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.

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

This 3Four3 podcast with Jordan Ferrell as guest is a good listen with 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 while 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.

Tale of two teams: raise the bottom to push up the top

Tweet from Tom Byer:

The following example supports that point.

Setting: Sideline of scrimmage at youth soccer practice where I assisted.

Team One: Academy, top division team.

Team Two: Beginner to intermediate, but a year older.

If you judge the the teams before they scrimmage each other you might expect Team Two to dominate. They are older, bigger and look more athletic. A lot of the Team One players look bookish.

Once scrimmage begins, you quickly learn you are mistaken. Team One dominates and keeps the ball 90% of the time.

When Team Two gets the ball, they are lucky to get three touches before giving it back to Team One.

It’s like watching 6th graders (Team One) compete against 2nd graders (Team Two) in math. Of course, the 6th graders will look like geniuses, if you have nothing else to compare to.

But, Team One isn’t great, even though they are “elite” and win a lot.

They just have the basics down. Algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus are still to come.

Team Two represents the bottom 60-70% in my area and Team One the top 10%.

Comparing to traditional US sports of basketball and baseball, a team with a similar level of proficiency in either of those sports as Team One has in soccer would be low B or C level and Team Two would be in the bottom 10%, if playing at all.

Here are some key differences I noticed between Team One and Two players.

When players wait on the sideline to sub into scrimmage, Team One players work with the ball without being led. They juggle in groups, play 1v1, pass or dribble around backpacks and water bottles. They can all juggle 50 to 100.

Players from Team Two need need adult direction or they goof off. They think the academy players juggle to show off. “You don’t use it in a game,” they reason.

Team Two player have played organized “soccer for years.” They will tell you that, but they also exhibit no interest in discovering the sport on their own. They don’t see the need to touch the ball outside of practice and could barely name a single player on the local pro team. They are a step better than beginners, learning close to 100% of what they know about soccer through the team. They are often the first ones in their family to play soccer.

Team One also played organized soccer for years. But, its players are curious about learning to master the ball and game, learning about 90% of what they know outside of organized soccer through family and/or on their own. Many came from families whose parents played soccer, or have older siblings who play.

That’s what Tom Byer means by raising the bottom to lift the top. If Team Two had basic proficiency, they would push Team One harder to improve.

In non-soccer cultures the mindset is that kids learn soccer in organized settings with qualified professionals at the helm.

Byer’s suggests flipping that by expecting kids to learn the basics before they join a team.

That’s more like how we think of basketball and baseball. That’s part of the reason we start playing catch with kids when they’re toddlers and buy them Fisher-Price basketball hoops.

Parents expect more from soccer coaches than coaches of other sports. If their kid can’t make a basket, they encourage their kid to practice more.

That mindset is flipped in soccer. If their kid can’t score a goal, they ask why the coach hasn’t taught them how, yet, and start to doubt if the coach knows what they’re doing.

Pickup sports is full of important and unmistakable feedback

In addition to providing the thrill of victory and agony of defeat, competition gives us feedback. It benchmarks our play against others and exposes us to different ways to play.

One thing I see holding back top level of soccer in the U.S. is that kids in prime development years primarily compete on teams, which provides easily mistakable feedback on their individual performance.

When I started playing adult soccer, we had a superstar on our team. He won us a lot of games. It would have been easy to delude myself into thinking that I was pretty good, too, because, we were winning.

I wasn’t.

Our team wins gave me a mistakable signal on my individual performance.

I see a lot of kids in the same situation on their youth team. A couple rock stars carry the team and the other players lure themselves into complacency by mistaking the team’s results as a reflection of their own ability.

I’ve seen those players lose years of development by being shrouded from the truth of their own performance.

What’s missing in their development is competition where their individual performance is less mistakable.

I wrote about an approach to do this used in Belgium here. They focus less on team competition and more 1v1’s with little ones.

I think that’s on the right path, but still misses something.

Learning basketball in the U.S. also requires a lot of 1-on-1’s, but the bulk of those 1-on-1’s takes place outside of organized play.

Pickup play in driveways, parks, playgrounds, community center gym and churches teaches about 10x more basketball than team ball.

Your individual performance in these venues is close to unmistakable.

In case you do mistake your performance, like making excuses for losing (we all know people like that), your friends will keep you honest.

There’s nothing wrong with playing on soccer teams at young ages or keeping score.

The problem is that if that’s the only place you compete, it’s too easy to hide from your own performance for too long and not realize how far behind you are until it’s too late.

Absent pickup play, Belgium’s approach is better than the standard approach. That teaches 3-4x more soccer than the standard approach, which is not near the 10x pickup can teach.

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).