Far Post Footy

Chaos Theory

Circus Time

We’ve all seen it…players arriving a bit early to training congregate as they tie their fluorescent-colored boots. A few fire-off a Snapchat while off in the distance near the penalty area, there’s a group of players smashing pot-shots in the direction of empty goal rarely hitting the target. The routine continues. Light-hearted conversation is followed by wild shots at that goal. Most of the balls end up somewhere off in the distance; one out of every ten shots end up in the goal.

This is how many American [youth] players approach training (or games).

Welcome to American Soccer.

I’m guilty of repeating plenty of phrases related to player development; phrases like: ‘one doesn’t build a house starting with the roof’ and ‘when we value technique the way we value effort we will have made progress’ that I say ad nauseam not for self-validation, but because I want others to understand the implications of what I’m saying.

Chaos Theory

It is my belief that American soccer continues to be governed by Chaos Theory.

Soccer people in this country are guilty of throwing shit at the wall and hoping whatever sticks will yield excellent results. Hell, we’re so sensitive in this country that in an attempt to ‘bring everyone along’ we water down hard truths and tough methods (that should themselves separate the pretenders from the serious, the strong from the weak) to ensure the lowest common denominator is better served than those we need to be pushing and encouraging more.

You know what happens when you water down really good and dare I say it, tough-as-hell methods of player development? 

The answer is you get what we’ve always had — technically deficient, tactically mediocre, and fundamentally erratic soccer. 

The copy and paste methods employed by parent-coaches, the over-labeling of club soccer, the haphazard and disjointed approach to individual and team training, the focus on the tricks and flicks over the fundamentals, the very way the Federation operates — all of this is chaos.

The above scenario is not something I’ve conjured up, nor is it a reflection of every team. It is, however, a routine that accounts for many teams. The more disturbing thing that scenario can easily be copied and pasted into the pregame routine for many American teams (Canada, I’ll let you speak for yourself on this…).

Knowledge is More Than Trivia

I am encouraged at the depth of knowledge many young players have regarding teams, tactics, skills, and football-centric trends. Most players can rattle off statistics, know what boots their favorite players wear, can rehearse the goal-scoring celebrations of their heroes, and have a near encyclopedic knowledge of every aspect of the game except for one glaring area: how to play it. 

Before you misunderstand me (I wouldn’t blame you for doing so), I’m not saying many of our young players can’t play. I’m saying many don’t know how to play the game. That is, they don’t see the connections between the tasks demanded and how those tasks translate to the bigger picture (more on this in a bit).

Players don’t know why they do something, they just do it. A player and a coach MUST see value in what they’re training or implementing to fully get the most out of that element. Players exist in a wonderfully forgiving cyclical vacuum of trial and error. The smart ones have the wherewithal to begin to put patterns (good or bad) together to form habits (good or bad). Most also fail to apply these lessons when it matters. The application phase, in my opinion, is where things begin to go haywire. 

Purposeful Coaching

Allow me to deconstruct my assertion regarding players not know how to play. This is not a fault I place wholly on players. We should at least begin where I think the disconnect begins — coaching. I believe most coaches are well-intentioned, capable individuals. Many have dedicated decades of study and hundreds of hours of practice to their craft and they have expensive licenses to show for it.

However, the level of coaching education in this country simply isn’t good, affordable, or accessible enough. This happens for many reasons, but the crux of the issue may well lie in the fact most coaches are out to win at all costs. The pay-to-play system turns players (and their parents) into customers and most coaches don’t have the time or knowledge to fully apply the principles their counterparts overseas simply don’t have to worry about as much. Winning over learning defines the game at the youngest ages.

Technique on Your Time, Tactics on Mine 

Most coaches simply don’t have enough quality at their disposal to maximize their effectiveness as an instructor. For example, youth coaches ought to be able to implement possession-based principles of play (if that’s what they consider important) with technically proficient players. You know, players capable of receiving the ball across their body, passing to the lead foot, playing composed, intelligent soccer, and who have the ability to carry out the coveted tactical deployment. The reality is the American player is technically deficient. To this end, our coaches at the U15-17 level don’t have the time to dedicate entire sessions on teaching technique or technical aspects — and let’s be honest, they shouldn’t have to dedicate copious amounts of time to the purely technical aspects. That should have been accomplished by a grassroots coach at the U8 level.

The problem is, however, that our grassroots coaches are at the mercy of a top-down approach — let’s call it a Trickle-Down Approach. Again, the problem is nothing of quality is actually trickling down, watering the seeds of the grassroots game. So few resources, knowledge, representation, and idea generation are readily accessible to the grassroots coach because much like our pay-to-play system, coaches are at the mercy of a bureaucratic system turned elitist adult education funnel. The Federation issues mandates that it may or may not enforce. Issuing edicts that affect those at the bottom the most is a lazy way to feign improvement, but hey, it ‘ticks’ the box, right?

Naturally, there are a plethora of other issues related to coaching education and pedagogical practices applied to soccer, but much like the American player, the American coach is an enigma — completely capable until that application phase. Let me try to bring this full circle.

Find the Real Purpose of Everything and Anything

Ask any player or coach you know this question in relation to anything they do from juggling a ball to using a certain formation over another: “What are you really doing this for?”

Believe me, this isn’t a deep question.

The carousel of the American game needs to be slowed down to the point people who are resistant to learning can get off the ride and those who want to improve can begin to ask themselves what their purpose is in everything they do. The problem is the U.S. is a country that’s OK with ‘not knowing’. When it comes to soccer, the default excuse for the lack of progress sounds something like: “Every other country has had soccer for 100 years, we’ve only had 20 years here…” (not true). In the corporate world, there’s a phrase people toss around that aptly describes American society: We don’t know what we don’t know. 

I am willing to bet our young players have very little idea why getting extra touches is really important. Most will revert to a task-based modus operandi that’s been drilled into them by the American educational system: “Because my coach, teacher, parents told me to…”

And that player is not wrong.

The American educational system has turned kids into Pavlovian dogs requiring a signal to trigger a response, which in-turn yields a behavior resulting in a reward. In this case, acknowledgement from a figure of authority.

The teachable moment (another cringeworthy phrase) lies in asking: “What is the real purpose of X?”

We want our players to see the connection between the tasks required (prompted or unprompted) to improve and the transfer or translation (application) of those tasks in meaningful competition. Once they can answer questions beyond: “Because I was told to…” a bit of progress is at hand because they’re answering, not just responding (note the difference).

Think of how much more focused, driven, and aware an individual can become once they find their purpose. Now imagine a team with that mindset. The same should be demanded of coaches.

See the Value in Everything and Anything

Good coaches teach good teams and players that everything should be purposeful. Chaotic soccer is not the goal. Kick-and-run, haphazard methods lacking excellence are what we have and it shows.

I’ve yet to see a good team have a scenario where the players are taking wild shots at an empty goal before training or a game. Why? It’s simple: the good players — the ones who can see the forest through the trees — they’re not interested in that stuff. They’re out there partaking in rondos, juggling to find their touch, jogging with a ball, getting their mind right, passing with a buddy, or getting some meaningful touches before real play begins.

What you don’t see players blasting the ball inanely at an empty net because there’s so little value in that exercise; plus, they’d rather score a goal when it matters.

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Exercise of the Discipline

Discipline — it’s like a muscle. At least, that’s how I want you to think about it from here on out. Discipline is both a skill and a methodology. Those who subscribe to the notion(s) of self-discipline tend to fine-tune their processes en route to reaching their goals. Let me take the discussion away from soccer to help illustrate the point.

My parents live next door to a professional pianist from South Korea named Young Park. Young is the mother of two teenagers and works as piano instructor, is a full-time faculty member at a music institute; and for the past 17 years that I’ve known her, Young has operated with a sense of constant dedication to the practice (and profession) of playing the piano.

Every day at 5 a.m., Young gently and methodically plays simple scales. This happens every morning without fail. She did this when her kids were babies; she did this before taking the hour drive to attend classes to get her doctorate degree in Music and Piano Performance; she did this before seeing her husband off to work each day. I could hear the muffled notes from my room and I noticed how the patterns were actually progressions. She didn’t start by playing classic and complicated piano pieces. The basics were the foundation.

Think about what it takes to adhere to such a lifestyle. She’s not complicating the task, nor is she arrogantly trying to play the most complex concertos. Every morning, she gently plays Adagio — slow, an indication of being “at ease”. Very rarely do her morning practice sessions remotely resemble anything considered Allegro — played at a fast, lively tempo. She operates mainly in Adante — a moderate tempo sometimes oscillating between successive scales and chord progressions.

Everything is simple and everything builds upon itself. By the time her morning session was coming to an end she would piece together amazing progressions that could convince any passerby that she just started playing at that complex moment.

I’ve admired this for years.

The trick is not that she plays at 5 a.m., but that’s part of it. The key here is Young starts her day by tapping into the very skill set she has built her life around as the remainder of the day will be split between being a mother, teaching students, working, and taking time away from her music. She masters the simple to increase her proficiency at the complex. By the time she’s performing with an orchestra, in front of a panel of professors assessing her, or instructing students — she’s put in thousands of keystrokes, chord strikes, and hundreds of chord progressions. Every. Day.

Now, how does this apply to soccer?

First off, I want to make myself clear when I say: this applies just about everything in life.

It’s like a muscle. Nobody wants to work hard; they do, however, want the result.

There’s only one way to get there — persistence training. Persistence training comes in a variety of forms, but let’s just consider every time an individual plays as training (yes, we can include games if you’d like). There’s a discipline aspect to training…a player has to decipher WHY they are training. Is it about vanity (to be ‘the best’)? Perhaps they train as an act of appeasement (‘My parents and coach will get mad if I don’t practice’ or ‘My parents told me to practice’). Are they training for the ‘love of the game’ or out of a sense of duty to themselves? I want you to note the difference between appeasement and training out of a genuine love for the game.

On the more application level it means being coachable and engaged in your own process. Listening during training is part of being disciplined. Respecting your coach and parents is being disciplined. When others talk back to their coach, teammates, or parents, do you?

It means keeping track of your grades, arriving on-time, showing up to play instead of just showing up because ‘you have to’, and it means you stop taking things (soccer is one of them) for granted.

Here’s the problem with young players, their coaches, and their parents: They have one eye on the future and no focus on the present.

Worry not, this is also a larger problem regarding the sport in this country, but let’s keep this at a controllable level.

The exercise of the discipline is about forming habits and patterns that extract the negative and hone the positive activities that help you. It means working through the tough times even when things get murky and challenges arise more frequently. Think of the way a bodybuilder, power lifter, marathoner, or sprinter trains their body. They are methodical. Their diet, their supplementation, sleep/rest patterns, water intake, caloric limits, aerobic and anaerobic thresholds measured. Set after set, day after day, workout after workout all with the attention to detail and focus on the NOW instead of the future.

For any player, regardless of skill level, this means getting touches on the ball; this means studying the game at the molecular level (watching and re-watching games for reasons other than the result); this means playing pick-up games, playing alone if that’s what it takes; this means focusing on mastering the basics before trying the complex (believe me, the complex isn’t so complex once you master the basics); this means creating time to train in the rain, heat, snow, under the street lights down the street — just play.

Discipline comes in many forms and it’s may not seem that easy to structure your life around being disciplined regarding a sport, so here’s a well-known piece of advice. If you’re able to apply consistency, honesty, discipline, objectivity, resilience, and persistence to a game like soccer — think of the type of student, employee, coach, parent, or whatever role you eventually occupy — you can be.

For young players hoping to play beyond high school, think about that statement.

If you’re dedicated to your craft on the field, the chances are you’ll be able to apply a lot of this to your studies and pursuits off it.

In closing, I implore you to think of discipline as a muscle — if you don’t work at it, that muscle (discipline) WILL atrophy.

The Art of Having a Bad Game

“You can tell a lot about a person by the size of the things that bother them.”

Every player has that game. You know, where their first touch turns into a second then a third touch only to trickle out of bounds; or worse, to the opponent who wasn’t even pressuring the ball who’s now clear through on goal. These are the games that everyone fears as they bring out the worst in everyone from the players to the parents to the coaches. So, let’s get a few things out of the way:

  1. Bad games are part of life.
  2. There are a million things a player cannot control that contribute to poor performance; players need to focus on what they can control.
  3. Improvements occur in chunks and don’t happen overnight.
  4. Progress hinges upon a player’s ability to: learn, listen, apply, take risks, persevere, analyze, and process.
  5. Bad games don’t determine playing “careers”, bad habits do.
  6. Bad games are not the same as bad results; bad games are performance-based.
  7. Be realistic, honest, and take ownership and then move on.

Let’s tackle the first concept. Bad games are part of life. For starters, consider the importance of reflection, which in this context, is a non-negotiable. Those who can’t or won’t exercise the skill of self-reflection are resistant learners, stubborn, in denial, or all of the above. Reflection can be a difficult process but it doesn’t need to be, nor does it need to be lengthy because there are usually certain tendencies or habits that result in poor performance. Reflect on those behaviors, not the negative outcomes. For example, identify poor starting position, reading of the play, or willingness to initiate contact before entering the rabbit hole of what resulted from that occurrence (a goal was scored or a game was lost).

This leads to the second concept. Some players are surrounded by teammates that simply aren’t good enough. A fact of the game is not everyone is at the same talent level. As the game evolves and a player develops, the level of play exposes the thought process and speed of thought in players, or the lack thereof. It’s painful to watch a good player make the right runs over and over again only for a teammate to keep their head down and attempt the audacious. It’s borderline tragic watching a player try to carry-out ridiculous instructions from the sideline (yes, from both the coach and the parents).

Other times, the other team has their act together and negates any and all chances for a player or team to have a positive impact on the game. Anyone who’s watched the game recognizes just how quickly things unravel. It starts with individual breakdowns and those lead to team-wide mishaps and panic. Players make poor decisions, which in turn dictate team-wide outcomes. Time and time again, good players will tell themselves or allow themselves to be told they had a bad game, which may not be the case.

However, this point is not intended to deflect blame on the coach or one’s peers. It is important to take stock of one’s actions within the context of the team’s objective. For example, a midfielder should consider their impact offensively and defensively. This is where focusing on what is within direct control is the goal. Oftentimes, a player looks at the fact their team lost or the opposition scored and attributes that to their own poor performance. One the surface it’s natural to “own” that letdown; however, many times the breakdown is that of a teammate’s failure or an opponent’s talent. Coaches and players need to be careful in this arena of processing poor performance. Deflecting blame and absolving one’s self is not a solution — it’s actually quite a damaging behavior.

Losing presents us with opportunities to be critical of performance and to identify improvement points. These improvements must be controlled (manageable and realistic) and worked on as quickly as possible after a game. Decompression periods might be a necessity, but the sooner a player or team can get back out and work on the areas they fell short in during a bad game, the sooner they can improve and move on. This concept sounds like a no-brainer, but many players and coaches avoid their mistakes and weaknesses rather than focusing on them.

Maturity is an attribute everyone has to work at consistently. Maturity comes in a variety of forms and can always be honed. For a player or a coach to truly make progress, they need to exhibit growth in their maturity. Progress is dependent on an individual’s ability to learn from: their past mistakes, new skills, good examples (watching a better player operate in the same position). It’s also necessary to learn strategies to help keep them on the right path. These same individuals must also learn to listen. Listening is different than hearing. Most people get emotional when things go wrong and the first thing that goes out of the window (after technique) is their ability to listen. Listen to other people, especially those who have more extensive experiences and who are trying to help.

Application is paramount. Applying new principles and learned material is itself a skill. Without application, individuals spin their wheels and go in circles. Application requires a degree of controlled risk taking. Taking risks is important as it demonstrates boldness and the bravery to try something knowing that failure is a possibility. The next part is analyzing performance. When a player is asked how they played and they respond with one-word answers, they aren’t analyzing — they’re retorting. Self-analysis puts events into perspective. It’s also a great opportunity for an individual to be their own critic and get to the root of the problem. This whole exercise is the act of processing one’s performance.

Watching individuals, especially players, react to poor performance is quite revealing. Most youth players have unnecessary pressure as a constant in their lives. Oftentimes, that pressure is placed there by coaches and parents, but it can be of the player’s own doing as well. The level of dejection, sadness, anger, or apathy is often a learned behavior. For really young players, this is as much chemical as it is environmental. Beat a player down enough and these negative outcomes become their reality. For example, a player can literally learn to fear the response of their coaches, peers, and parents more than the result itself.

There is always another game to play — and another opportunity to improve. Bad games do not make bad playing “careers”; however, bad habits do. Bad habits are much more detrimental than any single game. Part of learning this lesson is realizing that performance mastery is more about consistency than anything else. Those who can churn out consistent positive performances have figured something out when others have stagnated and are mired in their own misery.

Bad games are not the same as bad results. A player or coach can have an abysmal game and their team can still win. This is dangerous. Try not to pair performance with results too far in this context. Yes, a good performance usually yields good results, but on the flip side, think of all the individuals who are bailed out by a result. This is why “winning ugly” is a thing in youth soccer. If performance is valued over arbitrary results early-on, learning becomes primary and scores become secondary. Of course, winning matters — it’s why we play the game, but remember to place learning on the same level as winning.

The last part of dealing with bad performances is realization. Realize that the game has come and gone. Understand your role in your performance and truly think about it at the micro and macro level. That means processing it as functionally as possible and then making the effort to move on; don’t dwell on the negative, but recognize your negative habits and work to eradicate them. Identify areas of improvement and be mature about them. The best players and coaches often take losing and poor performance personally. That doesn’t mean they punch holes in walls, kick puppies, or lash out at others. They process the event and work towards improvement instantly by separating emotion from reality.

Bad games are part of life. Don’t fear defeat, don’t run from your weaknesses, and don’t blame others for your shortcomings. Remove emotion from the event, don’t invite negativity, blame others, or whine. Figure out what you need to do to make immediate progress, even if it means listening to others, taking a step back, shutting your mouth, taking a breath, trying a new approach, whatever it is — get it done.

Direct and to the Point

When I was ten years old, the soccer we played was defined by short passing and individual competence. After all, most of what we played was on Californian pavement with defiant weeds poking through the cracks. We played nearly every day either informally or with an organized team and from what I remember both environments necessitated players be skilled the ball, tough in the tackle, quick in transition, and somewhat ruthless in victory and defeat — at ten years old. 

It was around this age where I figured out that losing was simply unacceptable; not because of the actual result, but the feeling of losing was what we loathed. But we didn’t dwell on defeat or sulk too long — that was a sign of weakness. After the initial sting of defeat, life went on and a new obstacle taunted our youthful exuberance. Growing up with Spanish heritage on my mother’s side and Irish roots on my father’s among friends of Mexican, Nicaraguan, Kenyan, Portuguese, and Bolivian descent in the United States wasn’t the typical American upbringing in the sporting sense. Culturally, that kind of amazing diversity is wholly American. The melding of culture, language (more specifically, dialect), socio-economics, and sport instilled in us a fiery approach to life. I didn’t grow up poor, but if we had any spare money my parents made sure it went to my three sisters and me. Their sense of profund selflessness borne out a dutiful motivation to ensure times weren’t as tough on their kids. Most of my buddies were the sons of at least one migrant worker or of single mothers and fathers. Those with still-married parents wouldn’t have known as much as the economic state of the pre-Dot-com boom of Silicon Valley forced middle class families to work more hours as inflation wrapped its gnarled hands around the state, and in essence, likely caused many spouses to “live divorced”. 

But the soccer we played was not the soccer Americans were (or are) supposed to play. We didn’t have orange slices and Capri Suns. There were no chants of “Two-Four-Six-Eight, who do we appreciate?” after games. Instead one of Paulito’s or Gio’s older brothers made sure to tell us, “You see those guys? They think you’re illegals. They’re gonna laugh at you because some of your moms are maids in their houses.” 

And they weren’t wrong. 

Back then, in South San Jose, neighborhoods were divisive. Invisible battle lines were drawn well before any of us were born. It wasn’t odd. It still doesn’t seem odd but then again I realize my upbringing wasn’t the conventional ‘soccer upbringing’ that decades of suburbanization, sport-centric coddling, and ‘wholesome’ portrayals rife with a sort of Frankenstein-esque mutilation of the world’s game with rainbow-colored Mylar sutures, carved on plasticized smiles, and an “it’s how you play the game” attitude gelatinous ooze coursing through its body. 

Growing up, every time I saw a movie with a shiny, almost fake soccer ball with black and white hexagons being kicked around a lush grass field while a token character with “COACH” embroidered on the hat complete with a whistle and clipboard — I cringed. Every movie placing a golden retriever as the Number 10 or a boy posing as a girl and subsequently dominating the field mocked the game we played

By and by, as the years passed I learned to find the pockets of the real American game where ever I lived. In San Jose it was on the streets and drought-ridden fields. In Sunnyvale and Palo Alto it was at parks where as a boy I played with men who wanted nothing more than to win just so they could be winners at something before going back to working their labor jobs. At least victory on Sunday meant they’d be winners — if only for a week. 

In Chicago’s western suburbs where my family moved in 1997, the game I grew up playing existed in indoor facilities with metal detectors at the entrances, at CLASA (Chicago Latin American Soccer Association) or Polish, Croatian, or Serbian  league games — a rite of passage earned only after shamelessly showing up and proving I could hang or, showing them up in beer league tournament games and being “recruited” to guest play for them. The game I played was split between the elite youth clubs that were too expensive for both myself and my younger sister to attend and the underground warehouse sessions in Chicago I heard about through “a friend of a friend who knew a guy”. I willingly sought out these chances to play so my sister could be the one to play high-level (expensive) club ball knowing that the options for good girls soccer was (and still might be) limited. Hell, I enjoyed being a journeyman at 14 and 15 years old. 

I think that’s when I fully realized something was “off” regarding the soccer I played and the soccer that was presented to us. My teammates and opponents in club soccer were equally-talented and ruthless in their pursuit of progress and opportunities and yet, the malaise of the American soccer narrative was one of passiveness. Sure, the professional game was and is still worlds away from the organic soccer-infused cultures the world calls normal. And yes, many of us who grew up playing the grittier form of the game felt orphaned as more plasticized and maligned versions of soccer were paraded out on television like some sort of sporting minstrel show where again, a golden retriever now takes on the role of a talismanic Number 9 and scores all the goals. 

Then came Europe. Dallas Cup represented the chance to play against elite competition. It was also about watching the elite teams from Europe and South America play a quicker, smarter, harder version of the game than it was anything else. So, it came as no surprise when my team defeated two local powerhouses Solar and Dallas Texans with relative ease as most of my team was of a more ruthless breed. We had been amalgamated and deployed to destroy the confidence of the sons of ‘soccer moms’. And we did so willingly. What did come as a surprise was an invitation to travel to Europe with a Dallas-based team to train and play for an indefinite length of time. The only thing I feared when the coach approached my parents was their having to tell him and me that we simply could not afford it. 

We couldn’t afford it. But my dad picked up a second job at a sporting goods store making his total work day upwards of 16 hours a day. My mother made sacrifices and worked overtime, too. In Europe, I met my “teammates” all of whom treated me with contempt. I didn’t mind, I was there to play. Over the next months I stayed and played in Holland while making trips with my local team to Germany, Sweden, Finland, France, England, and Denmark where I experienced the game unleashed. Not once did I see a symbolically sad soccer ball with black and white hexagons. I rarely saw lush fields as most of the soccer was in cages, on cinder fields, or courts with the grass being saved for weekend matches. 

Sleeping in airports, taking mutiple ferries across the North Sea until I was seasick just to play in a few tournaments, learning how to actually condition a pair of kangaroo leather boots, setting multiple timers to keep from missing train stops, buying international calling cards in bulk, clutching cash, a few photos of my parents and Siberian Husky back home, and my passport, close at all times — all to experience world soccer was less foreign than it sounds. In fact, it was a slight return to the grittiness that accompanied the game I played as a child. 

But eventually, all adventures come to an end and windows of opportunity slam shut. Through the years I excelled at the joke that was high school soccer and played collegiately as college soccer was the pinnacle for my generation. Hell, if you do the math it is plausible that scholarship athletes made more than rookies in Major League Soccer back then. 

I still feel the same way about soccer now as I did way back when. The soccer presented to us is not the soccer we played. The narrative still favors those who speak to experiences of privilege that have become synonymous with youth soccer — flashy uniforms, colorful shoes, pizza parties, parents who know the politics of team selection and coach swaying, and kids being dropped off en masse in minivans. We are told the American player has arrived while ignoring the history of hundreds of journeymen who played and paved the way professionally before it was glamorous to attempt to earn a paycheck to kick a ball while being American. Sure, things may be getting better but that doesn’t mean they’re good enough for those who, oddly and fondly enough, share more of kindred upbringing with our basketball, football, and baseball players than we ever can with those play the same sport we did. 

I am 10 years old and we have played the first half against a team of older boys from Alum Rock in the fiery competition of the Bay Area’s Umberto Abronzino Peninsula league of the early 1990’s. To my right is Michael, whose right eye is swelling shut; I’m picking the bits of dirt out of my reopened kneecap scabs, Ernie is arguing with his brother, and Danny is swigging water like a boxer spitting it out while locking eyes with their players, itching to hurt someone — and yes, we know he’s posturing, but they don’t.

We are up three goals to zero and we’ll score more and we’ll win the game, but it doesn’t matter because we have to win and they have to lose. You see the difference and the connection, right?  Yeah, it sounds crazy and even at ten years old, I know it is, but for us, a ragtag collection of players baked in the Northern Californian sun — soccer is more than a game.

Athlete [Re]defined

Athlete [Re]defined

By: Jon Townsend @jon_townsend3

“If only our best athletes played soccer…”

When I see or hear this phrase my skin crawls. Why? Because these are the words of someone who “has it all figured out” regarding the American game. I’ve promised myself time and time again that I wouldn’t entertain this topic, but the argument has wormed its way onto my radar, again. Before we get going, this is all based on what I believe to be true.

A friend recently contacted me to ask my opinion on fitness in youth soccer. His grandson (aged (U-15/16) plays what is considered “academy” soccer and was tasked with being responsible for his fitness (on his own time) so the coach could focus more on technique-based and tactical instruction at training. The coach, a former high-level player himself, asked that players do the bulk of their fitness, which included running and strength training on their own time. I see nothing wrong with this as someone who coaches, works a full-time job, and whose time is a fleeting commodity, I can empathize. However, the conversation picked up steam when my friend informed me that parents were taking issue with this coach’s request.

Some parents felt it was the coach’s responsibility to ensure the players’ fitness levels were adequate. In [youth] soccer, it’s pretty difficult to accomplish all the tasks we’d like to in a given season, let alone with single training sessions. I realize the times have changed and parents see themselves as customers, and in their world — the customer is never wrong. To me, every player at the aforementioned age, skill and commitment level, has a responsibility to look out for their own fitness, diet, sleep/rest patterns, off field decision-making, observation and study of the game, and supplemental technical work — on their own time.

Quite frankly, the fitness needs of a higher-level U-15/16 player aren’t off-the-charts staggering and can be maintained and improved upon with a steady program of supplemental running and soccer. Yes, it takes effort and diligence. Yes, players will fail in this area and yes, those players deserve to be benched when their talent pool and/or opposition outworks them. Running 8-10Km five days a week with varying implementations isn’t difficult. The lazy will find excuses. The diligent will log miles.

The conversation was less about soccer and more about athletic application and output. Simple stuff, or so I thought. Later that night, someone cruelly tagged me in a Twitter thread with someone whose assertion was the “best athletes” do not play soccer and therefore, the U.S. will continue to stagnate and under-perform on the world’s stage. I thought about the fitness discussion. Then, I pondered why people gravitate to the ‘best athlete myth’ (yes, it’s a myth to me) regarding soccer.

Before we delve into that abyss of insanity I want you to ask yourself a simple question: What does the best athlete look like? Think about it. Form a mental picture of that supreme athletic specimen in your mind. Take a mental screenshot.

OK, brace yourself for this is about to get weird.

What if, for argument’s sake, our best athlete’s are the soccer players?

In this context, “best” would mean most well-rounded.

I implore you to pump the brakes if your heart rate is increasing and your brain is firing on all cylinders with counterarguments (see below); take a breath.

hate through you

We could post pictures of the ‘best’ athletes in basketball, American football, baseball, track and field, ice hockey, etc. and they would no doubt be impressive — massive and toned physiques, their VO2 Max capacities of varying yet impressive output, their fast-twitch muscle fibers waiting to fire, their muscle striations highlighted by excellent airbrushing — and I can still confidently make the assertion that I feel the best athletes are the soccer players.

Let’s revisit the question: What makes this perceived ‘best athlete’, the one who doesn’t play soccer, a superior athlete to a high-level soccer player? Their 40-yard dash time, vertical jump capabilities? Is it their bench press, squat, and dead lift totals? What is it?

Look, watching a wide receiver running routes and shaking defenders at breakneck speeds is amazing. A basketball player’s ability to leap from the free throw line to dunk is astonishing. Watching a sprinter set the track ablaze is nothing short of captivating. And guess what — in a sport like soccer much of this does not translate as much people would lead us to believe it translates.

But let’s continue…what if these athletes chose soccer over these other sports when they were younger?

Great question! Ready for the answer? These would not look or function like the archetypal athlete (the one you saved the image of in your head) looks and functions like. (Yes, that one — with the bulging muscles capable of running through a brick wall.) Consider this: if a would-be wide receiver decided to play soccer early on — those routes he runs would look a lot different and would likely be less impressive, maybe even less explosive and dynamic.

If a basketball player standing six-feet, ten-inches tall decided to abandon a career in hoops and take up soccer, I have no doubt he would win most of the headers blasted his way — but I’m not quite sure how his size 19 feet would handle the footwork processes necessary to succeed in high level soccer, which is a game whose evolution puts more focus on speed, footwork, coordination and balance, and the ability to play more than one position and one more never-talked-element: Intelligence.

I’m not suggesting players with big feet aren’t capable of being great soccer players and aren’t intelligent. I am suggesting that the Eden Hazard’s, Leo Messi’s, and Philippe Coutinho‘s of the world would make mincemeat of the oafish super athletes America idealizes and fawns over to play soccer. (Before you say it, Peter Crouch is not the athletic specimen we aspire to base such arguments on.)

Speaking of specialized positions, we already produce fantastic goalkeepers — perhaps due to the multi-sport upbringing of American athletes, or maybe because that position is less about creativity and more about reacting — that debate is open, yet not as pertinent to me.

photo credit, ESPNFC
photo credit, ESPNFC

Modern soccer is a skill game. Power, fitness, balance, and strength are all necessities. This is a ‘Sweat Equity’ argument at its core, which again, doesn’t account for intelligence, creativity, decision-making and problem-solving in an unscripted sport (one without timeouts and a playbook).

And, that brutish “super” athlete might have one or two of those attributes, but would it translate well to soccer? Perhaps, but let’s not forget that American soccer players excel in those purely athletic-based categories. Marvell Wynne is arguably one of the best pure athletes to play professional soccer. But he isn’t playing in the world’s top leagues. He’s not even in the current National Team setup. And that’s not to insult him, it’s to prove a simple point.

His speed and power is nothing short of impressive with times like this: 100 Meters = 10.39 Seconds and projected times of 200 Meters = 21.87 Seconds 400 Meters = 48.10 Seconds. Believe me, for every Marvell Wynne we have, the world has a Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Franck Ribery, et al., and they’re likely faster with the ball over distance than most people think.

If soccer was purely about linear speed, the ability to smash through other bodies, and overpower the opposition in short, scripted incremental plays like American football and basketball — the original argument might hold more validity. The reality begs the question: how does an athlete like that thrive in a sport requiring a player to run at maximum velocity forwards, backwards, side-to-side — for 90 minutes?

Ready for some science-y stuff?

Note: the Methods and Conclusion are more important than the formula — the actual case study is linked.

Methods: Nineteen male elite junior soccer players, age 18.1 +/- 0.8 yr, randomly assigned to the training group (N = 9) and the control group (N = 10) participated in the study. The specific aerobic training consisted of interval training, four times 4 min at 90-95% of maximal heart rate, with a 3-min jog in between; twice per week for 8 wk. Players were monitored by video and heart rate monitors during two matches, one before and one after training.

Results: In the training group: a) maximal oxygen uptake ( O2max) increased from 58.1 +/- 4.5 mL[middle dot]kg-1[middle dot]min-1 to 64.3 +/- 3.9 mL[middle dot]kg-1[middle dot]min-1 (P < 0.01); b) lactate threshold improved from 47.8 +/- 5.3 mL[middle dot]kg-1[middle dot]min-1 to 55.4 +/- 4.1 mL[middle dot]kg-1[middle dot]min-1 (P < 0.01); c) running economy was also improved by 6.7% (P < 0.05); d) distance covered during a match increased by 20% in the training group (P < 0.01); e) number of sprints increased by 100% (P < 0.01); f) number of involvements with the ball increased by 24% (P < 0.05); g) the average work intensity during a soccer match, measured as percent of maximal heart rate, was enhanced from 82.7 +/- 3.4% to 85.6 +/- 3.1% (P < 0.05); and h) no changes were found in maximal vertical jumping height, strength, speed, kicking velocity, kicking precision, or quality of passes after the training period. The control group showed no changes in any of the tested parameters.

Conclusion: Enhanced aerobic endurance in soccer players improved soccer performance by increasing the distance covered, enhancing work intensity, and increasing the number of sprints and involvements with the ball during a match.

Meaning what?

Soccer players are forced perform in sustained periods of oxygen debt as a given in the sport (recall ‘Sweat Equity’). Timeouts are a luxury that allow more recovery for the vaunted “best” athletes in American football and to a lesser degree, in basketball, which is more aerobic. I contend that many people who subscribe to “if the best American athletes played soccer” belief haven’t played the game at a high level — NCAA Division I or top NAIA programs being the bare minimum level here (in my opinion).

Admittedly, as a former Division I soccer player myself, those levels aren’t that high in the global context. But if these know-it-alls had played at least at the highest collegiate level they might know that the body control required in soccer is unlike many other sports. Collisions are not the objective and the absence of skill, intelligence, and creativity on and off the ball renders a player quite useless in high level, meaningful competition — these are also attributes that are coached out of players in this country all too often and all too early.

You’re probably still unconvinced at what I’ve presented, so I’ll play along with the “best athlete” argument.

Think about the time in years it takes for these supreme athletes to reach peak conditioning? Many are in their early-to-mid 20’s by the time they’re considered athletic specimens. Most get their first taste of the professional game when they’re 22-years old provided they attended a university, right? (Yes, I know Lebron James skipped college ball).

In soccer, the world’s best are playing in professional settings at 18-years of age (or before). Furthermore, think about the raw time in the gym, on the track, and in the cafeteria these athletes must spend to become the “best” athlete — that’s time they’re not spending on technique, tactical training, and skill work and is what the world’s game thrives on.

The total time for peak athletic conditioning to be reached alone immediately places the super athlete at a severe and unrecoverable disadvantage in categories like tactical competence, [professional] match experience, and technical ability to name a few.

 

In reality, this is less about physiques, fast twitch muscle fibers, 40-yard dash times, and bench press maxes than people think. What this argument papers over can be summed up in two words: open access. For example, I grew up in a questionable part of San Jose, California well before the dot-com boom. The crime rate was high in areas close to our house and I found myself playing street soccer with Vietnamese, Korean, Mexican, Bolivian, Portuguese, and Guatemalan kids because that was the game we had access to.

But across the U.S., the game played in most of the impoverished cities and communities isn’t soccer. It’s baseball, basketball, and American football. And that’s beautiful. What’s not beautiful is the fact that the supposed leaders of American soccer, including the United States Soccer Federation, aren’t present in the inner cities or rural towns to the degree required to make a significant change.

You know who is? That’s right, American football, baseball, and basketball programs, top universities with dedicated scouting networks, organizations, and associations are scouring these areas unearthing talents, putting on clinics, and targeting the most promising players early and often. U.S. Soccer says it has a “Diversity Committee”, but it’s not reaching the kids who become “the best athletes” partly because soccer is largely an elitist sport.

This, combined with the fact most kids who do play don’t dream of playing in Major League Soccer when they grow up — even in suburban communities is a recipe for apathy and mediocrity. Instead, American soccer players dream of playing in Europe. The combination of a lack of real presence in all communities (that I’m sure would love access to good coaching, equipment, and environments to play) by those claiming to ‘grow the game’  paint a different picture of the state of American soccer’s niche culture.

If we disagree on everything else, let’s at least try to agree that there is no singular, authoritative definition of ‘the best athlete’.

Soccer is, in many ways, a sporting version of chess. It requires athleticism to a degree that would place many of the perceived ‘best’ athletes in cardiac arrest within minutes. Soccer places stress on the muscles that continue to make me, a lifelong soccer player, scoff at Major League Baseball players who pull up lame after running 90-feet rounding second base.

What people seem to misunderstand is soccer requires a player to be creative individually and cooperative collectively for lengths of time that differ greatly from the main “American sports”. There are no playbooks, no TV timeouts, or offensive and defensive coordinators on the sidelines dictating and thinking for the players.

Note: I’m not suggesting that soccer players could step on the field in the NFL, MLB, or on the court in the NBA. Furthermore, I’m not suggesting that a soccer player wouldn’t tear ligaments in their arm trying to throw the ball with the velocity and control of a professional baseball player.

The argument matters because it’s based in ignorance. The haphazard and broad-brushing of the original assertion is typical of American sports culture. What is still lacking is a true soccer culture spread across the nation. The hotbeds and pockets of support for the sport in the U.S. are amazing and for them, I’ve said nothing they don’t already know. As long as soccer is seen as a ‘kids’ sport, or something akin to an activity every kid plays once in their life before moving on to the ‘real sports’, we’ll continue to hear a degree of ignorance laying claim to the solution for American soccer.

Even more to the point is the connection between sports like basketball, baseball, and American football to soccer abroad. In reality, we aren’t that far off from solving the real riddle here. The systemic and root problems are similar. For example, in a Brazilian favela, a player will dedicate their life to escape a harsh environment using futebol as a tool.

This isn’t dissimilar to what happens in the U.S. with athletes using the aforementioned sports as a way to better their circumstance. The United States hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface of this aspect in soccer — it is, however, a socioeconomic and open access matter. In linear form: Less exorbitant pay-to-play + more affordable coaching education = more open access

The point is this piece is unlikely to sway the most ardent defender of the archaic and insane assertions that we need better athletes playing soccer.

We don’t need better athletes.

We need better soccer players.

photo credit, Buzzfeed.com
photo credit, Buzzfeed.com

TL;DR version: The issue is not one of pure athletic performance, but rather one centered on creating intelligent players (Soccer IQ) who can maximize the opportunities, infrastructure, sporting advantages available in the United States along with creating better coaching education. Anyone who argues differently doesn’t understand soccer in the appropriate global context and is broad-brushing the argument with revisionist tactics.

Thanks for reading.

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.

street-soccer

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.

picture_6-scaled1000

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.

A Messi Comparison

A Messi Comparison
By: Jon Townsend

Major League Soccer’s official website recently put together a short mash-up video asking the question, “When will MLS produce its own Messi?” The video itself, more paid promotional collateral soaked in corporate initiative-driven opinion than honest exploration, reiterated the common reasons and myths regarding the perpetual absence of an American player of world class caliber. While the Development Academy system is a necessary step to advance the game stateside, it is but one route to the upper echelon of the American game, and it was instituted more than a decade after MLS kicked off in 1996. The good part is MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation have both finally succumbed to the fact that one doesn’t build a house starting with the roof. The not-so-good part is the U.S. Soccer Development Academy “demosphere” shows how many states and areas do not have “academy” teams. For players in these areas with no Development Academy their choices are: move to area with an academy, stay the course and hope to be discovered, or fizzle out like so many promising young talents scattered across the nation like sticks in the wind have before.

But what made this question bold beyond belief, bold bordering arrogance, was the assumption that leagues produce players. Leagues do not produce players, clubs and coaches produce players. Long before a player takes the pitch at the professional level, bright boots and pressed kit and all, credit is owed where it’s rightly due. Much like teachers, youth coaches are in the business of being overworked, underpaid, and undermined. Subsequently, they are also in the business of planting seeds; they’ll never have the opportunity to reap the fruits of their labor.

Soccer is no different. The game we see on television is the latest iteration of a million steps a player took along their developmental journey. So, who really produces players? At a recent joint UEFA/FIFA conference assessing and reviewing the technical analysis of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Joachim Low discussed the role of the modern coach. “Because of his expertise and philosophy, a coach needs to communicate with the players. I’ve learnt that over the years. The players today want explanations and arguments, they understand when they are criticized and a coach needs to explain why. In that sense, psychological and communication skills are important for a coach.”

Low’s words echo what most already know. Players need justification. Parents need validation. How this information is disseminated is critical to its absorption. The World Cup-winning coach went on to say, “Youth coaches create world champions,” crediting the significant role of German football’s14-year rise to pinnacle of world football culminating in a World Cup victory, to youth coaches who bought into the overhaul and revamp of the German youth development model.

The German Football Association’s power is derived from the grassroots, youth, and provincial academy coaches cohesively reevaluating what’s important regarding the progression of Germany’s, not just the Bundesliga’s, football. To assume a single entity, closed league like MLS can produce a single “world class” player in a country with the resources, cultural hotbeds, infrastructure, and knowhow of the United States suggests that any and all progress to such elevated status of a Lionel Messi is misguided. Most, if not all of the best players in Major League Soccer were developed elsewhere with the exception of a DeAndre Yedlin, who’s on his way to Tottenham Hotspur. From the best collegiate products (which yielded some of the league’s best American players to date) to the exorbitantly-paid Designated Players and foreign imports, Major League Soccer has and will continue to benefit from the external development of its players.

Given the nefariousness of a term like “world class”, it’s entirely plausible that the subjective nature of such a term shrouds it in ambiguity. Lionel Messi was introduced to the game with local club Grandoli FC, a club managed by parents in a rough and tumble working-class neighborhood that provides training and league games for local children. From his neighborhood club, Messi progressed to the youth academy at Newell’s Old Boys. Without delving into what makes Messi a phenomenal player, it’s clear that even as an exceptional talent his route to greatness required him to leave home to be groomed and developed in Barcelona at La Masia. His brilliance was not developed by La Liga. It was developed by the Barca’s methodologies closely tied with those at Ajax. The multilayered and multilateral coaching practices and rigorous attention to detail regarding his performance capabilities occurred for years within a club system, not a league.

Regarding player retention, Major League Soccer continues to see its best young players go abroad to development academies and teams in Europe. But the original question, although painted with a broad brush is good as such an inquiry brings salient questions to the forefront. Are MLS Academies competitive enough against regional opposition? In terms of recent MLS academy performances against Liga MX academy sides at a U15 tournament, the results weren’t favorable for MLS, whose sides ended up with a 0-7-1 record. Notable results were Club Atlas thumping Toronto 10-1, Pachuca beating Houston 2-0, Chivas de Guadalajara beating Chicago Fire 3-2, and Morelia drawing 1-1 with FC Dallas. While it’s not entirely prudent to assess the holistic state of MLS Academies from these results, it does help answer the true root of the original question. “When will MLS produce its own Lionel Messi?”

The answer is whenever Major League Soccer and its misleading marketing machine decides it has produced its own Lionel Messi because the reality is that Lionel Messi will not resemble the Lionel Messi. What standard will MLS with the help of MLS Digital Properties and Soccer United Marketing (SUM), the marketing arm of Major League Soccer, set for “its own Messi”? Will the “MLS Messi” be made to stay in the league for the duration of his career? Will he be allowed to have a say in what club, err, franchise he’s allowed to play for? Must this “MLS Messi” be to MLS what David Beckham was to adidas, Pepsi, and Italian underwear modeling initiatives? Will this “MLS Messi” be American? And ultimately, will this “MLS Messi” be anywhere near the standard quality required in the world’s top leagues if MLS is not one of those top leagues itself?

Framed this way, one can peel back the motivations of the original quandary. Does MLS ask such a question on behalf of the betterment of its brand? After all, in a closed league that controls each franchise rather than allowing club autonomy and governance, it’s clear business strategy and brand visibility trumps all else. With the league’s continued expansion how will true footballing growth, the product on the pitch, be measured? Attendance figures, disproportional salary metrics, an amalgamating league-wide logo rebrand, and a flurry of questions revolving around the ambiguous and ever-frustrating amorphous MLS Rules and Regulations standards have given rise to another question.

Has the U.S. Soccer Federation wedded the sport’s success to one league? It’s evident the success of national teams is partly dependent on the strength of its top flight league (unlike MLS, most of those leagues compete in a system whereby poor performance over the span of a season can result in relegation). The other dependency of a national side’s success is where and at what level its core players ply their trade. As the sport in the United States continues to increase in popularity, it’s also clear much of this popularity is derived largely from foreign players, national teams, clubs, and leagues. Whilst fans in the U.S. tend to watch MLS, many prefer to watch foreign leagues over MLS on the regular. American audiences still tune into European league coverage much more than they do MLS games. Future projections of increased television revenues and fund distribution and exposure for MLS are unlikely to pry fans away from top global leagues at the weekend. That conversion occurs when the level on the pitch in MLS trumps that in the world’s top leagues, which is unlikely to happen as long as the development of American players oscillates between “good enough” for MLS to “surplus to requirements” in European sides.

The best players in the world have mastered the basics. In the United States, generation after generation is applauded for trying the basics. The mentality of the American player isn’t yet at the level of resilience of players growing up abroad. The production of players starts with a simple observation: those who have to be forced off the pitch after training and those who can’t wait for the whistle to signal the end of training. In any sport, when players view their own success and progress as a means for survival, the result is players who enter the professional game equipped with a mentality that’s rare in the American soccer player.

A prime example of this mentally can be traced to Brek Shea’s interview published in Sports Illustrated earlier this month. Shea, an MLS product himself and an MLS MVP finalist in 2011 transferred from FC Dallas to Stoke City in January of 2013. His list of complaints to soccer in England included the grey weather, the seriousness of the game, the fact that soccer is more “like a 9 to 5 job”, the camaraderie he fondly missed in MLS along with the weekly team barbeques to name a few “issues” a player in the national team set-up and an MLS product cited. When Shea frames life in MLS as more relaxed to that at a club like Stoke City, it speaks of the cultural differences and vast gulf in mentality between MLS and a club like Stoke City let alone a club like FC Barcelona. While Shea’s apathy for the challenges life as a professional player in England doesn’t represent all Americans playing abroad, it is a troubling mentality for a player who’s paid to kick a ball.

While the “what if the best athletes played soccer” fable is unlikely to die off (it really needs to), the United States is unique in the sense that its athletes have an abundance of estuaries that other countries simply don’t have regarding sporting options. Firstly, in the American sporting sense, there’s a difference between a pure athlete with raw physical tools and abilities and a proficient soccer player. The demands of soccer lean on skill-sets and attributes that aren’t transferable from most American sports.

The “best athlete” argument is stale, so the real question is lodged in is soccer losing these athletes to other sports? In all likelihood, yes, but the remaining talent pool is arguably the biggest youth participation sport in the country. According to the U.S. Youth Soccer Organization, as of 2012 the US Youth Soccer Annual Registration of Players was 3,023,633 with a near equal gender breakdown of boys to girls aged 5-19. A report published by the Wall Street Journal in January 2014 with source metrics from the SFIA/Physical Activity Council and Participation Topline Report found that approximately 6.2 million kids played organized soccer aged 6-18. League estimates for players aged 13-20 put estimations of player participation in the tens of thousands, so even with the vast inlets to other sports, the pool of soccer players is large enough to yield better players. Factor in the non-registered numbers and unreported figures and the number of participants in the sport swells dramatically. So, the issue isn’t a lack of participants, overabundance of sporting choices, or lack of genetic attributes regarding the prototypical U.S. soccer player, so what excuse remains?

One of the most popular reasons proffered by Major League Soccer officials, employees, and fans is the fact the league isn’t even 20-years old yet. Has Major League Soccer increased the exposure of the game in the United States? Yes. Is Major League Soccer the reason soccer is popular in the United States? No. The game has survived and even thrived in various stages and facets since late-19th century immigration influxes solidified the United States as cultural melting pot. The ebb and flow of the game’s popularity will continue to fluctuate regardless of any success at a World Cup or in MLS. The country simply has so many sporting outlets and the juggernaut of the NFL that out-competing advertising and television-friendly sports with stoppages and high scores is damn near impossible. That being said, the sustainability of Major League Soccer as a business entity is cohesive in both progression and ambiguity. However, soccer is no longer a sport that has to be “sold” to American fans and audiences. If anything, America is sold on its affinity for the world’s game played abroad over the domestic product.

The seemingly perpetual defeats to Liga MX sides in the CONCACAF Champions League give credence to the belief that MLS is far from producing a player remotely comparable to a Lionel Messi. With an Orwellian control and influence over mainstream American soccer media and elaborate marketing campaigns that boldly take credit and ownership for anything remotely successful in American soccer, MLS must also attribute and attach itself to the shortcomings of the national state of the game.

Instead of Major League Soccer asking when it will produce its own Lionel Messi, perhaps it is better served asking why it would even attempt such a feat before producing players the caliber of Lionel Messi’s supporting cast at FC Barcelona. The question is coyly guised as a marketing ploy to incite debate and it just might convince people Major League Soccer is capable of producing such a world class player. However, the fact remains that MLS has yet to produce a single world class player, let alone anything near a Lionel Messi. Successful leagues place as much value in development as they do marketing initiatives. Major League Soccer would be well-served to produce its own version of a James Milner before it dreams of producing its own Lionel Messi.