Saturday, June 18, 2011

I Need a Hero

photo by JD Hancockvia PhotoRee

Today features a column in which three of our correspondents -- count 'em -- go toe-to-toe on why US Soccer has never produced a true superstar.  This article was written in large part in response to this piece, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal recently, which argued (among other things) that our national team players' abilities have outstripped the coaching talent necessary to help them advance their careers.

Correspondent Scott:

I agree US coaching quality can improve – just look at the talented Under-7 Fort Lauderdale Select side being held back by at least one hack coach.  But I think two factors are more relevant:

First, the author of the article completely glossed over the Football / Basketball / Baseball talent drain by simply pointing at Lionel Messi and then moving on.  That is an incredibly weak argument.  Sure, there are exceptions, but I would argue that if Messi were living in this country there is a very good chance that his father would be more into one of the other "big" sports and that would have diluted his soccer playing time growing up.  

In fact, with his balance and quickness, he would have been one of the best football players until high school, by which time it would have been too late to  accumulate the years of soccer playing.  It is a fact that the "Big Three" US sports (football, baseball and basketball) drain the talent pool available to US Soccer, and the author is na├»ve to dismiss it so easily.  Sure, there are excellent athletes who devote themselves to soccer, but with the majority of US athletes looking at the Big Three, it's as if our country had a fraction of the population from which to choose, putting us on par with countries that are much smaller – which is exactly where we are as a national program!

The other thing the Big Three drain does, which the article did touch on briefly, is that quality athletes who choose soccer have fewer superstar athletes against whom they can play (because they went into one of the Big Three).  This lack of competition can be significant and is analogous to what is said about the USNMT’s lack of quality competition in CONCACAF.

As much as technology and other parts of our lives change quickly, attitudes and predilections change over generations.  My father never played soccer and I am an fanatic.  My son now plays and his son probably will too.  As soccer becomes more and more mainstream, our level of players will increase as more and more superstars look to soccer.  Remember how far we have come since 1994 and realize that I was a young man then and now have a young son – only one generation.

It is inevitable that the US will become a soccer power.  In 1994 I told all my friends that the US may not win the 2010 World Cup, but we would have to be respected as having a chance.  While that didn’t exactly come to pass, we are a lot closer and it's only a matter of time.  I just hope I’m still around.

Correspondent Ed:

I agree with Scott.  I recall the best soccer player on Notre Dame’s team switching over to play football and becoming an all-american cornerback.  So much for footie.

Coaching was a problem in our generation (I can’t even imagine how bad it was in the stone age, when our headman farlieonfootie played!), but has steadily gotten better at all levels.  Are you telling me Bob Bradley is that much worse than half the guys in the EPL?  He couldn’t coach Bolton to 15th place in the EPL?  Don’t believe it.  

Having watched the early 1990’s US team a month ago (Cobi Jones, et al), it’s amazing how much better we’ve become.  Our coaching clearly isn’t at the level of the Barca coaching, but we’re getting there.  We should have a top 25 team in this sport, and we do.  We’re frankly not that far behind England in terms of our national team (if we base success on results), and Dempsey and Donovan are top tier players in any league.  

However, if either of them guys ran a 4.4 in the 40 and/or were bigger, they would very likely have been prodded into playing football by their respective high school coaches and we never would have heard of them.  See, e.g., Wes Welker.  He probably would have been a great soccer player, and at his size he has no business being in the NFL -- except he’s pulling it off.  Or see Morgan Matthews, the diminutive U-7 star.  His favorite sport?  Basketball.  Way to sell the program, Mark.

Coach Mark:

I don't buy Wynalda's argument one bit. First, 20% the coaches in the US are from a foreign country, so that weakens the argument some. They haven't had any more success than their American counterparts.

I think Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley would both have been quality English League coaches. I'd agree with Scott's argument on the athletes. With our current training system, if we had all of our top athletes in the sport, we'd be much farther along than we are, but certainly on the level of the top teams. We'd be a team of really fast guys who were good but not great soccer players. Think Eddie Pope and Charlie Davies.

However, athletes does not explain the full breadth of our lack of success. With 15 million kids playing soccer we have 13.5 million more kids playing soccer than Ghana has in its whole country, and ten million more than Scotland has in its whole country. In fact, Broward County (in South Florida) has about the same population as Ghana, to put it in perspective. Theoretically, Broward County alone should be able to compete with Ghana.

You ought to be able to do something with 15 million soccer players, even if they don't represent the countries' best athletes. The main reason, which is completely lost on Wynalda although Scott touched on in his comments, is cultural. Learning to play a sport is not just about the two or three days you spend a week at a scheduled practice. To get really dominant internationally at a sport, your kids have to live it. 

Our kids go to soccer practice and then come home and watch college football. After a Saturday game I have kids talking about going home to watch college football. I would say that only about 50% of soccer skills and understanding of the game come from your soccer coach in any country. The rest of the skills and understanding come from playing with older kids, playing the sport with parents, and watching it on TV. The average american soccer player probably watches a dozen soccer games a year on TV, but they probably watch 50 college football games, 20 pro football games, and a bunch of baseball games. In England this would not be the case. They'd have a completely different level of exposure to the sport.

The role of peers in development also can not be understated. The sport that the U.S. Is probably the most developed in is basketball. The US basketball development system is probably one of the worst in the world. Kids don't even start playing AAU basketball (travel ball) until they are ten or 11. Many kids start soccer at six in the U.S. How we are able to develop such great basketball players then? 

Because the coaches don't develop the players, their peers do. The top kids are from inner city's where they have pick-up games that can last six or seven hours. Many of them literally grow up on basketball courts, just as Europeans grow up on the soccer pitch.

It's comedy to think that a coach who has his players four to five hours a week can compete with countries whose kids might practice five or six hours a day on Saturday alone. Not to mention they might watch soccer another four hours that day on TV. Brazil is probably the closest development system that replicates the U.S. Basketball system. The good players there play soccer every free moment they get, and once the sun goes down they watch it on TV. Soccer in America is a team sport. Soccer in other countries is something you play anywhere you can find a ball. They play it alone, they play 1 v 1, they play 15 v 15.

The other thing that Wynalda misses is the role of the parent in sports development. Public school administrators have lamented for years that teaching inner city children is twice as hard as teaching children from well-to-do homes, because the children do not have the support at home to supervise homework and augment the classroom education. The reality is that most top students have parents that were top students and are driving the education train at home, pushing their children, demanding they excel on tests and helping them to do so.

Sports are no different. Parents play a huge role in teaching their kids sports. For top players, they often drive the equation. Charlie Davies father worked with him every day on his soccer skills growing up. It's not co-incidence that Michael Bradley is a good player or that Bruce Arena's son played professional ball. Tiger Woods father started with him when he was four. It wasn't the swing coach who took over in college that made Tiger Woods who he is. 

The one example of a great American player that Wynalda gave was Giuseppi Rossi. I believe Rossi's father was a soccer coach and trained his son. Rossi's formulative years were spent in the US, but he had a father who immersed him in the sport, worked with him, and probably watched soccer with him night and day.

At Fort Lauderdale Select we have a Under-12 team that we have been training like most travel soccer teams in the US train, meaning three to four times a week for 90 minutes a day. It's a respectable team by U.S. Standards. We just had three Guatemalan kids show up for tryouts who were better than anybody on our team. We'd asked them what team they played on and they said they had played for a few years on a rec team that practiced once a week three months a year. 

How could this be possible? Because they weren't being taught soccer by soccer coaches. Everything they had learned came from their peers and their parents. Even in a completely non-structured, organizationless format, they were able to keep up with the US system because their peers and parents were teaching them the game. If you added coaching plus peers and parents you'd have Europe or South America.

If there were 15 million parents who came from a soccer culture, you'd have a lot more Giussepe Rossi's and Michael Bradley's out there. With 15 million kids playing today, the odds of kids having soccer nuts for parents is growing, albeit slowly. Many soccer parents, including this one, still share their time with other American pastimes. The US statistics are so overwhelming that its going to eventually happen, but you can't underestimate the power of culture.

(This response was written by Mark McCormick, legendary soccer pioneer and coach of Fort Lauderdale's highly regarded "U-9 team". He holds a class "E" coaching license (the lowest licensing level in professional soccer) which he obtained at a clinic at Disney World.)

This is farlieonfootie for June 18.

1 comment:

  1. Correspondent Mark does an excellent job of expanding on the soccer culture barrier we are up against here in the US. And while my comment does not decrease the value of his argument even in the slightest, the tens of readers of this blog clearly value accuracy in all information provided, despite the fact that 83.267% of all statistics are made up on the spot. Further, having lived in Ghana and currently being a resident of Broward County, I am uniquely qualified to opine as to the veracity of Correspondent Mark's population statistics (plus I recently learned how to use Google). Given that Ghana's population is approximately 24 million and Broward County's is approximately 2 million, I am assuming Correspondent Mark has an affinity for hyperbole. Or perhaps he was thinking of Guyana? Regardless, Correspondent Mark's analysis was spot on. I hope to hear more from him regarding the USMNT.