Did the US Men’s National Team find a goal scorer in the game against Honduras?

I’ve long noticed that American soccer players aren’t necessarily known for their scoring abilities. This is true in the adult leagues I play in and at the pro level.

I wrote about it here when the top scoring American in the MLS was #12.

It hasn’t changed much since then, but the top American comes in at #5 now and that American is the same one that either scored or helped create all of the US goals against Honduras, in his first appearance with the National Team, Ricardo Pepi. The next American in MLS appears at #10.

Now, granted, folks like Christian Pulisic and Josh Sargent don’t play in the MLS, but…

…they haven’t produced consistent goals for the U.S. Men’s team, either. That is their job.

While they have a good touch, can control the ball and can create some separation, their finishing looks like most American attempts at scoring — wooden, predictable and fairly easy to cover by goalies.

Pepi made it look easy. He has creativity — which means he’s a bit more unpredictable — and can use multiple parts of his body to direct the ball.

I just think it’s strange, but it’s not surprising. We don’t emphasize creative goal scoring in the U.S. We don’t have places for kids to practice it. We ban them from shooting practice before their games and while fields aren’t being used, because we want to protect the precious grass!

Breakeven Frontier

Many mature businesses are stuck on what I call the Breakeven Frontier and their managers don’t know it.

What is the Breakeven Frontier?

It’s also called saturation. Their products are available to nearly all the folks who naturally value them and the cost to increase sales is roughly equal to (or more) than the value of those extra sales.

So, the company might spend $10 million on advertising and see sales rise, but only enough to add $10 million or less to the bottom line.

Marketing isn’t the only breakeven investment for a mature business. Most investments they make to increase sales or reduce costs are also breakeven, at best, which is why I call it a frontier.

They might try to cut costs by putting fewer chips in the bag. Their supply chain will brag about the cost savings. But, customers notice and end up buying fewer bags of chips. A move that might save $10 million a year on potatoes can easily cost that much in sales.

What can businesses do when they’re stuck on the breakeven frontier?

A couple of simple things. They should be investing some of the earnings from their mature product in innovation to create new products that can find their own growth curves.

On the cost side, they should be looking at making cost reductions that do not actually lower the quality of the product. Taking chips out of the bag is not a good idea. Getting a better deal on the oil you use to make the chips, might work better.

I enjoyed the MLS All-Star Game Skills Challenge

I must admit, I enjoyed the skills competition at the MLS All-Star game.

I think it’s interesting to see the level of skills some of these guys have that do not as apparently surface during games and it was fun.

I think it would be fun to see youth tournaments incorporate similar skills competitions. That might give some kids some extra motivation to work on their skills to maybe capture an individual medal or trophy.

The All-Star game had a challenge for touch, crossing/volleys, shooting, crossbar and passing.

I might add events for dribbling and defending. For dribbling by itself, you could have a freestyle obstacle course to dribble around, nutmeg, wall passes, etc and judge it like a skateboard freestyle — mix of creativity, how they use the course, level of difficulty and execution.

Also, I think it would be fun to have a 1v1 challenge where you have some of the best attackers face off against some of the best defenders. Attacker gets a point for getting past the defender, the defender gets the point by taking the ball. Or something like that.

Or, you could also have a giant battle royal of sharks and minnows and crown the last person standing as the Sharks and Minnows Champ!

More fun with soccer numbers, also why open systems work

The U.S. has about 26,000 high schools. I presume a high portion of those have soccer teams.

The U.S. also has about 1,400 colleges with soccer teams.

These are invisible to most folks when they wonder if there’s enough support for an open soccer pyramid.

My guess as to what would happen in an open pyramid is that the teams from these schools would eventually migrate to the first teams of clubs at various levels of the pyramid.

Within a stone’s throw of my house, there’s about 15 high schools and 4 college teams.

I’ve only been to a few of these games. I have no real reason to go, unless my kid was on one of these teams.

The folks who wonder where support for soccer will come from, seem to expect that my love of soccer alone should cause me to want to attend these matches just to watch soccer. But, I really have no clue who the players are and they are from all over. There’s no connection.

They miss that there’s something deeper in the support, a connection beyond just the sport itself.

For example, what if those 19 teams were replaced with about 7 clubs with a few on the 6th tier of the country’s pyramid and a couple on the 5th tier? What if my kids started playing soccer with those clubs as age 5 or 6? What if I volunteered and helped out at the club? What if I played Sunday adult pickup or league at the club, maybe sometimes against some of the first teamers?

What if, over time, I knew kids that moved up through the club to our first team, then onto higher first teams and eventually to top level? I’m be more interested in watching.

Then I would have more connections. I would be part of the club, not just a spectator. In Europe, that’s called being a ‘supporter’. In the U.S., we confuse the term ‘supporter’ with season ticket holder. We want people just to show up for the superficial entertainment aspect without understanding the connections that go with it.

We already have a lot of the elements. I play Sunday soccer at one place. I coached kids at another. They then played at school which was a whole other thing. An open system can combine all these things into one.

We demand there be the support before moving to the very model that causes there be support, and don’t even realize it.

So, talk of simply adding pro/rel to the USL or the MLS, while it might make things slightly more interesting, but misses the true magic elixir of how an open system builds support from the grassroots up.

An open system has pro/rel. It has the ability for any club to join in somewhere on the pyramid. It has a pyramid that is connected, so comparing results across competitions and levels is more meaningful. It has competitions across those levels, to help level set on the differences.

An open system has incentives for clubs to invite players in that can’t afford pay and incentives for clubs to get these players recognized so they can move up the pyramid, even if the club does not. Heck, it has the incentives for coaches to scout the playgrounds and streets for players.

It also has incentives for supporters to pay attention, because rather than just being a spectator of the sport that buys merch and hot dogs, they are a participant, a true member.

At least that’s what I see when I dive in to what makes open systems in other countries tick.

Fun with soccer numbers

London and LA have similar sized populations in their respective metro areas (~13-14 million).

London has 6 professional football teams in the Premier League.

LA has 2 soccer teams in the MLS.

What if an open pyramid helps grow support for a sport? Could LA have 6 D1 teams?

What if we are waiting for support to grow, while at the same time preventing the very thing that grows support?

Soccer starts at home, exhibit 321

I saw something similar, except it was those who played on their own are still playing. Those who didn’t, aren’t. Even those with who had seemingly ‘natural ability’ and played and practiced as much club ball as they could, aren’t.

Sports-entertainment spectrum

Where does your favorite sport fall on the sports-entertainment spectrum?

In my view, the sports-entertainment spectrum on one side is sports that is based on merit of play or performance. On the other side, merit takes a back seat to entertainment.

For example, track is pretty close to sports based on merit. Ultimately, the fastest runners tend to win. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t have a big enough following to make it a lucrative sport to cover.

The WWE is a good example of sports entertainment. While the participants are good athletes, there’s no doubt that it is fake and purely for entertainment purposes.

I get involved in a lot of discussions that compare American pro sports leagues to European soccer. One mistake I see folks make is to see them as the same thing.

That is, they see leagues, teams, managers, coaches, uniforms, standings and a sport being played and assume they are roughly the same types of things.

But, I see American sports more on the sports entertainment side of the spectrum, while European soccer is more on the sports side.

Why? In European soccer, hundreds, if not thousands, of independent clubs compete for their spot on the ‘pyramid’ of leagues and their place is determined by their performance on the field.

In the U.S., competition is limited to the teams within the franchise, which means it’s open for manipulation to do what the owners believe will be good for ratings (whether they are right or not). To get a franchise, you have to buy your way in. Your team can suck balls, but if you have the money and connections, you’re good to go.

Some of what they do for the ratings is right out in the open and sports nuts even like to get into the weeds of it. Two examples are salary caps and the draft. These exist purely because there is a belief that more people will watch games that are more evenly matched, i.e. ratings.

It seems fair to folks. Otherwise, how could a small market team ever hope to compete against larger market teams that can afford to pay for better players?

The NFL draft has become a huge event. They are making money on one of the key ways they rig their sport for ratings. I find it pretty fascinating.

I have no qualms with it. It seems to work for those leagues. Enough folks watch to keep companies buying ads in their time slots and keep the sport entertainment going.

I just don’t kid myself that that it is actually sport. It’s sports entertainment, maybe slightly less fake than the WWE, but still fake enough to not get too worked up about.

‘Pro/rel doesn’t grow support for soccer’

This underpins a common belief that more support is needed for soccer before we can move to pro/rel.

For all the folks who believe this, I have a question:

Did you notice the extreme repulsion European soccer fans had to the idea of a Super League that would not have included pro/rel for the top clubs?

For me, that was a huge signal how pro/rel causes support. It was clear that a big part of what makes football great for them is the idea of ‘sporting merit’, that the teams earn their spot based on their play.

I once had a nice chair: be cautious of statistical studies

I once worked for a company that had nice office chairs.

It wasn’t a huge perk. They didn’t make a big deal of it. They didn’t even mention it.

But I liked it. There were days without much else to look forward to at work than that chair. So it helped.

When I was procrastinating on starting a project, the nice chair was there to sit in and get me started.

When a meeting didn’t quite go my way, I turned the corner and saw the chair and it brightened things a bit.

I worked for other companies, where chairs were good enough. Nothing wrong with them. They were comfortable. They did the job.

But, not once did I look forward to my chairs there. Just like the folks that bought them, I never gave them a second thought.

Does this mean managers should approve nice chairs for their staff to improve motivation and productivity? I doubt it. I’m sure that benefit would be hard to detect in a way managers desire: “Workers with the nice chair are 10% more productive!”

Part of it was the nice chair. Part of it was a little reminder that the owners thought enough about employees to even think about providing nice chairs without expecting anything in return. That last part doesn’t replicate in a ‘data-driven decision to drive results.’

After all, when employees catch wind that the managers made the decision to drive results, they realize there was no soul in the decision, the employee was an afterthought and, oh yeah, there’s the expectation of more productivity.

In that way, the chair might become more of a sore spot than a bright spot in a person’s day, because it becomes a reminder that there is an expectation to do more because of it, even though it’s not exactly clear what doing more is.

Maybe it does mean that managers who genuinely care about their workers in ways that show up like buying them nice chairs without any expectation on results might be more satisfying to work with than managers who ‘do what the data tell them.’

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.