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.

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.

 

Does the Mexican National Team subsidize MLS?

A recent Twitter thread explored why potential MLS team owners, like St. Louis FC, are willing to pay a $200 million franchise fee to get into the MLS.

A point made there was that a Ligue 1 side in France’s top soccer league just sold for $110 million, so how can an MLS side with no history be worth more?

Twitter users Ian Mailoux and Paul Cox laid out specifics of soccer market in the U.S. that I hadn’t considered before.

I was aware that MLS owners all each have a stake in SUM (Soccer United Marketing), which owns broadcast rights for MLS and US National Team matches.

But, I undervalued what that stake was worth.

I didn’t think MLS and national team match broadcast rights carried enough value to justify $200 million MLS franchise fees.

I considered these, plus MLS team revenue, to be a breakeven proposition for MLS owners, at best.

I assumed the owners were willing to pay high franchise fees, betting soccer would grow to NFL or MLB proportions in 10-20 years and then they could sell their teams for multiples of what they paid.

But, the folks above pointed out that SUM also owns the broadcasting rights to ANY soccer match played in the U.S., including Mexican National Team matches played here.

I’ve attended  MNT friendly and USMNT Gold Cup game in the same city. The MNT friendly drew more than double the USMNT, if that’s any indication to the what the difference in value in broadcast rights might be.

So, having broadcast rights to MNT in the US starts to increase the value of a stake in SUM above breakeven.

I imagine that a stake in SUM includes broadcasting rights for games of major tournaments played on US soil like the Gold Cup and the big one: 2026 World Cup.

Adding that to the valuation starts to make the exorbitant franchise fees look more reasonable.

This also sheds light on other recent actions taken by US Soccer.

I thought the single-focus pursuit to host the 2026 World Cup was mostly for the good intentions of bringing the game to the states to stoke interest in the sport.

Silly me. It makes more sense that the payout to SUM owners from the broadcast rights to those games was the prime motivator and why the MLS (/SUM buy-in) franchise fee is up to $200 million.

The franchise fees allows SUM/MLS to monetize some of that 2026 money now, to keep the lights on.

It also makes sense how US Soccer has snuffed out competing leagues and has gained tighter control of lower divisions, like the USL: so it can control the broadcast rights of those leagues.

Those probably aren’t worth much now, but why should SUM chance another league — that it doesn’t own broadcast rights to — getting a foothold on their monopoly?

Good discussion about true competition on the 3Four3 podcast

Guest Ben Fast and host John Pranjic have a great discussion about the nature true competition that is lacking in soccer in the U.S. and the role of governance in this 3Four3 podcast.

It would make Austrian and George Mason University economists proud.

How school soccer hurts soccer culture in the U.S.

This 3Four3 podcast with Jordan Ferrell as guest is a good listen and includes some key reasons why soccer languishes in the U.S.

One of those reasons is found just past the 38 minute mark and comes just after host, John Pranjic, describes his visit to a sports club in Europe where sports fields surround an athletic club where parents can do spin classes, lift weights or play basketball or grab a bite or drink at the club’s restaurant while their kids are at soccer training.

Pranjic says:

It felt like a community. It felt like those people had ownership in the club. That’s something we could replicate in the United States, and nobody’s doing it.

Ferrell adds on (emphasis mine):

honestly, we’ve just moved the sport club into the academic world and that’s killed it because once you finish from an institution, you’re an alum, and alum move in different places and the ones from the community who aren’t alum aren’t as invested.

I described how the fragmentation of school sports hurts the soccer culture in the U.S. in this post. Here’s a snippet:

In the Netherlands, the youth teams in their clubs play on Saturdays and the adult teams play on Sundays. The youth players often attend the adult games. They know the adults because they practice near them and are coached by them, so they want to see how they do.

In the U.S., clubs and school sports fragments this experience. Eight-year-old’s in the U.S. aren’t coached by 15-year-old’s who play for the high school team and they aren’t interested in watching the high school games to be like them someday, because they don’t know them.

In the U.S., the players’ bubble is their individual team, or maybe the club’s top team at their age level, not a senior team.

So, high achievers are content with being ‘best on their team’ and not having a good role model to demonstrate what a complete player looks like.

I’d add that in the Netherlands the player’s bubble is the adult senior team. Rather than being content to beat players of their own age, they set their sites on how players on the senior teams play.

More in the next post…

Winning doesn’t mean much if you aren’t any good…

…and a big problem with soccer in the U.S. is that there are many ways to win without being any good.

That’s true from top to bottom.

The MLS limits the number of good players on a team to even out the competition. It thinks close games attracts more fans.

Youth are separated into age and like skill groups where they can feel successful. The thinking is that winning keeps more kids interested longer.

The downside is that too many people win without being any good. That doesn’t help them get better because it isn’t clear that they need to get better.

Imagine watching a basketball game where players dribble the ball high and away from their body and turn the ball over frequently. Most of the passes they make get intercepted, and they can’t catch a pass. Players with the ball dribble past them easily.

This is what soccer in the U.S. looks like to me: too many players don’t even have the basics. I think a reason is that there’s a lot of winning and incentive to learn the basics.

The point of sports should be to win. But, it should be about winning by being good, not by watering down the competition.

One small example of this is juggling. Players and coaches alike have pleaded their case to me that practicing juggling is unnecessary. “It’s just for show,” they say, because you don’t use it in a game. “Work on the stuff that you actually use,” they say.

It is true that you don’t need to practice juggling, if you only play against others who also don’t know how to juggle.

But, when a juggler and non-juggler go into a 1v1 or 50/50, I’ll put my money on the juggler coming away with the ball.

Number games in soccer

In the U.S., there’s more focus on numbers that don’t matter and not enough on numbers that do.

Many people are dumbfounded that a country of over 300 million people with millions of registered soccer players can’t turn out world beating soccer talent, while much smaller nations do better.

To be recognized by U.S. Soccer as a professional soccer league you must adhere to its numbers. Owners must have a minimum net worth, leagues must maintain a minimum number of teams and stadiums must have a minimum number of seats.

The MLS puts a good deal of attention on numbers like team salaries, the number of foreign and US National Team players on each team, to try to keep things fair.

At college and pro combines, there is a lot of attention given to measures of general athleticism like 40 yard dash and shuttle run times.

All these are examples of numbers that don’t matter much in contributing to the level of the top talent.

Here are some numbers that matter more.

One important number is how many kids play soccer and soccer-related games, on their own, with their friends, family and neighbors.

Another is how much they are playing and how many touches are they getting.

Multiply that difference out by how many weeks they play over how many years and that number will tell you why the U.S. doesn’t produce top-level talent.

You will discover that our top players have a fraction of the touches accumulated over their lives as top players from top producing soccer nations.

Doing some rough math, I estimate that the typical American soccer player has accumulated 200,000 – 500,000 touches by the time they turn 18.

That sounds like quite a bit.

But, I estimate that a typical player of the same age from a soccer culture has accumulated between 4 and 6 million touches.

How? They start at younger age, they play more each week, more consistently throughout the year and when they do play, they play in ways that give them more touches on the ball and touches that translate to better game play — most of this through unorganized play.

In soccer cultures, organized play is like the icing on the cake, the cake being the unorganized play the builds the baseline skill and knowledge.

This is the same with basketball in our country. Most of the sport is learned through unorganized play, and organized play is the icing on the cake.

In the U.S., for soccer we mostly just have the icing and no cake. (I heard this recently and thought it was a good description, but I can’t remember where I heard it).

Another theory I hear about the level of U.S. talent is that our top athletes choose other sports. The problem with that is not understanding that by the time a top athlete “chooses” a sport (say between age 10 and 14), it’s too late.

They will not be able to make up for all the missed touches.

The beauty of unorganized play is that we don’t have to wait for top athletes to “choose” a sport. It develops important skills of soccer for them without them knowing it, so that by the time they choose a sport, they have a good foundation to build from.