U.S. Soccer’s fragile system for finding talent vs. the world’s anti-fragile system

In his book, Antifragile, part of his five book Incerto series, Nassim Taleb describes systems that are fragile and the opposite of fragile, which, for lack of a better term, he coined, “anti-fragile.”

A good example he gives to illustrate his point is that of a flame.

A candle flame is fragile. It can easily be extinguished by a breeze.

A wildfire is the opposite, or anti-fragile. A breeze makes it stronger.

The same stressors that can put out the fragile flame, can invigorate the anti-fragile wildfire.

A fragile system doesn’t like randomness, variability and shocks. These things make anti-fragile systems stronger.

The under performing U.S. soccer system under performs because it is a fragile system.

It’s fragile because folks who run U.S. Soccer think that creating talent is a linear process that they can manage, like a project, and it looks something like:

Rec soccer –> Club soccer –> Development Academy –> College/MLS/USL –> National Teams

That actually seems to work pretty good on the women’s side, which is often used as a counterpoint to criticism about U.S. Soccer. But, looks can be deceiving.

The success of women’s side can be traced to Title IX, which made soccer more popular among females in the U.S. than in other countries.

So, U.S. Soccer’s linear process is not responsible for the success of the women’s side.

It’s also true that top talent on the men’s side aren’t necessarily products of U.S. Soccer’s system.

Pulisic and Sargent are two good examples. Both played in clubs in the U.S., but dig into their stories and other things pop out, like the fact that both have high-level soccer-playing parents. Pulisic spent a year early on in England that took his interest in the game to a new level. And, both are extremely self-motivated and hard working.

I think it’s pretty darned incredible that a couple of kids that spent hours playing with the ball in their backyard have gone so far. Imagine if they had also played lots of pickup against really good talent everyday, too, like most of the players they go against in their respective leagues.

Most folks think the purpose of the soccer system is to develop talent. It’s not. It’s to discover it.

Talent is an extremely random variable. There’s no sure-fire recipe for developing it.

Even the world’s top and best funded development academies rely more on finding talent than they do on developing it. This is reflected in the high percentage of players that exit those programs below the top-level.

They try to find the world’s best players and make them a little better, but even most of those fail.

Messi, for example, was already good when he came to Barcelona. In fact, he had to be eye-opening good for them to agree to pay for his growth hormone treatments.

When you dig into the U.S. Soccer system structure, it’s easy to see how talented individuals may never make it onto the radar screen.

The current gatekeepers may be looking for the wrong players. In the U.S. we favor athleticism and treat ball skill as secondary, yet ball skill is pretty clearly what beats us on the world stage.

Or, it may be too difficult for players to jump through the hoops to get on a development team to get recognized. Maybe it’s too far away from home, too expensive to move or they don’t even know about it.

Or, their families may not want to pay the for their kids to be on a club team, especially when they see the players in the club as inferior. Their kids get better competition in their backyard for free, why pay for lesser competition? I’ve seen this happen.

I also recall manager of a Mexican restaurant told me he had tried out and made the Chicago Fire in the early days of the MLS, but decided to stick with restaurants because it paid more and he couldn’t afford to take the lower wages of pro soccer.

After that, I remember thinking that many of the Americans I see playing in the MLS are people whose families could afford for them to play in club soccer and afford for their kid to pass on higher wages of other jobs to play pro soccer.

It made me wonder how many better players are out there and not in the MLS and USL simply because they can’t afford to be.

Those are just a few places people fall through the cracks.

Since talent is such a random variable, the best way to discover it is by casting as wide of a net as possible.

What that means is getting as many people as possible involved in trying to find that talent.

FIFA actually has created an anti-fragile system for doing just that, which includes promotion/relegation in a country’s soccer leagues and incentives for clubs to find talent.

These incentives have worked amazingly well around the world to get talent in the system and get them recognized by getting them to as high of a level as possible.

It’s like trying to find a $10 million diamond buried in your big field. How long will it take you to find that diamond on your own? How long if you tell people you will offer a reward of $200,000?

It’s possible for you to find it on your own. You may get lucky.

But, if you incentivize others correctly, you don’t have to hope to get lucky.

Currently, U.S. Soccer wants to find those diamonds on its own and cut everyone else out of the deal. It hasn’t worked out well.

That’s because the U.S.’s fragile system that doesn’t handle the randomness of talent discovery well is up against the world’s anti-fragile system that thrives on randomness.

U.S. Soccer is penny-wise and pound foolish. They don’t want to adopt the world’s anti-fragile system, because they want to save that $200,000 for their preferred partners, MLS owners, not realizing how many $10 million diamonds they may be missing.

Yes. Free Play Soccer.

I enjoyed this 3Four3 podcast with Ted Kroeten.

He talks about what he has discovered with free play and soccer for kids, through his Joy of the People, that organizes free play with kids.

Here are some quotables from the pod:

“Play early, learn late.” Sums up that young kids learn more playing with each other than having coaches direct them.

In terms of learning the sport: “The best soccer is closest to home. Playing in your basement is better than your backyard. Play in your backyard is better than your local park. Play in your local park is better than your local club. Play your local club is better than a travel team.”

“I cannot teach better than free play can deliver at the young ages.”

“Some of the things we discovered from free play. Feedback is inappropriate. Feedback between kids on the field is totally appropriate. Feedback from coaches is not. Telling kids to work on things, their weaknesses, is not appropriate. Letting kids understand what they can and cannot do from each other is totally appropriate.

While listening to this last quote, I thought back to the times where I could have been quiet. What kept me from being quiet? Parents expected me to coach, not be quiet. There were games where I was quiet and it wouldn’t be long before I’d hear that I wasn’t coaching.

Ted has thought about free play deeply and sees the complexities of the learning, copying from each other, and subtle forms for feedback that simply can’t be replicated in team practice.

In one spot he mentioned how a kid might learn that if he doesn’t pass to a player, then that player may not put in as much effort on defense later.

Or, when he was left behind on his local hockey team when his buddies moved to a travel team and he selfishly taught the others how to play better hockey so he could have some challenging competition.

The host, John Pranjic, recalled a time at a similar free play experiment that 3Four3 ran where the kids couldn’t solve the simplest things like picking teams or setting out cones because they were so used to adults doing all that for them.

I’ve had similar experiences coaching soccer. I recall a time warming up before a game when we told the players to get into 4v1’s. In one group, every kid had a ball. In another group, nobody had a ball.

Neither group was making any headway to get to one ball.

All stood waiting for us to tell them what to do. The other coach said, “Guys, if we have to tell you how to get one ball per group, we’re in trouble. Solve the problem!”

It wasn’t that these kids couldn’t solve such problems. They just didn’t have the free play experience in soccer and we’re use to doing what adults told them.

Around the same time, I watched these same kids organize free play in baseball, basketball and football. They could pick balanced teams, set up the field or court, and make other equalizing adjustments that selfishly kept everyone playing longer without any adult intervention, all learned from free play in those sports.

High School soccer stunts passing of soccer culture to the next generation

This is a continuation of my previous post on how high school soccer hurts soccer culture in U.S.

First, I want to say that I have nothing against high school soccer.In the U.S., school sports is all we know.

It’s just that it’s worth pointing out that one result of the club/high school structure is that it keeps youth players from forming connections to teenage players, and those connections are vital in soccer-playing countries to help pass on soccer culture.

Clubs in soccer-playing countries foster these connections.

High school age players play for the club’s senior teams, they practice on the same grounds as younger youth and often coach the younger players (which also keeps costs down).

Kids in these clubs get to know these players, want to watch them play on the weekend and emulate them. Their senior team heroes provide a vision of players the kids want to become someday.

Younger players in the U.S. don’t have this long-term vision to guide them because they don’t have close connections to the equivalent of these club senior teams in the U.S.: high school varsity teams.

Kids in the U.S. just have their team’s current results. Since competition is grouped by age and skill, those results give youth players a false sense of competency. Why bother trying to get better? Our games are close enough.

This hit home with me when one of my players ran into the local pro indoor team practicing at a field that we often practiced on, by accident. We moved practice that day, but that player’s Dad didn’t get the email.

We had attended a few of that team’s games to help spark an interest in kids, so my player knew of the team and was surprised and excited to see them practicing there.

The player’s Dad introduced him to the pro GK. That GK ended up giving him goalie gloves and became that kid’s hero. His Dad bought season tickets and took every chance to see the GK again at fan events and training camps the team offered.

At the time, that player was one of the 4 who played GK. They were all about the same level of ability at that time and were content with that. They had not concept of what better looked like.

Over the next year, that player excelled. His vision shifted from being good for our team to wanting to play like his hero. That made a world of difference.

I remember the first time he made a diving save, thinking how much he looked like his favorite goalkeeper. He was learning.

When I took the team to high school, college and pro matches hoping to spark an interest in soccer beyond what we did in practice, the kids complained about how boring it was.

They had no connection to the players.

The kid described above showed me how important that connection was.

Imagine if all the kids could make that kind of connection.

Consider how far it sets us back that our system doesn’t foster such connections, while countries with strong soccer cultures do.

Pro/rel doesn’t scare owners away

One argument against pro/rel in US soccer is that “rel” would scare away owners who have been bought a team in the top league.

Yet, I’ve never heard thoughts from the actual owners about this.

My guess is that owners are not nearly as concerned with pro/rel as critics of pro/rel say they are.

How do I know?

Because there are many pro/rel leagues around the world and they don’t have trouble finding owners. Some of those owners are even American who also own teams in non-pro/rel leagues.

American Stan Kroenke, for example, owns teams in the non-pro/rel MLS (Colorado Rapids) and pro/rel English Premier League (EPL) (Arsenal).

American-owned Fenway Sports Group owns a team in a non-pro/rel league MLB (Boston Red Sox) and pro/rel EPL (Liverpool).

As does the American Glazer family who own a team in a non-pro/rel league NFL (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and pro/rel EPL (Manchester United).

Competition and monopolies in soccer

I thought the following dialogue about monopoly and competition from this 3Four3 podcast, with guest Ciara McCormack, was well said (around the 36 minute mark, emphasis added):

Host John Pranjic: The lack of competition, the lack of ideas being thrown into an arena, to let it fight it out and see which is best, that is what Canada lacks, that is what United States lacks, that is what Australia lacks, when it comes to soccer.

You get this one-size-fits-all attitude, from the top-down, that mindset alone is what kills the soccer environments in those three countries

Guest McCormack: There’s a reason in our societies, economically, that monopolies are frowned upon. It’s exactly the thing you are talking about. The lack of creativity.

I always liken it to, if I step on the field and I know I’m in the starting eleven every week — I can be good, I can be bad, I can sit and pick flowers the whole game and line [something] — and I know that I’m starting every week.

I’m not becoming better. People around me aren’t becoming better. They become stagnant.

Growing up in Canada, I’ll use my White Caps experience as an example. That was the only club team you could play for if you wanted a shot with the Canadian team.

The amount of power that gives the people in charge to treat the players what ever way they want, it just creates this awful culture.

When I was in Denmark, that would never have happened. You’re at a club and things aren’t going really good, then you go to another club.

Then another club starts with revolutionary ideas, that club rises to the top…

Exactly.

As I’ve mentioned before, we all have two powers: the power of voice and exit.

Pranjic and McCormack here describes negative consequences of not having a strong enough competition, or low power of exit, in a soccer federation.

These principles of voice and exit are true for all organizations from governments, private enterprises, schools, soccer federations and, as McCormack points out, teams.

It would be interesting to go deeper into how soccer federations are organized in other countries to compare to the U.S., Canada and Australia.

From my uneducated point of view, many seem to see their role more about fostering competition at all levels, rather than being in charge of competitions at levels.

For example, while U.S. Soccer seems focused on dictating the how many seats must be in stadiums and the minimum population sizes of team markets, England’s FA is more about ensuring that any team playing good soccer has a chance — no matter the size of their stadium or city.

I believe those in U.S. Soccer prioritize stability. That’s why they focus on stadium and market size. They think that will keep teams around, even when their results aren’t great.

I believe those in England’s FA prioritize the quality of soccer. It’s not that they don’t care about stability, but they believe stability comes from good soccer, not from the number of seats in the stadium.

The business of sports teams worse than their profiles

The authors of the book, Soccernomics, point out that soccer clubs are such high profile that people think they are bigger and more profitable businesses than they are.

But, their true finances contradict their large profiles. They are neither big nor very profitable and are downright bad businesses.

For example, the revenue from one of the largest, most popular soccer clubs, Real Madrid is just one-eighth that of a small food distributor in Rhode Island that you never heard of, United Natural Foods.

Owners don’t get rich owning sports teams. They get rich doing other things, like owning United Natural Foods, and their sports teams are a bit like vacation homes for the upper middle class — they don’t expect to see much financial return from, they just enjoy having some place on visit on Sunday afternoons.

The bad economics of sports teams is driven by the fact that there’s desire to win trophies.

The most effective way to win trophies is to hire the best talent possible.

The best talent possible is expensive and the team’s economic profits tend to go to the players rather than the owners.

The Soccernomics guys quote A.T. Kearney,

you could…argue that soccer clubs are nothing more than vessels for transporting soccer’s income to players.

This is true for all sports teams. The New England Patriots, the most successful team in the world’s most valuable league brings in about $600 million per year.

The NFL uses salary caps to help owners make a profit and to help spread the talent to create competitive parity (that doesn’t seem to be working).

Even with the caps, the Patriots pay about $200 million to players, $200 million to cover other expenses (like grounds keeping and front office staff) and have about $200 million left over to cover taxes, debt and to give the owner a return.

$200 million is not chump change, but considering that’s just about twice the income of the small food distributor, it puts it in perspective. The best NFL team of late does just a little better financially than a small food distributor that nobody has ever heard of.

To put it more in perspective, McDonald’s (more well known) operating income averages about $8 billion per year, or 36x that of Patriots.

Things that make you go hmmm…

The NFL playoff games yesterday.

Those were two close games where a few questionable calls/no calls made a difference in the outcome.

End result: Two big market teams make it to the SB.

When are TV contract negotiations coming up? Seems like maybe soon for beyond 2022.