Would Messi get discovered in pay-to-play?

I recently watched the movie, Messi, on Amazon Prime. I had not seen that style of documentary before.

I  recommend it.

Seeing how Messi was discovered made me wonder what the chances are Messi’s to be discovered in a pay-to-play model.

I think lower.

Sports clubs like Messi’s first club, Newell’s Old Boys, which was his first step in discovery, do not exist in pay-to-play.

If I’m reading the Newell’s Old Boys website and doing my exchange rates, correctly, belonging to the club costs about $7 per month for a youth and $10/month for an adult.

It looks like these fees grant access to all sorts of sports and facilities, not just soccer.

That type of club is like an amalgamation of a professional team, college team, high school team, youth sports club, rec center and social club.

Even the cheapest soccer clubs in pay-to-play cost about 10x that amount and you get one thing, soccer.

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U.S. Soccer stole soccer from us. How can we take it back?

U.S. Soccer is a monopoly accountable to nobody and backed by U.S. courts.

Before listing its anti-competitive behavior, it’s important to understand how soccer federations in other countries sees their roles.

They see their role as enabling competition on the field, rather than squashing it.

This is in sharp contrast to how U.S. Soccer views its role. It sees its role as controlling soccer from top to bottom to favor the pockets of its chosen winners. Competition on the field is secondary. It’s just entertainment.

Following are a few ways I’ve watched U.S. Soccer squash competition with progressively raised brows over the past few years

U.S. Soccer-controlled MLS/SUM actively blocks or absorbs competition, like the NASL (blocked) or USL (absorbed).

Also, check out how U.S. Soccer placed a USL team in Chattanooga to try to steal goodwill built up by Chattanooga FC, which doesn’t like to play by U.S. Soccer’s playbook.

Further, they control the teams in their preferred leagues. They are basically one team with different names in different cities.

Competition is rigged, outwardly, through a labriynth of leaugue rules to spread players across these teams.

Other countries see their role in leagues as sanctioning a merit-based competion among individual clubs. The merit they are after is the quality of soccer on the field. Let the best teams fight it out on the field! They don’t intervene to spread talent out.

U.S. Soccer has also squashed competition to its expensive coaching curriculum.

Some federations believe good coaching should be widespread, rather than exclusive. They want as many young players as possible to benefit from good coaching. Their licenses are cost a fraction of a U.S. Soccer license.

Key question: Why? US Men’s Soccer is third or fourth tier. Who would pay for a license from them if they weren’t forced to?

U.S. Soccer recently made moves to corner the market for MLS teams on transfer fees, training compensation and solidarity payments in how it restructured its development academy.

Soccer federations in other countries know they can’t possibly find and train the country’s next wave of talent all on their own. They understand that finding those diamond-in-the-rough of players is all about casting as wide of a net as possible.

They see transfer fees, training compensation and solidarity payments as incentives to get as many clubs as possible engaged in this process to cast that wide net.

That greatly lowers the chance that top notch players don’t slip through the cracks because their parents can’t afford pay-to-play or can’t drive 2-3 hours for their child to be a part of a Development Academy team.

These are just some of the anti-competitive activities I’ve seen U.S. Soccer take in the past few years. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more actions taken behind the scenes.

When U.S. Soccer desanctioned NASL, it was challenged in court. The courts upheld the desanctioning because it recognized U.S. Soccer’s right to commit anti-competitive actions as part of its charter to ‘govern’ the sport in the U.S.

How can we take soccer back?

How U.S. Soccer is like the school cafeteria

Jon Townsend does an eloquent job in his article, “Deconstructing the American Game and the Problems So Many Thought Never Existed,” of laying  out the key issues in U.S. soccer.

Here’s a key issue:

The United States has no shortage of resources, players, fields, minivans, orange slices and participants. What it doesn’t have is a true culture on a large-scale basis. Vital elements like self-play, recreation games, and street football are not woven into the fabric of society in ways that basketball, American football and baseball are.

Too many people believe systems and coaches develop players and that’s where they spend a good deal of their energy.

They overlook a key truth: Culture develops players.

That’s been true of the sports woven into the fabric of our society forever, but it’s a cause and effect that’s hidden in plain sight. Few notice.

Near the end of the article, Townsend writes:

There is unlikely to be a single solution that operates as a panacea for all the ills and deficiencies of the domestic game from the youth to professional levels. If there is one, it is a truly open system where player development becomes an industry. Where investment in all tiers of the game is not a Ponzi scheme but a truly open and free market. Additionally, incentivising player and coaching development must be key drivers. Creating and fostering football as a cultural pillar is paramount.

Yes.

It’s tough for many folks to imagine the difference in outcomes between open and closed systems, but it’s big.

Restaurants are an open system. From it we get a lot of choices on where and what to eat, as well as when.

If restaurants were run like soccer in the U.S., our dinner choices would look more like school cafeterias. Decent, but mediocre, at best.

Of course, we wouldn’t know because we wouldn’t be able to imagine what we were missing.

For those pushing for an open system, we’d hear critics say, yeh but…some restaurants will fail, and that will put people out of work, and nobody will invest in a restaurant if there’s a chance it could fail. These are the types of reasons advocates to keep our closed soccer system.

But, imagine replacing your favorite restaurants with school cafeterias. The quality and selection would be meh. Hours of operation might be shorter and they may not be as conveniently located. The atmosphere may not be as nice. You may not be able to get your favorite cocktail or that one dish at that one place that you look forward to each month.

You may still not be able to imagine all that you’d be missing.

I remember visiting a family member in a different state. I couldn’t get beer after 10 pm because all the state liquor stores were already closed. When I went out the next day, I had to drive a good distance to get the beer.

At home, where the liquor market was more open, there are a dozen or more places within a short drive where I could get beer at any time.

Those that lived in the closed system were used to it. They didn’t know what they were missing.

I’ll keep my open system, thank you. Most will after experiencing it.

Let’s make it a smarter business decision to invest in soccer, at any level

On this 3Four3 podcast, guest Brandon Ponchak explains why Alexi Lalas’s challenge to “build a better a mousetrap” (to get pro/rel or anything different than what US Soccer currently has) in soccer falls flat on its face.

The explanation was given by the guest and is the title of the podcast:  “People Want to Invest in American Soccer, but They Want to Make Smart Business Decisions.”

In the podcast, Brandon explains further why building a better mousetrap in the U.S. isn’t a smart business decision.

Short answer: because there’s no upside. U.S. Soccer restricts that upside.

He explains further in this blog post of his from 2016 that various forms of upside are common features of soccer federations around the globe, and also supported (or mandated, except in a few countries) by the world governing body, FIFA.

Implementing these would make investing in soccer in the U.S., at any level, smarter, which would attract more investment.

Metcalfe’s Law predicts time of possession in youth soccer

Metcalfe’s Law states that the value of a computer network is proportional to the square of the number of nodes on the network.

For example, going from two computers connected to a network to three, a 50% increase in nodes, increases the value of the network by 125%.

How the math works: The two node network has a value of 4 units (2×2).  The three node network has a value of 9 units (3×3).

So, the three node network is more than twice as valuable (9 units vs 4 units) as the two node network.

The key point of the law is that the value of the network grows proportionally faster than the number of nodes.

This law can be applied to any network, including a soccer team.

When a team of 11 players is on offense, each player can be thought of as a node on a network to move the ball through IF that player can keep the ball with the team, consistently.

At elite levels, usually, all players on each team are effective nodes, so Metcalfe’s Law isn’t all that helpful there.

But with youth teams, it’s common to have varying numbers of players that can keep the ball with the team reliably (better than 60% of the time) at game speed (i.e. before the other team closes them down or closes down their passing options).

In my experience, the number of players on a team that are effective nodes on offense is a key differentiator in how good a team is and at what level it can compete.

It also can predict time of possession.

As a coach, one thing I sized up as the competition warmed up was how many players could cleanly trap and pass.

I put teams into one of four buckets

  • Level 1 is a team where all players can move the ball and keep it with the team consistently (50-70% of the time). These teams can compete at elite levels. Metcalfe’s law here says the value of the network is 121 units (11 x 11), as all 11 players are effective network nodes.
  • Level 2 has 8 (+/-1) players who are proficient nodes. Their Metcalfe’s Law value is around 64  (8 x 8), about half value of a Level 1 team.
  • Level 3 has about about 6 players as proficient nodes, or a value of about 36.
  • Level 4 has 4 or fewer of players as proficient nodes. This is typically a beginner level team. Metcalfe’s Law here says the value of the network is about 16 (4 x 4), where only 4 players are effective network nodes,

I used Metcalfe’s Law to predict time of possession by comparing the values of the network for each level of team.

In a Level 1 vs. Level 2 match-up, for example, I would expect the Level 1 team to have the ball 1.8x more than the Level 2 team (L1 value of 121 divided by L2 value of 64). That factors out to about 65% possession for the Level 1 team vs. 35% for the Level 2 team.

Here’s how that approach predicts time of possession for match-ups between teams at different levels (shown is the time of possession for better team):

  • Level 1 v 4: 1 will have ball 94% of time
  • Level 1 v 3: 77%
  • Level 1 v 2: 65%
  • Level 2 v 3: 70%
  • Level 2 v 4: 88%
  • Level 3 v 4: 70%

If teams are on the same level, possession will be close to 50/50.

In my experience, these estimates fit well.

It makes sense. With each successive player who becomes a reliable node in the offensive network, the ways a team can keep the ball goes up by even more.

So, what does this mean?

As a player, one of the most valuable ways to improve your team’s offensive effectiveness is to improve your turnover ratio.

 

Youth soccer in the U.S. is a Rube Goldberg machine

Near the end of this episode of John Pranjic’s 3Four3 podcast, he and guest Joey Cascio discuss how soccer in the U.S. is designed to be noncompetitive.

For example, when there’s a U6 team beating all other teams by 6 or 7 goals, the first thought is to split that team up to balance them out, rather than looking for ways to move that team up to challenge them more.

This reminds me of when I moved from coaching rec to club soccer, I was surprised with the complexity and bureaucracy involved with getting kids playing a game.

My naive self thought it should be as simple as it is to get kids playing rec or indoor soccer: Sign waiver, Pay for your spot, Play.

It’s not that easy.

Try-outs happen one week a year, dictated by the state association. Kids and parents are expected to make a 1-year commitment to a club during that one week period, which puts a lot of pressure on players and coaches during that condensed period of musical chairs — and sometimes the best decisions aren’t made.

There’s lots of paperwork — waivers, birth certificates, photo ID player cards, club rules, guest player forms, rosters, travel permits, secondary roster permission forms and facility insurance forms.

There’s player check-ins and roster checks before games and tournaments.

Distinctions between skill and ability levels are confusing. What level do you play? A/B/C; 1/2/3? Is 1 good, or 3? Premier? Elite? Gold/Silver/Bronze? Red/White/Blue?

Some of this bureaucratic overhead is meant to help keep competition balanced (e.g. keeping teams from using ringers to get wins), as mentioned on the 3Four3 podcast, thinking that will keep kids and parents interested longer.

But, to me, youth soccer looks like a Rube Goldberg machine: an overly complex device made to do a simple task — getting kids — many who don’t even have the basics — playing a game.

It seems like there’s massive opportunity for improvement.

Getting over the hump holding most kids back from getting better at soccer and the role of culture

In the previous post, I wrote about how Jimmy Conrad took the reigns to improve at soccer.

He got over the hump of doing the minimum and hoping things would click.

When I coached, I experimented with ways to get kid over that hump.

I figured if the kids do the minimum, progress will be slow. If they gain an interest in learning the sport on their own, it can speed progress 5-10 times.

I couldn’t find anything that had a lasting effect.

One example: I assigned homework hoping kids would see how that extra work would improve their game performance and motivate them to do more.

They saw the improvement. But, it didn’t take long for them to credit their improvement to other factors, “It wasn’t the homework. I’ve been playing for 3 years. I think things are just finally clicking for me.”

In my experience, it seems like a small percentage of folks like Jimmy figures it out on their own, while most don’t.

Maybe that’s true for most things and part of the reason there’s a normal distribution (bell curve) of talent.

Maybe the beauty of a strong culture is that it doesn’t rely on kids having self drive like Conrad.

A culture overcomes this with activities kids think are fun and elements that keep the kids doing those activities.

Culture succeeds by getting more kids, not just the self-driven ones, doing things that improve their ability, which shifts the whole bell curve over.

I also encouraged the players to play monkey-in-the-middle when they got together outside of practice. This basic activity is a common feature in soccer cultures that teaches 1st touch, passing, communication and defending, like how playing “catch” in our culture teaches kids to catch and throw a baseball with high precision.

What I found is that you can’t simply transplant the activity without the rest of the culture that has elements that help overcome barriers to playing the game.

The boys couldn’t keep the game going on their own.

Inevitably, there would be one player who would end up in the middle too often and sabotage the game for everyone by doing stuff like kicking the ball away.

The boys tried to solve the problem by telling those kids to go home and work on passing, which made things worse.

The boys also knew who the bad passers were, so they would try even harder when the ball went to them, because they knew that was their easy ticket out of the middle.

How does culture solve this problem?

It finds ways to involve everyone of varying abilities to make it fun for everyone.

I once watched these same boys organize a game of pickup baseball.

Rather than telling the weaker baseball players to go home and learn to play, they evened out the teams and took it a little easier on the weaker players (fielding a hit slowly giving them a chance to make it to base), to make it fun for them. They also coached those players, even if they were on the opposing team, on what to do to help them improve.

Why couldn’t these same boys make do this with monkey-in-the-middle?

I think it’s because they hadn’t learned soccer through culture (backyard play with friends and family).

They had learned it through adult-led activities where the adults did all the balancing, often without the kids knowledge.

So, instead of telling the bad passer to work on his passing, maybe the could have lightened up the pressure on him when he had the ball and gave him some tips on how to trap the ball and where to pass to.

Maybe they could say that he gets 3 turnovers before he goes to the middle and when he’s in the middle, maybe they could have taken turns on making a weaker pass after a few good passes that he could intercept.

I always imagined how much better those kids could have been if they spent two hours a week playing monkey-in-the-middle on their own. What if, after learning how to do that, they spread it at recess at school so others could learn, too?