Dec 28, 2012

My Favorite 2012 Soccer Memory--Soccer was My Succor

On a personal level, this year was a particularly rough one for me.  As a result, I often took refuge in the beautiful game.  When things were rough in my personal and professional life, I could retreat to the confines of the pitch, where an unpredictable game was played with predictable and known rules, so much unlike regular life.  Whether playing, watching or refereeing a game, being on the soccer field game me immense comfort.  I have refereed some excellent matches, seen kids play at all levels, enjoyed the camaraderie of my Monday night indoor matches, watched my alma mater University of Maryland win the ACC championship with a powerful performance against North Carolina with my youngest daughter and dear friends, and fought with my oldest daughter about watching games on TV.  I felt the fear and elation of the USMNT in World Cup Qualifying.  I watched DC United play well and play poorly, and felt the joy and anguish of each high and low, matching the course of my own life in many ways.

Yes, this year is filled with many memories, soccer and otherwise, that are both good and bad.  But soccer was this year more than any other, a comfort.  It was a place and a game that helped me get through all the crap in my personal life.

In a year when my personal life was a shambles, soccer was my succor.

There were lots of good memories this year to choose from:

  • The absolute wicked brilliance of Lionel Messi and 91 goals 
  • The USMNT winning at Azteca for the first time ever.  
  • Listening to the coach of a high school soccer team tell me I had a rough night refereeing having awarded not one but two stone cold penalties against his team.  After his team got spanked 8-0 by the eventual state champions, I was able to thank him for his opinion with only a touch of sarcasm (best I could muster).
  • My beloved DC United making the playoffs for the first time in five years despite the absence of Dwayne DeRosario.   
  • Posting my first clean sheet as a goal keeper for my team (a difficult task in the indoor game) and having a seven penalty kick save streak (not to toot my own horn too much).
  • The spectacular improvisation of Patrick Ianni's only goal of the season.  

But my favorite memory is this one:

The USWNT team versus Canada in the Olympics semi-final was a classic match to watch no matter who you root for, and one worthy of watching over and over.  Rarely do I feel heartache for any team that any U.S. squad beats (yeah, I am a homer and a patriot that way), but I truly felt bad for the Canadians, they played well enough to win.  The Canucks have nothing to be ashamed of, it was that good a game.

The game featured seven goals over 120 minutes of exciting soccer.  Topping it all off was Alex "Baby Horse" Morgan's 123rd minute header that looped over the Canadian goalkeeper.  The goal was just phenomenal, not because it was a difficult finish (although it is not easy), or particularly spectacular, but coming as it did, when it did, how it did.   I also loved the way Morgan celebrated, with arms out wide, in part she looked disbelieving, but in part she also looked like "yeah, I did that, I knew I could."  Just amazing stuff.

In a breakout year, this was, in my opinion, Alex Morgan's best goal of the year.  A simple, classy finish of a looping cross, touch of luck but coming literally at the death of a game to prevent the match from going to penalty kicks.

In so many ways, my own life mirrored that game.  I have battled back from being down, fought against tough odds and in the end, it is something simple that puts me over the edge of winning at the final moments.

When soccer mirrors life so much, it is hard not to like the simple moments of victory.  Yeah, that is my favorite 2012 Soccer Memory.

The Business of Soccer

Ben Berger of Footiebusiness has a poll up asking people to vote on the business item of the year.  Berger himeself selected four business stories for the year that he thought were the biggest of the year in terms of the business of soccer in 2012.  They include NBC's new contract as a broadcast partner, the demise of the WPS, the addition of the Montreal Impact to MLS and the groundbreaking for a new soccer specific stadium for San Jose.  You can vote for "other" as well.

The business of soccer in America is growing, and it is on solid ground.  True the women's side of things needs some work and there is some going on with the creation of the NWSL.  But it is hard to point to anywhere else in the world of American soccer where things are not on a solid footing and moving in a positive direction.

I recommend Berger's blog as well.  Good stuff all the time and smart stuff all the time.

Nov 27, 2012

Quick Free Kicks

Shaktar Donetsk striker Adriano has been suspended one match by UEFA for blatant violation of sporting behavior.  "The suspension applies to next week's UEFA Champions League group stage game between FC Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus in Ukraine. The Shakhtar player has also been required to perform one full day of community football service."   Even Adriano's boss is not happy.

MSL Head Honcho Don Garber thinks MLS will do fine without Beckham.  Well, I couldn't agree more.  Was Beckham helpful, no doubt.  But the league does not need Beckham but it will be interesting to see if Beckham needs the MLS in the future?

A wish list for Toronto FC.  Well, as I said, they got a great president in Kevin Payne.

Payne Leaving DC United

Everything happens for a reason right?  Today DC United announced that President and CEO Kevin Payne is stepping down to take a similar position with Toronto FC.  

So what is the reason for Payne leaving is the question that has to be asked.  I think the reason can be found in Payne's own quote for the release:

“For me, D.C. United has been like my child. We brought the team into the D.C. and national sports world 17 years ago and every day since – good and bad – has been a labor of love. This team has provided many great memories of championships and historic accomplishments, but I will best remember the people I've had the chance to meet, to work with, strive with, celebrate with, and sometimes to share disappointment with.
“To the players, coaches, co-workers and fans, I can only say thank you so much for the great privilege of having been part of the D.C. United family. It’s very difficult for me to express how I have felt, and still feel, about all of you."
When a child reaches a certain age, you have to let him or her go.  Payne can't exactly break DC United's dinner plate or throw its belongings into Lot 8 at RFK Stadium.  But I think he can step down, and let his child grow on its own.  
Looking back on Payne's tenure, perhaps there are only two things I would consider failures.  The first and most obvious is the lack of a stadium.  To be sure, navigating the shifting political grounds of the District of Columbia government is no easy feat, compounded by government personnel who may not be the "cleanest" shall we say.  But during a time when DC United was the most successful team in the DC sports landscape, it is hard to overlook the fact that DC is still playing in a 40 year old relic of a stadium and paying way too much money to do so.
Second failing of DC United is a little less noticeable.  Under Payne's watch, DC United has struggled with finding quality DP's and top tier veterans.  With the exception of Dwayne DeRosario, a very know quality player in the MLS, DC United has not been able to adequately find Designated Players worth the money being spent for their services.  The past five years have been largely a failure in that regard.  
But there have been some very good facets of DC United under Payne.  First, I think that the relationship between the front office and the fans is solid.  While the front office does not defer to fans in terms of decisions, the supporters groups have generally found at least an opportunity to be heard.  In the end, there is not much more that can be asked for.  
I know that all MLS clubs are active in their communities, but I just feel like DC United has gone above and beyond in such regard.  While players and clubs are contractually required to make public appearances and perform charitable work, the efforts made by the club and players appears genuine.  
Finally, I believe that DC United under Payne has done a wonderful job promoting the game of soccer in the area.  True, DC United has benefited with quality home grown players like Bill Hamid and Andy Najar.  But the club is expanding its Academy programs and I believe that the next logical step for the club will be a residency academy for players at the U16 and U 18 levels.  But Payne lead the effort to integrate the academy and the First Team in a farsighted effort that means that the club is starting to benefit from its academy system directly.  
So as Payne moves on to the troubled child of Toronto, I think he can fairly say that he leaves DC United poised for more success.  It may be hard to leave a child on its own, but Payne can take pride that he has done all he could do to prepare the club to succeed on its own.
So, as a former sailor, Fair Winds and Following Seas, Kevin.  Thanks for the memories.

Nov 16, 2012

Fair Play Awards--or the XBOX Award for Year of Undetected Crime

Back when I was in the Navy, enlisted personnel could received a Good Conduct Medal every four years for, well as the name implies, good conduct.  It was a good reward and allowed for points toward promotions.  The award was jokingly referred to as the award for Four Years of Undetected Crime.  The unofficial moniker was clearly tongue-in-cheek, but sometimes not far from the truth.  The XBox Fair Play Awards could be thought of as the MLS version of the Good Conduct Medal, the "Stealthy Fouler Awards" or something similar.  

The Xbox Fair Play awards focus on some fairly objective criteria, which is very different than many other awards.  MLS selects the finalists for these two awards based upon the objective criteria of games and minutes played, fouls committed, and cards received.  But there is also a subjective criteria of general sportsmanship.  

In all seriousness, this is an award that should have more play in both the media and among MLS types.  I would like to see big fat bonuses from MLS on this one, on the order of $100 for every average minute of foul-free play for individual players and a big fat team bonus for the team award winner.  But that maybe the referee in me talking.

On the the finalists:

Xbox Individual Fair Play Finalists

  • Ante Jazic (Chivas USA)
  • Logan Pause (Chicago Fire)
  • Heath Pearce (New York Red Bulls)

Let's take a look at the numbers:  

Jazic started and played 27 games this season for a combined 2,379 minutes.  During those minutes, Jazic received no yellow or red cards and committed 8 fouls according to MLS stats.  That is one foul every 297.3 minutes.  So putting that in different numbers, Jazic was committing about every FOURTH game.  He never got a booking--ever--during the season.

Pause started in 31 games and played in 32.  He logged 2,242 minutes in 2012.  During that time, he too was never booked by the referees.  Pause committed 11 fouls, for an average of one foul every 220.4 minutes.  Very good numbers for a man who was playing defensive midfield for most of the season.

Finally, Pearce started and played 18 games for the Red Bulls this season and a further 10 games for Chivas before being traded.  His total minutes for the year were 2,504, during which time he committed 9 total fouls and received one yellow card.  On average he was committing one foul for every 278.2 minutes.  

Okay, now it is time to start thinking about what matters.  I could easily toss Pearce for having gotten a yellow card since the other two finalists did not get booked, but Pearce played with two different teams in two very different playoff outlooks.  You could also toss Jazic because he did not have as many games or minutes as the other two and he was playing on a team that was more or less eliminated from the playoffs by the end of June.  You could toss out Pause because he committed more fouls than the other two players but he did it playing in Defensive midfield.  

But I think I need to be objective on this one and go with Jazic.  Objectively, he was playing more fairly (or not getting caught as often depending on how you look at it) and minutes player per foul average is very impressive.  The discrepancy between the minutes played is, frankly, not all that significant (the span of just over a game and a half.  

Ante Jazic, hats off to you, if I had my druthers, you would be getting at $29,730 bonus.  But I don't make that choice.

Xbox Team Fair Play Finalists

  • Chicago Fire
  • Houston Dynamo
  • New England Revolution 
This is another very stats driven calculation, working from MLS's stats, where games played and minutes played are equal, after all the teams played the same number of games and accounting for discrepancies as a result of having players sent off, the minutes played are going to be essentially equal, or at least within near enough tolerances as to be largely insignificant.  Here is what we have in terms of numbers:

Chicago Fire: the Fire actually committed the fewest fouls of any team in the MLS, 349.  That comes to an average of just over 10.2 fouls per game.  Not bad.  It should be noted that Chicago were ith in the league among fouls suffered (421).  But of these three teams nominated, Chicago collected 45 yellow cards and five red cards, a total of 50 bookings (1.47 cards per game), and that comes to one card for every 6.8 fouls.  So you could say that Chicago got the most bang for their buck in terms of fouls or looked at from another viewpoint, the fouls they committed tended to be harsher or more prone to sanction.  (Note however, the MLS stats do not differentiate between a yellow card for dissent, for example, and a yellow card for a reckless or studs up challenge).  

Houston Dynamo:  Houston were third on the list in terms of fewest fouls committed, 372, which means they committed 10.9 fouls a game.  Games with Houston involved look to be pretty even as the men in orange suffered 377 fouls(3rd fewest in the league).  However, Houston collected 34 yellow cards and only one red card this season, (1.03 cards per game).  The fouls to cards ration is one card for every 10.6 fouls.  

New England Revolution:  The Revs come in second in terms of fouls committed, 360 for the year, or 10.6 fouls per game).  Revs players also suffered a goodly number of fouls as well, 483 for the season (3rd on the list in the league behind Vancouver and FC Dallas).  The Revs collected 40 cards, 37 yellow and three red cards).  That puts there cards per game ration at 1.18 cards per game.  The Revs received one card for every 9.0 fouls (a nice even number by happenstance).

Because this is, I would like to think, a largely stats based comparison, then Houston should walk with this prize.  The Dynamo picked up fewer cards for the year and that to me is important.  New England picked up 14 percent more cards that Houston and Chicago picked up 28 percent more cards than Houston.  Houston's games, at least statistically in terms of fouls were largely equal.   

In keeping in with my notion that Fair Play, as a team, should be handsomely rewarded, I think the winning team should receive a team bonus of $200,000 to be divvied as they see fit.    Congrats Houston

Frankly, the one thing about these awards is that I am not sure how the subjective "overall sportsmanship" criteria is developed.  I would be fine with the latter being tossed out and let this be simply an objective criteria award.  Alternatively, I would suggest that only referees and assistant referees be permitted to judge the subjective criteria side of things, because referees take a lot of stick of players and often listen to a lot of whining, whinging and haranguing before issuing a dissent yellow card. 

MLS Season Awards Finalists

MLS Announced their end of season award Finalists.  I will have my thoughts on some of these categories in other posts.

And the Nominees are:

Rookie of the Year Finalists

  • Austin Berry (Chicago Fire)
  • Nick DeLeon (D.C. United)
  • Darren Mattocks (Vancouver Whitecaps FC)
  • Winner to be announced Monday, November 19. 

Xbox Individual Fair Play Finalists*

  • Ante Jazic (Chivas USA)
  • Logan Pause (Chicago Fire)
  • Heath Pearce (New York Red Bulls)
  • *Selected by MLS based on objective criteria such as fouls committed, cards received, games & minutes played, as well as subjective evaluation of sportsmanlike behavior.
  • Winner to be announced Monday, November 19.

Xbox Team Fair Play Finalists*

  • Chicago Fire
  • Houston Dynamo
  • New England Revolution*Selected by MLS based on objective criteria such as fewest fouls committed, cards received, and on subjective evaluation of sportsmanlike behavior.
  • Winner to be announced Monday, November 19.

Defender of the Year Finalists

  • Victor Bernardez (San Jose Earthquakes)
  • Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City)
  • Aurelien Collin (Sporting Kansas City)
  • Winner to be announced Tuesday, November 20. 

MLS W.O.R.K.S. Humanitarian of the Year Finalists

  • Kei Kamara (Sporting Kansas City)
  • Michael Lahoud (Philadelphia Union)
  • Chris Seitz (FC Dallas)
  • Winner to be announced Tuesday, November 20.

Referee of the Year Finalists

  • Silviu Petrescu
  • Baldomero Toledo
  • Armando Villarreal
  • Winner to be announced Tuesday, November 20.

Assistant Referee of the Year Finalists

  • Ian Anderson
  • Gregory Barkey
  • Corey Parker
  • Winner to be announced Tuesday, November 20.

Coach of the Year Finalists

  • Ben Olsen (D.C. United)
  • Peter Vermes (Sporting Kansas City)
  • Frank Yallop (San Jose Earthquakes)
  • Winner to be announced Tuesday, November 27. 

Comeback Player of the Year Finalists

  • Alan Gordon (San Jose Earthquakes)
  • Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders FC)
  • Chris Pontius (D.C. United)
  • Winner to be announced Tuesday, November 27.

Allstate Goalkeeper of the Year Finalists

  • Michael Gspurning (Seattle Sounders FC)
  • Dan Kennedy (Chivas USA)
  • Jimmy Nielsen (Sporting Kansas City)
  • Winner to be announced Wednesday, November 28. 

Newcomer of the Year Finalists

  • Victor Bernardez (San Jose Earthquakes)
  • Michael Gspurning (Seattle Sounders FC)
  • Federico Higuain (Columbus Crew)
  • Winner to be announced Wednesday, November 28.

Volkswagen Most Valuable Player Finalists

  • Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls)
  • Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
  • Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
  • Winner to be announced Thursday, November 29.

Nov 14, 2012

Five Talking Points: RUS 2:2 USMNT

  1. The scouting report on the USMNT is pretty clear for opponents.  High pressure, high intensity for the first 15-20 minutes will likely yield a goal.  Jurgen Klinsmann has got to find a tactical or a psychological solution to this problem for the USMNT.  One tactical solution for the U.S. is to just be frenetic for the first 20 minutes, run at defenses, long balls out of the back, open the field and let the superior physical fitness carry them through the half and into the second half.  If the solution is psychological--Klinsmann needs to hire a new sports psychologist and pronto.
  2. Klinsmann needs to find a true left-sided midfield player.  The trio of Bradley, Jones, and Williams/Edu does not provide enough linkage in the midfield to do all the things that need to distribute the ball out of the back and connect to the strikers.  Maybe a healthy Donovan (who has played on the left for both club and country) could do it.  Some might say Dempsey, but the defensive responsibilities take Dempsey away from where he is best.  I think the answer is probably someone new, which is a worry heading into the World Cup Qualifiers.
  3. Gatt--it is pronounced "Gatt" as in rhymes with "cat" I am sure his family was cringing and groaning every time Ian Darke mispronounced his name--showed some promise.  He was not significantly worse in the first 15-20 minutes of the game than anyone else.  The boy is fast and he has an eye for attack.  I think given that he trained for all of about two hours--maybe three--with the MNT before this game, I can't say he doesn't deserve more call ups.
  4. Can we finally put an end to the Geoff Cameron doubts?  He has been consistent all year long at centerback.      
  5. Overall team performance is a C+.  Were it not for the late game heroics of Bradley and Diskerud, as well as the never say die effort (another U.S. trademark is seems), then this would a lot lower grade.

Player Grades:

Howard--8      What can you say, he kept the U.S. in the game--as usual.
Chandler--6     Impressed with his movement and defensive skills.  
Cameron--7    Provided lots and lots of lateral cover, but has to be expected with F. Johnson and Chandler moving foward.
Bocanegra--5  Left early for an injury, played okay during limited time.
F. Johnson--5.5  looked suspect at times, but played well out of the back.
Gatt--5.5             See above.
Bradley--8.5     Man of the match performance.  Brilliant, and technically difficult, strike for a goal.  
Jones--5.5        He is not the attacking link we need out of a midfielder, but didn't totally suck either.
Williams--4.5    Although he found the game in the second half, I was wondering if Klinsmann was going to pull him out in the first half.
Gomez--6         Made a nuisance of himself, buzzed around, but not his best performance.
Altiodre--6.5    Was getting back and helping defend, working hard, had a few chances that didn't break his way.

Goodson--6     Had one golden chance on goal, some fine defensive work, and bad decision on fouling for the late penalty.  Still not going to supplant Bocanegra or Cameron in the central defense.
Edu--6             Compared to Williams, Edu was miles better.  Sharp and mistake free.
Kljestan--5       Didn't have as much an impact as I think he could or should have.  But workmanlike effort.
Agudelo--5.5    Smart header to set up Bradley, fair impact on the match which is what subs should do.
Boyd--5           Not really enough time
Diskerud--6     and yeah, that is all goal.  Not really enough time otherwise to make an impact.

Nov 12, 2012

Five Talking Points About USMNT Russia Friendly

So, with the final FIFA Friendly of the year on Wednesday, USMNT Coach Jurgen Klinsmann finally announced a squad, here it is:

GOALKEEPERS- Tim Howard (Everton), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS- Carlos Bocanegra (Racing Santander), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Timmy Chandler (Nuremberg), Maurice Edu (Stoke City), Clarence Goodson (Brondby), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim)
MIDFIELDERS - Michael Bradley (Roma), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg), Joshua Gatt (Molde), Joe Gyau (Hoffenheim), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht), Danny Williams (Hoffenheim)
FORWARDS- Juan Agudelo (Chivas USA), Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna), Herculez Gomez (Santos Laguna)

So my Five Talking Points:

1.  Klinsmann went young.  The average age of this squad is 25.7 with six players aged 30 or more (Bocanegra, Gomez, Goodson, Howard, Jones & Rimando).  By contrast, the squad in the Antigua and Guatamala World Cup Qualifiers had an average age of 28.4 and nine players age 30 or more (the previously named six, plus Beckerman, Cherundolo and Gordon).  Youth is a good thing and of course a friendly is designed to see what young players can do on an international stage.  But will Klinsmann play some of those youngsters?  I hope so.  I would like to see Sean Johnson play, along with Gatt, Gyau, Boyd and Agudelo.  That is five of the permissible six subs---seems good to me.

2.  Rumor has it that Timmy Chandler is committed to the U.S.  Well, until he is cap tied to the U.S. in a qualifier or Gold Cup, I have been burned too many times before.  Seeing is believing Timmy, seeing is believing.

3.  Speed aplenty in this squad.  Chandler, F. Johnson, Gatt, Gyau, Boyd and to a lesser extent Agudelo represent some speedy guys.  Will Klinsmann's tactics use that speed?  I hope so.  

4.  Sacha Kljestan has a chance here to show what he can do.  Will he start?  I hope so.  I would like to see him on the right in 4-4-2, but if Klinsmann goes 4-3-3, Kljestan will suffer as the midfielder dropped.  Kljestan is an attacking midfielder.  Unless he has improved his box to box play, he will not supplant Bradley, Jones or Williams without an injury.

5.  Is Altidore out of the doghouse?  Sure seems like it, but as his form for AZ Alkmaar suggests, for him to be effective, he needs to be running at defenses and getting good service in the box--will Klinsmann use him that way?  Let's just say that I am not betting the farm on it.

Line-up I would like to see:



F. Johnson--Bocanegra---Cameron--------Chandler---------

--------------------S. Johnson----------------------------------------

Line-up we are more likely to see





Nov 11, 2012

American Soccer Community--Bigger and Stronger Than Ever

Just as the Baby Boom changed the face of American demographics.  The Millenial generation will change the face of soccer fandom in America.

In 1996 Major League Soccer kicked off it's inaugural season.  Coming on the heels of the very successful (in terms of attendance and revenue) 1994 World Cup, Major League Soccer faced a big uphill battle.  fighting for market share in a saturated (oversaturated?) sports market, and coming not long after the failure of the old North American Soccer League, there were a lot of people who predicted and maybe even hoped that professional soccer in the United States would fail.

To be sure, MLS went through its growing pains, but soccer is on the verge of a significant shift in support.  ESPN's Roger Bennet  profiled Rich Luker, a sports social scientist who runs the ESPN Sports Poll, who had this to say about soccer in America:

The U.S. soccer audience is also unique in Luker's eyes. "It is a true community. The only group that comes close are college sports fans or followers of the Grateful Dead. They embrace soccer as a communal lifestyle as opposed to a personal experience or a community that only exists on gameday." 
However, Luker also believes soccer is underperforming. "It's a sport that should have been doing well a long time ago." The social scientist is well positioned to make that claim. He partnered with MLS back when it was planning the launch of the league in 1994. "We discovered 30 percent of American households contained someone playing soccer. The only game that comes close to that massive number is baseball." 

 Luker's analysis points to soccer being on the cusp of an explosion in this country, and there are many reasons.  The first is that the growth and speed of online services and expansion of cable sports channels (which needed content) means that there are more soccer games, of differing levels available for fans.  A soccer fan in the States now can find dozens of games on TV or online in a given weekend (often numbering over 100 games during some weeks), 52 weeks a year.  So the easy ability to see the games is making inroads to fandom, allowing fans to build a connection to a favorite team, even on another continent.  The easy availability of soccer viewing (not to mention its consistent timing) makes it easy for fans to enjoy their soccer and they can do it either by themselves or in the company of like-minded folk, the communal nature of soccer that Luker refers to.

But here is a more fundamental basis which I alluded to above--the Millennial Generation.  There is a whole generation of boys and girls who not only play soccer, but also are fans who have had the opportunity to see live professional soccer in their own country.  They have their own heroes now.  Sure Messi, Ronaldo, and other famous players can be seen regularly on TV and occaisionally here in the United States, but they can also see Beckham, Dononvan, and others right here in the states.  That is where MLS has made significant inroads.  MLS' slow steady progression, coupled with an very public effort by NBC/Universal family of networks to boost the game has built a community the only way it can be done, slowly.

But the game is also building an even broader fan base outside of MLS.  A good idea of the growth of the game from a fan and supporter viewpoint is found at lower levels of the game.  Even at the college level, some schools are drawing significant crowds to games.  Just this year, the University of California Santa Barbara drew over 13,000 fan for a single game.  UCSB averages well over 3000 fans a game, as do other title contenders such as Maryland and Akron.  For college games.

Even at the high school level, while nothing beats the social draw of the Friday night football game, soccer games are drawing more fans than just the parents and family of the players.  Sure, crowds are measured in the low 100 fans, it is the fact that students are coming to support their team that makes a difference.  It is the student fans that matter.

These students, aged 14-17, are the generation that will alter the soccer community in America.  These teenagers have grown up in a country with its own developing league, with access to world soccer unmatched in previous years.  Whether it is the fact that they are fans of DC United or Manchester United or Inter Milan, the access to the favorite teams means they learn more about the game.  They have role models to emulate on the field.  They learn the rules, the tactics, the style of play of their game and the come to follow their team.  Just like the baby boomer generation followed the Yankees, the Dodgers or the Red Sox, modern teenagers no longer abandon the sport of soccer when they enter high school.  Indeed many are embracing it because their non-playing schoolmates embrace it.  The fact that these young men and women no longer feel the stigma of playing soccer as opposed to football or baseball, they are seen as true athletes and supported as such.

The Millennial Generation is the first in the United Statess that cannot remember a sports landscape without MLS.  they will pass on their love of the game to the next generation, so that in 20-30 years, 40,000 fans at an MLS game will not be restricted to Seattle.

Nov 9, 2012

The Veteran and The Rookie

DC United is the highest seeded team left in the MLS Playoffs.  After downing the New York Red Bulls (AGAIN!!!), and ensuring the the trophy case in Harrison, NJ remains empty for another year, DC United are two games away from not only their first appearance in the MLS Cup match, but hosting the game as well.  The Houston Dynamo certainly have a say in that.

But last night, in what can only be described as a roller coaster of a match, DC United's veteran and rookie made magic in the dying minutes of the game.  Robbie Russell and Nick DeLeon, two players who probably could not be more different, combined for a lovely goal that put the Black and Red into the Eastern Conference Finals.  

Russell played a far different role last night than I think usual for him.  On multiple occasions Russell would foray forward, in a similar but distinctly different manner than Andy Najar.  I think Ben Olsen, tactically, may have thought that his counterpart, Hans Backe would expect the less speedy Russell to stay at home more than Najar would have, and thus Olsen slipped the reins on Russell.  

Russell though was clearly thoughtful about the effort's going forward.  He selected his runs well, particularly taking the acres of space in the right channel leading to the only goal of the game.  But Russell was also smart enough to get back quickly, even thought center backs, Brandon McDonald and Dejan Jakovic had him covered deep and Perry Kitchen as well.  

Where Russell relies on experience and practice to make his mark felt, DeLeon was almost all instinct last night.  Not just on the goal, but also in his midfield play.  Ben Olsen ordered DeLeon (who usually starts on the right flank) to switch with Chris Pontius in order to get Pontius more involved in the play.  Initially the move worked well as Pontius was able to get a couple good chances in.  But on the goal, DeLeon was flashing across the penalty area, looking for that cutting pass.

But admidst all the hubbub of the goal and with win, there has been little about how hard that shot was to not only get on target but get past Luis Robles.  Robles was in the right position, but DeLeon had to take a pass that was moving away from him, away from goal and then turn his hips AND get enough power on the shot to edge it past Robles.

Rumor has it that Andy Najar might be sitting out the next series against Houston.  If that is the case, Russell will have his hands full with Brad Davis, so he might not have the authority to go forward, but that might be just as well, at least at BBVA Compass.  

And So It Begins

The MLS coach carousel that is.

On the heap already:  

Jesse Marsch (not to be too much of a rhymer, but that one was harsh although it was supposed to be mutual.
Robin Fraser (when Chris Wondolowski scores more goals on his own than your entire team--well see ya' is all you can expect)
Hans Backe---NYRB still without a trophy.

Who is next?  
My money is on Oscar Pareja. 

Some others who might want to be checking their cell phone before answering would include Paul Mariner--if for no other reason than it is Toronto.  Jay Heaps could be worried, but I think that New England will give him one more year.

Nov 1, 2012

The Future of the US Women's Program

The latest news out of U.S. Soccer related to the WNT is the hiring of Tom Semranni to be the next head coach of the USWNT.  I don't know enough about Semranni to offer an opinion on him as a coach, but I do see that he has done a fine job with the Australian WNT, and has a long resume.  He comes into a tough job on the heels of a pretty successful tenure of Pia Sundhage, so good luck to him.

I saw a brief interview with him last night with Max Bretos in the pregame to the Houston-Chicago MLS playoff match.  Bretos asked the question about Semranni's goals with youth development for the women's program.  Semranni's answer was a fairly pat non-answer, full of the usual platitudes of wanting to reach down into the youth ranks and help develop young ladies in the game.  Blah, Blah, blah.

Semranni may have goals and aspirations along those lines, but right now there is no USSF direct sponsorship of development program.  USSF and Sunil Gulati have made it a priority to establish and operate a Development Academy for boys and are now in the planning stages for introducing a U13/14 program to supplement the already existing U16 and U18 programs.  I believe that the Development Academy has done some wonderful things for the development of young men in our country and I am looking forward to the future.

But the same commitment is not there for the girls side.  Yes, there is something called the Elite Clubs National League which has the following Mission Statement.

The Elite Clubs National League, Inc. (“ECNL”) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit member-based organization founded in 2009 to enhance the developmental experience of the female youth soccer players in the United States through: (i) improving the competitive environment through creation of a true nationally-based competitive league with multiple flights; (ii) improving the process for identifying elite female soccer players for the U.S. Soccer youth national teams through a systematic scouting and identification program based on national competition; and (iii) improving the daily training environment at female youth soccer clubs through developing best practices and training and organizational guidelines for its member clubs.

What is missing from that Mission Statement is any affiliation with USSF.  Kudos to the founder of the ECNL for recognizing the need for systemic development of young female players, whether it is for the national teams, colleges, foreign clubs or a (as yet defined) domestic league.

However, I think it is tragic that the most successful soccer program in the United States, i..e. the WNT, does not have the imprimatur of USSF for a systematic development program for girls.  The WNT has actual World Cup Titles, Olympic Gold Medals and a string of success.  The U.S. may have been able to ride the power of Title IX for a few decades, but the rest of the world is catching up.  Mexico, Japan, Canada, Germany, and probably a dozen other nations are pouring money in the development of the women's game and the U.S. will not be able to maintain its superiority for long if it does not move to catch up.

Many of the Boys Development Academy Programs no doubt have in the infrastructure in place to initiate a girls program at the U16 and U18 levels without much effort. In terms of logistics, how hard is it to have the boys and girls teams travel together  for matches (leaving aside the normal teenage hormonal problems associated with that).  Talent identification for the youth national teams and ultimate the senior WNT and colleges and subsequently, a professional league, should not be haphazard or left to chance.  If the USSF is serious about truly supporting the growth of the women's game in this country, it must be seen to be making a real effort to bring a girls Development Academy in to being.

The founders of the ECNL are to be commended for the effort, 52 clubs in three years is no easy feat, so they have laid the groundwork.  I don't want those efforts to be totally supplanted, but USSF would do wise to bring those founders into the USSF fold and allow them, with full USSF sanctioning to truly bring about a girls development academy.

Oct 31, 2012

My Best XI + 3 for 2012

On the heels of my Best XI Under 24, here is my Best XI + 3 for 2012.  Why the +3?  Well, a coach gets substitutes, doesn't he?  So here we go.

Jimmy Nielsen (Sporting Kansas City) in what has to be a consensus goalkeeper of the year winner, Nielsen was a rock in the goal for the Eastern Conference winners.  While his habit of licking his lips is nerve wracking, the fact that he has an anemic 0.79 Goals Against Average and a league leading 15 shutouts, if the big Dane doesn't win Goalkeeper of the Year then the fix is in.

Honorable Mentions:  Michael Gspurning (Seattle Sounders FC), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), Dan Kennedy (Chivas USA), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire)

Defenders (3):
Todd Dunivant (LA Galaxy) despite a brief spell on the bench due to injury, I believe that Dunivant is the best left back in the league.  Consistently one of the best defenders in the league, he also contributes heavily in the attack.

Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City):  The non-mercurial half of the leagues' best centerback pairing, Besler goes about his job with a quiet competence that belies his impact.  Not only is he strong in the air and strong in the tackle, he can pick up the ball and transition into the attack very well.  That is necessary in Peter Vermes' dynamic 4-3-3.

Young-Pyo Lee (Vancouver Whitecaps):  Admit it, you thought he wouldn't adapt to the MLS' phsyicality very well.  It's okay, I didn't think so either and I bet that Martin Rennie is glad that he did adapt well.  I think it unlikely that Vancover makes the playoffs without the Korean workhorse on the flanks.  With one goal and four assists on the year, with 33 starts, the veteran international certainly made a mark in the league.

Honorable Mentions:  Brandon McDonald (DC United), Jamison Olave (Real Salt Lake), Victor Bernardez (San Jose Earthquakes), Aurelien Collin (Sporting Kansas City), Arne Freidrich (Chicago Fire); Heath Pearce (New York Red Bull)

Midfielders (4):
Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)  The assist leader for the league in 2012, the set piece master had a break out year, yielding national team call ups (and caps) and generally serving as a leader on the pitch.

Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo):  Why Davis is not getting national team call-ups remains a mystery.  Another set piece maestro, Davis also marauds along the left flank, whipping in cross after cross.  When Davis is playing well, Houston is playing well--you do the math.

Chris Pontius (DC United): What a wonderful thing it is to be healthy for an entire season.  Leading the Black and Red with 12 goals this year, Pontius stepped up in the absence of Dwayne DeRosario by donning the captain's arm band and leading the team down the stretch.

Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle Sounders FC):  a holding midfielder's holding midfielder, Alonso has defined the role in MLS with steady, consistent play that sometimes goes unheralded.  A precision passer and tenacious tackler, Alonso helped Seattle concede the second fewest goals of any team this year (just less than a goal a game average).

Honorable Mentions:  Mauro Rosales (Seattle Sounders FC); David Ferreira (FC Dallas), Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy); Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake); Marvin Chavez (San Jose Earthquakes), Mike Magee (Los Angeles Galaxy);

Forwards (3)
Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)  Let's see, 27 goals and 7 assists.  That is all.

Kenny Cooper (New York Red Bulls)--maybe Cooper has found a place with 18 goals this season, the big man is contributing like never before.  Maybe it is because every is keying on Thierry Henry or something else, Cooper has found a stride.  Can he keep doing it next year is of course, always the mystery, but this year, he earned him a spot.

Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake):  Yeah, yeah, I know--might as well pick the top three goals scorers and call it a day.  But the job of a striker is to score goals and with 17, Saborio would have been in the hunt for the Golden Boot with Cooper had it not been for Wondo's wonder season.

Honorable Mentions:  Fredy Montero (Seattle Sounders FC), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders FC), Kei Kamara (Sporting Kansas City), Robbie Keane (Los Angeles Galaxy); Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls)

Super Subs (3):
Alan Gordon (San Jose Earthquakes):  Seriously everyone, if you need a goal in the clutch is there anywhere else to turn this season the this journeyman?  He is so good he did it for the United States Men's National Team when everyone was was like, "Klinsmann is out of his mind!"  13 goals and 7 assists in 23 appearances, mostly off the bench.  Yeah--that qualifies as a super sub.

Chris Birchall (Columbus Crew):  He may not be the greatest player ever, he may not be the classiest player ever, but if you need to kill off a game and need to supplement your back line or add a second holding midfileder, I don't think there are many better at that limited role than Birchall.

Steven Lenhart (San Jose Earthquakes):  Yes, he is the player that everyone loves to hate unless he is on your team.  He has no particularly great skills, unless you count annoying the crap out of opponents and fans, but here is what he brings:  tenacity, work ethic and yes, goals--10 of them to be exact.  His goal scoring total, mostly as a substitute, is better than the top scorer on 11 teams in the league.





Not a perfect formation, but lots of heft.

Oct 30, 2012

My MLS Best XI 2012 (U24)

The MLS season is done and just before Hurricane Sandy came along to bust everything up.  Of course, lots of season awards are being dished out and the Playoffs are upon us.  So, with the season concluded, it is time to name some Best XI's.  I will have two in the next two days--an overall Best XI and, in keeping with MLS' 24 under 24 theme, a Best XI under 24.

Best XI under 24.

Goalkeeper:  Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire).  There are really only two names to consider in this category, Sean Johnson or Bill Hamid.  You could not go wrong with either of these guys between the pipes.  Johnson played more games, faced more shots, had more saves and a pretty good Goals Against Average (1.24).  Hamid, other the other hand, lost his starting job to Joe Willis and had to fight to get it back, posted a miniscule 1.03 GAA and seemed to come up with big saves when he needed to.  In the end, I just had to toss a coin and went with Johnson.  Sean Johnson is the guy.

Honorable Mentions:  Bill Hamid (DC United), Zach McMath (Philadelphia Union), Ryan Meara (Red Bull New York)

Defenders (4):  Sheanon Williams (Philadelphia Union):  There is a reason why you will find a number of young players considered for this XI from Philadelphia, because John Hackworth is used to working with young players and has no problem relying on them.  Williams is a good example, he is an engine on the Union flank, bombing up and down the flank tirelessly.  Strong in defense, with pace and able to whip in a dangerous cross on the attack, Williams is solid, smooth and worthy of watching.  Hopefully a little consistency in the Union technical staff will be helpful.  

Austin Berry (Chicago Fire):  He might be a consensus Rookie of the Year (or at least darn close).  Berry was poised, strong and clearly ready for MLS, even if no one thought him so during the 2012 Draft.  Under the tutelage of Arne Freidrich and Frank Klopas, the Louisville product made his presence felt, but not in a flashy way.  He got the job done, whatever that job was.

Matt Hedges (FC Dallas):  Another rookie, Hedges stepped up and played well for a team that struggled mightily this year.  Hedges is a big guy (like Berry) and clearly strong in the air.  But less noticed is that Hedges can also play with the ball at his feet.  Another Geoff Cameron?  Time will tell, but Hedges earned his pay and then some this year.  

Chance Myers (Sporting Kansas City):  Now in his fifth(!!) year, Myers has blossomed under Peter Vermes' almost frenetic style of play, which suits the active and busy Myers.  Providing lots of width and some good crosses into the powerful striker force.  With seven assists this season, Myers has proven that he can get the job done providing the width to Vermes 4-3-3.

Honorable Mentions:  Andy Najar (DC United), Kevin Alston (New England Revolution), Gershon Koffie (Vancouver Whitecaps), Connor Lade (Red Bull New York)

Midfielders (4):  Perry Kitchen (DC United).  In his second year with United, Kitchen moved into the Defensive midfielder role, his preferred position, and has blossomed into a spectacular leader on the pitch.  Kitchen does what a holding midfielder must do, sit in front of the back four, bust up the plays, tackle and transition.  He has the makings of a solid midfield general in the Kyle Beckerman mold but with the versatility of Shalrie Joseph. 

Juninho (L.A. Galaxy):  With all the big personalities on the Galaxy squad, Donovan, Beckham, Keane, Omar Gonzalez, and Buddle, it is still hard to see how the Galaxy does what it does without Juninho.  A true box to box midfielder with near perfect positioning, a great tackling ability, precision passing and a wicked long range shooting ability, Juninho is the fulcrum around which L.A. pivots--without him I am not sure Bruce Arena's men go far in the playoffs.

Nick DeLeon (DC United):  DeLeon was making a case early in the season for Rookie of the Year.  He hit a wall (like lots of non-defender Rookies) but credit to him for working through it.  During the stretch run when DC United lost Dwayne DeRosario to injury, DeLeon stepped up and played well.  Pairing well with the aforementioned Najar, it is possible that this DC right flank could turn into a nightmare for defenses for their playoff foes and for next year.

Luis Silva (Toronto FC):  If Silva had been anywhere but the train wreck that is Toronto FC, I believe he could have made a much bigger impact on a team.  But toiling in Toronto no doubts has added to his character.  With five goals and five assists, which equates to 25% of Toronto's goal scoring.  Word out of the Toronto camp from Paul Mariner is that he would not have taken Silva as the 4th Pick (Mariner fancied Nick DeLeon).  Not sure if that is smart, unless Mariner is looking to make Silva trade bait.  Still Silva is a great pick and could be a fabulous building block for the constantly rebuilding Toronto FC.

Honorable Mentions:  Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake), Andy Rose (Seattle Sounders FC), Danny Cruz (Philadelphia Union), Felipe Martins (Impacte de Montreal)

Forwards (2):  Jack McInernery (Philadelphia Union).  After suffering lack of minutes under Peter Novak, McInernery got the nod for new coach John Hackworth and blossomed.  Surprisingly strong with his back to the goal and deadly around the goal, the 19 year old pumped in 8 goals (almost 1/4 of the teams goals) and chipped in 3 assists on a team that otherwise suffered for the season.  

CJ Sapong (Sporting Kansas City):  SKC coach Peter Vermes must sometimes think he has died and gone to striker heaven.  Sapong is one of the young engines of creation and goal scoring that put SKC at the top of the Eastern Conference. Sapong's 9 goals and 2 assists helped, but perhaps not as much as his pure energy on the pitch.  Constantly moving, he is hard to keep track of for defenders and that makes him a constant danger.

Honorable Mentions:  Darren Mattocks (Vancouver Whitecaps), Will Bruin (Houston Dynamo)

Oct 8, 2012

October Call Ups Yield some Surprises Up Top

U.S. Men's National Team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann announced his squad for the final matches in this round of World Cup Qualifying.  With the next two games away to Antigua & Barbuda and home to Guatamala having massive importance, the squad yielded some interesting surprises up top--in the form of Alan Gordon and Eddie Johnson and the snubs of Jozy Altidore, Terrance Boyd and Chris Wondolowski.
Tthe U.S., Jamaica and Guatamala all have the same number of points (7) in this round with the U.S. tied with Guatamala a the top of the group on goal difference (+2).  The U.S. holds their destiny in their hands, win out and  they are in the Hexagonal.  The best results of match day 5 would be a solid win over Antigua and a Jamaica/Guatamala win by either team.  

But you have to wonder--what the hell is Klinsmann thinking?  Altidore, Boyd and Wondolowski have been in form and Altidore and Wondo lead their respective leagues in goal scoring.  Boyd has been finding the back the net regularly as well.  So, the the "whaaa..." question will be answered later.

Here is the full roster:

GOALKEEPERS (3) : Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
       Seriously---this section is getting to be a snoozer.  Howard will start unless injured.  Guzan could get the nod against Guatamala if the U.S. demolish Antigua and Jamaica and Guatamala end in a win for either side. Don't be surprised if Rimando does not travel to Antigua.  

DEFENDERS (8) : Carlos Bocanegra (Racing Santander), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover), Maurice Edu (Stoke City), Clarence Goodson (Brondby), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim), Michael Parkhurst (Nordsjaelland)

         No surprises here.  All these players are playing on good form and this is shaping up to be Klinsmann's go to squad of defenders.  

MIDFIELDERS (8) : Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Michael Bradley (Roma), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht), Brek Shea (FC Dallas), Danny Williams (Hoffenheim), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

         Apparently, Sacha Kljestan is no longer in the doghouse.  It is very, very, very good to see Bradley back--the U.S. always seem to play much better with him on the pitch.  I like Zusi getting another call, but I don't expect him to be in the game day squad, but who knows.

FORWARDS (5): Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Herculez Gomez (Santos), Alan Gordon (San Jose Earthquakes), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders)

         Dempsey?  Check.  Donovan?  Check.  Gomez?  Check.  And then the head scratching begins.  Gomez and Demspey have been scoring goals for the U.S. and so it is not a surprise.  Donovan is the talisman who often steps up big in important matches.  But why Alan Gordon and Eddie Johnson.

First the positives on both.  Domestically, there is probably no better off-the-bench striker in MLS than Alan Gordon (although fellow Earthquakes striker Steven Lenhart could make a case).  Gordon has scored 13 times this season, mostly off the bench, and is scoring almost one goal for every 90 minutes on the field.  But here is the key stat, Gordon is converting almost 3 out of every 10 chances he has to score.  He has 25 shots on goal (out of 43 taken) and scored 13.  That is a conversion ratio that probably can't be ignored.  Gordon is a big guy, has a high work rate when coming on with 25-30 minutes left in the match, and has shown that he will take the abuse that a fox in the box has to take while holding the ball.  I would call Gordon a poor man's Brian Ching, but I am not sure the comparison holds up beyond the physical toughness.

Eddie "Grown-Ass Man" Johnson got lost for a few years in Europe, but has found form with the Seattle Sounders.  Johnson has 14 goals on 69 shots with 24 on goal.  That is giving Johnson a 20.2% conversion rate as well.  Johnson and teammate Fredy Montero are the league's best strike duo on any team not from San Jose.  What Johnson needed was an ego that matched his own and a partner with creative skills that Johnson lacks, but a partner who does have the raw physical talent that Johnson possesses.  

But is not all about stats is it?  Surely Klinsmann is not just looking at goals and minutes and conversion ratios, right?  Well, maybe not. What do Altidore, Wondolowski and Boyd have at their club teams, that they don't have at the national team level?  Yep, a midfield full of guys who can feed them the ball.  

What the U.S. has lacked with the big stable of defensive midfielders occupying the midfield slots, are creative passers and ball handlers who can get the ball into the final third and find guys like Wondo, Altidore and Boyd.  Add to that fact that those three players are far better at going at players rather than playing with their back to goal.  Johnson and Gordon are better with their back to the goal than Wondolowski, Boyd and Altidore.  I seriously don't expect Gordon or Johnson to get a start, and at most will get 20 minutes if Klinsmann needs to get a goal to put a game out of reach or to equalize in the latter stages (please avoid this situation).  

But what does this do to the U.S. tactically?  I expect to see Klinsmann field a squad that will put a lot of pressure on Steve Cherundolo to provide width on the right.  I would expect to see an asymmetric 4-4-2 or even a 4-3-3.  

Here is what I expect against Antigua

Cherundolo ------Cameron--------Bocanegra-----Castillo


Now that is a weird set up, and again puts a big burden on Cherundolo to provide width on the right and to a lesser extent Castillo on the left.  But here is where things can be itneresting if the U.S. can make the communication work.  Michael Bradley is the best box-to-box midfielder I think the U.S. has produced in years.  Klinsmann should give him free rein to create, to move around and spray passes around like he can, to get the ball wide and to follow up attacks with his late runs into the box.  Let Donovan, Dempsey and Gomez buzz around the back line and in the hole just in front of the back line and drive the defense crazy with movement.  But the three of them have to be on the same page to make sure at least two of them are crashing the goal area on every cross.  

Let Danny Williams do the holding, he did very well versus Jamaica, and let Bradley and Jones create a little.  Yes, Antigua and Guatamala are going to bunker in these games, the U.S. will have to use the movement of Bradley, Donovan, Dempsey and Gomez to defeat that.  

Having said all that, congrats to Alan Gordon for the call-up.  I bet he thought someone was pranking him when Klinsmann called.

Sep 8, 2012

Youth Soccer Development--The Development Academy Growing Pains

The great Alecko Eskandarian has a wonderful column on Youth soccer's dilemma: Development academies vs. high schools, in which he covers the problem with the recent change by the U.S. Soccer Development Academy to shift to a mandatory 10 month schedule.  Let's start with what is good about the Development Academy:

Development academies have done wonders helping to identify and nurture the accompanying demand for talent. The 10-month schedule is an initiative that would put the talented youth players on par with the curriculum and schedule of those in Europe and South America. In most of those powerhouse nations, the academy system is the focal point for the development of future national teamers.

There is no argument that the development pipeline for professional players, at the MLS and NASL/USL-Pro levels, will improve as the Academy becomes fully integrated into the national player development scheme.  The recent USSF announcement of a U14 development academy program for boys will also spur that effort forward.

But as Eskandarian points out the change to a 10 month calendar does put a kink is the system for players, who must now choose between an academy team and their high school team.  Now I questioned whether the rule was simply too harsh, after all there are many other aspects to playing for one's high school than simply the quality of play on the field, there are social, communal and even personal goals attained by a young man who chooses to play for his high school.  So, USSF heard some of the complaints and responded:

U.S. Soccer added a rule allowing academy teams to have a certain number of exemptions for players to remain on their academy team while playing high school, as long as that team fills its roster with a minimum amount of full-time players. Then the question arises, if all the top players will be used as exemptions, then what's the point of expanding to a 10-month season? It would completely defeat the purpose.

That is a good question and as Eskandarian pointed out, the player himself has to take responsibility for his own development.  So, he may have to balance the need for personal social goals in his school against his goals to be the best soccer player he can be.  

But one of the interesting side effects of MLS affiliated academy teams is how much they have come to dominate the playing landscape where they are based.  This is not to say that the MLS affiliated sides are wiping the floor with everyone every game, but they tend to rise to the top.  As they should, because MLS teams offer opportunities that other sides do not, access to professional players on a regular basis, the opportunity to play in reserve league matches, generally better training facilities, nutritional and medical facilities, and coaching infrastructure.  So looking at that, Eskandarian posited this alteration to the mandatory 10 month calendar for all Development Academy teams:  

It should be a priority for every MLS academy to meet the standard of offering fully funded residency-based programs that offer housing and education along with everything soccer-related. This takes a massive financial commitment, but only then can the U.S. say it's producing a youth development system on par with the top youth programs in the world. 
Once in place, I think it should only be mandatory for MLS academy teams to compete in a 10-month season -- and not non-MLS academies. The best prospects should be funneled toward MLS academies. In turn, MLS academies should offer the best facilities, coaches, training and environment. The notion that a player has been identified as a future pro prospect and will be headed to a professional team's residency program will then be completely justifiable on all ends. 
Those who would rather play high school or attend a private school could play for a non-MLS academy team instead. This would also prevent non-MLS academy teams from going to drastic measures to remain in the Development Academy league. These non-MLS academy teams can decide whether they want to offer training and exhibitions during the high school season to fulfill a 10-month schedule or stay on the seven-month schedule.

I fully concur with the residency program for MLS academies.  Yes, it is a big financial commitment, but it must be done if the MLS and U.S. is to compete on the same level as Europe and South America.  I have an additional suggestion.  When the MLS firs team squad travels to away matches, the Academy team does as well and plays on the same day as the First Team.

But it is the second tier that matters.  The top players will always get identified and yes, it will be helpful to be identified earlier.  But is is that second tier of players, boys who may blossom later.  These are the players who will largely populate most of the Academy teams and ultimately the college ranks.  

I referee high school soccer and I can see the physical differences in some boys who are 14 15 years old.  They have the soccer brain, you can see it in the manner in which they play.  But sometimes they put on weight and look out of proper shape.  Then the next year or two they put on the height. Some players put on a lot of height and then are awkward with their body.  Some have their physical abilities, but not the right mental training to grow as players, but with time and training they do.  These players become Division I college players and might be professionals later.  

the truth of the matter is, for every Lionel Messi who was clearly gifted at a young age, there are dozens of players who won't bloom until their late teens.  A Development system that can nurture both types of players is needed and like it or not, it will have to mean some tiering in the system.  Eskandarian's idea is a great start, and I would like to see it implemented, sooner rather than later.  

Check out my soccer blog at Nutmegs and Stepovers

Sep 1, 2012

Hey Sunil Gulati, what about a Girls Development Academy?

From U.S. Soccer, the Development Academy will be adding a U13/U14 program beginning next year.  From the U.S. Soccer report:
“We started the Development Academy to improve player development on all levels, and adding a competitive structure to the U-13/14 age group is an important next step in this long-term process,” said Development Academy Director of Scouting Tony Lepore. “The U-13/14 age group is at a very crucial stage in their development. Applying the overall philosophy of the Academy to the U-13/14 age group will allow us to continue to shift the focus of the young elite player to meaningful training and competition.” 
The clubs selected for the U-13/14 age group will follow a model that increases training to four times a week, with fewer but meaningful matches, and the schedule structure will be regionalized to limit the amount of travel. 
“I am very excited to see this important next step in the process of developing young players in this country,” said U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “Just as with the players on the National Team, these young players need to get increased training and play in the most meaningful games they can. Being in the Academy also gives them more time to practice on their own, which gives them another chance to be creative and have fun. All these elements are critical for players at this age group.”
I like this move, a great deal, for the young players.  However......

This country is neglecting half of the population.  Instead of or at least in addition to a U14 division for the boys, I would like to see U.S. Soccer start and develop a program for U18 and U16 girls.  There are two things that we have learned from the U.S. WNT's experience in the past two years:  The U.S. Women, while good, are not the dominant force they once were.  The U.S. Women typically rely on a common core of players over a very long term, so there is less turnover to bring in quality young players.  I have nothing against players like Christie Rampone or Abby Wambach, who are performing at a very high level well into their 30's.  But could a little more competition be good for the American women?  Of course, and while the women's game at the college level is quality, imagine the quality of players that could be developed with a Development Academy set up for women.

Just as the men's college game is improving because the Development Academy is pushing quality players into college programs (after all, very few players will go from Academy teams to MLS or NASL or USL-Pro set ups), the women's college game will improve as well.  And of course, national team programs, from the senior teams to the youth national teams, will benefit.

So why don't we have a Development Academy for girls? Sunil?  Can you answer that question?

What about you?  What are you thoughts about the lack of a Development Academy for girls sponsored by U.S. Soccer?

Alan Gordon enjoying breakthrough year

A few months ago, I wrote a lengthy piece on this blog about Kyle Beckerman, whom I called Jurgen Klinsmann's Dreadlocked Hobbit.

When I read Grant Wahl's The Beckham Experiment, there was one player who stuck in my mind, Alan Gordon.  Grant Wahl writing for takes another look at Gordon, who far from his third string days of 2007, is enjoying a banner year for the San Jose Earthquakes in 2012.

For every Theirry Henry, David Beckham, Tim Cahill, Landon Donovan or Dwayne DeRosario, there are half a dozen Alan Gordons playing in MLS.  Players who from year to year are not sure they will be playing professional soccer next year.  Alan Gordon typifies the kind of player who plays because they love it, hopes to be better and hopes to contribute to a team.  And they often do it at pretty low wages.  n 2007 Gordon made just over $30,000 and had a part time job coaching soccer to make more money.  Things have changed, but Gordon is appreciative.

Gordon will earn $120,000 this season, according to MLS Players Union records, but even now his salary isn't guaranteed beyond 2012. "It's taken me a long time to get here," he says. "I can honestly say I've earned every dollar that I've made in the MLS. I definitely haven't been overpaid, that's for sure. Everything is year-to-year for a guy like me in the MLS. Let's not get confused here. I don't know what's happening in the next month, but it's always been that way for me, and it keeps me working hard. No matter how many goals I score or how much I get paid, I don't assume a thing. I'm just enjoying this moment. I have to keep doing the things that have gotten me here, and hopefully I can do them for a couple more years."

Read the whole piece.  Gordon is the kind of guy that I would love to meet and whom I am enjoying watching.  He is also the kind of guy that the MLS has relied upon for years.  Even as the quality of soccer improves in the MLS, it is the squad players like Alan Gordon who make the game more accessible as a league.