U.S. Soccer: Exhibit 101 on why monopolies are not good

U.S. Soccer is dysfunctional.

But, that’s not what holds soccer in the U.S, back. Most organizations, even seemingly successful ones, are dysfunctional to some extent. Federations of top soccer countries are also dysfunctional.

The issue with soccer in the U.S. is that US Soccer wants to be the sole solver of the problems of developing talent and finding the best talent for the national team…


…they actively stifle and restrict others from coming up with their own solutions to these problems.

The second part of that statement (after the AND…) is the most debilitating.

As the quote from Rory Sutherland in the previous post points out, a good thing about markets is that they solve the same problem in different ways.

Developing and finding talent are problems best suited to be solved in different ways and letting those solutions compete.

In the markets of products and services, this is good because a number of solutions might work well.

It’s good that we have so many organizations, for example, willing to solve the problem of dining out. That gives us a great variety to choose from, and we don’t have to settle for one organization’s solution to this problem.

We have so many organizations working on dining out because there is financial incentive to do so, even if the risk of failure is also high.

We also don’t have a ‘national restaurant federation’ that actively seeks to shut down restaurants that don’t match what it believes to be the formula for success, like where it thinks the restaurant should be located or how many seats they think it should have.

Rather the attitude is, ‘there really is no formula for success, you have to try and see and maybe you will happen onto something.’

In the market of developing and finding talent for the national soccer team, it’s a little trickier because at some point the selection does need to be narrowed to small set of players.

But, much better to narrow this selection to the top players from the froth of a competitive landscape than an anemic one.

Let’s say you were competing with other nations to see who has the best restaurants and you could select a team of 20 restaurants in the competition.

Would you rather be able to select your field from:

  1. A landscape where a single, dominant restaurant has stifled competition and only advanced it’s idea of a good restaurant.
  2. A landscape like we have now, where anybody can give it a try and the ones that do the best survive and compete against each other to get even better?

I’ll take door #2, please.

It might make my selection tough. How do I narrow the list of 1,000s of top restaurants down to 20. What if I choose poorly?

But, that’s the point. I’d have a much deeper pool to choose from and I could probably pick random lists of 20 restaurants out of the top 1,000 or so and still fare well in the competition.

So, no matter how dysfunctional I am or how poor my taste in restaurants is, even if I end up picking the third best team because of my bad biases, it would still be pretty darned good.

If I were limited to door #1, I’d probably have what we have now: a narrow field at the top that’s 1 or 2 deep at each position. My bad biases might pick poorly at a few positions that ruin us.

Door #2 gives me a field that’s 6 or 7 deep at each position and nearly idiot-proof.

This is why U.S. Soccer should adopt the incentive structures that have worked well in other countries to encourage, much like we have in restaurants, lots more folks to get in the game of helping to solve the problem of finding and developing talent.

These incentives are:

  • Promotion/relegation
  • Solidarity payments and training compensation
  • Sponsoring competitions on the field to discover the best players and best ways of playing the game

These incentives encourage folks to find the best talent, whether they can pay a club fee or not, and field them in competitions to put all ideas about what a good player is and what a good team is to the test.

“Markets solve the same problem for different people in a different way”

(This is my first non-soccer post in awhile, but it will factor into a future post about soccer.)

The title is from Rory Sutherland on this Econtalk podcast (emphasis added):

…one of the things that annoys me about economics is that it likes markets for the wrong reason. Which is, that it likes free markets because they’re notionally efficient, whereas I like markets because they’re inventive. And, the two narratives–you know, it’s a perfectly–you can understand why free market people leapt on this idea of efficiency through competition. In fact, competition seems to be deeply wasteful if you look at it in a short time horizon. What’s magical about markets, of course, is that they solve problems through a process of kind of market-tested innovation.

Trial and error. But it’s a bit more than that too, because I think one of the extraordinary things markets do–which, I think this is one of the reasons I’m uncomfortable about economics trying to model itself on Newtonian physics–is quite often what markets find is more than one solution to the same problem. And I think if you approach business problems with the mentality of someone who is trying to make it look like physics, then one of the dangers is that you’re always trying to optimize something or find the single overarching solution that works for the average. And in many cases, I think markets and business do something much more ingenious than that. They solve the same problem for different people in a different way.

I’ve been trying to find words for this for a long time, but kept falling back on the not-so-compelling “competition is good because trial-and-error and solutions aren’t so obvious” yada.

His last sentence sums up what I’ve been trying to articulate.

Markets and businesses solve the same problem for different people in a different way.

That’s good. That gives more of us what we want.

What I like about McDonald’s, you may not like, and you might prefer Chipotle instead.

We both get more of what works best for us, instead of having to settle for what works for the average of us, which might not even represent real people.

For example, let’s say I’m age 50 and you are 30. Our average age is 40. Someone might solve a problem for a 40 year old, since that’s average.

But, in our small sample of two, a 40 year old doesn’t even exist. So, their solution isn’t good for either of us.

Small soccer world

I had been “coaching” a kid’s soccer team for just over two years when we faced our first true soccer team.

I clearly remember that day. It’s the day I realized there was more to this game.

They killed us. They could trap and pass well. We bunched up and chased the ball. They passed to the open players.

It hurt my players’ egos, since they were an all girls team.

It turns out their coach was a guy I had met at a skills class that I had taken my team to a few months before and he remembered me and our team. He was very gracious not to call me an idiot and tell me that I knew nothing about soccer.

I saw that coach again, tonight. He was the assistant coach on the sideline for the USWNT match against Sweden.

His name is Milan Ivanovich.

As humiliating as that defeat was, it also got me learning.

It’s good to see that I didn’t get run down by just some run-of-the-mill coach. He may have some chops.

I was lucky face him that day. I wish him the best.

The simple way to tell the difference between rec and competitive soccer players

A rec soccer player only does soccer at practice and games.

A competitive soccer player does soccer all the time. That might be working with the ball on their own, playing pickup with friends or learning tactics by following teams and some of all.

Many players, and their parents, believe they are competitive soccer players because they are on a competitive team that’s a part of a competitive club, pay a coach, play on nice fields and have nice uniforms.

But, if the player isn’t learning the sport on their own and going to practice and games to demonstrate to their coaches and teammates their progress, they are playing expensive rec soccer.

Raise the level of competition in the backyard to raise the level of the national team

The title is a take on Tom Byer’s concept to ‘push up the bottom to raise the top.’

After the USYNT’s poor showing at the U17 World Cup some think we need to focus even more on making the elite soccer players better.

Focusing on the elite, after they have already been identified is too late. That might help them get 5-10% better.

Raising the level of competition in the backyard can push the level of play of the elite up by 30%.

It needs to be 30% better to compete with the talent in the top 20 countries who are 20-30% better because the level of competition in their backyard is much, much higher.

That comes down to changing culture and culture isn’t something that’s easily changed.

I wrote about how the U.S. lacks a ball culture here.

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 seems to work good on the women’s side, often the 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. This create a more anti-fragile system for women’s talent in the U.S. than in other countries. Those countries are trying to catch up doing on their women’s side what we do on our men’s side (see linear process above).

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, who likely introduced them to developing key skills early (probably not intentionally, for fun). 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 attempts 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. He was also already good when he joined his local club in Argentina as a boy. The club didn’t make him good. It just discovered him.

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 against top-tier countries.

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 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? Long-time, if ever. How long if you tell people you will offer a reward of $200,000? Faster.

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.

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.