfectly, they won’t be successful no matter how much their footwear costs, how fashionable they think they are, or how many YouTube videos they watch of Neymar, Ronaldo, and Ibrahimovic doing insane tricks for Nike. Naturally, the simple things include passing and receiving. But that’s low-hanging fruit. Players with any sense about them who want to improve do the requisite things really well.

  • Listening to a coach and/or their peers
  • Being humble
  • Paying attention during a drill
  • Movement on the ball and off the ball (does the player stand and wait, or are they active and moving their feet)
  • Not being a “drill killer”
  • Anticipation on both sides of the play
  • Understanding when to pass, when to dribble, and when to shoot

At the top level, players are still assessed by how well they do the basics, which have to be perfected not just occasionally, but every time. Great players are seldom judged on their current abilities, but rather on their capacity to grow and learn. Professional scouts don’t care that a player can dominate in their current age group, they want to know if a player can dominate at the next level and how soon that can happen.

Here’s another thing that I know: true progress takes time and repetition. Every single great player I’ve had the honor to play with or against that was (or still is) able to earn a living playing professionally worked at their game every day. Every. Day. When they weren’t playing, they were watching, studying how others honed their craft, reading about the game, and taking care of their bodies and minds. And when it was time to really take a break, they developed the ability to make that call themselves.

But what of the rest of the playing population? You know, those who’ve already had their careers. As harsh as it sounds, the average American playing journey goes from “I can play anywhere because, well, it’s me!” to “I could have/would have/should have made it, but….<insert reason/excuse/injury/circumstance>” pretty damn quickly. Inevitably, most of us fall into category two, which is fine. That’s life and that’s the game. It owes us nothing. It pains me to say that by the age of 17 or 18, most really good American players are rapidly approaching their ceiling despite what mom and dad tells them they are “owed”. For some reason, Americans are still under the illusion that by the time a player is 21-24 they are still young in soccer terms (see first sentence). That is not young in the competitive landscape of world football (see paragraph two).

This is young. Is Martin Ødegaard a phenom? Yes. Will he be the next world star? Barring injury or a serious decline in his progress (unlikely as he’s headed to Real Madrid), he should continue to excel at the game. So what is the takeaway?

Technique

My uncle is a fly fisherman who lives in Eugene, Oregon. He doesn’t know anything about the game. But, he imparted on me some wisdom that is directly related to true soccer development. He told me that technique must be practiced to the point that it’s no longer practice, but part of the individual. To learn how to cast a fly rod, he took me to a park and placed a tennis ball at the end of a shoddy fly rod and reel and taught me to keep a cadence. The work was exhausting and frustrating. I kept dodging the incoming tennis ball because I had no technique. As weeks passed, I learned to do the little things well. As a result, I can keep the fly just above the water and catch fish instead of my line in a tree the reeds.

In soccer, I took this lesson and applied to developing my technique. Minutes must turn to hours spent trying to hone this aspect of a player’s game. Deliberate practice on one’s weakness is a tried and tested method to ensure it turns into a strength.

Half What You Practice

Another important lesson I learned from bow hunting is to practice twice what you need. In bow hunting this is simple. To best hit a target at 40 yards with consistency, I should probably learn to hit a target at 60-80 yards with consistency. That means strengthening up my technique, making tweaks to the training, and learning to focus. In soccer, this means training harder than the game. Don’t focus on what’s easy. When a coach asks that players go home and get 1,000 touches on the ball, get 10,000. Shooting at an empty goal before practice or taking potshots before a game makes you really good at shooting an open goal with no pressure. Why not work on the things that allow you to get in that position to take the shot?

In essence, when I write these entries or coach a group of players I make a few basic assumptions. I assume the players who want to get better are doing so on their own volition. I also assume that when they train on their own, they are working at their maximum level of effort and concentration. Another assumption I make is that players understand that they cannot and will not be great at anything without being dedicated, obsessed, and committed to working at their craft religiously.

The reality is I know assumptions are dangerous, but maintaining high standards is important.

Confidence Comes from Within

At the end of the day, no matter what gear a player uses or the circumstance they’re in, the players most likely to succeed are those who are consistent and persistent. The best players I’ve ever coached were the ones that were able to focus on tasks while still seeing the big picture. No amount of parental hope, helicopter treatment, and screaming will make it happen for a player. The game is played in between the white lines on the field. The kitchen table coaching sessions generally don’t help and they generally are more for the parent than the player. The best players have short term memories. Mistakes happen and they move on. They do not let negative thoughts sabotage their progress and deter their productivity. And when they do have doubts, they sure-up their mentality.

Great players have been through it all — that’s why they’re great.

The Importance of Sacrifice

After a recent men’s league game I overheard a young man (probably in the 14-16 age range) tell a buddy, “I can’t believe my parents are late to pick me up! Seriously, what the hell is wrong with just being on time?” The buddy, who was also waiting said, “Who cares? They’ll be here. Let’s go back and play until they get here!” The frustrated teen was already dedicated to his Facebook or Twitter timeline and ignored his buddy who shrugged his shoulders and meandered back onto the field to join a pick-up game. The whole episode got me thinking about a cultural shift that ought to be recognized and overcome.

The importance of sacrifice can’t be overlooked.

I can’t begin to calculate the hours I had to wait for a ride after school or practice. Part of growing up in the late-1980s and 1990s was not having a cell phone. Calling for a ride meant paying a collect call or digging around for spare change. Is waiting around fun? Nope. But like my parents then and countless parents now, most are late because they’ve made a sacrifice to allow their child to play a sport they enjoy, and the logistics of the carting young people around is difficult. My question is: do players actually match or exceed the sacrifice their coaches and parents are making on their behalf?

Good coaches invest their time, energy, effort, and knowledge to help someone else’s kid learn the game. Most are underpaid, under appreicated, and are still learning how best to help others. Parents, like coaches, often must endure the thankless task of keeping everyone happy — the boss at work, the kids at home, the random jackass who’d rather email or gossip behind one’s back than have a candid conversation. Parents often work jobs they hate to put gas in the tank, food on the table, and their players in a pair of $250 bright pink soccer boots (because a $90 pair of Copa Mundials won’t suffice?), and make a sacrifice every day for years.

boots

In my years in the game there were events that didn’t seem like decisions with any bearing at the time, but ended up playing a major part in my journey. Hindsight really is 20/20 and looking at my own experiences has revealed a lot about the relationship between this powerful sport and the person it has molded me into over the years. One of my favorites lines I tell players embarking on their own journey that ask me for advice is “The game waits for no player. It takes from us more than it gives to us.” Most players look at me with bewilderment.

“What the hell does that even mean?”

To me, it means the game gives us very little. Players must learn to take chances and make decisions to improve — and very few of those chances are easy. Furthermore, very few of those chances are forgiving. I’ve seen many players completely fall flat on their face trying to start, improve, prolong, or merely continue their “careers” in the game. I’ve seen players hang up the boots at 22 years of age to become a cog in the corporate machine because of the bleak professional options available in the United States. I’ve seen others, myself included, play the “professional” indoor soccer circuit and play for unfunded men’s teams in high-level games where all that was on the line was a paltry cash prize to pay for pizzas, beer, maybe some of the hotel costs, and of course, pride. The games doesn’t care for a player’s pity story. It doesn’t wait for one to develop their left foot, or find form and confidence. Ultimately, the game bypasses all who play it as Father Time remains undefeated.

My other favorite line is “the game owes you nothing.”

But most of us know this. Growing up in America and playing soccer, for many of us, was a sporting juxtaposition. It was the game people ridiculed, mocked, denigrated, and ignored. It was the sport that all the baseball, basketball, gym teachers, and many an idiot thought they could coach with proficiency. For me, soccer turned me into a journeyman player before I was a teenager. The lack of resources, coaching outlets, playing environments, quality instruction, and a litany of other factors forced players who wanted to play to become journeymen. As a kid I played in the Hispanic league in south San Jose, California despite not exactly “fitting in”. I also played in a league sponsored by the archdiocese and was always finding random pickup games to play.

When my family moved to Chicago’s western suburbs as I entered high school, I found that the coaching was terrible for my high school team and finding a club team was hard. The good teams cost a lot money that my parents didn’t have at the ready. I found solace playing with a good suburban team, a Latino men’s team and a Croatian team — all at the same time. I just wanted to play and realized that I had to go find places to ply my trade on my own. It was hard. I got kicked up and down the field and had the fear beaten out of me. My parents made the ultimate sacrifice and scraped up enough money to send me to Europe a few times to play for extended tenures in the Netherlands and Germany. I don’t know how much overtime they each had to pull to make that happen, but I do know my dad slipped a note in my suitcase that said, “Earn This”.

What does this come down to? Sacrifice.

The following is a comparison of good (average) and great (exceptional) player qualities and decision-making scenarios that I feel today’s player should be armed with as they continue their journey in the game.

  1. The good player attends every practice with their team. The great player makes every practice. That is, the individual literally has the ability to raise the level of play, team dynamic, and quality for the collective.
  2. The good player watches high-level matches on the weekends. The great player watches the best teams, but also watches the less-glamorous sides to get a better sense how the game is played by players who aren’t flashy, exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime players.
  3. The good player learns a few tricks and flicks. The great player masters and executes the fundamentals while understanding the difference between a complete player and an exhibitionist.
  4. The good player sleeps in on the weekends. The great player gets up before the sun rises and finds a way to train and get supplemental reps and conditioning in before starting their day.
  5. The good player expects the game to come to them. The great player demands as much from the game as the game demands from them.
  6. The good player has a team where all their soccer is played. The great player has a dedicated team, but finds ways to play in environments, on teams, and with players who make them better.
  7. The good player practices what they’re good at; the great player focuses on their weaknesses and turns them into strengths.
  8. The good player hopes they’ll get better. The great player demands more of themselves, the team, and their coach.
  9. The good player listens to their parents. The great player has the courage to realize that mom and dad don’t always know best and don’t let them fight their battles for them.
  10. The good player cares if their coach/parents saw that great play. The great player reproduces those great plays not for the recognition, but because it’s what the game requires.

The comparisons could go forever, but the point is the difference between ‘good’ and ‘great’ aren’t just fine-tuning and minor tweaks. The differences extend deep into the DNA and psychology of what makes a player view themselves as a catalyst and difference maker. Without descending down the rabbit hole of ‘what-ifs’, one can trace the separation between good (average) and great (exceptional) based on a few criteria that hinge upon actions and decisions within a player’s control. Actions like opting to train instead of playing video games, optimizing one’s diet, engaging in deliberate practice (more on that in a bit), balancing humility with confidence, actively seeking and finding new and different environments to play in, and not settling for remaining in the “comfort zone” are all examples of things an individual can control.

Some aspects of the game are out of a player’s control. Bad coaches, clueless tactics, geographic/financial/societal/familial limitations, etc. are often filtration factors that affect an individual’s progression in and out of sport. The harsh reality goes back to my earlier point that the game owes you nothing and waits for no player. Revisiting my earlier point, growing up my parents both worked corporate jobs that were pretty far from home. Resources and money were limited. This meant I had to make some uncomfortable decisions as a young player. I knew my parents did the best they could to help me and give me the opportunities, which I am forever grateful, growing up. My older siblings were away at college so I rarely had a ride to training. This meant asking around for a ride, catching a bus/train, riding my bike, even running to soccer practice (if it was close) was not out of the realm of possibilities.

I recently read a weightlifting article titled Mental Strategies for Getting Results. In any activity, deliberate practice brings forth the battle between doing what you like to do, and doing what you need to do. To apply this to soccer, I contend that players in this country are conditioned to settle for average and celebrate doing just a little bit more than is asked of them. When I first wrote my article on a development method I used that required me to get 10,000 quality touches on the ball a day, people immediately doubted me — and perhaps for good reason. It’s excessive, it’s really, really hard, and it’s time consuming and mentally and physically draining. Oh, and it’s additional work that a player must find time to do. That requires sacrifice.

“Don’t you mean 1,000 touches a day, Jon?”

“No. Ten-thousand. In one day.”

Sacrific is part of the game in every country around the world. A player from an impoverished environment makes the sacrifice to separate from the talent pool. I can’t fault a player for not experiencing real-world problems like hunger, gang violence and recruitment, war, drug use, and a lack of resources, but I do believe that greatness requires an individual to make sacrifices. Don’t believe me, ask any player who comes from an at-risk community or who had to grow up far too soon what they’d give to make it as a player — whatever that means for that individual — the answers may or may not surprise you. And that might say more about you than it does that individual — for many don’t know what they don’t know.

Defective Labels

Take a moment and consider what the word “elite” means to you. If you’re so inclined, extend the meaning and place it in the context of American soccer. For as long as I can remember, clubs, players, parents, coaches, media outlets, and fans have either laid claim to what elite is regarding American soccer and in the process, used the label of “elite” seemingly for anything and everything soccer-centric.

When one hears “elite” in American soccer, make no mistake, it’s seldom in relation to the actual level of play or individual players.

Youth clubs tack on words like: “elite”, “premier”, and “academy” to reinforce some perception that the adjectival use of such labels denotes actual soccer quality. American soccer is rife with buzzwords, after all, it’s big business. When consumers see these buzzwords, profiteers see dollar signs.

In fact, American soccer and the word “elite” go hand-in-hand quite well. American soccer, especially at the youth levels, is rooted in elitism and the labeling of otherwise average clubs, players, coaches, and leagues is the Standard Operating Procedure for anyone with skin in the game. Labels ensure competition, but not on the field (where it should be ideally).

Exploring the different definitions that fall under the umbrella of the word “elite” we find:

1. the people who have the most wealth and status in a society : the most successful or powerful group of people

Application to American soccer: This is true. American soccer caters to those with the most wealth and status in a society. Pay-to-play is an established function and given of the American game. Development Academies are “free” when it comes to actual league fees, but the cost incurred for families still ranges in the thousands for travel, food, and gear. The most successful and powerful groups generally call the shots.

2.  a person who is a member of an elite group : a successful and powerful person

Application to American soccer: Sunil Gulati, Columbia University lecturer and Special Adviser for the Kraft Group among other pursuits, fits this definition well. Another person of influence in the American game is this guy. Money is a necessary input and those with it or working with those who have it are in a position to dictate the direction of the game. Those who don’t have assets or a sustainable bankroll are not granted a place at the table.

3. The synonyms of “elite” include the following words: A-list, aristocracy, best, choice, corps d’elite, cream, crème de la crème, elect, fat, flower, illuminati, pick, pink, pride, prime, royalty, upper crust

Application to American soccer: Granted, there are some odd buzzwords in there, the fact remains that American soccer is elitist. This quick and handy rundown of elite strikingly resonates with how American soccer is run (or run amok).

In political and sociological theory, an elite is a small group of people who control a disproportionate amount of wealth or political power. In general, elite means the more capable group of people. The selected part of a group that is superior to the rest in terms of ability or qualities.

This isn’t exercise in why socialism should win out over capitalism. It’s the documentation of the long-running state of the American game and two consistant problems with it — labels and pay-to-play. And what does this have to do with American soccer? Everything. American soccer is elitist down to its core. Soccer is widely regarded as an accessible game that can be played by anyone, but it has become a sales-driven colossus of American sporting culture. When people look to establish clubs and teams (at any level) they do so to turn a profit.

Is that so bad? Is money evil? That depends on who you ask and what you believe. The world is full of “haves” and “have nots” and American soccer is but one example of how much money is a filtration contrivance that funnels those who have disposable income onward in the game whilst channeling players and families with less economic opportunities out of the game (and into other sports or activities). Actual talent rarely enters the discussion. Around the world, the best players rarely come from affluence. Most of the world’s mercurial talents grew up facing tough challenges that instilled their resolve and sense of humility. Soccer was a way to better their circumstance. If every country used pay-to-play the way it functions in the U.S., it absolutely would stifle and crush any potential for these talents to progress.

enner valenciaLike any society run on the mechanisms and principles of capitalism, people exchange their dollars for a service and they leverage their time for said dollars. So, if American soccer clubs charge so much money shouldn’t the product be outstanding? Logically, yes; however, this is American soccer we’re talking about and the product (output over time), although costly, seldom validates the input (cost over time).

The American soccer journey for players is erratic. Families must often choose between soccer and other salient expenditures. What people who’ve been through the American soccer system have encountered is a journey laden with pitfalls resembling the most complicated bid-no bid decision tree one could imagine. As a player progresses, the cost of playing increases to the point a player’s (or their family’s) financial ceiling is reached and progress is largely dependent on cost, not necessarily talent. Player progression is often halted by systemic regression and stagnation.

The result is the stratification of the American soccer talent pool. Money is a key differentiator. This same American talent pool has not changed enough over the decades. Additionally, Development Academies, which keep being lauded as “the solution” and “cure all” aren’t “free”, nor is the country well-represented with DA’s. Listed are U13/14, U15/16, U17/18 DA distributions for 2014-15:

u13-14u15-16u17-18
Source: http://academy.demosphere.com/

The Development Academies, however, are not the enemy — they just aren’t true academies in the global sense of soccer development and in relation to the foreign academies they aim to emulate. More DA’s will undoubtedly spring up, which is promising if, and only if, they address the needs of the community and actually scout, unearth, and foster rather than recklessly fast-track the talent to the next level. Additionally, starting an “academy” at the U-13/14 age level already puts players several years behind successful academies around the world.

Watching the Development Academy system take root since its inception and watching my wife’s brothers play in said system has “afforded” me a unique perspective. It’s not free for non-MLS DAs and it’s a work in progress. I’m left wondering if the Development Academy system, like the “select” soccer system before it, is confronted with the drudgery of balancing not being accessible enough (see pictures above) or not being selective enough. I’m also left wondering if “Academy” is simply a glossy label added to the list of American soccer buzzwords (yes, it is). Perhaps the entry fee for Development Academies is just as much about the size of one’s bank account as it is actual soccer talent and potential.

To date, most Development Academy teams are comprised of players from mainly suburban areas, of some degree of affluence (the financial burden is being addressed by many clubs), and is still largely producing the same type of player that emerged from great teams and clubs before the USSDA system was introduced in 2007. The majority seek out Development Academy soccer because it increases their chances of being recruited, spotted, and offered a collegiate scholarship and maybe, a professional contract. And who could fault a young player for competing for valuable scholarship and educational opportunities — especially when Major League Soccer salaries oftentimes are less than what a player armed with a great degree from a good university can earn in the corporate or professional world? Does a player with a degree earned on scholarship money see making the league minimum as a risk worth taking? Does the league, labeled “Major” pay enough to attract and retain domestic non-DP talent?

Ultimately, the onus is on the player to choose a path that accommodates their goals and demands in life. Playing professionally is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That being said, for all the money spent on training, “select” club soccer, travel, and the numerous other expenses in a player’s journey to where ever their ceiling in the game is, the struggle for many promising players remains: can I afford to make the league minimum? Granted, contract amounts vary and serious players with the ability are hungry enough (literally and figuratively) to play for anything, there are no guarantees (nor should there be).

A coworker of mine has a son in Major League Soccer who will be looking for a new team in MLS once the season ends. I asked if the player had any input on where he ends up, which he does not. This player will go where the league can find a spot for him. And, in the words of my coworker, “It’s hard to fault the players who leave to work corporate jobs or play elsewhere. For a long time, many were told MLS was the only game in town.”

That conversation is one of many we have about Major League Soccer and the state of the American game. Regarding a long-term player development project I’ve dedicated myself to, I consulted a Dutch colleague who has worked with the KNVB for many years about the American soccer development system as he sees it and a few points stuck out.

Me: Describe American youth soccer in a few words.

Jan: Complicated. The system punishes players who are good yet have little money. Rewards players who are rich.

Me: Explain why you think this.

Jan: OK. I have worked in America and in the Netherlands over 25 years. Never in my life do I see a club labeled elite in the Netherlands or in Germany when I was a professional. In America, every club is called “elite”, “select”, “premier” and this is confusing.

Me: What confuses you about these labels?

Jan: How can there be so many elite clubs? Only a few clubs are elite. Elite, to me and in football, means the best of the best in quality, not status. In America, clubs who say they are elite simply are considered elite, but don’t produce elite results or players. How come?

Me: Player development isn’t the key motivator for many clubs. Making money is. Using these labels is a way to accomplish making money.

Jan: So Americans would rather make money than make great players? My friend, this is the reverse of how football happens outside of America.

In many respects, American soccer is elite. The system is dependent on labels slathered over any club willing to lay claim to greatness via a naming convention. What my Dutch colleague pointed out wasn’t news to me, but it did highlight the convolution and misconception of what people in American soccer circles tend to do, which is label clubs, players, teams, coaches, etc. with praise-heavy terms such as “elite”.

Although it’s easy to point out the problems, it’s far more beneficial to point out the solutions. Elitism is one roadblock in the American game. More investors need to channel more capital to development levels of the game, but why invest when their is instant profit to be had? What pressure is on the United States Soccer Federation and the other entities running the game to reduce pay-to-play? After all, coaches and clubs need to make money. Coaches have a right to make a living. The problem isn’t necessarily pay-to-play, but rather it’s exorbitant pay-to-play without good enough results. If one pays thousands of dollars a year to play the game only to emerge with partial scholarship offers to a collection of schools, who is at fault?

It could be a chicken-or-egg quandary.

Truthfully, no one can fully predict the performance capacity and “potential arc” (J-curve vs. S-curve) of a player. Like any investment, the lack of Return On Investment (ROI) is the risk. The more cost is a factor for the [best] players, the less likely holistic progress can take place. Those players are lost to other sports, other activities, or are excluded far too often and far too early. Players are making decisions based on what a club can do to better their [future] circumstance. MLS and Development Academies are producing (or helping to produce) promising players who end up playing collegiate soccer. Personally, I don’t see this as a failure, but I don’t necessarily see this as success.

The larger concern is hardly that these players opt for college soccer (many are playing for the education and to their actual talent level), but how many players are phased out well before they have a chance to really excel because they literally bought into something labeled “elite” that really turned out to be average?

American soccer and the consumer at large must either see through or remove the labels — because for the foreseeable future, American soccer will continue to be a buyer beware enterprise.

American soccer isn’t elite at all. It is, however, elitist to its core.