Far Post Footy

Scanning as a Skill

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Imagine the following scenario:

The ball circulates haphazardly across the backline in a well-rehearsed movement. The opposition decides to press the team in possession and unleash two marauding forwards in a rush of overzealous ‘pressure’. The team with the ball begins to panic and its #6 (it could be any player, really) drops in to receive the ball.

“Pick your head up!”

The coach’s shout echoes across the field but it’s too late. As the scene plays out, another youth player gets caught in the snares of indecision. In commentary it’s often referred to as ‘caught between two minds’. A player receives the ball, puts their head down, struggles to decide what to do next, boots (love using that word as a verb) the ball away or is tackled and the other team almost scores.

Cue the token finger-pointing.

This scenario will likely play on-loop for not only the entire game, but possibly the entire season — or even for a player’s entire time playing soccer.

What happened?

It’s called many things: awareness, vision, checking your shoulders, or more colloquially, ‘taking a peak’ and ‘having a look’.

I call it scanning as a skill.

For the sake of not beating around the bush, I’ll be blunt: this country’s players don’t know how to do this (scan the field) effectively, if at all. This is partly due to the fact our players don’t train and play enough in situations where they feel comfortable under duress; and partly due to the reality that many of our players lack the technique, confidence, and competence to control the pace of the game before and when they receive the ball.

It’s frustrating to see a lack of poise and ability to simply lift their heads up to see what’s going on and this happens at all levels.

Perhaps it’s down to poor coaching or coaches who don’t teach, stress, or rehearse it. Many coaches I know don’t even consider scanning a skill. To them, it’s just something some players have and others do not, or don’t need (?).

As a coach, it’s easy to get caught up in the hubbub of possession-based exercises in the hopes of developing players and ultimately, a team, that will translate the skills stressed in rondos or in small-sided games to meaningful competition.

Before we go any further, let’s pause and identify what’s missing.

As coaches, we can aim to develop players and teams all we want, but I contend that even before identifying ‘player development’ as a goal or target objective, we must develop something else first — the right culture. Developing a proper learning culture, in my opinion (yours may differ), should come before or at least go hand-in-hand with developing skills, principles, and methods for players and teams.

Any ingratiation based on a particular philosophy of play requires different phases that must be executed to reach an objective. Phases such as: introduction, [scaled] integration, rehearsal, more scaled integration followed by team-wide and player-centric implementation — all of which are geared towards achieving a proactive, positive, and ultimately, effective style of play take time and repetition; lots of it.

One issue I’ve observed is the fracture between perception and execution. For example, many coaches, at all levels, depend heavily on a development method such as rondos to introduce, teach, and reinforce principles like: possession, receiving the ball under duress, communication, quick thinking, reactive vs proactive movements, pressing in pairs, splitting those pairs with short, accurate passes, and a slew of other elements, which is why rondo-based training is such an attractive and effective exercise.

The problem, as I see it anyways, is the transfer of those aforementioned skills onto the field of play. All too often the expectation is hinged upon the same frenetic, high-energy, condensed series of plays present in rondo variations, but in bigger space with more on the line. This is fine to a point, but a massive element is missing: scanning on and off the ball.

For these purposes, scanning means an available player or a player in possession is looking for viable options to penetrate (on the dribble or with a pass) before the ball arrives to: trigger an attacking movement, release pressure from one side of the field to the other, retain possession, counterattack, or build an attack with numbers.

To do this off-the-ball, players must identify, create, and occupy space to receive the ball without losing it. Essentially, this is dependent on losing their marks and arriving in the right gaps to receive the ball effectively. While in possession, players must have the confidence, awareness, and composure to put their foot on the ball (if necessary) to see what options are available. it may seem counterintuitive, but slowing the play down is essential.

At the top levels, scanning is a skill and should be regarded as such well before players are expected to exhibit it during meaningful competition. Here’s where the fracture lies: rondos teach, exploit, and reward anticipation to great effect in unparalleled ways. They also teach composure and reward quick thinking and smooth technique. However, all too often what happens in games is a hurried version of possession-based play. Players arrive in the right spots, but the ball may or may not be there. Good teams will exploit this and press even more, forcing the frenetic pace of play to regain the ball as high up the field as possible if sense players aren’t able to see the game a step or two ahead of time.

To me, this is why scanning as a skill is a principle that must be focused on and taught. The expectation in the modern game is to keep the ball, exploit usable space, and regain possession high up the field (if possible). In a Four Four Two performance piece, Nottingham Forest defender Michael Mancienne sheds a bit of light on why scanning is a skill for a center-back:

“When I pick the ball up from the keeper, I’m always looking to pass the ball forward. But if there is nothing on, then you need to stay relaxed and not give the ball away.

You’re playing in a vital position, so if you slip up with the ball at your feet, the chances are the opposition are going to score.

Stay calm and dribble the ball out, or even be confident enough to look to the sides and maybe play a one-two with one of the full-backs.

Either way, you are creating space for team-mates by shifting the opposition into positions they don’t want to be in – they’ve got to come looking for the ball.

If there is an option in midfield, make that short pass. If not, then there’s no shame in hitting the ball long, provided it’s into the right areas.

If you’ve got a forward who is quick then you can put the ball in the channels for him to race on to, whereas if it’s a player who can hold the ball up, then try to dink a ball up to him so the team can build an attack from there.”

Scanning can be trained many ways the most obvious being playing out from the back in training to reinforce the habit-formation required to consider it a skill. Another area we see scanning done to perfection is in the center of the park. There is no shortage of good examples of scanning from players like Pirlo who make the game look so easy, but I can assure you it’s anything but easy.

Having the awareness to understand space (zones), know where opponents are and how fast they can close down that space, knowing where the passing lanes and avenues will open up, and embracing the reality that top players must receive AND retain the ball under pressure takes practice. Much of skill here is partitioned into different segments.

  1. Recognition (vision/awareness): knowing where/when to pop into space to receive the ball, create openings, take the appropriate angle and establish the right body position for the specific scenario
  2. Technical Efficiency: the ability to receive the ball, retain possession (shield, outplay in 1v1 duels) and play out of situations via passing or dribbling
  3. Composure/Confidence/Coaching: These three are coachable and require repetition, rehearsal, and guidance to ingrain these elements into a player’s psychology (to a point)
  4. Frequency: ability and willingness to get on the ball throughout the game (don’t hide/ball watch).
    4a. Risk-Reward: decision-making ability to continually scan for options and stay involved
  5. Follow-up play: extension of positional responsibilities to be an outlet in different sectors of the field (don’t watch their pass and remain stationary).

Overall, I could go on about the player’s roles here, but I’ll end with urging coaches to do some actual gap analysis of their teams and players. Note when, where, and how the breakdowns occur and identify how to train those scenarios to instill confidence, composure, and competence into a team. Possession soccer should mean more than merely passing the ball. To me, it means breaking  lines with vertical passes to players and spaces (occupied and unoccupied) to advance the play when opportunities permit. It means circulation and recirculation of the ball to isolate opposing players to create 4v2’s, 3v1’s, or 2v1’s in sectors of the field. It means outplaying the opponent in one-on-one duels.

Most importantly, however, scanning HAS to be regarded as a skill. This comes from the coach. The higher the level of play, the less time there is on the ball and subsequently, the less time there is to coach this principle. Our domestic game, at every level (Youth, Development Academy, College, Professionally), the deficiencies stemming from the lack of proximal, distal, and situational awareness are too prevalent.

The game has evolved beyond the purely athletic and too often the assumption that possession soccer is only an aesthetic form of the game takes precedence. Modern [competitive] soccer at all levels is more and more cerebral, tactical, and technical than it was in the past.

Decision-making is a skill. Scanning is a skill. Composure is a behavior that needs reinforcement. None of these can really improve until the people coaching the players begin to recognize what works and what does not from session-to-session and game-to-game. Gap analysis is a non-negotiable. If we can create a culture that values scanning as much as it values goals and moves while fostering a learning environment that rehearses these scenarios and doesn’t use playing time or marginalization as tools to ‘punish’ players when they lose the ball, we help the players enjoy the game by adding another element to their skill-set.

If coaches don’t consider something a skill, guess who else won’t…

photo credit: abigailkeenan.com 

 

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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.

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.

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”.

FullSizeRender (2)

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.

The Art of Composure

By: Jon Townsend

@jon_townsend3 

This past Sunday, like any given Sunday (no, not the movie), I found myself on the bumpy fields playing what many call Sunday League soccer. As a former collegiate player and a guy who’s been around the post-college doldrums of American soccer from combine invites, lower league football in Germany’s Regionalliga’s, “professional” indoor soccer, high-level, intense USASA games operating as U.S. Open Cup qualifiers, and a plethora of competitive cash tournaments complete with ringers and hacks aplenty — Sunday league soccer remains an enigma to me. 

I know the level is hit-or-miss. I know the fields are pastures. I know most players are hungover hacks. But I love playing the game and I’d rather be playing than stuck at home on a Sunday morning. Maybe one day, I’ll get smart and hang up the boots. Maybe.

Inevitably, competition courses through my veins like battery acid. I hold myself to the same standards I did when the games mattered much more. That’s my fault. A misplaced touch, an errant pass, a flubbed through-ball on my end — all of these really bother me. I’m plagued by my own past where these things were non-issues most of the time. I also find myself in the center of the park amid the chaos and shit-talk. As a technical player with a solid frame, I’m thrown in the arena of the Sunday League furnace and I’m happy to oblige my teammates who have neither the poise, technical skill, or fitness tank to do so. I understand my limitations and strengths. I also understand that simple play results in effective soccer.

This is where I begin to lose my mind. I know it’s foolish to try and dribble the lopsided ball on the uneven field adorned with potholes, bits of glass, and rusty bottle caps (I’m not kidding). Opponents aren’t looking to defend, they’re looking to maim. It’s clear the best way to win is to play as a link-up man and exploit the cavernous openings that appear between defenders at this level. Check to the ball, check my shoulders, turn out of danger, start the attack or maintain possession. The game is really a exercise of two-touch soccer. To take more touches in the center of the park is risky. The position demands vision, intelligent movement, and the ability to play simple soccer. And more often than not, playing a forward through is easy at this level. It is here that I discover a fundamental problem with the American player.

One problem with the American player is the absence of ability to play within one’s skill-set. For some reason, the worst players feel the need to dribble, shoot, kick the ball away, or try a knee-cap clearance. For some reason, the worst players try to be playmakers. This is why they are, and always have been, deemed surplus to requirements. 

I understand this is their chance to be selfish and play. Inevitably, I find myself checking to the ball only to see it blasted to the other team. Over the course of 90 minutes, week after week, it begins to become an issue. Believe me, this isn’t a display of direct soccer by any stretch of the imagination.

The other center midfielder is a former collegiate player, too. He’s working his ass off to get the ball, defend, cut off passing lanes, communicate, and he’s getting bypassed as well. We look at one another and it’s clear we are beyond frustrated. I remind myself, this is Sunday League soccer, so the result is of secondary importance. But the lack of understanding, the continual idiocy on display, the kick-and-run strategy hasn’t worked the previous 35 times, so why try it again? These are things that perplex me and would vex anyone considering themselves sane. Although we lose 2-0 to a terrible team, I begin to realize there’s more to this story than a frustrating day at the field.

On the way home, I stop at a local soccer complex where I watched two Development Academy Teams play, one non-MLS DA against one affiliated with a team in MLS. I watched with one intention: to see how the next generation plays the game. 

The technical ability was good for most players. The speed of play was better than I expected. But under duress, most players began to panic. It was like they were drones and couldn’t improvise a way to handle pressure situation.

Shouts of “Clear it!” and “Put your foot through it!” ring out from the sidelines as the young defender tees the ball up and smashes his foot through it. His center midfielder, a hardworking terrier-like player with clean technique has just made himself available as an outlet, checked his shoulders, masterfully freed himself from his marker and is ready to receive the ball (to feet) and switch the point of attack and maintain possession. Instead, the defender lashes at the ball, swinging wildly and slices it across the field to the other team’s grateful defender — who passes it to their center mid who begins to storm back down the field.  

Of course, I’m empathetic to this overlooked midfielder’s plight. I’ve just experienced something similar, but I had my time in the game. But this…this is different. These young players represent the latest and greatest of American soccer, right? Am I missing something here?

After 20 minutes, another shot flies over the goal. On the ensuing goal kick, the same center midfielder checks back to receive the ball under no pressure from the opposing forwards. Most of theses teams, I’ve been told, ha even conditioned to play out of the back. And yet, the goalkeeper hoofs the ball down the field. A parent yells, “Give it a ride!” and oh, does he! 

At no point have the strikers up top won any aerial battles. At no time has this “strategy” worked. Over the course of 90 minutes, I count how many times a center midfielder checks to the ball only for his teammates to dribble out of bounds, into trouble, kick it away, or ignore his good movement. In a full game, at the U-16 Academy level, he showed for the ball around 60 times. He received it 16 times. Of those 16 times, he linked up with other players 6 times resulting in good attacking movements or maintaining possession for his team. This player had a total of 33 touches on the ball in 90 minutes. As a center midfilder. The other team’s center midfielder was no slouch, but opted not to chase or pressure this player.

Why?

The opposing center midfielder knew the other team would simply kick the ball away and bypass their playmaker. Visit any low level game, a high school game, and a collegiate game and you will find one commonality — panicked soccer. American players, from a young age, are conditioned to associate “booting it” with quality. Parents gawk at the how far their child can kick the ball. When he or she receives the ball within 40-yards of goal, have a guess what the shouts are…”Shoot it!”

Make no mistake, playing possession soccer isn’t easy for most American players. Part of this is because the American game hinges (and hangs) itself on athleticism and displays of “power”. Players are taught to kick the ball out of bounds or up the field instead of playing out of a situation. Young players are punished and scorned when they take chances or make mistakes — thereby killing their creative drive. 

What does it matter if a U-8 player tries to link up with a teammate and loses the ball? That’s what learning is about in soccer. The coaches who do well at the youth levels instill a “passing the ball is fun and necessary” philosophy. They encourage the skill and the repetition of the movements.

Liverpool-Triangles

What I see with generation after generation of panic-stricken players is the destruction of the American maestro well before he or she can even develop. The player who sees the game and is the pivot or conduit between the defense and offense is bypassed. 

Sure, there are good American center midfielders, but how many are developed too late on because the current culture of coaching and playing champions “kicking it far”? A lack of utilization of the center midfielder is rampant in the American game. Instead, running box-to-box and “distance covered” are measures of quality and player performance. That, to me, is insanity. 

I get it. 

I run marathons.

Distance covered and hard work matters in soccer, but these are entry fees, not accomplishments, for the teams and countries the U.S. must strive to compete with and against.

Change starts with parents keeping the praise of poor soccer to a minimum. Kicking the ball out of bounds or up the field in flurry of flustered action does not bode well for a player. To praise this only damages them. Coaches can only teach some much technique, which should also be valued the way effort and physicality are.

The truth is coaches don’t have time to spend on more technique while attempting to implement tactics. The better players are technically, the more coaches can help raise the baseline Soccer IQ for players. Stress the importance of body control. That should never stop. If players can’t receive and pass the ball, they can’t play. It’s simple. Two-touch soccer need not be a lost art here. When players and coaches regard technique on the same level of importance as physicality, running fast, and jumping high — an evolution in player development will take place.

Competent players are usually happy, capable players. Remember, composure and confidence on the ball are not mutually exclusive.

The Obsession with Average

The Obsession with Average

By: Jon Townsend

@jon_townsend3

Having played the game since I was four and staying with it in some (or multiple) capacities ever since, I’m prepared to say the American player has an obsession with average. Part of this obsession with average is a systemic issue whereby society has granted people carte blanche to do the bare minimum and expect to yield greatness. This is akin to grabbing a cooking sheet, slathering it with lard, placing rotten ingredients on it (input) and expecting a gourmet meal fit for royalty (output) when the dinner bell rings.

So, what’s the other part responsible for this obsession with average? A lack of incentive and desperation in the game. And no, this isn’t a problem with America, it’s a problem with American soccer. For a sport to yield and produce elite talent it needs incentives far exceeding the dispersal of its talent vying for [partial] college scholarships or making insultingly low salaries in MLS, NASL, or USL-Pro. Looking at sports like basketball and American football and their primary talent pool sources, we can see the connections to soccer everywhere except in the United States.

Other than being a pay-to-play enterprise rife with clueless coaches, clueless journalists posing as soccer writers, and out-of-touch perceptions aimed to keep the game framed as a “foreign” sport or presenting it as some abstract sport played elsewhere, which is trendy (and mockery), American soccer has yet to fully make the game accessible to all people.

Desperation destroys complacency and eliminates average. Here, kids are rewarded for mere participation in an activity. They soak up praise for the simplest of activities provided they put their smartphones down, turn off their video games, and get their asses off the couch. At school, every single grade has somehow become a “negotiation” between helicopter parent and underpaid teacher. This means if you happen to be a teacher and a coach, you are in perpetual Hell.

What is the solution? Well, that depends on the player and on the situation. The United States, for a lot of people, is no easy place to grow up in and although there’s an absence of fútbol de barrio, there’s no shortage of players coming from the streets who live, play, and view [all] sports as if their lives depended on it. Soccer is the game of the People and yet in the “Land of Opportunity”, it has become an elitist sport run by highbrow visionaries on all levels.

Rather than discuss why promotion and relegation needs to happen, I’ll just discuss what promotion and relegation would do for the growth of the game at levels outside of MLS, which is interested in expansion–and that’s not the growth I’m alluding to (and relax, MLS peeps, I’m not attacking the league). Promotion and relegation turns a formerly closed soccer market into a open marketplace for the sport whereby player development and competition are rewarded via meritocracy, monetarily through player trades, allows coaches to be compensated and incentivized to produce better players, and opens the door for small businesses to provide incentives for teams gearing up to earn their way to the top.

The takeaway, in simple terms, is clubs will have a means and a path based on meritocracy to climb or fall within a pyramidal system that allows independent clubs to make business decisions for their own good. Just like the working place, performance ideally dictates outcome for better or worse. Teams that can’t produce and remain competitive should be relegated just like business that can’t produce or compete should improve or downsize to re-calibrate. People fear the mechanism of promotion and relegation because they see it as punishment. Under what entitled view should teams with poor ownership, direction, player production, and a litany of other negatives be afforded the right to remain safe from the drop? What that reinforces is bad soccer. What that reinforces is mediocrity.

When teams and players compete in league systems that reward performance, the current standard is smashed and the bar is raised. If the bar is raised at the bottom, the teams at the top of the pyramid must raise their own level of play because, now, there’s a target on their backs. Change demands the deconstruction of the status quo, which is scary to those in high (and therefore, safe) positions. The current system rewards and safeguards mediocrity. The sport will not die if teams traverse the levels in an open pyramid. If DC United was relegated last year, believe me, the sport would have continued to be played in America. In fact, the very thought of teams rising up in a country with unrivaled infrastructure resources would raise the the allure, popularity, and level of the game. Of course, these are issues met with default defensive reactions by those who can’t see it working (yet), or those who aim to safeguard the status quo.

Before the anti-pro/rel people drag my name through the mud (again), however, this is not a fantasy where I pretend to know the economic implications and business potential of such a drastic change. In my opinion, I’d venture to put stock in the game’s evolution with regional leagues (mitigating the “but our country is so big!” excuse) with promotion and relegation to help strengthen and shake the bedrock of independent clubs to better their product. Where that breaks out could be through any number of estuaries that open up. The top clubs from each region could form their own division to compete under NASL and USL-Pro thereby lessening the burden for travel for small teams by allowing competition to be region-based and localized. The top three teams of each region could form a tier that connects them to the established professional leagues (again, outside of MLS).

So, how does this entire thought-process circle back to an obsession with average? I recall a conversation I had with one of my best friends who grew up in England. Over the span of his years watching the game he’s witnessed disappointment after disappointment from the national team, his boyhood club (Tottenham Hotspur), and the scant number of British players who actually go abroad to play the game during their development and as seasoned professionals. He said, “The problem with British players is similar to the problem with American players. They aren’t going to leave their cozy little homes and play on some shit field in Eastern Europe.”

It wasn’t a revelation or epiphany to me, but it just made more sense when I heard someone else who grew up in a different country say it. The reality is American (and, according to my British buddy, English) players aren’t going to live on someone’s couch going from trial to trial in all corners of the world trying to eek a living out of the game en masse. Nor will most American players do what African, South American, Asian, and continental Europeans do with regularity, which is be persistent, tough, and determined enough to become successful because they sure as hell don’t want to go back home and live the same lives everyone else does. England has this problem and the United States does because everyone is content with being average and comfortable. You don’t see scores of English and American players going abroad and getting away from the systems that hold them back technically, tactically, and culturally. The result is two national teams that oscillate with similar FIFA rankings and won’t win a World Cup anytime soon while the countries with these types of players tend to breed tougher, more versatile and talented players.

However, I intend to hit on a few things that need to change immediately. Recall my abrasive post where I challenge the toughness and resolve of the American player. Just let every example of just how content players are to be average here marinate for a bit. How often do you see kids playing in parks and empty lots until the street lights flicker on? How often does a player find a way to train after formal practice? What are you, as coaches and parents, praising on the sidelines and after games? Hard shots? Big clearances to nobody? Mouthing off to a referee? Grandstanding displays of arrogance?

I ask because I haven’t seen those players willing to grind it out with not a penny to their name get the recognition they deserve. The kid from a poor family who has to walk, run, ride a bike, catch a city bus or train, just to get to practice. Instead, America lauds the suburban kid with more money on his feet in the form of clown-colored shoes than most families have in their checking account. We ensure the kids who show up to practice in lavish cars and SUVs with heated seats are taken care of, everyone else, well, thanks for playing.

Something is amiss with the soccer culture in the United States. It’s addicted to average.

Average is a disease. Mediocrity is another word for stagnation–and that’s what we need to get away from to actually use the wealth of untapped talent at our disposal.

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.

The Allure of the Rondo

The Allure of the Rondo

By: Jon Townsend

@jon_townsend3

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

This article first appeared on the http://www.theoriginalcoach.com on September 14, 2014. 

The Face of American Soccer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article first appeared on http://www.thesefootballtimes.net on August 8, 2014