Op-Ed: Why MLS Is Ruining American Soccer

I was in Orlando covering the USSF Presidential Election in February 2018, and the obvious public relationship between USSF and MLS was a little disheartening. The seemingly unlimited “conflicts of interest” topics that came up publicly throughout the process- from Kathy Carter offering a position to one of the biggest soccer agents in the country (who represents a large majority of MLS elite players) if she were elected, to the weird huddle off to the side during the election of MLS and USSF brain trusts after the second round of voting which resulted in a 27 PERCENT jump in favor of Carlos Cordeiro (and a 23% decrease from Kathy Carter’s votes):

The constant questions and speculation about the Athlete’s Council and their votes, a number of soccer reporters seemingly ignoring certain stories, the numerous common financial interests between MLS, SUM, USSF and major TV Networks Fox and ESPN, the fact that Eric Wynalda was suddenly no longer with Fox following his Presidential Campaign, Hope Solo receiving a standing ovation following a speech that basically said USSF was completely corrupt. The list goes on, during an election process that featured public mud-slinging and political bashing following the United States’ failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Then came Jermaine Jones, who said that the blind draw orchestrated by MLS between the New England Revolution and Chicago Fire which was supposed to decide where he would play following his move from Europe never actually happened, and insisted that his agent (the same agent who Kathy Carter promised a position to) came and told him he would be playing in New England.

Leading up to the United States’ must-win match with Trinidad and Tobago, US Manager Bruce Arena- who has coached in MLS for a number of years and who many were skeptical of from the time he was announced- also started making some rather strange comments and decisions. The day before the critical qualifying match, he went on a rant about how he would love to see some of the “European Hotshots” try to qualify in CONCACAF, a statement that came off as either a) so naive that top European teams like Spain or France couldn’t qualify in arguably the easiest qualifying region in the world that maybe he was losing it, or b) so pro-American (and, honestly, pro-MLS) that his loyalty to his country was maybe a bit blinding.

Then you realize that Arena didn’t call Europe-based Fabian Johnson into camp for those important last few qualifying matches (resulting in Kellyn Acosta having to spend time at left back vs T&T). He left Geoff Cameron (a regular starter in the EPL for the past few seasons and one of our best defenders) on the bench in favor of Matt Besler. And then, out comes Danny Williams with this gem of a quote:

Obviously I spoke to the boys when I was in Portugal. Everybody has a different view. I heard from a few people that they tried to ‘market the MLS’ a bit more in the [World Cup] qualifying games and get a name for the MLS. At the end of the day it shouldn’t be about that. It should be about quality and bringing the best players and having a plan. That is it. It is not only the U.S. that failed. Holland failed. Italy. Chile. This is unbelievable. Something is obviously going wrong because other smaller nations, they are speeding up their process. When I look at Iceland, they are a small country but they are actually playing at the World Cup.

Then Paul Arriola signs a massive deal with MLS side DC United (the most expensive deal in the club’s history), and come to find out it was actually (former DC United manager) Bruce Arena himself who told Arriola he should make the move.

Maybe this is all a collection of events that MLS felt was necessary as damage control, following the constant damning criticism of the overall quality of MLS from previous USMNT manager (and one of the all-time greatest strikers in the world)  Jurgen Klinnsman. Whatever accounts for all of these coincidences, one thing seemed certain during qualifying: MLS had some influence over what players were selected and showcased, and those selections were usually pro-MLS.

This all makes today’s news that MLS will offer financial compensation to MLS clubs for the purchase and development of INTERNATIONAL youth players even more frustrating. Throughout the USSF Presidential Election, youth development was one of the hottest topics out there. Everyone became an expert on what we need to do better to help develop more quality US Soccer players. The “college vs Europe” debate continued to heat up. Training compensation and solidarity payments both became common knowledge as we debated how we can help US Youth Clubs develop more domestic talent. During Qualifying, the “pro-MLS” bias and obvious favoritism towards the selection of certain US-based players was to the point where Arena himself could have been wearing a MAGA hat and nobody would have noticed. Now the league is going to put a financial compensation structure in place to help purchase and develop INTERNATIONAL PLAYERS?! It baffles the mind.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with the US Soccer Development Academy, you have MLS clubs and non-MLS clubs competing with each other, but it’s not exactly a level playing field. Non-MLS (and USYSA clubs) are basically out there on their own in terms of their clubs’ financial earnings. They’re responsible for improving facilities, paying for field rentals, and covering the numerous costs associated with being a USSDA club, resulting in some parents investing THOUSANDS of dollars each year on club fees, travel costs on weekends for matches, getting their kids to 3-4 training sessions per week. MLS Clubs typically have more resources at their disposal, but as someone who spent a few years as an assistant in USSDA, I’m familiar with the multiple sacrifices that both parents and kids (can’t play for their high school teams, having to do their homework in the car every night, etc.) make while playing at such a competitive level (USSDA and USYSA) and it’s EXTREMELY disheartening to hear that, instead of MLS stepping in and offering financial incentives to improve youth development efforts for our own players, they’ve decided to help every MLS franchise owner who paid the $150million franchise fee with another source of revenue by providing them with the funds (and, likely, resources) to go out, buy a few youth international players, bring them to the States, and sell them for a profit a few seasons later.

This will obviously be taking away even more opportunities from US-based players, during a time when more Division 1 NCAA programs are offering scholarships to International players, there are more International players getting first-team minutes in MLS than in the past, forcing top young American talent to spend a few seasons in USL before hopefully breaking into the first team in MLS (which continues to look less and less likely as each year passes). The MLS Draft has basically become irrelevant over the past few seasons, and today’s news is yet another reminder why MLS is limiting the overall potential for soccer in the United States.

I don’t even need to go into the MLS and SUM partnership which obviously plays a big part in the growing number of people who don’t trust MLS’ true intentions, which always seems to be about one thing: money. This is no different. The constant over-exaggeration of attendance numbers at every MLS match at the beginning of the season, the league forcing individual MLS clubs to tweet out and promote matches which feature two different teams (which DC United called MLS out on a few months ago), and this season they seemed to be stooping to a new low- Tweeting out transfer rumors like Balotelli and Wayne Rooney to DC United before the transfers ever even materialized.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on promotion and relegation. MLS (together with USSF) continue their desperate efforts to ignore the general public’s outcries to recognize a second division in order to introduce pro/rel, but instead of looking at the expansion that comes along with pro/rel as a way to add more teams and actually improve overall development opportunities for United States players, they are more focused on the $150 million franchise fees that they can collect each time a new team is added.

Right now there are 23 MLS teams, let’s say 28 players on each team’s roster. Once the league gets to, lets say 26 teams, that is a total of 728 roster spots that are available.

If the league were, instead, able to evolve into two divisions with, say 20 teams in each division, that’s a total of 1,120 roster spots that are available. And on top of it, the league is now able to introduce teams in smaller markets and in markets where they have no presence at all, allowing the sport to flourish in more markets and introducing the passion that comes with a promotion/relegation battle to the players, fans, and next generation of youth players. Instead, a short-term money grab of $150 million for each MLS franchise, similar to the short-term solution that was announced today that will see MLS clubs purchase young International players and sell them for a profit in a few years.

If MLS actually cared more about youth development in our country and less about short-term ideas on how they can make more money for their team owners, they would not have introduced a “youth transfer fee” system which will limit the number of first team opportunities for our domestic youth players.

The league is clearly more concerned with Tweets which will result in more clicks, commercials which try to brainwash people into believing “this is OUR soccer”, fake attendance numbers so they can show their 2% increase to the TV Networks every season, and trying to sell the fake promises to the general American public that MLS has the quality on the field and overall infrastructure to compete with other top leagues in the world.

It’s all based on lies and money, and if you think it will be HELPING our US Men’s National Team over the next 4-8-12 years, I hate to say it but you’re drinking the Kool-Aid.

 

3 Annoying Soccer Misconceptions

My apologies for taking so long to write a new piece. As some of you may be aware, we recently launched a podcast series which we’ve been focusing some time and attention on, which you can find on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or by clicking here.

I’m not claiming to be a soccer genius or expert coach by any means, but it can just be frustrating getting a pick-up or match in, and the same players who think they’re the reincarnation of Cristiano Ronaldo and are quick to brag about their playing careers when they were young just don’t understand basis principles of the game.

Here are 3 common soccer misconceptions that I notice on regular basis which drive me absolutely crazy.

1. Defending vs Playing Defense

Soccer is like a game of chess, whether your team is attacking or defending. When your team has the ball, how can you eliminate as many players from the opposing team, and manipulate numbers in attacking situations to your advantage?

If you’re building out of the back, your center backs are probably wide and opening up the space for the 6 to drop in and find it, your outside backs are up the field, and you’re trying to stretch the opposing team in an attempt to open up passing lanes and eliminate defending players.

building out from the back

We’ll use Manchester City last season as an example.

Following the 2016-17 season, Pep Guardiola surprised everyone in the summer by spending a total of £155.3 million on 3 outside backs- Kyle Walker (£45 million), Benjamin Mendy (£49.1 million), and Danilo (£26.5 million)- and a Brazilian goalkeeper Ederson (£34.7 million) who can play with his feet.

Manchester City went on to win the EPL title in 2017-18 in convincing fashion, finishing with only 2 losses and 19 points above second place team Manchester United. They built out, Ederson was a genius with the ball at his feet, and for as good as City’s attacking players like Aguero and De Bruyne and Silva are, the reason why City are dominant is the offensive play from their back line and Fernandinho.

This season, Manchester City are once again on the top of the table, and a few of the usual suspects are among the top passers in England:

Manchester City passing 2018

City have 4 players in the top 15 for EPL passing stats, and none of them are offensive players. Stones and Laporte (two center backs), Fernandinho (CDM) and Walker (right back) have combined to complete a total of 7,320 passes so far this season, which is 231 more than Cardiff City have completed as a team.

So back to the main point- defending vs playing defense.

If you’re defending against a team like Manchester City or Liverpool who you know have smart players in the back who can handle the ball, and who will be patient and pick out the right pass, and you’re one of the front 2 or 3 in charge of trying to disrupt their build up, your focus is to keep everything in front of you and try to cut off distribution between the CB’s and the 6, or between CB’s. You probably don’t want to be running around at full speed, chasing the ball, diving in to try to make every tackle, flying around like a madman, tiring yourself out and basically taking yourself out of the play every time you don’t win the ball.

If you’re a midfielder, your job is to keep everything in front of you, read the game, don’t over commit and take yourself out of the play because you’re running around like a madman trying to make 20 tackles.

If you’re a defender, and the forwards and midfielders have failed at this and have taken themselves completely out of the play because they’re running around like maniacs, chasing the ball and trying to make every tackle, you’re going to have your work cut out for you and you should be upset at your teammates. Unfortunately, and this comes from 32 years of playing soccer, a lot of defenders are probably going to be more upset at a forward or midfield player if they’re not running around “hustling”, blind pressuring the other team’s CB’s at full speed and basically eliminating themselves on every possession.

Playing defense isn’t about making a tackle. If you’re 1v1 in space as a defender, you don’t just have to worry about the attacking player going front, back, side to side. That player can go literally anywhere within a 360 radius, and once you go diving in the first chance you get, the attacking player knows they have you beat, and is gone and past you before you even realize it.

Again, I’m not claiming to be Ronaldo on the pitch or Guardiola on the sideline, this is just from my experience. The number of players who don’t understand the basic concept of proper defensive body shape – feet not square, staying low and waiting for the attacking player to commit to a direction and defending accordingly, moving your feet to keep them in front of you, versus diving in at the first chance and completely taking themselves out of the play- combined with the number of players who think that running full speed at an attacking player 100% of the time to “show hustle” and dive into every possible tackle, versus tactically cutting the field in half by cutting off a passing lane, is overwhelming in my opinion.

Go play a pick-up match sometime, indoor 5v5. Play up front, let the opposing 2 defenders knock the ball deep, drop in and keep everything in front of you, stay around midfield and connect with your teammates, play proper defense, and watch how many of your teammates are like “come on bro! run! go play defense! go get the ball! hustle!”.

2. Running Is How You Get Your Fitness In! Let’s Go Running!

Soccer is not cross country. To think that the movements that your body needs to be prepared to make on a soccer field can be replicated by running around in a circle on a track, or by going for a 10-mile cross country run around the city, is one of the most frustrating misconception on this list in my opinion, because there are actually Division 1 NCAA programs out there who spend the majority of their Spring and Fall off-seasons doing zero ball work and 100% “fitness” work.

I’m not saying that strength and conditioning isn’t important.

But when you’re actually playing soccer, you’re not just running. For anyone who has played, especially into your late 30’s and beyond, you are more likely to realize how many different muscles you use, and how many different movements you make, the next morning when muscles that you don’t even know you had are aching and you can’t walk for 2 days.

The change of pace, change of direction, movement with the ball, balance, and overall fitness involved in playing soccer can’t be prepared for by simply running. Yes, you might end up in better cardiovascular shape, but you’re not getting ANY repetition in the hundreds of different movements that you should be working on getting stronger at by not using a ball.

If your team spends 60% of sessions running laps, doing suicide drills and beep tests, and you come up against a team which spends 100% of their time in a structured 4-part training session where players are getting touches in and knocking the ball, you’re going to be in big trouble. I wish I could share some examples, but if you know of a coach who makes his or her players run without the ball for a majority (or even portion) of their training sessions, go watch how they look when they play against a team that focuses on touches, knocking the ball, movement, and getting fitness work in with the ball at their feet, and see how they look.

3. Speed Kills

The common perception when it comes to the collegiate game is that college coaches are only looking for fast, strong, athletic players. There was a Tweet this week that said how important speed was to make it in collegiate soccer, which I personally took exception to because of the amount of coaching and work that has gone into developing youth players to be ready for the Division 1 collegiate level, and at NO point have I ever said to a player “you’re really fast, you’re going to excel at the collegiate level”. Once again, not to make this about me, but I grew up playing soccer in the area. I’m 6’2″, had decent  technical ability, good shot, etc. but pace was definitely not my strong suit. Some of the worst coaches I’ve ever played for or met judged me immediately based on how fast I moved. Some made comments about it, some belittled me over it. I will never tell a youth player that he or she is going to make it because they’re fast, because it’s just not true. Yes, you need to have pace, but it’s not a difference maker.

I’ve watched some of the fastest players you can imagine at the collegiate and professional level, I’ve played with guys with pace who went on to play for DC United and for various USL teams, and here’s what I would say about being fast- when was the last time you saw a guy (or girl) just completely blow by a defender on a run, leave him (or her) in the dust, and go score a goal? At the collegiate or professional level?

It might happen once in a while, but what you see a lot more often are players who have the awareness and experience to get the ball, go at a defender, and hit them with a CHANGE of pace, versus the predictable route of running at them at full speed, allowing the defender to judge where he or she is going because they’re completely predictable.

The game moves so fast at the collegiate and professional level that pace might be a factor for outside backs who need to cover ground in transition, but very rarely are you watching a match and a player with tons of pace and above average technical ability is making the type of impact that equates to the amount of attention some coaches (and others) give when it comes to evaluating ability and potential.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Social Media Promotion in Soccer: When is Too Much Too Much?

I was at last week’s United Soccer Coaches’ Convention in Philadelphia, and ran into a number of coaches from the DMV area from both the collegiate and club levels. One of the best things about these conventions is catching up and discussing things in person with coaches who you interact with or know personally, versus the normal day-to-day interactions when we all see each other on Twitter or Facebook.

One popular topic when I caught up with coaches from the area was social media promotion, and how Twitter, specifically, has evolved over the past couple of years as a self-promotion tool for clubs and college programs. It’s common knowledge that Twitter and other social media outlets serve as valuable marketing tools when it comes to youth clubs and college programs promoting their teams’ and players’ accomplishments, but the overall consensus that I got from a number of respected coaches in the area is that there’s a fine line between marketing your product, and being a little too self-promoting.

Youth players also use Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat to try to promote their highlight videos to prospective college programs, or to show off a quality goal they might have scored to their friends and peers.

The question I always wonder is, what kind of example are certain clubs setting for their youth players when they are constantly congratulating themselves on Twitter in an attempt to promote their accomplishments? We’re always telling players that they shouldn’t only be playing for the “atta boys” and pats on the back, yet a number of DMV clubs seem ready and willing to ignore the knowledge that they pass onto youth players when it comes to their own clubs’ social media marketing efforts.

I’ve heard from college assistant coaches in the past who have said that a prospective player spending too much time on Twitter could be a potential red flag during the recruiting process, yet you look at the players’ youth club’s Twitter profile and there are new Tweets every 10 or 15 minutes, congratulating themselves as a club on past players’ accomplishments, current teams’ results, coaches’ new positions within the game, etc. You might think that the intention of the club is sincere, “Congratulations to former (insert club name) player John Smith on his 4th consecutive start for (insert college name)!”, but then at the end there always seems to be that “another reason why our club is awesome” statement or hashtag that leaves you with the impression that they were more hoping for Retweets and likes in order to promote their brand.

Are We Setting the Right Example for Youth Players?

#WeTheBEST!

One thing I’ve enjoyed after not coaching for a year is looking back on some mistakes I made as a coach. I’m the first to admit that I started DMVSoccer.com (while coaching) in order to help promote the accomplishments of USSDA players in the DMV area, based on the fact that high school and USYSA players are constantly subject to write-ups and coverage from local newspapers, and receiving all-county, all-met, all-conference, and other awards and accolades. It’s hard for me to say that coaches and clubs need to walk a fine line between constantly promoting their own players and club accomplishments in their Tweets, knowing that I was guilty of the same thing a few seasons ago while trying to help promote our players’ accomplishments and visibility to collegiate programs, all with a self-promotion “pat myself on the back as a coach” undertone. But we all learn from our mistakes, hindsight is 50/50, and hopefully this doesn’t come off as me on my high horse, because I’ll admit that I was guilty of the same thing at one point.

If youth clubs are looking to set an example for their players when it comes to how to conduct themselves both on and off the field, then I always wonder what it would be like if players Tweeted the same way that their clubs constantly promoted their accomplishments on Twitter.

So if I’m a junior in high school, I play for a local club, I’m watching my club on Twitter and decided to replicate their recent Tweets based on my day-to-day activity:

8h “Moms just made breakfast, eggs and bacon and the toast was perfect, threw it down like a champ with a glass of OJ but no time for that pulp.” #ImTheBomb

8h “Dressed and ready for school, got those fresh J’s that my parents bought me for Xmas, you know what it is.” #ImTheBomb

7h “Driving to school, this lady was driving too slow in the fast lane so I passed her, didn’t even turn my blinker on cause that’s how we’re rollin” #ImTheBomb

7h “Just got to school, Becky said she liked my new J’s and asked me what I’m doing for lunch, shout out to Becky with the long hair” #ImTheBomb

7h “Got to homeroom on time, teacher called my name and I was like…’here’ #ImTheBomb

6h “Got a C+ on my Algebra exam, shout-out to everybody in Advanced Algebra 3rd period with Mrs Smith that class is no joke” #ImTheBomb

6h “Jay said he finished fourth in Fortnite last night and I’m like ‘lol’, he can’t even build” #ImTheBomb

5h “Just got in my locker and you already know it only took me one time to remember the lock combination, 3 straight weeks gotta keep this streak goin!” #ImTheBomb

You get the point.

Who would ever want to be friends with that person, let alone look at him as the example on how to Tweet? You’d think he was pretty full of himself to think that we actually cared about half of the stuff he was throwing out there.

 

Sometimes, Less is More

It’s obviously a new world that we live in, with CNN and practically every news outlet constantly commenting on our President and his sporadic Tweeting habits, with a lot of them being self-promoting. There aren’t many people out there, based on the conduct of past Presidents when it comes to setting an example for how to conduct themselves, who would look at President Trump’s tweets and think to themselves “that guy seems like a pretty stable, down-to-earth, focused guy”. Sorry, not to make this a political topic, but when psychologists and others come out saying that his social media behavior shows narcissistic tendencies, I’m not one to argue.

The professional players who don’t Tweet 18 times a day about their own accomplishments are usually looked at as too busy and focused to engage in self-promotion. There are certain athletes who you follow on Instagram or Twitter and you’re like “Geez, get over yourself”, constantly sharing pictures of themselves or videos of themselves in training. But if youth players followed the example of some of their clubs, finding themselves constantly in need of the “CONGRATS! YOU’RE AWESOME” feedback or enamored with others liking their Tweets, then what kind of players will they be in the collegiate level when it’s time to keep their head down and work hard, put the phone down and focus on their studies?

That being said, we all agree that Twitter and other social media platforms can be valuable tools when it comes to marketing and brand awareness.

But the question that I think the more self-promoting youth clubs should ask themselves, aside from whether or not they are setting the right example for their youth players in how they conduct themselves on social media, is… are the majority of your Tweets actually adding value for your players and parents?

We’re Still Not Even Close

For anyone who watched ESPN FC last night, Craig Burley’s statement “I’m done hearing about pay-to-play, promotion/relegation, etc.” was pretty much spot on for me. The main topics which have come up since the US Men’s National team crashed out of World Cup 2018 qualifying, finishing FIFTH place in CONCACAF, are youth development, pay-to-play youth soccer, and promotion/relegation.

But what if the players that we had representing the United States National Team for this cycle just weren’t good enough?

Did we actually give some of the younger guys a chance to succeed throughout the qualifying process, or did we rely on the same old players (as US Soccer tends to do for literally EVERY World Cup cycle) once again?

Say what you want about Jurgen Klinsmann, but when he came on board as US Men’s National Team manager, he did the one thing that US Soccer was in desperate need of- he expanded the player pool for National team selection.

Bruce Arena said after Tuesday’s loss to Trinidad and Tobago that, even if the United States did qualify, the roster would have needed an overhaul for the Yanks to actually be competitive in the World Cup. This seems obvious to anyone who watched the game.

Michael Bradley jogged around the pitch as if it was a Sunday pub league match. Our two starting center backs, Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, were forced to step up and make a number of tackles, constantly being stretched from each other and out of position. Jozy Altidore, recently voted as the worst striker in Premier League history after scoring only 2 goals in 70 appearances for Hull and Sunderland, could be seen at midfield literally stopping and throwing his arms up in the air when he lost the ball, with his touch constantly letting him down and struggling to get into the game. The same could be said for Bobby Wood, whose name you barely heard throughout the entire match. Arriola and Nagbe struggled in unfamiliar central midfield positions, and in a 4-4-2 diamond system which relies on outside backs to get up the field to provide width in the attack, both Deandre Yedlin and Jorge Villafana seemed so overwhelmed with their defensive duties that they weren’t able to provide much to the Yanks’ efforts moving forward.

But what stood out to me, with Bruce Arena’s side down 2-1 with 3/4 of an hour left in the match to find the equalizer, was the lack of options off of the bench that were available to provide a spark.

Clint Dempsey came on at halftime, and probably had the best chance to make it 2-2 with his shot going just wide of the post.

Kellyn Acosta came on for Villafana at left back, although you began to wonder why Fabian Johnson wasn’t out there.

Benny Feilhaber, who seemed to be in USMNT exile in recent years, was the third substitute, but didn’t provide much.

Are you telling me that the hopes of US Soccer were rested on a 34 year-old Clint Dempsey, Kellyn Acosta out of position, and Benny Feilhaber?

Lack of Depth

The lack of depth at basically every position for the US Men’s National Team was a concern for many early on in the qualifying process.

In Klinsmann’s last match in charge, a 4-0 loss at home to Panama, there were younger players available on the bench such as Sunderland’s Lynden Gooch, Cameron Carter-Vickers, and Julian Green, but the starting XI was very similar to Bruce Arena’s Tuesday night squad (Michael Bradley, Matt Besler, Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood, Omar Gonzalez, Christian Pulisic).

Relying heavily on veteran players is nothing new for the US Men’s National Team, coming from someone who has watched them religiously for 30+ years and who has covered them as a journalist.

One of the biggest problems we have is that we rely heavily on players like Clint Dempsey, who has bailed us out with big goals time after time after time, Landon Donovan, and Brian McBride. We always have 1 or 2 guys who can provide a moment of brilliance, but when you compare our roster to the depth that’s available at some of the “hot shot” European countries, Bruce Arena’s statement becomes laughable.

When Spain beat Italy in early September, a few of the substitutes coming off of the bench:

  • Pedro, Azpilicueta, and Morata from Chelsea
  • Saul from Atletico Madrid
  • Deulofeu from Barcelona
  • Thiago from Bayern Munich

Again, those are their SUBS.

When France beat Netherlands 4-0 back in late August, here’s who they had coming off of the bench:

  • Blaise Matuidi from Juventus
  • Kylian Mbappe from PSG
  • Alexandre Lacazette from Arsenal

And England’s subs for Sunday’s 1-0 victory over Lithuania:

  • Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Liverpool
  • Raheem Sterling from Manchester City
  • Daniel Sturridge, Jermaine Defoe, Chris Smalling, the list goes on.

England bring three center backs off of their bench in Smalling, Gary Cahill, and Eric Dier that the United States would kill to have, but Bruce Arena thinks that their team would have a hard time qualifying in CONCACAF?!

Sorry, but it just seems like we’re all becoming a bit delusional when it comes to how much progress US Soccer has actually made over the years. We don’t even have a legit second division in place yet, while England has this many:

english_league_pyramid

Read David Beckham or Zlatan’s book and realize how many pro clubs in European countries will go after a young player with talent. Zlatan was only 18 when he was already starting for Swedish Allsvenskan side Malmo, going on to play for Ajax at age 20 and starting for Juventus at the age of 23.

We have kids over in Europe, which is great, but when it comes to being discovered by a local professional club here in the United States, the options are as follows:

  • MLS.

We’ll get to why MLS is actually part of the problem in a minute, but first:

Same OLD Story

I took the time to do the math. For the entire United States roster during Qualification, the average age was 28.56.

  • Spain’s average age for their World Cup Qualifying roster, even with older players like David Villa, Pepe Reina, Iniesta and Sergio Ramos, was only 27.46.
  • France’s average age among their entire Qualifying roster was 25.69.
  • England’s average age among their entire Qualifying roster was 25.30.

Like I said earlier, we decided to rely on older veteran players throughout the ENTIRE Qualifying process, instead of trying to introduce younger players into the fold.

This isn’t anything new.

Klinsmann’s 2014 World Cup side, which made it out of the group of death (Ghana, Portugal, and Germany), was one of the younger rosters that we’ve had since 1994, with the average age being 27.30. The team who won it, Germany, had an average age of only 25.73.

The average age for the 2010 US World Cup roster (we advanced to second round, losing to Ghana) was actually lower, with the average age being 26.86. Jozy was 21, Bradley was 23, Jose Torres was 23 and the rest of the squad was 25+. The team that won it that year, Spain…their average age was 25.91

The average age for the 2006 US World Cup roster (didn’t advance out of our group) was up there, at 28.26. The three teams in our group that year- Czech Republic was 28.56, but Ghana was only 24.60 and Italy was 28.30.

In 2002, with a 20 year-old Landon Donovan who won the 2002 World Cup Best Young Player and a 20-year old Damarcus Beasley, our average age was still up there at 28.26 thanks to the inclusions of 34 year-old Jeff Agoos, David Regis and Earnie Stewart who were both 33 at the time, etc.

In 1998, when the United States lost all three group games to Germany, Iran, and Yugoslavia, the average age was 28.27 and included a 34 year-old Roy Wegerle, Thomas Dooley at captain at the age of 36, and Preki who was also 34.

In 1994, when we made it to the second round losing to Brazil on 4th of July 1-0, our average age was 26.36. This included a 20 year-old Claudio Reyna, Brad Friedel was only 23 at the time, and a number of other players under the age of 25.

World Cup Year Average Age of US Roster Did they advance? Average age of WC winners/
others
2018 Qualifying 28.56 Did not qualify Spain- 27.46
France- 25.69
England- 25.30
2014 27.30 Yes Germany- 25.73
2010 26.86 Yes Spain- 25.91
2006 28.26 No Italy- 28.30
Ghana (advanced from group)- 24.60
2002 28.26 Yes Brazil- 26.17
1998 28.27 No France- 26.72
1994 26.36 Yes Brazil- 27.41

US Soccer’s historical hesitancy to name younger players to World Cup squads, and tendency to instead rely on older, more established veterans, could be related to lack of quality young players available for selection, but I personally believe that part of the problem is not trusting our young players enough, because the MLS career path results in players turning professional at later ages when compared to European talent.

The 2017 Gold Cup would have been a perfect opportunity to get some of the younger guys involved, but once we made it out of the group stages, what did Bruce Arena do? He called in Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, Nagbe, and Clint Dempsey. As a result, we sent Dom Dwyer and Kelyn Rowe, both of whom were impressive throughout the tournament, home. Neither, of course, were involved in World Cup Qualifying.

That being said, it’s kind of hard to develop younger players and introduce them to the National Team fold when we CONSTANTLY rely on older veterans, even for a practically meaningless tournament like the Gold Cup.

So Who’s Fault Is It That Younger Guys Aren’t Getting a Chance?

In Part, Ours.

Between the Twitter tirades and debates between US Men’s National Team supporters, constant media scrutiny surrounding US Soccer for every match/tournament, and practically everyone suddenly having an opinion on US Soccer and why we’re so much better than the other CONCACAF teams in our region, the fact of the matter is that the position of United States Men’s National Soccer coach comes with more pressure to succeed than ever before. Klinsmann became extremely frustrated with our “the sky is falling” approach every time we draw or lose a match, and he’s one of the managers we’ve had in recent years that actually tried to give some younger guys a shot.

What I’m trying to say is, it’s harder for a manager to sacrifice results by introducing younger guys when the media is constantly pressuring them over every result. We, as a country, need to do a better job having patience when we play these friendlies and Gold Cup tournaments trying to build the player pool out by playing younger guys. We have to get younger.

US Soccer shares a picture from their Twitter account of some rain around the track in Trinidad and Tobago, and all of sudden “it’s an embarrassment if we can’t beat a third-world country like T&T”. A reporter asks Bruce Arena if it’s below some of the European-based guys to have to play in that type of atmosphere, triggering his “European hotshots” remark, and all of a sudden a few journalists and bloggers have turned it into a National fiasco. The lead-up to the T&T game was nothing short of everyone looking for the story lines, and whoever takes over as next USMNT manager will need to have experience dealing with a media base which will always be looking to Tweet the big headlines.

United States Soccer’s culture has gone from the underdogs who want to work hard to prove everyone wrong, to the team who can’t lose based on us being “MERRCA!!”. Have we made progress? Of course. But the rest of the world hasn’t exactly gotten worse.

How Is MLS To Blame?

Maybe the problem isn’t that the National Team manager isn’t giving the younger guys a chance. Maybe the younger phenoms like Landon Donovans and Damarcus Beasleys just don’t exist, with the exception of Pulisic who made an early move to Europe.

Think about the path of a normal MLS player. Jordan Morris- plays 2 years of college soccer, gets drafted by Seattle Sounders and becomes a professional at the age of 22.

Paul Pogba, who’s only a year older, made his Manchester United debut at 18. He was playing Champions League soccer for Juventus when he was 20, the same age as when Jordan’s taking chemistry finals.

Some other players who were born in 1994, the same birth year as Morris:

  • Aymeric Laporte, made professional debut at 17
  • Raheem Sterling, made professional debut at 18
  • Saul (Atletico), made professional debut at 16

MLS players don’t usually turn pro until later in their careers, which means our young talent is 4 or 5 years behind the rest of the world. That might be a problem.

So let’s say they’re a quality player like Clint Dempsey or Michael Bradley, maybe they make a move to Europe eventually. But now MLS comes in with these ridiculous amounts of money for our best players, bring them back home, are playing at an MLS level, and our National Team program has suffered as a result.

I have a hard time believing that Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Clint Dempsey are getting the same level of training and competition at the MLS level as they were in Europe. I’m sorry, but to watch Michael Bradley’s quality continue to drop off since he made his move to Toronto FC is disheartening. This was a guy who was, at one point, starting for Roma, but on Tuesday night he looked like he should have been playing for Christos. He’s jogging around the pitch, cant make a tackle, and his overall pace of play was just slow and lethargic.

Another issue I have with MLS is the fact that they continue to expand and accept new MLS teams, collecting the $200 million franchise fee and continuing to head down the same path which saw the NASL become diluted and, as a result, lead to its failure as a league. They refuse to accept a second division, yet continue adding teams to the league.

There are currently 22 MLS teams, with Don Garber announcing additional franchises being added over the years.

There are 20 EPL teams, 20 La Liga teams, 18 Bundesliga teams and 20 Serie A teams. So when the MLS gets up to 26 teams, a new league which doesn’t even come close to the quality of any of the other 4 leagues that I mentioned, we’re not going to see a diluted level of competition?

MLS needs to seriously consider how the quick $200 million franchise fee is a short-term answer, with promotion/relegation being the long-term answer to improving the quality of our domestic league. A second tier under MLS will give younger guys a chance to turn pro at an earlier age, and advance their careers. Currently, if a kid is 16 or 17, they might be scouted by their local MLS club if they’re playing USSDA, but even then they typical roadmap is the kid will go to college, play for a few seasons, get drafted by MLS, and maybe play in his first season if he’s quality. By then the player is 20-22, versus in Europe when clubs develop their youth players and introduce them to first-team professional action at a lot younger age.

We need more kids who want to go pro at younger ages, and we need to get them professional experience as soon as possible. If we continue to introduce players to the professional ranks at 20+ we will continue to be years behind.

This means that MLS needs to work together with US Soccer and USL/NASL to develop second and third divisions, and eventually introduce promotion/relegation. As we add more clubs to the second and third divisions, these are also new youth academies which can help to develop local talent, and younger guys can get a chance to play professionally at 17 or 18 versus 21 or 22.

Youth Development

When I talked to John Doolan from Everton and Genk u16 coach Peter Reynders this past summer about youth development, the idea of the kids in their academies having to pay money made both of them laugh. If you’re a decent youth player in England, you might have 4 or 5 clubs trying to sign you. Here, you might be recognized by a local MLS or USSDA club, but the gap between MLS USSDA clubs and those outside of MLS is still a pretty big one.

Each USSDA club are on their own, financially. US Soccer and MLS need to figure out how to fix this problem. The fact that kids and parents are still paying for Academy soccer should tell you how far behind we are, when you look at the training facilities that top English, German, Belgian, and other European clubs have available for their youth players. We still have USSDA clubs playing home games at local state parks, having to nickel and dime parents to cover field rental fees and to cover travel expenses. The fact that youth soccer is still all about the money should tell you all that you need to know. Imagine Sir Alex going to Paul Pogba’s mom with “hey, um, you were late paying Paul’s club dues last month, the credit card didn’t go through”.

Wake-Up Call

Ring ring. We’re not as good as we thought we were, and still have a long way to go.

 

How A Bethesda Academy Player Being Deported Can Make us Better

(Note: This is an Op-Ed piece. The views expressed in this article are my views and beliefs only. I plan on bringing up the sensitive topic of race in soccer, and would not feel right expressing my views and opinions without sharing my past experiences. I am not writing this to promote a political agenda.)

Bethesda U18 players come out to support their teammate. Credit: Rachel Chason/The Washington Post

Bethesda U18 players come out to support their teammate. Credit: Rachel Chason/The Washington Post

 

Back in January, when current president Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United State of America, thousands (and in DC, millions) protested against his victory in the 2016 Presidential Elections, for a number of different reasons. This isn’t going to be a history or sociology lesson, it was just earlier this year and you already know about everything that happened by now. Our country has been divided based on political party affiliations, with the subject of race being the elephant/donkey in the room.

Part of Trump’s political agenda during his campaign was to enforce the deportation of illegal immigrants, primarily those with criminal backgrounds who he and his supporters believe are a danger to our country.

On Monday, news started making its way around Twitter that Lizandro Claros, who this past season played for Bethesda’s u18 USSDA squad, and his older brother Carlos were detained by ICE following a routine check-in with immigration officials and were scheduled to be deported back to their home country of El Salvador.

Lizandro, listed as a defender on the team’s website, has been with Bethesda since 2015-16, making 24 appearances in 2015-16 and 21 appearances this past season. In other words, he has been a pretty integral part of a squad which managed to make the USSDA playoffs this past season.

Lizandro and his brother were deported back to El Salvador on Wednesday, despite numerous rallies and media reports making the argument that the young man deserved to stay in the country and fulfill his dream of playing college soccer at Louisburg College in North Carolina. Lizandro does not have a criminal record.

I coached as a volunteer in the Development Academy for 2 seasons, and it’s a LOT of work. 4 training sessions every week, travelling out of state every other weekend for away matches, etc. Competing in US Soccer Development Academy, while also fulfilling responsibilities as a student athlete, is something that Lizandro obviously worked very hard at in order to achieve his dream of playing college soccer, a dream which will apparently not become a reality after all.

DMV Soccer: The D is for Diversity

I’m a big goofy white guy who can’t dance or dunk, despite being 6’2″… seriously, as white as they come. I grew up playing youth soccer in PG County, in an era where simply finding a local soccer team to play for was difficult. There weren’t 2 or 3 travel clubs in every county in those days. You couldn’t watch EPL matches on television, big clubs didn’t come here for their Summer Tours, and 90% of Americans at this time probably thought soccer was the most boring sport ever played.

In PG County during the 90’s, my options were basically to play for a local rec team like Fort Washington or Waldorf, or if your parents had time and money (they did not), they could drive you all the way to Bethesda or Columbia. I was lucky enough to grow up playing soccer in a racially diverse area, where I was able to learn more about other cultures and get others’ perspectives on life.

Fact: DC, Maryland, and Virginia are among the most diverse states in the country. According to a recent report, Maryland is the 5th most diverse state in the country, with Virginia coming in at 14. Montgomery County is home to some of the most diverse cities in the country, along with Washington, DC.

Fact: Soccer is referred to as the World’s Game because of the cultural diversity that comes along with playing or watching the sport.

That being said, playing soccer in the DMV allows kids and coaches to interact with teammates and parents from diverse backgrounds that they may not have otherwise interacted with in normal day-to-day life.

THIS IS WHAT MAKES PLAYING SOCCER (IN THE DMV) SO GREAT.

One quick personal story. My younger brother and I grew up playing with/against 2 brothers from Honduras, Danny and Hector Funez. Anybody familiar with PG County Soccer in those days knows how good of a player Danny Funez was. Dude could play, which is all I cared about when it came to race, and he was the same way. “Game recognizes game”, no matter where you’re from or what color your skin is.

Fast forward to 2013, my brother and I were at the USA vs El Salvador Gold Cup Quarterfinal match at M&T Stadium. USA won the game 5-1, but the main story was the fact that the majority of those in attendance were not USA supporters. I guess I should have done a better job researching where we’d be sitting when I bought tickets, because we were practically the only USA fans in our entire section.

usa honduras

Around halftime, I looked down to a lower section of seats, and for the first time in probably 10 years I saw Danny and Hector sitting with a large section of Honduras fans who were coming to watch the second match, Honduras vs Costa Rica. My brother and I went down to say hello, and they both embraced us like no time was lost at all.

Later in the second half, when the US scored, someone in the section above us threw (what smelled like) an open beer towards the group of El Salvador fans below us. A few of them looked up at my brother and I saying we threw it (we didn’t, we weren’t that stupid). I think El Salvador was out of the game by this point, and it was obvious that these guys were a few beers deep and wanted to start some problems….which was unfortunate for us, there were a LOT of them and only 4 of us (my brother and I, his wife, and my female friend).

Things started getting a little tense. I glanced down to where Danny and Hector were sitting, and they must have seen some of the El Salvador fans turning and pointing to us because they already had their group of friends standing up, ready to come give us some back-up.

Danny looked at me and said “you guys good?”. I gave him a shrug like “yeah, we’re cool” trying to diffuse the situation. Luckily things calmed down, and we got out of there once the final whistle blew, but the fact that Danny and Hector would round up a group of a group of guys from Honduras who didn’t really know us, and were ready to help out these two white guys who their friend hasn’t seen in 10 years… it’s something that I still think about. Danny didn’t have a ton of white friends growing up, and I didn’t have a ton of Honduran friends. We grew up with completely different backgrounds. But we grew up playing together, respected each other, and still to this day have each other’s backs.

I still think about this, and if I didn’t grow up playing soccer in the DMV, I would never have been lucky enough to have met such a diverse group of people in my lifetime.

Using Soccer as an Outlet

Playing soccer is more than just a sport sometimes. It’s a way for young people to express themselves, and escape certain real-life dilemmas that can take a mental and emotional toll. During a difficult time for our country… reports of a potential war on the horizon, and with racial tension at seemingly an all-time high, it’s extremely important, in my opinion, for youth players to have access to a productive outlet like playing soccer without outside issues contaminating their experiences.

Today’s news that Lizandro has been deported, after working so hard to become a college soccer player next season, catapults real-life politics into the protective bubble of playing soccer, and affects more than just Hispanic families who are worried that the same thing might happen to members of their communities and families.

Hopefully people understand that Lizandro spent practically every day of these past 2 years with teammates and coaches from all different backgrounds, becoming more of a family member than just a teammate. I cannot imagine having to watch a teammate that I grew up playing with forced to leave the country, for a reason that many believe is unjust. And even the thought of a player that I have coached going through something like what Lizandro and his family have gone through this week…well, hopefully today’s news makes everyone appreciate their teammates and coaches just a little more.

Props to Coach Ney and the entire Bethesda Soccer Club for stepping up and speaking out on Lizandro’s behalf. Many coaches would have taken the high road and stayed away from such a politically-sensitive topic, but Bethesda coaches Matt Ney, Jonathon Colton, and Bethesda Soccer club as an organization stepped up and did everything they could to attempt to convince the authorities that Lizandro should be allowed to pursue his dream.

People Fear The Unknown

I’ve played soccer since I was 6 years old. This year will make it 30 years since I started playing, and through all of this time I have realized two things:

  1. I am very proud to have played with, and coached, people from such a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, and
  2. There are a lot of people in our country who haven’t had these same experiences.

If anything positive can come from today’s news, it’s that we can all make a better effort to understand where others are coming from. Politics may have the country divided, but playing soccer is a common bond that can carry on for longer than you realize.

We can all use today’s news to appreciate each other, treat each other with a little more respect, and not take each other for granted. Only one thing truly brings us all together, and that is the game of soccer.