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.

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.