US Open Cup: Thoughts on US Soccer survey

I had the opportunity to participate in the US Soccer Voices survey about the US Open Cup.

Here’s a thought the survey format did not allow me to convey…

In a country with an open soccer pyramid, a competition like the US Open Cup serves as a bureaucracy/bias-buster and a way for reserve players to get play time against top players, to test their mettle.

Bias-busting: A division 1 team should beat a division 3 team by a few goals. If the division 3 team hangs in there, there might be something to be learned. Maybe the division 3 team has a few players that have unfairly been written off by division 1 team managers (biases), and they deserve a second look, or the division 3 team is employing different tactics that deserve some attention, either in copying or maybe it makes the coach worth looking at.

Does this mean this will happen in every single game between a D1 and D3 team? Nope. Most of these game should confirm what we would all expect, the D1 team will win comfortably. But, it’s the 1-in-50 or games where all the soccer community might learn something valuable.

Play time for reserves. Another purpose is to give reserve players more chances to play. In a game that only allows 3 subs per game, it’s tough for reserve players to get play time, so these types of competitions allow for that. That may also impact the conclusions that can be drawn from the first purpose (bias busting), but folks can generally adjust for that (“D3 was within a goal of D1, but D1 only had 2 of their starters).

In the US, the second purpose (play time for reserve players) is meant to be solved by having the reserve players play on the D1 team’s ‘minor league’ squad. But, that doesn’t give that player exposure to D1 players to see how they stack up.

Like most things, US Soccer seems to only see the superficial idea of what the US Open Cup is — a popular event that they can make money on.

They miss out on what it really is: It’s a way for a soccer federation to advance the sport through competition, rather than saddle it with bureaucracy.

The survey seemed focus on determining whether the ‘minor league’ teams of D1 teams be included in the competition.

Using the above rationale, they should. In competition, the more teams the better. I don’t think they should be allowed to bring down starters from their D1 teams, just so their minor league team can win some hardware. But, all teams should be able to participate in that each one can add a bit of knowledge to the pot of discovering top players, effective tactics and top coaches.

I think it’s useful to consider that US Soccer should see itself more of an organizer of a ‘Battle of the Bands’ competition than as the overlords of soccer (which I believe is how they view their role now).

In a battle of the bands, the idea is to encourage as many bands in the competition as possible and let them battle it out.

Missing from multi-million soccer complexes

Space for teams to warm-up, including goals. For a country that spends so much effort getting kids participating in soccer, we make it difficult for them to practice shooting.

Play areas for kids on the sidelines to go play some pickup, like a mini-pitch. It would be good to have one of these that’s accessible when the complex isn’t locked up, too.

Shooting/passing walls. At most empty goals at a soccer complex I see kids taking shots. Just think how many more shots they could take if the ball bounced back to them. Somehow our country got an abundance of tennis rebounding walls for tennis players to practice their skills on, but that concept has escaped the soccer community.

You don’t see that in soccer

I saw a social media post for tryouts for an 8u baseball team. It said players should already be able to catch and throw with ease and hit a ball off a pitching machine at X speed.

Have you seen prerequisites like that for competitive tryouts for soccer? I haven’t.

Here are a few that I would post if I were putting a team together: Players should already be able to trap, dribble and pass the ball with ease. Players should already be able to drive the ball 20 yards.

Why? If they don’t already have these basics, chances are low that they will work on their own to bring them up and I will spend so much time in practice on the basics that I won’t have time for much else.

Folks unfamiliar with soccer may need more specifics on what these basics look like.

Trapping and passing the ball with ease means they can use the inside of both feet to trap the ball and then pass the ball, accurately, 5-10 yards in multiple directions with 1 second or less between the trap and the pass. If it takes your child 2 or more seconds to get the ball under control and get the pass off, they aren’t ready for competitive soccer. If they can’t pass 5-10 yards accurately, they are not ready.

Dribbling the ball with ease does not mean kicking the ball and running after it. It means moving with the ball, touching it with each step of the dribbling foot, turning while maintaining control and shielding the ball.

Driving the ball 20 or more yards with intentional direction and accuracy to within a 3-5 yards of where you want it to go.

I say this from the perspective of seeing fair numbers of teenage club soccer players with years of experience that still can’t do these with ease.

Maybe they exist, but I can’t imagine teams of teenage competitive baseball players who can’t catch and throw with ease.

I think I just uncovered why. In baseball, they expect players to have the basics BEFORE they start playing competitive ball.

Almost always wrong, example

I’ve worked with mature businesses experiencing declines in units sold as the average price rose.

The obvious answer to most folks: rising prices chased away customers.

The market researchers agreed with the sales data, as their surveys revealed that high price was the number one reason cited by customers for not returning.

Even customers believed it. When I talked to customers, high price was the most common complaint.

I believed it, too.

Though, I opened my mind to other possibilities after we tried a number of ways to lower prices and they failed.

The ‘high price’ hypothesis didn’t die easy. We came up with all sorts of reasons why the price reductions failed: We didn’t tell anybody! The price drop was too small! We’ve already priced customers out and they won’t come back.

We tested those, too, to no avail. While others still clung to their high price explanation, I dug deeper.

I began asking customers lost to high price: What price would win you back?

Most paused as they thought about it and then gave me the real reason why they stopped using the company.

I found two common themes: service beaks and value discovery.

An example of service break is when you go to a high-end restaurant and receive casual chain restaurant level service. It’s not terrible, but didn’t live up to the higher expectation.

Value discovery is when someone tries your product and discovers they do not value it as much as their favorites. How many products do you try only to discover that you do not value it? I like beer. I try many beers that aren’t bad, but I don’t enjoy as much as the beers I like more, so I might buy them once and not again.

On a market research survey I might even say the price is too high and what I really mean is that the I’m not willing to pay for that beer when I can pay the same amount for a beer that I like more.

Those answers inspired me to ask the market research group to see raw data from their surveys.

I found through answers to other questions on the survey that got little attention on the market researchers’ final reports, the lost customers revealed the same two reasons.

The market research group had a strong bias against the company’s high prices and when they saw the answer that fit those biases, they stopped looking.

My analysis of the data inspired approaches to keeping customers, without discounting.

One approach we tried: improving training so that when a customer visited a high-end restaurant, they received the service they expected. That worked better than offering the discount.

Through that experience I learned to be aware and leery of when everybody thinks the answer is obvious. Maybe it isn’t.

Be open to other possible explanations.

Consider how to figure out those other explanations, like when I asked lost customers what price would win them back? And then dug deeper into the market research. The answers were there all along, but nobody wanted to look at them because they were so certain they knew already and discounted any opposing evidence.

After all that, I remember one day receiving a challenge from one of the market researchers, “if price isn’t the reason why units have declined, why have units declined almost in lock step with the price increases?”

What I had also discovered is that the prices had been increased by management in the past to make up for the lost units to achieve the company’s financial goals. So, the undiscovered reasons driving the lost customers were, in essence, causing the prices to rise, not the other way around.

Is pro/rel like capitalism?

I often see comparisons of US Soccer to socialism, while pro/rel is like capitalism. Then the discussion descends into capitalism vs. socialism.

I like this analogy instead: Pro/rel is like the Silicon Valley of the 1980s – 2000s, while US Soccer is like a mature bureaucratic corporation.

Pro/rel aligns incentives to attract investment, unleash innovation and healthy competition and induce a large number of experiments in soccer from grassroots to the top pro level, like how Silicon Valley attracted investors and innovators to develop great tech products.

US Soccer is like a mature corporation, resting on the laurels of its cash cows, that seeks to limit competition and innovation, to protect itself.

Coaching Corner: Keep the ball

As I said before, when the ball comes your way you have two jobs: Job one is to keep the ball. Job two is to create good balls.

I went backwards on this for a reason. Ultimately, good balls win games. We have to create them. We have to see them. They are important.

But, if we always try to create good balls, we will turn the ball over more than we should, which will hurt us. Sometimes, maybe more of the time, we need to play it safer and do job one and keep the ball so we can improve our team’s chances of creating a good ball in a few more moments.

Keeping the ball, and creating good balls, has several levels.

First is your ball mastery — first touch, dribbling & passing. You will be a big minus for your team if you can’t do these well, nor will you be able to advance to the next levels if you can’t do these. The idea is to be good enough that you can be making your decision on what’s next as the ball is coming your way, without losing the ball.

Second is moving to get open. We want teammates with the ball to have as many passing options as possible, so we all need to be moving to make that happen. You may not always get the pass, but if you’re moving, you may be drawing coverage, which might open space for another teammate, which increases our chances of keeping the ball.

A lot of teams break down here and never know it. They too often have only one passing option, the most obvious one. Everybody sees it, including the other team, which leads to a turnover.

The third level of keeping the ball is communication, which conveys direction of options. Words like trail, square, through, switch can give a teammate lots of info to make a good decision. Timing is also important. It’s much better to convey that option about a second before they get the ball than when they already have it. That will increase quality of decisions and speed of play.

The fourth level of keeping the ball is understanding passing and attacking patterns/combinations. To do this, you need high effectiveness on the previous three levels. There are lots of patterns. Common patterns are switching through the back, give-and-go, overlap and a cross, but there are many more.

The fifth level is creating your own patterns and combinations. It’s good to learn the common patterns of the game, but your competition will learn those too, as well as ways to shut them down. So, to stay ahead of your competition, you also need to create your own unique patterns. This takes creativity, knowledge of the game and understanding of yours’ and your teammates’ abilities. These will sometimes be discovered by accident and improvisation in the play of the game, but they can also be thought about while brushing your teeth.

Coaching Corner: Good balls

When the ball comes your way, you have two jobs.

Job one is to keep the ball with the team. More on that later.

Job number two is to create a ‘good ball’. A ‘good ball’ is well-played ball that creates an advantage for your team. These are potential game changers.

Examples can range from laying a ball out for a teammate to take a good shot with one touch or as small as popping a loose ball to a nearby open teammate, turning a 50/50 chance of winning the ball into 100% chance.

Get in the habit of recognizing good balls and letting your teammates know by telling them, “Good ball!” The more we reward them, the more we will produce them and the more chances we will create.

Why own a pro sports team?

Many assume people own sports teams as a way to make money. That’s true, but not in the usual way.

Most businesses are valued based on how much cash they pump out. But, not sports teams.

Believe it or not, sports teams don’t pump out a lot of cash. Most of the revenue of the sports team goes to the players.

So, how do sports teams make money for the owners?

For their relatively small financial size, they carry a lot of prestige and name recognition. This is great for business, especially the owners’ other businesses, where they make their real money.

It turns out owning a sports team helps owners make more money for their other businesses, indirectly, through the higher profile, and directly as deals are signed in the warm surroundings of the owners box.

It doesn’t hurt that somewhere down the road, if the owner tires of owning the team, there are plenty of other wealthy folks out there willing to pay top dollar for those benefits.

Just remember, that value has little to do with the relative paltry profits from the team and much more to do with how owning the team can be used to grow their other businesses.

Some wealthy folks own teams as a hobby, too. It’s a fun distraction from their boring business lives. It’s like a vacation home or golf club membership. It has multiple purposes. It can be used for leisure and for business.

It’s good to keep this in mind if you find yourself coming to the defense of wealthy team owners by assuming they wouldn’t invest in a sport team in a pro/rel system that could be relegated if the owner doesn’t invest enough in payroll to keep the team competitive.

Trust me, wealthy business owners do not need you defending their interests. They aren’t strangers to taking risks.