British Invasion as a way to change the MLS from the inside out

In this Men in Blazers podcast special, Rog interviews the president of new MLS franchise, Atlanta United FC, Darren Eales.

Atlanta United has had a successful inaugural season on and off the field, due in large part to Eales efforts and his experience.

Eales was hired from English Premier League side, Tottenham, so he knows the business.

About 26 minutes in, Eales discusses the MLS and transfer fees. He makes some great points.

One of the issues it [MLS] has had is its been almost like a little island of its own. It’s almost isolated itself from the rest of the world football.

The point I made to Arthur [Atlanta United FC’s owner], the first time I met him was that every club is a selling club… You got to get used to that. You shouldn’t be frightened of it. This is how it works.

So my vision is that we could take players that were younger, invest in a transfer fee, rather than dead wages on player that was going to be retiring at the end of their contract and use that as a way to bring better talent in.

My view is, if MLS establishes that, you then are going to be able to attract better players, because more players are going to want to come, if they feel it can be a stepping stone.

It’s a virtuous circle. Yes, you’re going to have to be prepared to lose some players. But you’re going to bring better players in and be able to take the transfer fees and reinvest them.

It was easier for me to have that view because I came from outside of it [MLS].

The MLS seems to be moving in the direction of more participation in the transfer fee market, but has been reluctant for a few reasons.

One reason is that it wanted to avoid being a ‘selling league’, as Eales says. That means selling the contracts of it’s top talent (or ‘selling players’) to other clubs — perhaps better clubs.

I believe the MLS wanted to be thought of as a top-tier league, itself, that should be buying, rather than selling players.

Also, the MLS wanted to exert league control over transfers to maintain parity and competitiveness in the league, like other American pro sports leagues that try to do this with salary caps, draft positioning, etc.

I’ve always found it ironic that in the U.S., the land of the decentralized planning and risk-taking, pro sports leagues are organized are more centrally-planned, while in countries that are more prone to centrally-planned economies, their sports leagues are organized on decentralized risk-taking and competition.

The long-term effect of league parity is mediocrity. In other American sports leagues this mediocrity isn’t as noticeable because those sports aren’t played widely in the rest of the world.

But, soccer is played worldwide with many inter-country competitions. It is noticeable when American soccer doesn’t match up, like in the US Men’s National Team performance in the qualifying round for the World Cup.

The long-term effect of competition is elevating the top-levels to very high quality.

Eales couldn’t have said it better. Every club is a selling club. You shouldn’t be frightened of it. This is how it works.

Maybe having Eales’ voice in the MLS will help the much needed change of participating in the world transfer fee market for soccer talent become a reality.


Or maybe we just have the wrong definition of success

Megan McArdle, in Bloomberg, writes: We Libertarians Were Really Wrong About School Vouchers.

Neal McCluskey wrote a good counter to that on Cato with many valid points (HT: Cafe Hayek).

Scott Sumner also responded to McArdle’s article and said similar things to what I said last year. He writes:

We don’t evaluate the quality of a Tesla by how fast it goes from zero to 60, we use the market test—do consumers want this car? Education is no different; the way to judge school quality is not test scores, it’s consumer demand.


Let’s expand on this.

Neal McCluskey refers to George Clowes of the Heartland Institute, who identifies several facets of the market that vouchers lack.

A key missing facet is this:

Lack of freedom of educators to establish different types of schools.

In cases where vouchers or charters are allowed, the model is still defined to be something very close to a public school.

Imagine if restaurants were run like schools. At the restaurant, your meal is free. But, it’s paid for by your property tax, state and Federal taxes on the back end.

That means the local board, state and Federal bureaucrats (with no skin in the game) have a say in how to run your local restaurants.

The local board may want to try something different than the next town, but they don’t want to miss out on the state and Fed funds, so they go along with the “experts” and bureaucrats from these bodies.

It just so happens that the experts love Denny’s, so they deem all restaurants to be Denny’s. There’s nothing wrong with Denny’s. It’s a decent restaurant. It serves food all day, has a reasonable variety of menu items and doesn’t make a lot of people sick.

Some groups might emerge and say, we think that some restaurants should be privately run because it’s better to have choice.

The bureaucrats begrudgingly go along with the idea, BUT insist that any restaurant a private party opens must be like Denny’s, otherwise they will withhold their funds.

Things don’t change much and years later folks like Megan McArdle write about how wrong we were about restaurant choice because the privately-run Denny’s aren’t much different than the government-run Denny’s.

But, if all restaurants were restricted to be Denny’s, we would could not imagine what we are missing.

We wouldn’t have McDonald’s, Chipotle, Smashburger, Starbucks, Olive Garden or the local gems and dives that we love to frequent.

Even if you measure our existing wide variety of restaurants on standard scales, you will likely miss the differences that are truly relevant to customers.

Consider some standard measures that might be used to compare restaurants:

  • Wait time
  • Customer satisfaction
  • How good the food tastes
  • Percentage of people who get sick

You might find that the scores on such measures don’t differ much for Starbucks among Starbucks faithful and Denny’s among Denny’s faithful.

You might then dangerously conclude that there’s no need for both, because the scores on standard measures aren’t much different.

Reality is different. Try taking Starbucks away and telling those customers they now have to go to Denny’s. You will have lots of unhappy campers.

What’s wrong? The standard measures miss the differences between Starbucks and Denny’s that are truly relevant to people, because those differences are subtle, subjective and often not even clearly understood by the customers — until their preferred option disappears.

Which gets us back to Sumner’s point and my point way back in 2009 — consumer demand is the best judge of school quality.

One final point: Something that most folks who opine on school choice miss is that there already is a good deal of choice — they just don’t recognize it. I wrote about that here.

That’s another reason why it shouldn’t be surprising why adding a minor choice to a landscape that already has some level of choice doesn’t produce far different results.

It’s like adding a 7th flavor to an ice cream shop that serves 6 flavors and expecting that 7th flavor to do wonderful things for the business, then being disappointed when it doesn’t change things much.

Good reading for issues in U.S. soccer

Regarding soccer in the U.S., here’s some good background reading on the subject.

This guy has some very matter of fact things to say about the whole soccer thing in the U.S.

He supports (and perhaps influenced) my view that the soccer culture in the U.S. is not conducive to producing elite levels of ball control. He also talks about the difference between direct and possession soccer and why direct soccer (which doesn’t produce high quality ball control) is favored in the U.S. (it wins games at low levels).

The following two articles explore some key organizational differences in soccer in the U.S.: promotion/relegation, transfer fees and solidarity payments.

This guy makes a good case for making the MLS a “selling league”.  (HT: Men in Blazers)

These guys make a fantastic case for promotion/relegation (and also making the MLS a selling league).

A key point is that these features are nearly universal in the soccer world, but the U.S. did not adopt them and it holds us back.

U.S. Soccer isn’t Amazon

In the Men in Blazers Emergency Podcast about US Men’s Soccer, following the defeat in T&T, Davo had a good commentary.

At around 45 minutes in, Davo said, in response to Rog’s comment that significant changes at U.S. Soccer will surely fall out:

My counterpoint to that is soccer is not owned by the authorities, soccer is owned by the people, owned by the streets, owned by the players.

It’s not like I expect U.S. Soccer to work with the efficiency of Amazon. It’s not that kind of an organization.

I do think governance is very important in all organizations and I think we got to look at U.S. Soccer, look at governance, look at who’s standing for election.

I think what happens as U.S. soccer next is going to be significant, but it isn’t going to be the be all and end all to football.

Then Davo went on to explain that the reason US MNT didn’t do well in this hex is because they leaked 13 goals because they don’t have a good center back pairing, otherwise they aren’t that bad.

I agree with what Davo says about soccer being owned by the players. That goes to the problem I identified in my previous post — lack of soccer culture in the U.S.

With better soccer culture, the U.S. could produce an elite pool a 100-500 players deep, any random combination of which would be Top 10 in the world rankings.

If that were to happen, the discussion wouldn’t be about U.S. Soccer governance. It would be, should we have given more minutes to Lebron or Curry on the National Team?

But, I disagree that the problem with the National Team is lack of a good center back pairing.

Maybe a better center back pairing would have helped the U.S. place better than 5th of 6 and losing to the 6th place in the CONCACAF Qualifying Hex, which is a weak group, but it would not make a meaningful difference in the U.S.’s place in the world order — currently 28th.

They’d still be far short of the Top 10.

While I believe the U.S. Soccer isn’t fully responsible for the state of soccer culture in the U.S., I do believe there are things they could do to help it along.

More to come…

Soccer (non)culture in the U.S.

U.S. players have less ball control than players from around the world. This means they can’t play at the same quick tempo and intensity as players from football-plalying countries.

Americans are also not known for our finishing, aka scoring.

Christian Pulisic is an exception. But, he is more of a product of English football culture.

Which is the first part of the problem, football culture in the U.S. is lacking.

Club soccer is not a culture. It’s baby-sitting.

Here’s a good description of soccer culture in Germany. We don’t have that. There may be pockets of it here and there, but it isn’t widespread.

Culture is kids of all ages playing on the playground for hours everyday without an adult, emulating their heroes they watch fervently on the weekend.

Culture is former pros not having to teach 10-year-old kids how to trap the ball (a basic skills that would be like having former MLB players teaching your kid how to catch) at training, because those kids learned that with family and friends when they learned to walk.

That type of culture sparked Pulisic’s interest when he lived in England for a year when he was 7.

The difference culture produces in ball skills is like the difference culture produces in language.

The language we were born into is natural to us. Second languages are not. You can become fluent in a second language, but native speakers can tell it’s not your native tongue.

My son’s gym class was playing baseball. His classmate from England stepped up to the plate and grabbed the bat awkwardly. Everybody in the class corrected him. He said, That’s how you hold a cricket bat! 

Few kids in the gym class play club baseball, but they all know how to hold a baseball bat. They learned it from our baseball culture. The British student didn’t know how to hold a bat because he did not grow up in the baseball culture.

When I watch Americans play soccer against players from soccer cultures, it’s like watching kids play baseball who grew up in a cricket culture. They’re playing similar, but different games.

Building soccer culture is easier said than done.

More to come…

US Soccer – What should be done?

With the U.S.’s exit from World Cup Qualifying, there is much discussion on what’s wrong.

How can a nation of 350 million people get beat by a country that has about half as many people than the Kansas City metro area?!?

Iceland, a country of 350,000, qualified! Yes, Iceland has almost as many people as Omaha, Nebraska and they qualified for the World Cup!!!

There are calls for a new manager. That is likely needed, but that won’t solve the problem.

The problem is that we have a top-down system trying to solve a bottom-up problem.

I will add to this post over the coming days with thoughts on this, but I have already posted many of my thoughts in previous posts.

I think a big missing piece of the puzzle is that pickup play in the U.S. is non-existent.


Pulisic and soccer in the U.S.

The best American soccer player so far? Perhaps. At least the best attacking player we’ve seen in some time.

This post is more of a catch-all on the subject for me to help me retain some of the pieces of info collected from various sources and my thoughts.

Here’s a piece from 60 Minutes.

3Four3 Podcast interviewed Christian’s Dad early last year.

Here are some notables from the 60 Minutes piece:

(4:00) – Bruce Arena on Pulisic: “…you don’t think he’s an American. He looks like a natural on the field. He moves gracefully. He’s strong for his size. His speed is incredible. His first touch is good…this is a very talented young man.”

I think this is funny, because that means Americans aren’t known for looking natural on the field. But, as we will come to find out, there’s nothing natural about Pulisic’s skills. He has worked hard to develop them.

(5:20) – Christian’s Mom discusses his perfectionist tendencies from a young age. This may be an indication of his built in desire to work hard to perfect something.

(5:50) – “He became obsessed with soccer. [Video of young Pulisic juggling]. Before he started kindergarten, had mastered one of the sports most difficult skills — playing with both feet. He’d play for hours in the yard. When his parents finally coaxed him inside for dinner, he’d pass under this sign [“Confidence!!”], the one word gospel according to Mark.”

(7:20) – Christian’s Dad, Mark: “We didn’t put him in a structured environment all the time. He played for one team. He’d practice twice a week and play a game on the weekend.”

Reporter: “You hear the stories of parents doing thousands of miles of travel, taking their kids everywhere. Special coaches. Special diets. Backyard workouts.”

Mark: “Doesn’t work.”

This was strange coming just a few minutes after mentioning how Christian would play in the yard for hours. Seems like the reporter and parents forgot about that. And as we will see from other sources, he spent hours upon hours playing with kids in England. 

(10:00) – It shows Christian training in the FutBotNot — a room that pitches ball to a player and targets light up around the room for him to pass the ball to.

I thought this was funny. Certainly a decent training tool to help you get used to looking around, but Pulisic likely didn’t see this thing until well after he was good enough to make a top German first team.

From the podcast:

(6:00) – Mark describes Christian’s typical start in rec soccer at around 5. “He wasn’t that interested. He was more interested in the people on the sidelines.”

But, then they moved to England for a year because Christian’s Mom did a teacher exchange program. It sounds like Christian was around 6 or 7 when that happened. Mark: “Got a pretty big bump there, playing U8, did really well. You know, played every day after school on the playground with big kids in England.”

(7:50) – When did you notice he was starting to excel? Mark: “Pretty much right away. He was an athlete. So after that 7-8 years old, he was watching games all the time. In 7-8 in England he really wanted to watch and play everyday. So, even at that young age you see the bug already to start to creep into him.

Once you realized soccer was going to be something a little more for him, did you change your approach… Mark: “Yeah, it wasn’t like a lot of these idiot parents that scream at their kids all the time, you know. I was coaching him all the time, just tried to make sure he enjoyed it. Whether he played poorly, or didn’t work that hard, I just made a decision at an early age to let the game be about him and not about me. I look back on that now and that was probably the best thing I did, was just leaving him alone.

Overall thoughts:

Christian had early exposure to proper technique, which most US soccer players lack guidance on unless they happen to grow up in a soccer family. This would have likely put him well ahead of 95% of soccer players in an age 5 soccer program.

Here, Christian admits that living in a true soccer culture in England for a year when he was 7 sparked his interest and love in the game. From the article:

Yet Pulisic, who spent most of his childhood back home in the US, places a great emphasis on a year he spent in England back when he was seven.

As the American international told Sportsmail in the tunnel at Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park: ‘It’s a big reason where I am today.

‘A lot of people don’t realise but it really brought on my passion for the game. After school every day, I was just out for hours in the park, playing with my schoolmates.

‘That’s really where my love for the game started to come alive and that was a big part of my development.’

Christian’s advantages appear to include:

  • Growing up in a soccer family, which means early exposure to proper technique.
  • Natural athleticism.
  • Built-in desire to work hard.
  • An interest in the sport sparked by being immersed in the culture in England.
  • Hours on the playground during that time — with kids of all ages — learning the sport at a level that is is not widely known in the U.S., which is mostly concentrated in organized play.
  • Regular trips to some of the top clubs in the world that his Dad made over the summer.
  • He had the desire to learn to juggle at a young age — I’m not sure if that was inspired by his immersion in England or before that. That’s something that is not inherent in many U.S. soccer players.

Pulisic seems like a good kid with good parents. He’s a hard worker and deserves every bit of success he’s experiencing.

While Pulisic is American, his soccer roots are European.

I believe if the soccer culture was alive and well in the U.S., the U.S. could produce about 10 Pulisics each generation and probably 100 – 200 players that aren’t far behind him.

The U.S. lacks the culture to inspire those hours upon hours of after-school free play where skills get developed.

And, U.S. Soccer dictates a form of soccer that is closer to soccer’s close cousin, rugby, than it is to the modern game of soccer that is being played around the world.

I have these questions for Pulisic: 

Can you describe the games and culture where you played for hours upon hours on the playground after school?

What made it so fun that you could spend hours doing it? My experience with kids in the U.S. is that it’s like pulling teeth to get them to do anything soccer-related on their own.

Could you contrast that experience with experience in youth soccer in the US?

What was the club you played for in England like compared to clubs you played for in the U.S.?

Was it important that pickup games included a mix of ages? How did the older kids interact with the younger kids?

If you were to get more kids playing on their own, like U.S. kids play pickup basketball, how would you do it?

When did you decide that you wanted to learn to juggle and why?

Update: I forgot to mention, the German soccer culture Mark Pulisic describes in the podcast very much aligns with the description I found in the comment on another blog and reposted here.

“2,039 Millionaires!”

I saw that on a billboard advertising the state lottery.

This is a good example of a true, but misleading statistic. The lottery’s ad company used it because it’s compelling.

In our feeble minds, we think, ‘wow, 2,039, that’s a lot…why couldn’t that be me?” Of course, that’s exactly what the marketing company hopes you think.

It’s easy for us to get our heads around 2,039. It’s a number we deal with often. We know it’s a lot, but it’s not so much that we can’t picture it. It’s a few sections of an arena at a concert. We probably didn’t know the lottery had created that many millionaires.

It is a wonderful use of stats to sway opinion.

It wasn’t lost on me that this is the same way stats are used to sway public opinion on other things, like this Newsweek article that cites the number of people killed by police officers since Mike Brown: 2,506.

While both of these stats are true, the way they are used is misleading and there are more pertinent facts.

The more pertinent fact for the lottery is your chances of becoming a millionaire by playing it. That’s much less compelling.

More thoughts on 5-a-side

After posting this recommendation on changing the structure of youth soccer in the U.S., I thought of a few more thoughts to add.

Pickup soccer in the U.S. is lacking

Much of the 5-a-side played in the Top 10 FIFA countries is unorganized (e.g. street soccer). Similarly, a lot of the play in the U.S.’s beloved sports is also unorganized (e.g. pickup basketball).

We underappreciate how much skill development takes place in pickup play.

Progressing players to larger fields by age, rather than skill, may not be as detrimental if kids supplemented their organized play with pickup play.

I believe more pickup play is another step in the right direction, but getting more of it is not a straightforward problem to solve.

Playing more 5-a-side in organized play might help their skill development and help them see different ways to play soccer.

When kids think of soccer, they think of a big field, lots of players and two large, netted goals. If those conditions aren’t met, they don’t play.

When I first started playing soccer, as an adult, I met with a group of other adults in a local park to play pickup. We played on the youth fields with small, netted goals and marked sidelines.

There was a group of Latinos who played pickup at the same time on the next field.

One day we showed up and the goals and lines were gone for the winter. We couldn’t imagine playing without these props! What were we to do?

We started laughing when we looked over to the Latino pickup group and they were moving trash cans and setting up their gym bags as make-shift goals.

Of course!

This example demonstrated how much their soccer-playing culture had taught them to improvise and play no matter what, while we still were operating in the domain that we must have marked fields and netted goals to play. But, we learned to improvise that day.

This is no different than ‘our’ sports. I’ve watched my son and his friends improvise with baseball and basketball in the same way.

For example, four or five of them get an impromptu game of baseball going in a sloped driveway, complete with make-shift bases, using ghost-runners to keep the game going. They didn’t need a ball diamond, with nice bases and a manicured outfield to play baseball.

These same kids, who had been playing organized soccer for years could not and would not improvise with the soccer ball.

More exposure to the small-sided, small-court game might help players realize that they don’t need a full field, marked sidelines and netted goals to have fun, just like generations ago kids discovered that playing 1-on-1 or ’21’ with a hoop on the driveway was just as fun, if not more fun, than the regulation game of basketball.

The answer is hiding in plain sight 

Every winter soccer coaches tell parents how indoor soccer and futsal will help their children’s foot skills.

Each Spring, I hear parents comment at the better ball control their kids display on the soccer pitch after a winter of futsal.

Many already know the benefits of futsal, but go ahead and resume full field soccer in the spring and fall and watch many of their kids bumble around with sloppy ball control instead of sticking with the thing that is making the most impact until their child is competent to move on.

Playing more 5-a-side will help prevent position specialization too early and make more creative players

Pushing kids into 7v7, 9v9 and 11v11 at young ages has another downside, it pushes position specialization too early.

With 6 to 8 fairly distinct positions it becomes difficult for players to rotate and learn the responsibilities of more than a couple positions.

5-a-side is much simpler, yet has the base elements of tactics used in 11v11. It gives players ample opportunity to play different roles during a single game.

I shudder to think how many players don’t find their potential as a striker because their strengths at age 10 or 11 suited them more for another position. Over the next 7-8 years those players get a fraction of shot attempts than the players suited to be a striker at age 10.

In 5-a-side, all players get multiple shots each game, building their database on multiple ways to finish.

In 11v11, the majority of players can go for seasons without taking a single shot.

It’s not surprising to me that scoring creative goals is not what U.S. teams or players are known for. The pool of developing scorers in the U.S. is unnecessarily restricted at a young age by the structure of soccer, itself. Lack of pickup play doesn’t help that.

Update: On his Twitter, Jon Townsend recently pointed to a great article he wrote about futsal in 2014.