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.

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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 things 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, wouldn’t hurt if kids played  soccer pickup to supplement their skill development. 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. When kids think of soccer, they think of a big field, lots of players and two large, netted goals.

More exposure to the small-sided, small-court game might help them realize that they don’t need all that 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 continue with the traditional soccer calendar instead of sticking with the thing that is making the most impact until their child is competent to move on.

This idea will help prevent position specialization too early

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 often, even during a single game.

I shudder to think how many players don’t reach 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 will only 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 how on ways to finish. In 11v11, some players 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.