MiB criticizes soccer in the U.S.

In the last 15-20 minutes of the 12/15 Men in Blazers pod, Rog and Davo have some good and critical words to say about soccer in the U.S. and the MLS, especially about the franchise model of the MLS vs. clubs.

Here’s Rog after visiting Columbus, OH and speaking to the fans who are disappointed about the prospect of losing their MLS team in a move to Austin, TX:

…they’re caught up in the middle of city politics, which they feel is the root cause of their nightmare, compounded by desperate ownership moves and the league’s ultimate sense of the teams as franchises, is what you [Davo] always talk about it, rather than clubs, which are rooted in community. Franchises can be moved and yanked around at will. I don’t think anyone in MLS fully appreciates the panic that Columbus situation is causing, not just for fans in Columbus, but for fans in all teams across the league. Relocation is really permanent relegation. It makes teams sleep with the fishes. And I look at the scarlet letter, worn still in English football, MK Dons, Google them if you don’t know who they are.

Davo responds:

I think you raise an interesting point….There’s something about football, there’s something about all sports, which is about authenticity and the franchise based system, the sort of central league system — [Rog:] Which works in NBA and NFL, [Davo:] And also works Major League Baseball, but those based on a long and massive history of those sports in this country. And so, there is a sense you are watching the NBA, when you’re watching the Cleveland Caveliers, you know, something which has grown through decades and decades and decades of this sports. There is also something about the NBA and the NFL which is very much about the urban makeup of America. About the diversity, about the culture and it reflects that…

I don’t think soccer has got to that place yet. But, what I think is starting to happen organically, which is why I’m so excited about what’s happening in other leagues and other cities [non MLS], it feels like there is an authentic soccer culture which is growing up.

And, I’m not saying that doesn’t exist around many of the MLS franchises, around many of the MLS supporters groups, around many of the MLS teams, but it can sometimes feel a little manufactured — [this says a lot here here –>] — I can just feel Alexi [Lalas, friend of the program and often accused Homer to the MLS] listening to this podcast and saying, ‘you’re not a fan…you are either with us or against us’…I am so with MLS…but I do think what they have at league headquarters, Lord Garber and his friends have to acknowledge that there is a desire among soccer fans, not only to not see what happened in Columbus, but to feel something authentic happening in American soccer culture. That is something Major League Soccer has to address and think about is what they are doing is somehow taking that away.

I think some folks would be surprised to hear this criticism from the Men in Blazers, because they are sometimes criticized for being soft on the system since some of their livelihood is depends on it.

I was surprised.

I think it was on point.

I would add on to their comparisons to NFL, MLB and NBA. Those sports and leagues do not have serious international competition. They are American sports that have not caught on in the rest of the world and there’s no international competitions, like the World Cup, that overshadows the importance of the championships of these leagues.

For example, the Super Bowl is the biggest (Am.) football event in the world. It is contested only by American teams. And we call the winners “World Champs,” which I’ve heard many children snicker at because even they recognize that’s a stretch since Am. football isn’t played elsewhere.

If other U.S. pro leagues had international competitions that overshadowed the importance of the domestic league and the U.S. teams had poor showings in those competitions, you can bet that these same types of discussions would take place for those sports.

Another factor that I believe detracts from the authenticity and community grass roots support in the U.S., that Davo gets at, is that sports clubs are structured different here than they are in the other countries.

In the U.S., youth sports are integrated with schools. Elsewhere, sports club provide the sport experience from ages 5 to 65 outside of schools.

I believe that contributes to the authenticity the clubs have in other parts of the world when compared to the pay-for-play club model that co-exists with high school and collegiate sports in the U.S.

Imagine joining sports club at age 5 and growing up with the club’s senior team — the equivalent of the high school or local college team here. That means from age 5, you are coached by members of the senior team, you practice beside them and you go watch them play on the weekends.

This goes back to the observations I made in this post as a missing ingredient in US soccer culture. Our school-based sports programs fragment that experience for young athletes.

It also subjects soccer to the rule-making of governing bodies that don’t have soccer as a priority — like the NCAA and NAIA which oversees all college sports at affiliated schools. So, you get things like short seasons that fit in with the rest of the sports programs schedules and soccer used as a sport to fulfill Title IX requirements.

 

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Wall ball

John Townsend recently tweeted (re: soccer):

The more I coach U10-12s (boys and girls) the more I am convinced that each player needs to spend a significant amount of time with a ball and a wall.

The ability to pass and receive cleanly should not be a problem.

Agreed.

Pulisic, McKennie and Sargent: Common Threads

Pulisic

I enjoyed reading this article by Christian Pulisic, about missing out on the World Cup and his thoughts on American soccer.

Here’s a good paragraph:

The second thing I want to say here is that I’m not a prodigy — or a “wonderboy,” as some have put it. I was always, you know, a decent player growing up. And yes, I was born with a certain amount of so-called “natural ability.” But I also worked and sacrificed a lot to try to maximize what I was born with — which I think is important to point out. I think it’s important to make clear, you know, that the problem with American soccer … it isn’t talent. In fact, I’m sure there are kids who are going to be reading this article who are more talented at their age than I ever was.

While he says he came up in the American system, he does say that having a dual citizenship with Croatia got him to a European club 2 years earlier than he would have and he thinks those 2-year, from 16 to 18, are “everything”:

It’s the age where a player’s growth and skill sort of intersect, in just the right way — and where, with the right direction, a player can make their biggest leap in development by far.

I found his thoughts on American soccer a bit contradictory.

First, he addresses a common charge that “he’s barely American” with:

Until I was 16, I came up through the U.S. youth system. I did all of the camps, the academies, the residency programs, the travel teams, and everything else it had to offer. I’ll always be a part of that system, and I’ll always be indebted to it. Second of all, I think that’s just a dangerous attitude in general: Having a closed-minded view of what does or doesn’t constitute being an American. And I hope it’s an attitude that we can keep out of this conversation in the years to come.

But, then highlights a difference between the American and European programs he has experienced:

In the U.S. system, too often the best player on an under-17 team will be treated like a “star” — not having to work for the ball, being the focus of the offense at all times, etc. — at a time when they should be having to fight tooth and nail for their spot. In Europe, on the other hand, the average level of ability around you is just so much higher. It’s a pool of players where everyone has been “the best player,” and everyone is fighting for a spot — truly week in and week out. Which makes the intensity and humility that you need to bring to the field every day — both from a mental and physical perspective — just unlike anything that you can really experience in U.S. developmental soccer.

In this article, I think he oversimplifies his soccer experience. In a story linked in this post, he does credit his time England at age 6-7 for sparking his interest.

I think this is important. At a young age, he saw good soccer, firsthand, which is something most American kids won’t see until much later.

In this post, I point out that among American and European kids, there are those who want to rise to the top of their soccer bubbles, it’s just that the American bubble is so much smaller and insulated (e.g. being the best on your team in its age and competition level) whereas the European soccer bubble is more connected all the way to its first team of their club (e.g. kids see these first teamers from day 1 and work for 10 years to be able to make that first team at age 16 or 17).

Also left out of Pulisic’s piece, frequent trips Mark made with his Dad over the summer to European clubs — again reinforcing in his mind what good soccer looks like.

I think the charge that Pulisic is ‘barely American’ is exaggerated by Pulisic.

I believe the charge is that he was heavily influenced by his time in soccer-playing cultures. And, that’s true. Pulisic and his Dad has admitted as much elsewhere. It was consistent and regular from an early age and something that is not common among American soccer players.

I think he will help soccer in the US more if he continues to drive that point home.

McKennie

Another rising American start is Weston McKennie, currently playing for Schalke in the Bundesliga.

What’s his story? He spent 3 years between ages 6 and 9 playing soccer in Germany. This provides another example of someone being exposed to soccer playing culture at a young age.

Sargent

Another up-and-coming soccer star is Josh Sargent.

It’s not clear if he was immersed in a soccer-playing culture early on. But, both his parents, like Pulisic’s, were college players. So, he, at the very least, likely learned basic technical skills before he could form long-term memories.

But, I did enjoy this article, at FourFourTwo.com, which shared his Dad’s view of his making:

“I wish there was a recipe to make a pro soccer player, but I don’t know,” says Jeff Sargent, with a laugh, when asked what he tells others eager to know how his son honed his gifts. “Honestly, what I tell them is, it was Josh. Josh did it. He was born with a lot of talent and developed it. He worked very hard.

“Probably more than I would even want him to – I know some parents push their kids a lot, and I never had to push him. He was always getting me off the couch and making me go out and play with him. He was just that kind of kid. That’s something that was in Josh. I didn’t give that to him. He had that.”

Sargent will be joining a German Bundesliga fixture, Werder Bremen in January.

Common threads

Let’s recap some common threads among these rising stars:

  • Hard work — Yes, they have natural talent, but they all seem to have the innate drive to work hard to get better.
  • Early exposure to soccer culture in their life. They knew what good soccer looked like. They tried to climb to the top of that, rather than just be happy and complacent by being the best on their team.
  • All skipped college and the MLS to join teams in Germany’s top league. They can be as nice and polite about soccer in the U.S. as they want, but this says it all when 3 of the top prospects leave the U.S. soccer system behind.

Does Don Garber not know that the MLS is the local “hot dog cannon” league?

MLS Commissioner Don Garber thinks there’s too much soccer on TV.

Here’s his quote:

There’s more soccer on [US] television than any other sport by far. You’ve got European soccer. You’ve got Mexican soccer. You’ve got Major League Soccer. There’s way too much soccer on television. I think all of us got to figure out a way to narrow that window so you can get a situation like the NFL has, a couple of days a week, short schedule, something that’s very compelling and very targeted.

That’s like a high school football coach complaining that there’s too much football on TV, with all the college and professional games.

The schedule doesn’t make the league compelling to watch. The quality of the product on the field does.

We watch European and South American football on TV because we like to watch the best in the world play great soccer.

That’s the same reason folks watch the NFL on TV.  There’s not a big market for high school games on TV.

We go to our MLS games for the same reason we go to high school football games. It’s fun to experience the sport live, with friends, drink beer and support the local team, even if it isn’t the best quality. We even have a chance of catching a free hot dog shot from the cannon at halftime.

If the MLS adopted the features of the foreign football leagues, rather than other American pro sports leagues (in sports not widely played elsewhere), I think the value of the MLS would grow exponentially, rather than incrementally, because before long more people inside and outside the U.S. will want to watch it because it will have its share of the world’s top players.

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.

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…