Tag Archives: U.S. Soccer

Fixing Lower League Soccer In America

The insane offseason enjoyed by the second level of American men’s soccer, with rival entities (the reborn North American Soccer League (NASL) and the United Soccer Leagues (USL)) fighting for official recognition as the Division Two league below MLS, seems so long ago already. The sport’s governing body US Soccer eventually waded in and deciding to run Division Two for one season featuring teams from both parties, and this brought the lower league scene under an unprecedented spotlight: one that has receded notably since.

Apart from the crisis in St Louis and problems in Baltimore, we haven’t heard too much about the state of the league and its future in recent months. Yet we are past the midpoint of US Soccer’s tenure of running the league already. The important point for the future of soccer in America in MLS is this: can this season become a turning point towards sustainability at that level, under the direction of US Soccer?

Because, if there’s one thing second division North American teams haven’t been in the past two decades, it’s viable as ongoing operations. Longevity is a luxury. This is, from all standpoints — whether as a fan, a sponsor, an investor, a player, a coach or a staffer — a serious problem. As Brian Quarstad at Inside Minnesota Soccer (IMS) points out, 52 different teams have come and gone from the Division Two level of American soccer since 1995; this, of course, is without promotion or relegation. It’s simply a 75% fail-rate as businesses.

That level of failure is never going to be the way to fashion anything out of that level of soccer, whether our focus is on youth development or growing fanbases. All it does is disrupt the lives of the many involved.

The question is whether US Soccer’s involvement can change that pattern. When Sunil Gulati, President of US Soccer, answered questions about the announcement that the governing body would be running the league for one season back in January, he also made it clear they saw this as a chance to implement a new set of requirements on financial sustainability at that level:

We’ve got some very specific targets in our regulations and we intend to put in more of those. Whether they apply to financial stability, what staffing levels look like, etc. To give you an example, our regulations have minimum standards on size of stadiums, a full-time operation for P.R. Director and CEO and so on and so forth. We think we need to put some more meat behind those in order to make sure that the teams that are part of a Division 2, or Division 1 for that matter, meet a certain standard and most importantly can meet that standard year in and year out and improve. We can’t have this constant issue that bedevils a number of sports, that the offseason is spent primarily to make sure that you can come back the following season. That you’re looking for expansion teams not because it makes long-term sense to build the game and the league, but because you need an expansion fee. We had that issue 25 years ago in our league, and we want to make sure that we’re able to avoid that so that expansion is done in a systematic way. U.S. Soccer is not going to be the one deciding that, but if people coming in the door want to be part of Division 2, they need to understand that this is a long-term play and that there are going to be some significant investments early on and aren’t counting on expansion proceeds in a year or two to reduce capital costs. The philosophy we’ve discussed with the leaders of these teams seems to be in line with that. People understand that for us the most important thing is stability, growth is right after that. But you can’t have growth without stability.

Some criticised Gulati and US Soccer for not finding this focus on stability earlier; why had it taken the public embarrassment of two rival entities fighting over second division status for the governing body to realise that clubs needed enforced help on operating a business to avoid the failures that have historically bedeviled American soccer, aside from (just about) MLS?

At this point, though, that doesn’t matter. What does matter is if and how US Soccer is following through on implementing more stringent requirements on clubs to encourage stability at the second division level. And on this, Brian at IMS has an excellent series this week, Rethinking Division-2 Pro Soccer in North America, that’s well worth reading.

In it (with two of the four parts published so far), he argues for a better vetting process for clubs by the authorities, for running teams like viable small businesses (instead of gambling on future earning potential) and for reducing travel costs in this mammoth continent-sized market by regionalising the league.

On the first point, Brian talks to another Brian, Brian Remedi of US Soccer, who explains US Soccer has not been sitting on its hands since Gulati made his statement in January on the need for tighter regulation of clubs’ financial viability:

“We are doing something that the Federation has never done in great detail before,” said Remedi in a May interview with IMS when he met with the NSC  Stars, Minnesota’s new D2 team. “We are getting out and looking at the teams in Division 2. In years past we left it up to the league administrators to ensure their clubs were meeting minimum standards and that games were run appropriately. Because we are running the league now we want to get out and make the house calls.

“We are also looking under the hood from a marketing perspective, from a financial perspective, even from a ticketing perspective. Our goal is to ensure these teams are viable for the long term.

“It’s in our interest to make sure that there are division 2 markets that are going to be sustainable over the long haul. Not a short term 1-year or 2-year thing. We want these markets to be sustainable for long periods of time. So we are collecting information on the team and from the team and we will give some thought to that data and will be writing reports and giving it to our professional league task force who ultimately will make a recommendation to our board of directors. We assume that there will be at least one, two, possibly more entities applying for sanctioning for next year and we believe that the teams that will be part of that league will come out of the 12 teams that are in the USSF D-2 Pro League this year.”

The USSF has called a meeting for the second week in August and have invited all teams currently involved with the USSF D2 Pro League. At that time, US Soccer will release their new standards that all current or future D2 teams will have to comply with. Expect the federation to require the future sanctioning league to require a more costly bond for each and every team involved with the league. It’s also said that they will have higher standards for stadiums and a more stringent litmus test for teams that want to join the USSF second division of soccer.

There will be some concern that when crunch-time comes, US Soccer might be tempted to water down their requirements if they find few clubs are likely to actually meet them.  On the other hand, the fact that Gulati came out and made a pretty clear public statement about the need for tough and real requirements to be met, and the evidence that US Soccer is following up on this with the release of new standards next month, suggests this is something that the governing body is serious about for the long-term good of the sport. Let’s hope they follow through, and keep an eye on IMS for the rest of his excellent series.


What’s Next For Bob Bradley?

Bob Bradley, USMNT

United States Men's National Team Coach Bob Bradley

Bob Bradley has completed a full cycle as head coach of the US Men’s National Team.  By most any metric or standard, he has achieved great success and advanced the program.  Here is a partial list of his achievements in the last four years:

  • He has a higher winning percentage than any coach in US Men’s National Team history: .644 (38-19-9)
  • He won the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup
  • He took the US Men to their first FIFA final at the 2009 Confederations Cup
  • He won the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying Hexagonal
  • He won the 2010 World Cup Group C
  • He brought more players into camp in one World Cup cycle than any other coach in US history
  • He scheduled more games against European nations than any other US coach
  • He helped with the development and maturation of Landon Donovan into the United States first world class attacking player
  • Selected, coached and galvanized a group of mostly modestly talented (relative to the world stage) individuals into a unified team that fought for each other and the common good

But now I wonder what Bob does next.  While staying on in his current role is a possibility and by reviewing his accomplishments above would make sense, extensions beyond one World Cup cycle are rare and shouldn’t be counted on.  As a certain coach told me when he resigned from the Chicago Fire, “we could have achieved more, but we had a real good run and change is often best for everyone.”  So, if this is indeed the close of a chapter for Bob, what will the next chapter be?

There are already rumors linking him with two prominent jobs that are not yet even open in London and D.C.:

  • Fulham

This  would be an intriguing opportunity for the Princeton grad.  He would be the first American born head coach in the Premiership.  Fulham is a club that has reached out for American players in recent years including current US National Teamers Clint Dempsey and Carlos Bocanegra.  In many ways, this would be a better opportunity for Bob than continuing into the next cycle with the US Men.  While Fulham currently has popular Roy Hodgson in the skipper’s post, he is likely to bolt for Liverpool in the coming days.

  • DC United

Returning to his MLS roots where he served as Bruce Arena’s top assistant and earning MLS Cup rings in each of the League’s first two seasons.  Curt Onalfo is in the seat now in his first season as United coach.  Bob still has a close relationship with DC United President Kevin Payne and Onalfo’s team has posted a substandard record of 3-9-1, for ten points which is tied with two other teams for fewest in the 16-team MLS.

  • Chivas USA

Perhaps he could take over his former club that is struggling under new coach Martin Vasquez at 3-9-1, which matches DC United’s ten points at the bottom of the MLS standings.  This would allow Bob to remain in southern California, close to his daughters who attend college in the area.

  • Youth Development with US Soccer

Keeping  one of the country’s smartest soccer brains in US Soccer, but redirecting his focus to the sport’s overall development would bear fruit down the road.

Perhaps he will take a less predictable step.

  • Major League Soccer

While I wouldn’t expect Bob to take any position that would keep him off the sidelines and training fields, his experience, knowledge and intensity would serve America’s top professional league well in many areas.  While his professional career has been on the competition side of soccer, his intelligence and perspective would also be beneficial on the business side.  Few people realize that Bob has a graduate degree in sports administration from Ohio University, one of the nation’s most respected programs of its kind.

  • Collegiate Coaching

Bob isn’t one to make decisions based on popular expectations and coaching out of the public spotlight would allow him the opportunity to focus on what’s important to him – his family, his players and the sport of soccer.  A southern California school position would allow him the chance to stay near his daughters and an Eastern school would bring him back to his roots and nearer other family members.

  • Author

Again this is unlikely, because it would keep Bob away from his passion of being on the sidelines, in the locker room and in the editing room working to develop a group of athletes into a successful team.  However, a Bob Bradley book describing his ideas and practices to assemble, develop and prepare a team wold serve as a great resource for coaches in any sport and offer invaluable life lessons to all.

  • Broadcasting

Just kidding.  Wanted to see if you were paying attention.  While I think Bob would be the best soccer analyst this side of Wigan coach Roberto Martinez, I can’t imagine him ever wanting to do this.

Whatever path Bob chooses to take, I am certain he will do so with integrity, hard work, intelligence and considerable thought and he will be successful again.

Good Read: The Forgotten Hero Of American Soccer

Just a link to some worthwhile lunchtime reading for American soccer fans, and indeed, anyone who wants to understand a little more about how the US men’s national team has gotten where it is today (which is a hell of a ways from where it was in the 1980s, lest we forget): a superb piece on ESPN Soccernet by Tom Friend on David Vanole, a rather obscure goalkeeper crucial to America’s qualification for the 1990 World Cup:

The United States is a World Cup regular now, in the midst of its sixth consecutive appearance. But back in the stone ages — i.e., the late 1980s — its national team was on the brink, held together by a goalkeeper and his flag.

No one is saying that David “Dino” Vanole is the sole reason the U.S. is in South Africa this month, playing in high-stakes games of soccer. But the people who saw him psyche up teammates and psyche out Neanderthals; the people who heard his jokes and rhymes; the people who covered their eyes when a 1989 penalty kick was headed straight for his throat … think he deserves much of the credit. That he should be on the Mount Rushmore of U.S. soccer.

Smirking.

Read the rest.

XI. Reasons This Is The Chicago Fire’s US World Cup Team

Chicago Fire logoThe United States World Cup Team in South Africa will have a distinctly Chicago Fire flavor.  In fact, one can make a strong case that the Fire has had more influence on this squad than any other single club has since five members of St. Louis Simpkins-Ford were on the 1950 US World Cup roster that upset England in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

The reliance on Fire connected players and coaches will be an important factor to creating a unified team chemistry that will give the US its best chance of success.

Here are the XI. players and coaches that give the Fire even more influence on the 2010 US roster than Simpkins-Ford did on the 1950 US roster.  Listed after each name is the position with the US World Cup squad and the years affiliated with the Chicago Fire:

XI.     Michael Bradley, Central Midfielder, 1998-2003: He was only eight years old when he began kicking the ball around with the likes of Piotr Nowak, Frank Klopas, Ante Razov and Chris Armas on the Chicago Fire training field.  Before he left the Fire for New Jersey at age 13 with his dad, Michael’s list of training partners included Eric Wynalda, Hristo Stoitchkov, current US teammates DaMarcus Beasley and Carlos Bocanegra and current US coaches Mike Sorber, Lubos Kubik and Jesse Marsch.  The son of the Fire’s first Head Coach and the current USMNT Coach, Bob Bradley,  never played a game in a Fire uniform, but he shined the players shoes, helped with equipment, discussed the team every day with the head coach and trained with the Fire before and after practice sessions throughout the team’s first five seasons.

The next four players never played for the Fire’s first team, but they were recruited by and played under current Chicago Fire Assistant Coach Mike Matkovich with the Fire’s PDL team, the Chicago Fire Reserves.

X. Brad Guzan, Goalkeeper, 2004-2005: Guzan grew up in suburban Homer Glen, IL and starred with the Chicago Magic under Matkovich.  Matkovich annually assembled one of the top collections of college stars in the country and for two seasons his goalkeeper was Guzan.  He was very well regarded as a youth goalkeeper and I recall the first time I saw him play for the Fire Premier, aka Reserves, as a gangly 19 year old in a US Open Cup tie against SAC Wisla, a local amateur team.  While the Fire Reserves won the match 5-1, I was disappointed by Guzan’s play.  Just as the peasant-turned-newt did in “The Holy Grail”, however, he got better.   His 0.388 goals against average was the best in the PDL in 2004.  He went on to star for Chivas USA where he earned MLS Goalkeeper of the Year honors in 2007 and currently is Brad Friedel’s backup at Aston Villa where he has shown his knack for saving penalties.

Matko’s Memories: “Brad Guzan, he’s like my son. I’ve known him since he was 11 years old. I knew he was going to make it because he’s a tough guy. He’s got a lot of talent from a young age. You know how you can tell when a guy’s young, you know he’s going to make it because his head is on right? He’s the perfect guy for that.”

IX. Jay DeMerit, Central Defender, 2001-2002: The Green Bay, WI native and former University of Illinois-Chicago defender played two seasons with with the Fire Reserves where he was mainly ignored by then Fire head coach Bob Bradley and me.  His rags with English seventh-tier club Northwood to riches with Watford story has been well told and now he is on the cusp of making a real difference on the soccer world’s biggest stage.  This time, he wasn’t ignored by Bradley. 

Matko’s Memories: “He’s super athletic kid, good guy, good willingness to work. It’s interesting to see how he ended up where he is because he ended up just going overseas on a walkabout with this other guy named Kieran, who was an English guy. And he ended up sticking England. Ever since then, it’s been nothing but successful. When we had him, he was a very good defender. We were able to play 3-5-2 with him on the field. I remember him marking Pat Noonan and taking him out of the game; Pat didn’t have a shot at goal. He was just so good athletically. He’s one of the best defenders we’ve ever had in the Fire Reserves. I can see why he’s where he’s at.”

VIII. Jonathan Spector, Right Back, 2003: The second most famous soccer player from Arlington Heights, IL, Spector played briefly with the Fire Reserves, before signing with Manchester United.  I saw the highly touted Spector play in one of his few appearances with the Fire Reserves and it was in the midfield.  A few months later, he was moved into the back by Sir Alex Ferguson and was training with his new club, Manchester United.

Matko’s Memories: “We only had Jonathan one year. We got him out of the Residency program. We actually played him outside/left mid. He was only 16 when he played for us, he was very young. But he was a special guy. He had the profile to make it. When he was in with us and to start him it was a good experience for him playing with us in the PDL because he played with older guys. I think it really helped him when he was back down in Residency.”

VII. Ricardo Clark, Central Midfielder, 2002: I certainly didn’t spot future stardom every time while scouting Fire Reserves games, but Clark’s talents were obvious as a 19 year old in his only season with the PDL club.  His loping strides and deft touch reminded me of a young Manuel Lagos.  The following winter, he turned pro early and was selected second overall by Bob Bradley and the MetroStars.  Bradley was pleased that DC United used the first pick to take New Jersey native and local favorite Alecko Eskandarian as he preferred Clark for his new club’s needs.  The Fire picked third overall and were disappointed, but not surprised, when Clark was taken leaving us with Nate Jaqua, whom we also felt would be a solid MLS player.

Matko’s Memories: “We only had one season with Ricardo. He played U-19 and he played in the Fire Reserves.  When he came obviously you can tell this guy had talent right away.  He was in and out of the national team pool. At the level with the PDL he covered a lot of ground. Had the ability to take games over and dominate the middle of the field from a holding spot. When we had those teams he was only 18/19 but he was one of our better guys at that age.”

VI.     Mike Sorber, Assistant Coach, 2000: The St. Louis native was Bora Milutinovic’s MVP for the US in the 1994 World Cup, went on to play for UNAM Pumas  where he was the first American to be named to the Mexican league All-Star team then played in MLS for four seasons before joining the most talented team in Fire history, if not MLS history in 2000.  He played 24 games helping the Fire capture the Central Division title and reach the MLS Cup Final.

Five players, the coach and the son of the coach of the 2000 Chicago Fire are among 11 2010 US World Cup players and coaches with ties to the early Chicago Fire.

Five players, the coach and the son of the coach of the 2000 Chicago Fire are among 11 2010 US World Cup players and coaches with ties to the early Chicago Fire.

V. Lubos Kubik, Assistant Coach, 1998-2000: The Czech international is my favorite Chicago Fire player ever.  His skill on the ball, economy of movement defending the Fire goal and genteel personality all exuded class as he worked with Piotr Nowak and Chris Armas to stabilize the spine of the Fire through its first three MLS seasons.  The Ring of Fire member has great insight into the game developed over decades of playing and coaching in the top leagues of Italy, France and Germany.  Bradley has used Kubik to scout European and other World Cup competitors as well as American players in Europe.  He also provides insight that is valuable from a former player of Kubik’s pedigree that includes 56 caps, including the 1990 World Cup and 1996 European Championships.

IV.     Jesse Marsch, Assistant Coach, 1998-2005: Jesse was always a coach as a player.  Coaching probably comes more naturally to him than playing.  He made the very most of his playing abilities by working hard and analyzing the game.  Those qualities and his long history with Bradley dating back to his college days at Princeton University make Jesse a great complement to Bradley’s staff.

III. DaMarcus Beasley, Midfielder, 2000-2004: DaMarcus came to the Fire in a draft day trade with the Los Angeles Galaxy just moments after we selected Carlos Bocanegra.  The Fort Wayne, Indiana native flourished in Chicago where his parents were able to drive to all the home games.  He electrified fans with his speed on the ball and through Bradley, learned to become a tenacious defender.  At the time we sold him to PSV Eindhoven, he was the most popular player in Chicago and one of the most popular in America.

II. Carlos Bocanegra, Defender, 2000-2004: Carlos was a high school football and soccer star in southern California.  fortunately for US Soccer, the future national team captain chose to focus on soccer at UCLA.  We worked exceedingly hard the week prior to the 2000 MLS SuperDraft to move up from our #4 slot to get the MetroStars first pick overall, so we could be assured of selecting Bocanegra – and failed.  As the old saying goes, “sometimes the best trades you make are the ones you don’t.”

The night before the draft, we had even arranged a scenario that would’ve given the MetroStars the #3, 4 and 6 selections and put Chicago #1 to assure getting Bocanegra.  The MetroStars said “no”.  The failure to make that deal led to the most productive ten minutes in Chicago Fire history.  Little did we know that Octavio Zambrano was holding onto the pick to use for another UCLA defender, Steve Shak, who went on to play 38 games over two MLS seasons before finishing his career in the USL.  Kansas City and Colorado followed with selections of Nick Garcia and Adin Brown leaving Carlos available at #4 and allowing us to trade the #6 pick along with a 2001 1st round pick to LA for Beasley.

I. Bob Bradley, Head Coach, 1997-2003: The best decision I’ve made in my career was hiring Bradley as Chicago’s first head coach.  Not only did he build the Fire into a great team, he taught me important life skills about communication, family, priorities, accountability, listening and integrity.  He’s taken those qualities with him to the US Men’s National Team.  I’m not surprised one bit that he has the winningest record in US Men’s Soccer history while playing the most difficult opponents and taking a look at the most players in US Soccer history.

Bradley coached seven of the ten others on this list in MLS - five with the Fire, Brad Guzan at Chivas USA and Michael Bradley at the MetroStars.  He has surrounded himself with players, coaches and staff that he is familiar with and whom are familiar with him.

There is a level of trust, respect and understanding in the group overall, but especially among the coaches and the players who have previously played for Bradley.  This relationship has developed over years of working together, talking to each other, challenging each other.  It has built a sense of unity.  The group really came together at the Confederations Cup after they rebounded from a poor start to challenge for the championship.  Fifteen players on that Confederations Cup roster are on the US World Cup roster.  I’m convinced that the unity this team has acquired as a result of the shared history and methodical assembly of both team and staff will lead to America’s greatest soccer success.  That common bond and past relationship has helped build the collection of individuals into a true team and for eleven of them that shared background includes time in Chicago with the Fire or Fire’s PDL team.


Twitter and the World Cup: Who Will Be Calling Out The Haters?

A week ago, we called the upcoming extravaganza in South Africa the first Twitter World Cup, perhaps the most moronically obvious statement we’ve ever written, given the service barely existed in mid-2006.

Still, though, the existence of the service and other social media will present a fascinating angle to the tournament, with information control a far harder challenge for the organisers and team managements than ever before. Imagine if Twitter had existed during the 1998 World Cup, and the explosions and leaks that would have surrounded the Ronaldo imbroglio before the final.

Even before the tournament has started, we have a Twitter controversy:

England coach Fabio Capello has banned his players from commenting on Twitter, but that didn’t prevent others from tweeting about who was going or not going to the World Cup — before Capello even announced the England 23-player roster on Tuesday. That Theo Walcott was among the topics “trending” on Twitter was indeed not good news as he was the most notable of the seven players Capello cut.

Almost two hours before Capello’s scheduled announcement of the England 23, news of the seven players who had been dropped had spread across the web, and celebrity tweeters — at least celebrities in Britain — were adding their opinions on who was in or out.

“It’s frankly a shambolic and unacceptable way for England’s World Cup campaign to begin,” noted the BBC’s Jonathan Stevenson.

England players will not be allowed to comment on any social media site or write articles for newspapers during the tournament.

By contrast, the surprise of the United States’ squad announcement — that Robbie Findley was in and Brian Ching was out — largely was a surprise when the announcement was made, though some Twitter buzz had noted Ching had been seen earlier at an airport heading off. Without the suffocating interest and media coverage in England, social media is less of a danger to official Communications channels in the U.S. — though that’s not to say it’s not a concern or opportunity at all.

Different squads face different challenges and team managements are handling the situations in markedly divergent ways. England’s Football Association, as it mentions above, have put a blanket ban on players using social media: ensuring their superstars remain as remote as ever from us, though frankly, I would not have too much interest in what Frank Lampard had to tweet in any case.

For a team still striving for media attention domestically, like the United States, it makes sense to allow players to tweet, even if it still presents a challenge for the communications department of U.S. Soccer, who told me they simply offer “guidelines” for players to follow when using Twitter. They did not expand on what these guidelines encompass,  but you can bet they will have some nervous moments when you think of an exhausted player with direct access to thousands of followers after a defeat with 140 characters to fill.

Imagine, for example, the media storm if Ledley King had typed the words U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu did after his selection for the U.S. team was announced, overcoming injury and doubters who he ill-advisedly termed “haters”:

haters

Athletes are young, cocooned, and often unaware how their words ping around and are perceived by fans. It’s good that U.S. Soccer are treating their players like grown-ups, unlike the Football Association. There’s a serious upside to this too for soccer in the United States, with the connections players build with fans through Twitter. But one suspects there will be a hairy moment or two for U.S. Soccer officials to deal with come gametime.

Team USA and the State of the (Soccer) Nation

Photo by Thomas Hawk on flickr.com

Among the many common critiques of American soccer is the idea that we’ve managed to invert the traditional roots of the game: in most parts of the world football is a diverse sport of the people, but in the US soccer is a homogenous ‘country club’ sport for the suburban elite.  The US soccer system, according to this popular narrative, restricts the sport’s power structures in ways that exclude our best “athletes” (which is often code for low-income minorities).  I’d like to suggest, however, that after carefully considering the US’s preliminary World Cup roster—the 30 men that ostensibly best “represent” the American system—the actual story is a bit more complicated.

Take, as an example of the popular narrative, ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap introducing an E:60 video segment celebrating Clint Dempsey: “Generally in this country, the soccer players we produce they’re suburbanite kids who played in these regimented leagues.  Clint Dempsey is kind of an altogether different story.  Clint Dempsey comes from very humble origins, Nacogdoches Texas, and the way that he developed required enormous sacrifice on his family’s part…”  Yet, taking nothing away from his dedicated family, the moral of Dempsey’s American soccer story seem to me open to interpretation.

Dempsey’s family was certainly not wealthy.  But neither do they seem desperately poor, nor far outside the American mainstream.  His Dad, we learn in the video segment, worked for a railroad and in construction, his Mom was a nurse, his sister was a high-level tennis player, and Clint eventually hooked up with the Dallas Texans elite youth club before spending three years at Furman University (an excellent private liberal-arts school in South Carolina).  His family did indeed have to make sacrifices, which Clint claims included giving up their boat and selling some of their gun collection, and he did have to scrap to develop his game in the backyards and parks of Nacogdoches.  But overall this could also be spun as a very “normal” American story—a hardworking family leveraging their resources (and spending a lot of time commuting) to provide opportunities for a talented and motivated child who learns to improvise by necessity.

It all depends, I suppose, on what we mean by “normal” for the elite of American soccer—a question I was inspired to ask of the US 30 man roster partially by a short bit in the Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski book Soccernomics.  In that book they address the question of “Why England Loses and Others Win” by analyzing the rosters of recent England World Cup squads to identify what they call “the problem of exclusion:” “The Englishmen who make it to the top [of the football talent pool] are drawn very largely from one single and shrinking social group: the traditional working class.  The country’s middle classes are mostly barred from professional soccer.  That holds back the national team.”

Kuper and Szymanski’s specific tactic was to tabulate the social class origins of England’s recent World Cup players by charting their father’s jobs (see their ‘Figure 2.1’ below).  Out of the thirty-four players Kuper and Szymanski identify that “eighteen players, or more than half the total, were sons of skilled or unskilled manual laborers.”  On the other end of the social class spectrum, “only five players out of thirty-four…fathers seem to have worked in professions that required them to have an education beyond the age of sixteen.  If we define class by education, then only 15 percent of England players of recent years had ‘middle-class’ origins.”  Because these proportions vastly differ from the total English population (Kuper and Szymanski note that “nowadays, more than 70 percent of Britons stay in school past the age of sixteen”), it seems as though England may be systematically excluding a large pool of potential talent.

Figure 2.1 from Kuper and Szymanski: 'Soccernomics'

For the data nerd in me, this kind of analysis seemed like great fun—particularly since Kuper and Szymanski describe a form of exclusion in England that is diametrically opposite of the popular narrative in American soccer.  So with my limited resources (ie, an internet connection and a quiet Friday night) I made an effort to track down some of the same information about Team USA.  Since most American players aren’t public celebrities to the same degree as English World Cup players, it was a challenge to track down parental careers—but the richness of the soccer blogosphere did offer a pretty good data start.  In fact, there was enough information to tabulate a few other demographics that often come up in discussions of the state of American soccer, including our reliance on the college system, our racial/ethnic mix, and our ability to integrate immigrants.   All of these categories are problematic to define, and any conclusions are necessarily incomplete, but I think they do say something about the state of our soccer nation.

The Family Business?

Looking at the ‘father’s job’ list for Team USA does suggest that we have fewer children of manual laborers than Kuper and Szymanski identified among the fathers of English players.  Otherwise, however, the story for Team USA seems to be one of diversity.  Of the public information I could find (which accounted for the parental occupation/social class of 25 of the 30 players), there were few consistent patterns (see my chart labeled ‘2010 US World Cup 30 Player Roster’ below).

Again acknowledging that social class categories are fuzzy and hard to define (when asked, upwards of 80% of Americans self-identify as ‘middle class’ while less than 1% identify as ‘upper class’), only 7 of the 25 players seem like clear candidates for the high social class end of the scale: Benny Feilhaber and Stuart Holden both had fathers who were oil company executives, Robbie Rogers’ parents were both lawyers, Alejandro Bedoya’s father was a corporate sales director, Brian Ching’s parents seem to have been well-educated researchers, Steve Cherundolo was “raised in upper-middle class north San Diego,” and Oguchi Oneywu’s parents were both successful Howard University graduates.

10 of 25 would seem to better fit in a more familiar middle class, including four with at least one parents who was a school teacher (Carlos Bocanegra, Jay DeMerit, Landon Donovan, and Maurice Edu), Jozy Altidore whose father worked as a delivery man for Fed Ex and whose mother was a nurse, Ricardo Clark whose father seems to be a college-educated public works manager, Robbie Findley whose Dad was a computer consultant, Brad Guzan whose father seems to have worked for a suburban Chicago fire department, Jonathan Spector whose father seems to have been a sales rep, and Sacha Kljestan whose father is a construction contractor.

Another 5 of the 25 would seem to better fit in what Kuper and Szymanski define as ‘working class,’ including the aforementioned Clint Dempsey, DeMarcus Beasley’s parents in auto parts manufacturing, Herculez Gomez whose father “works at a car dealership in Las Vegas,” José Francisco Torres—who seems to have been raised in a working class part of Longview Texas based on a ESPN Desportes documentary video, Tim Howard (whose father was a truck driver, and mom a ‘project manager’), and Eddie Johnson who was raised by a single mother employed as a ‘child-care specialist’ while his absent father served in the military.

Finally, there seem to be two full-time soccer fathers: the obvious one being Michael Bradley’s father/US National Team coach, and the other being Edson Buddle’s father Winston—a former player from Jamaica who runs a soccer academy program in New York.

All in all, trying to sort through these statistics to compare with Soccernomics both reminded me of the difficulty of defining social class and made me think US Soccer is less exclusive than I would have previously believed.  This group of US players seems to run the American social class gamut: in between the occasional extremes of an oil executive or a truck driver is a critical mass of teachers, nurses, and salesmen.  That certainly does not mean US soccer can be content with current levels of access and diversity: the future of the game will always depend upon a broad base of players and genuine opportunities for talent to show itself.  But it just might mean US Soccer has made some progress.

College v Pro?

Another peculiar way in which American soccer has looked exclusive is in its globally distinct reliance on college players.  When you ask serious American fans about the 1990 World Cup, for example, the standard excuse is something like: “What could you expect with a team of college boys?”  There is, of course, some truth to that excuse: there was no MLS in 1990, few American success stories in Europe, and most of the team had played most of their competitive soccer in college.  That has changed.

It is still the case that a majority of the US players have attended college for at least one year (the 9 out of 30 who have not include Altidore, Beasley, Bradley, Donovan, Gomez, Howard, Johnson, Spector, and Torres), but only 6 of the 30 actually attended college for all four years (Bedoya, Bornstein, Ching, DeMerit, Findley, and Hahnemann).  For better or worse, the average time in college soccer among all 30 players works out to slightly less than two seasons.  Instead, 14 of the players who skipped college or left early took advantage of the MLS program that used to be called ‘Project-40’ and is now called ‘Generation Adidas.’

In general, however, I’m one who thinks and hopes that the college game will always have some place in American soccer.  Despite being globally odd and obviously flawed, college soccer fits in American culture and seems to me integral to ensuring that players have opportunities to fulfill their potential both on and off the field.  In fact, one of the odd facts I stumbled across in my research for this analysis was that Team USA owes at least an indirect debt to our colleges and universities: several of US players are from immigrant families where the father initially came to the States and played college soccer (including Alejandro Bedoya’s father, who came from Columbia and played at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Ricardo Clark’s father, who came from Guyana by way of Trinidad and played at New York Polytechnic, and Oguchi Onyewu’s father, who came from Nigeria and played at Howard University).

Immigrants and Ethnic Diversity?

Because US Soccer has long had a reputation as a bastion of white privilege, the racial and ethnic make-up of the 2010 World Cup roster also offers some interesting storylines.  Of course, in this age of Barack Obama we all know that racial and ethnic categories are often complicated hybrids—who counts as what often depends more on social identity than on absolute categories.  Nevertheless, the census still collects the data (even if a significant minority mock the question by identifying as ‘Vulcan’).

So if we temporarily ignore the complicated nuances the broad numbers from the 30 man roster include 14 White/Caucasian players (47%), 9 Black/African-American players (30%), 6 with Latino/Hispanic parentage (20%), and 1 Asian-American (Brian Ching is the son of a “Chinese American father and Caucasian American mother”).  In contrast, current estimates of the US population as a whole are 65% White, 15% Latino/Hispanic, 12% Black/African-American, and 4% Asian.  Overall, then, contrary to what you might expect “minorities” are actually disproportionately represented on the US national team.

Now for some of the complicated nuance.  Those numbers include as Latino/Hispanic Benny Feilhaber (the son of an Austrian-Brazlian father who is identified as Jewish and Brazilian mother—and Brazilians are often not included as “Hispanic”), Jonathan Bornstein (the son of a White father identified as Jewish and a Mexican mother), Carlos Bocanegra (whose father was born in Mexico but grew up in the US), Alejandro Bedoya (whose father is an American educated Columbian immigrant), and José Francisco Torres (the son of a father born in Mexico and a White/Caucasian mother).  The only one who is relatively straight-forward to define as Latino/Hispanic is Herculez Gomez—the son of two parents born in Mexico.  So while we can all agree that US Soccer needs to do more to integrate the many Latino/Hispanic players that often play outside the conventional player development system, it’s tough to know exactly what that means.

Likewise when thinking about access for Black/African-American players, what should be the metric of progress?  Having a roster with 30% Black/African-American players (9 of 30), compared to a US population that is about 12% Black/African-American sounds pretty good in terms of providing access.  But then you’d have to note that 7 of those 9 are the sons of immigrants from Haiti (Altidore), Jamaica (Buddle), Guyana (Clark), Nigeria (Edu and Onyewu), Trinidad (Findley), and even Hungary (Tim Howard’s mother—though his father is African-American).  Is the US system succeeding at providing opportunities to Black/African-American players, or is it simply relying on the children of immigrants?  And does that difference matter?  (As something of a side-note, that same question is sometimes a topic of controversy in the halls of academia—where many Ivy League schools have produced impressive growth in black student enrollment by relying largely on immigrants and their children)

The success of the children of immigrants is ultimately the most striking pattern in my analysis: the US 30 player roster really does seem to represent the old cliché of America as a melting pot.  By my count 60% of Team USA players (18 of the 30) have at least one parent who was born abroad (even including Landon Donovan—whose father was born in Canada).  In contrast, only two players were themselves born abroad (Stuart Holden, who was born in Scotland, and Benny Feilhaber, who was born in Brazil), and estimates for the whole US suggest the population includes only about 13% foreign-born residents of all types.  So what does that mean?

Interpretations?

Whether looking at social class, education, or racial/ethnic heritage, Team USA looks remarkably like the diverse nation it represents.  Does that mean the story here is one of success, with the US soccer system providing resources and opportunities to a vibrant mix of Americans?  Or is it a story of how soccer’s place firmly outside the mainstream of “American sports’ makes for a somewhat random pattern of access, excessively dependent on a combination of our peculiar college set-up and immigrant parents who’ve figured out how to work the system?  Is Team USA reasonably diverse because of the US soccer system, or in spite of it?

The answer is probably: both.  Comparing the demographics of the US player pool with the stats on English players offered by Kuper and Szymanski offers space for cautious optimism: the American players come from a diverse enough social class background to suggest that there is more than one route to the pinnacle of the US soccer pyramid.  Likewise, comparing the US player pool with the demographics of the US as a whole demonstrates a healthy and somewhat representative blend of races, ethnicities, and immigrants—it is a team I plan on being proud to root for.

But at the same time we all know it is still not good enough.  Despite US Soccer’s 12 year old plan to win the 2010 World Cup, the US is not expected to be a serious contender in South Africa.  We still don’t adequately share the game between all the diverse communities that make us a melting pot, or a mosaic, or whatever metaphor best describes the latest iteration of the American experiment.  We still don’t have enough players like Clint Dempsey.  Whatever that means.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.


The Sweeper: Home Grown Profit In MLS

US Soccer Development Academy

Big Story

On Saturday at Toyota Park, I watched parts of a game between the Chicago Fire Academy and the US Youth National U-17 Team, a game won by the Fire 4-0. To be fair, many of the Fire’s players were a year older than their opponents (though the Fire were also missing a couple of their best players, Technical Director Frank Klopas mentioned to me), but it was still an impressive showing.

Remember the name Victor Pineda (who also plays for the USYNT), Fire fans: the talented 17 year-old looked awfully good in the glimpses I saw, and MLS rule changes announced last week make it much more likely a player like him could be signed to the first team squad sooner rather than later.

MLS roster sizes were increased from 24 to 26, with two more slots added solely for homegrown players from their youth academies. Clubs now receive three-quarters of the transfer fee for a homegrown player who goes abroad, an increase from two-thirds, and something that will, for example, be welcomed by a club like Vancouver who are about to join MLS with one of the continent’s leading youth academies.

The changes to the homegrown players rule considerably grows the incentives for clubs to invest in their development academies, building on MLS’ Home Grown Player Initiative founded in 2007, which now means every single club has an Academy team in US Soccer’s Development Academy, itself also founded in 2007 with a significant financial investment by US Soccer. The Development academy requires the participating clubs, 77 in total in 2009-10, to hold three training sessions per week, and limits the number of games the teams can play, to encourage a focus on the improvement of skills rather than maximising game play.

The Fire now have a free Academy that means kids from poorer backgrounds can get top-level training without having to pay the enormous fees typical of elite clubs in the United States in the past. They have a youth system that runs all the way from U-6 to the first team. And they have a very talented crop of players from a diverse variety of backgrounds.

The Fire are not doing this solely out of the goodness of their hearts. It is an investment in developing local talent that will not only improve the first team, but will eventually — they hope — make the club money through the transfer fees received in the future. MLS is going the right way in rewarding clubs for their substantial investments in youth development both on the field and off it. That’s the only way it can work.

Some don’t believe there is a need for this structure at all, as one of Paul Gardner’s rambling recent essays demonstrated (he’s not calling for ‘anarchy’…but it’s not at all clear what he is calling for).  But for me, watching local kids of all backgrounds from all parts of the Chicagoland area wearing the Fire badge beating the US Youth National Team on the main field at Toyota Park suggests to me a bright future for youth development in this country and its necessary connection to the elite professional league here.

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

WPS Gains Equal Representation on the US Soccer Board of Directors

us-soccer

U.S. Soccer’s Annual General Meeting took place this weekend, passing without a great deal of commentary from the soccer press, with President Sunil Gulati elected to his second four-year term, running unopposed.

Of some interest on the elections of the other positions on the US Soccer Board of Directors was the news that the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) Commissioner Tonya Antonucci has replaced Kevin Payne of DC United on the board, as one of the two representatives of the Pro Council.

The Pro Council is made up of eight commissioners from professional leagues, with two representatives selected from the council serving two year terms on the US Soccer Board of Directors.

It appears that there was a consensus that the Pro Council should represent both its men’s and women’s Division I leagues, with MLS Commissioner Don Garber still on the board.

It also seems to mark a significant moment for women’s professional soccer: I stand to be corrected, but I’m not sure that women’s football is represented equally with its men’s equivalent in any other country’s national governing body.

Incidentally, Lynn Morgan, the president of the previous women’s professional league, WUSA, also served on the US Soccer Board of Directors, though I could not determine if she was a representative of the Pro Council itself (I called US Soccer, who are looking into their records on it). EDIT: just received confirmation from US Soccer that Lynn Morgan was indeed on the Pro Council.

Update: we spoke to Tonya Antonucci about her election, and she had the following to add:

It’s a great honor for me and the league as a whole that the WPS Commissioner now holds a seat on the US Soccer Board of Directors.  This elevates WPS’s role and visibility as a viable professional platform within the larger US Soccer body, and provides a great opportunity for WPS to share its experiences in developing the women’s game and further integrate into the soccer landscape at all levels in the United States.

The Sweeper: A New Dawn for North American Lower League Soccer?

Sunil Gulati

Big Story
The resolution to the deadlock over second division plans for 2010 in North America is of course analysed all over the place: over 100 journalists and bloggers joined the US Soccer teleconference yesterday afternoon. You can read the full transcript from US Soccer here. Now the dust has settled, and the USL and the NASL have been forced into a compromise for 2010 by US Soccer, the key question is what this means for the long-term, something Gulati mentioned several times. As he said:

Our goal is to have a stable, professional soccer environment in the U.S. I think we’ve been able to accomplish that with MLS over the last 14 years, and with the exception of one year, there has been a steady growth of the teams in terms of interest. We want to make sure that we can accomplish that through all of our other professional leagues, which are different from youth soccer or amateur soccer. In the next few months we’ll be laying out some regulations, rules and standards. We’ll put a little more substance into it about what a second division should look like. Everyone has agreed that that’s important and we’ll be working on that. For us, the most important thing here is long-term stability. What we think we’ve achieved today is a short-term solution for the 2010 season, but we want to work with a number of people and all the teams to find a long-term solution so we don’t have teams changing back and forth between divisions. We’re extremely excited about this agreement and certainly about 2010 overall for the sport in the U.S.

And again, towards the end of the call, answering a question “On how the USSF will measure benchmarks to determine a team’s success or viability and whether there will be quantitative measurements teams will have to demonstrate to continue to participate”:

Yes, we’ve got some very specific targets in our regulations and we intend to put in more of those. Whether they apply to financial stability, what staffing levels look like, etc. To give you an example, our regulations have minimum standards on size of stadiums, a full-time operation for P.R. Director and CEO and so on and so forth. We think we need to put some more meat behind those in order to make sure that the teams that are part of a Division 2, or Division 1 for that matter, meet a certain standard and most importantly can meet that standard year in and year out and improve. We can’t have this constant issue that bedevils a number of sports, that the offseason is spent primarily to make sure that you can come back the following season. That you’re looking for expansion teams not because it makes long-term sense to build the game and the league, but because you need an expansion fee. We had that issue 25 years ago in our league, and we want to make sure that we’re able to avoid that so that expansion is done in a systematic way. U.S. Soccer is not going to be the one deciding that, but if people coming in the door want to be part of Division 2, they need to understand that this is a long-term play and that there are going to be some significant investments early on and aren’t counting on expansion proceeds in a year or two to reduce capital costs. The philosophy we’ve discussed with the leaders of these teams seems to be in line with that. People understand that for us the most important thing is stability, growth is right after that. But you can’t have growth without stability.”

Many, including Rochester beat reporter Jeff DiVeronica, are taking this as a elbow in the ribs to the operation of USL over the past decade or so, which has seen teams coming and going at a rather rapid pace:

To me, those were all shots at how the USL has done business. To a degree, I agree with him, but as this season unfolds I’m sure Gulati will find out how difficult it can be to run a minor-league soccer operation. For as long as I’ve covered the A-League/USL, which goes back to 1996, America’s second division was the red-headed stepchild. At best, it was an afterthought. The USSF concentrated on MLS and building up the U.S. national team programs. It needed to. Now, it sounds as if Gulati realizes some attention to the second division must be paid to help with player development.

So while most of the focus has been on the short-term solution for 2010, it seems as if US Soccer hopes to leverage this crisis (and the useful fact there is competing demand to operate a Division II league) into a broader plan to give lower division soccer purpose beyond an expanded footprint for the sport. Gulati, asked of the purpose of a Division 2 league in the U.S., finally concluded that “In the absence of a promotion and relegation system, it’s hard to exactly pinpoint an answer to that question.”  Gulati mentioned there had been discussions with MLS already on how the pyramid knits together, especially in terms of player development, and in the year ahead we should really expect to see US Soccer, MLS, the USL and NASL pinpoint answers to that question so we are not in the same mess going forward, and the purpose and structure of lower league soccer is clear enough to all.

Worldwide News

  • The credit crunch and tighter finances in Scotland are having one interesting effect: clubs are much less willing to go through the expensive business of hiring and firing managers willy-nilly, leading to much greater stability, according to Alex Smith, chairman of the Scottish League Managers’ Association: ‘”Stability has been forced on clubs. It hasn’t kept bad managers in jobs, but it has given good ones a bit of leeway – for example, younger guys who are trying to build something, maybe creating sensible youth structures and who shouldn’t lose their livelihood because the first team loses four or five games.”  Meanwhile, Away from the Numbers has an interesting update on the financial woes at East Fife.
  • Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis has said he does not expect a takeover bid from either Stan Kroenke or Alisher Usmanov to come anytime soon.
  • Minnesota’s new professional soccer team, to play in the USL conference of the new Division II league, is not formally connected to the now defunct Thunder, though clearly has some informal ties. Du nord has all the details in an excellent post.
  • A proposed U.S.-Mexico friendly has fallen through over a row about television rights.

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: American Second Division Survives for 2010

compromise

By Faerie Girl on Flickr

Big Story
As assiduously reported by Brian Quarstad, Duane Rollins and Kartik Krishnaiyer, the United States Soccer Federation and the two leagues seeking Division II status for 2010 in North America appear to have finally reached a compromise.

It appears that the USSF will oversee a league with two conferences featuring the teams committed to the USL and NASL respecitvely. There are many other details rumoured to be part of the deals, and what can become public presumably will in a conference call the USSF is hosting this afternoon with representatives of both leagues.

So, we will have second division soccer here in the United States in 2010 (let us hope we also have first division soccer!). It’s significant that despite the bitterness, the threats of lawsuits, and the tight timeline, that the two leagues have been able to hammer out an interim solution. As we recalled here last week, in the past, this was not always possible, leading to administrative strife tearing soccer apart.

Of course, it already being 2010, we should presume negotiations on hammering out a long-term solution for 2011 will begin shortly.  While we await the final details of the interim solution, perhaps one or two who argued the USSF (and MLS) were either dropping the ball or deliberately trying to destroy second division soccer will stay quiet for a little while, though it will take much work again to work things out beyond this year.

Worldwide News

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

US Soccer Rejects USL and NASL – Do We Trust In Their Decision?

us-soccer-trust

U.S. Soccer has decided not to sanction either the USL or the NASL to operate a Division Two league in 2010:

The U.S. Soccer Board of Directors voted unanimously on Tuesday to not sanction either the USL or the NASL to operate a Division II professional league in 2010.

The decision was made on the recommendation of the Professional League Task Force, which determined that neither organization on its own was able to provide a viable and sustainable operation during the upcoming season. Both organizations were unable to meet U.S. Soccer’s requirement of a minimum of eight viable teams for 2010.

Despite the ruling, the U.S. Soccer Board of Directors has given both organizations seven days to try to work out an interim solution for the 2010 season.

“After carefully reviewing the findings from the Task Force it was clear there are still too many uncertainties for both organizations, which would be extremely difficult to resolve in a timely fashion that would allow them to prepare for the 2010 season,” said U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. “In the best interest of soccer in the United States, we decided to not sanction either league at this point. However, we did encourage both leagues to come together in the next week and attempt to develop another plan which would allow a single league to be approved on a provisional basis. We are committed to finding ways to improve the long-term viability of all leagues and teams and continue the growth of soccer in the United States.”

I see on Twitter that US Soccer is already taking an awful lot of heat for this, being accused of indecisiveness, secrecy and harshness to fans by rejecting both leagues.

But it’s hard to blame US Soccer for the mess America’s lower league rulers have essentially made for themselves over the past six months. However we apportion the blame — and for me, it all stems back to Nike’s ill-considered decision to sell USL to nu-rock in the first place — US Soccer was left between a rock and a hard place here (and was also left dealing with some pretty big egos who wanted everything resolved their way).

Consider the options they had when they received two separate applications for Divsion II leagues:

(1) Approve one or both leagues (US Soccer’s rules apparently allow two D-II leagues to operate). But according to US Soccer, neither league met the “minimum of eight viable teams”. US Soccer surely considered making an exception for one or both leagues, but they obviously concluded neither would have been “a viable and sustainable operation”. And I have to say at this point, they may well have been right: what kind of a league would a four or five team USL be? Could the NASL really scramble together a sustainable business by April starting practically from scratch?  It’s clear that US Soccer was not convinced this was the case for either league.  Making an exception risked making a mockery of the business of operating professional outdoor leagues in the United States under USSF sanction. And if US Soccer had sanctioned one and not the other, we’d have had a year of lawsuits ahead of us (do you think US Soccer wants to be sued?).

(2) Reject both leagues. US Soccer could have simply rejected both applications and been done with it; they would have been within their rights, given neither league met their stated requirements. Maybe then the NASL decides to try and play unsanctioned.  Would this have met Gulati’s mentioned commitment “to improve the long-term viability of all leagues and teams and continue the growth of soccer in the United States.”?  No, it would have created a huge mess reminiscent of the dark days of American soccer in the twentieth century.

(3) Reject both leagues, and attempt to force them together. This is essentially what US Soccer has now done (and has probably been pushing hard for behind the scenes for some time), by giving the two leagues “seven days to try to work out an interim solution for the 2010 season”. If that can be done, and if USL and the NASL really want to play sanctioned soccer in 2010 it could and should be, that gives everyone time to work out everything for 2011. It means leaders of both leagues will need to check their egos, but they now have a clear, unavoidable reason to do so thanks to the ultimatum from US Soccer.

The hostile reaction to US Soccer’s decision seems to stem from a complete lack of trust in the organization, because I’m unsure how a sensible observer could not see the third option as the best choice, and it is a decisive choice. If there was another alternate, better option, I’ve yet to hear it (comment away!).

We don’t have all the information on the USL and NASL from which US Soccer determined neither was a viable operation for 2010, and we will never have it, as it’s confidential — and rightly so.  Do we have to trust US Soccer has made an informed, sensible decision here?  I think from what we know of their options, I would say so.

A Brief Word From US Soccer

US Soccer bylaws

I love US Soccer Federations press releases. I have every sympathy for why America’s governing body cannot reveal much information on private and legally sensitive ongoing disputes, but there’s something about the dry and cryptic teasers of information that amuse me to no end.

Consider today’s official statement on the ongoing crisis in America’s lower leagues, as the USL and breakaway rival NASL strive for official recognition as Division II leagues in 2010:

CHICAGO (Dec. 7, 2009) – U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, CEO/Secretary General Dan Flynn and Professional Council Chairman Don Garber met with representatives from both the United Soccer League (USL-1) and the North American Soccer League in New York on Sunday (Dec. 6) to discuss Division II league plans in 2010.

“We had a productive meeting and the discussions will continue,” said Gulati. “In the interim we have asked both groups to submit additional information.”

Both leagues have been requested to provide further details of their respective league plans by Dec. 9 to U.S. Soccer’s Professional League Task Force. Once the Task Force determines that the parties have provided the needed information, it will update the U.S. Soccer Board of Directors for further review.

U.S. Soccer’s Professional League Task Force is chaired by Flynn, and includes board members Carlos Cordeiro and Mike Edwards.

Ah, well, now we know what’s going on. But what’s this Professional League Task Force then? Who else is on it, aside from Carlos Cordeiro and Mike Edwards, and why are they specifically mentioned here (or did they not mean “includes” in the sense of there are others not being mentioned?)?  Unfortunately, there is no further information on what this task force is, who is on it and what they are charged and able to do as far as I can find on the US Soccer website.

It’s also interesting to consider that MLS Commissioner Don Garber is wearing in these discussions as a US Soccer board member and Professional Council Chairman. Meanwhile, we should recall that USL founder Francisco Marcos also remains on US Soccer’s Board of Directors, fittingly as an At Large Representative.

One nugget that has come to light is from Kenn Tomasch, who unearthed a possibly redundant piece of evidence from the 1990s that more than one Division II league can exist under US Soccer’s auspices.

Whether or not that is still the case, it’s unlikely both the USL and NASL could be approved as Division II, since such leagues require at least eight teams, and there aren’t sixteen teams of Division II calibre to fill both leagues (USL is down to four or five teams now due to the defections to the NASL).  Glancing through US Soccer’s policy manual, it’s clear even to an observer not privy to the discussions that took place at the weekend that neither the USL nor the NASL meet the required criteria to be recognised as a professional league by the governing body right now, and hence the need for these further discussions. Here are a few key requirements from Policy 202(1)(H)-1 on Professional Leagues:

(d) The competitive divisions referred to in subsections (a) – (c) of this section shall
consist of professional leagues.  Each professional league shall be:

(1) certified by the Board of Directors (BOD) based on standards established
under these policies;

(2) subject to the authority of the Federation;

(3) comprised of at least 8 professional teams certified by the Board of Directors;
and

(4) subject to all rules and regulations of the Federation, autonomous in its
operations.

The USL currently has four, maybe five teams confirmed for 2010; the NASL has the required number, but none of them are “comprised of at least 12 registered professional players” in a professional league “subject to the ultimate authority of the Federation”, as Policy 202(1)(H)-1 (c) — last I heard, the USL and NASL were still wrangling over whether the USL could cancel the defecting teams’ USSF player registrations or not.

Sorry, I guess that didn’t make things any clearer either, did it?  I guess that’s why these press releases are so perfunctory, huh?  This isn’t easy to figure out, with the egos and dollars at stake in a dispute that has been going on since the summer.

At least the official public silence from the US Soccer has been broken, and hopefully we’ll see more from the federation on the next steps after this task force has reviewed the USL and NASL’s proposals.

Birthdays and Caps: The Maturation Problem in Youth Development

Nigeria U-17 World Cup

On FIFA’s web-site promoting the start of the U-17 World Cup in Nigeria the event is hyped as a chance to “discover the stars of tomorrow.”  And while there is an impressive list of former participants (including, for example, Ronaldinho, Michael Essien, and Luis Figo) another look at the history of the U-17 World Cup offers more cautionary tales than burgeoning stars.

You might think that winning the Golden Ball or Golden Shoe at the U-17 World Cup would be a sure predictor of future stardom—and that is certainly the assumption of many professional scouts.  But since the first U-17 FIFA tournament in China in 1985 the winners of those awards include such decidedly non-stars as James Will of Scotland, Mohammed Al-Kathiri of Oman, Sergio Santamaría of Spain, Brazilians William and Adriano (not the Adriano of Inter Milan fame, but the journeyman whose career history includes nearly 20 different clubs—mostly in the lower levels of Brazil), and many others whose names should provoke amonst fans of world soccer that simplist of honorifics: Who?!?!

In fact, depending on how you feel about Landon Donovan’s failure to ever make it outside the US (he won the FIFA U-17 Golden Ball in 1999), the only clear success of the award winners from 12 editions of the U-17 World Cup is Cesc Fàbregas.  Now, some of the other winners have had degrees of success and there have certainly been many other good stories from the U-17 World Cup—but the general point should be familiar to anyone who pays any attention to youth development: the best players at 17 are rarely the best players at 25.  Which is what makes youth development anywhere such a puzzle.

And while there are many pieces to that puzzle, one of the most basic (but oft ignored) is the issue of maturation.  Age groups based on birthdays are really just artificial markers intended to group people at approximately levels in their physical maturation (something I’ve written about before in relation to claims of age cheats).  But physical maturation rates actually vary dramatically from one person to another—something that is particularly notable to those of us still scarred by showing up for U-17 try-outs weighing a buck ten (49.9 kgs) soaking wet and getting squashed like a bug by the tank who had been shaving twice a day since turning 10.  The tank and I were, according to our birthdays, the same age—but our bodies were years apart.

Outliers

So what often happens at the U-17 World Cup, and in youth soccer everywhere, is that the best players are just the early maturers.  In many cases, they are as good as they will ever be at 17 while the late maturers still have years of physical development to go.  But one of the key (and, again, oft ignored) problem for any youth development scheme is that the early maturers often seem as though they will be the better players, and thus get a disproportionate amount of attention and resources (see, for example, Freddy Adu).  Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book Outliers, a tome ultimately designed to promote equal opportunity, begins with a clever example of this phenomenon known as relative age effects—something I though would be fun to consider in relation to US Soccer (since I’m an American and all…).

Relative Age Effects

In the ongoing discussion about how to best organize a youth development system, you rarely hear anyone talking about the importance of birthdays.  But for myself, having a day job as a developmental psychologist, the issue of birthdays and “relative age effects” seems right on point.  Relative age effects are a phenomenon where people gain some advantage because their birthday is on the early side of a cut-off defining a cohort such as grade in school or age-group for youth sports.  The idea is that as children those with early birthdays, although ostensibly the same age as others in their cohort, subtly benefit from being older and more mature than those with later birthdays.  The kid born January 1st is officially in the same age-group as the kid born December 31st, but in reality is a full year older.

This has some relevance to school, where children born on the early side of the year set to define a class will be (on average) more mature than children born towards the end of the year, and it has some relevance to sports including soccer.  In fact, there is an excellent summary of relative age effects and past versions of the U17 World Cup available at Science of Soccer Online, and lots of other good research out there on the phenomenon, but US Soccer also seems to offer a persuasive example.

Though the question is partially just a matter of interest for statistics nerds, it also has some very real implications for talent development and future national team success.  The issues at stake are engagingly described by Gladwell in Outliers, which describes the impact of relative age on sport success as having been first established among elite hockey players.  The basic finding is that a statistically significant disproportion of professional hockey players were born in the first few months of the year, presumably because they were more physically mature during age group play (which uses January 1st as a cut-off) and thus garnered extra success and exponential benefits.

Gladwell uses the example to illustrate a much broader argument about the ways success in society is not just a matter of hard work and individual merit—rather much of our success is due to fortuitous circumstances.  But elsewhere Gladwell also notes that as a Canadian he wishes the hockey powers-that-be would pay more attention to the relative age effect.  In essence, the current system deprives Canada of much potential hockey talent by arbitrarily privileging kids born in certain months.  This is not just a matter of equal opportunity, it is a matter of having really good national teams.  Think of all the Benny Feilhabers (DOB 1/19) and Lori Chalupnys (DOB 1/29) we might find if we paid as much attention to kids born in October, November, and December as we pay to kids born in January, February, and March.

Analyzing the US Rosters

So finding myself thoroughly bored a few months ago, I cut and pasted all the player pools on ussoccer.com (as of 8/7/09) into a trusty excel spreadsheet and compared birth months.  The picture for the U15, U17, U18, and U20 teams is about what all the other research would predict:

age effects 1 2

The basic idea here is that US youth national teams are dominated by players born in the first quarter of the year.  Assuming that dates of birth are relatively randomly distributed and fundamentally irrelevant to true soccer potential, this basically means there is a systematic bias in our player development system (almost certainly unintentional and unconscious) towards older players.  The shame is that we are likely missing some great potential players who were born in December, and give up fighting the big kids before they ever fulfill their potential.

The picture for the older players is more complicated.  Including players from both the U23 / Olympic pools and full national team pools (I should note that I got a bit sloppy here because there is significant overlap in these pools, so some players were counted twice—though I don’t think that should dramatically change the distributions) the most popular time for women’s players to be born was July through September and the least popular was January through March:

age effects 2

I’m not sure what’s going on here.  It certainly could be that the women’s national team is more of a true meritocracy than other teams, though I kind of doubt that.  I wonder if it has to do more with the fact that during the years when most of the current national team players were growing up club soccer was a much more prominent place for female players to develop: the cut-off for club soccer were often August 1st to coordinate with school years.  But that’s just a guess.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I found in this birth date sifting is that if you want to play in a World Cup for the US you best not have the misfortune to be born in December.  For the U-17’s, for example, the roster of 40 players “in residency” (and thus presumably receiving most of the resources) includes zero with a December birthday.  Similarly, of the 93 players in the men’s and women’s US senior national team pools a grand total of one was born in December (if all things were equal you’d expect to have about 8 born in December—and in each of the 12 months).

The one US senior national pool player with a December birthday? Jay DeMerit.  For anyone that knows the Jay DeMerit story this fits perfectly with the concept of relative age effects: DeMerit never got a sniff for any US national team until he paid his own way from Green Bay to a London pub league and miraculously found his way to a starring role in Watford’s promotion to the Premier League.  Just think what he might have done if he had been born in January.

And if you pay any attention to the U-17 World Cup this month, which I recommend for the fun of it all, try to keep an open mind.  No matter how good a youth development scheme a country has, the nature of maturation and the artificial use of birthdays to define age groups means that as many “stars of tomorrow” are sitting home wondering if they’ll ever need to learn to shave as will be on the field in Nigeria.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon. Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa. He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

The Sweeper: Is television coverage of World Cup qualifiers a fans’ right?

Kentaro

Big Story
Have fans become spoiled, expecting every major game to be available for free and in their own language on their home television set, whereever the game is being played?  The patchy television rights structure of World Cup qualifiers — in which home teams sell their own coverage — has led to considerable frustration for fans of both England and the U.S. this week.

England fans will only be able to watch their game against Ukraine online, paying up to £11.99, with no coverage in pubs or post-game highlights available. Kentaro, a Swiss-based sports rights company, apparently demanded £2 million from broadcasters. The Guardian says this is a pivotal moment for the future of sports broadcasting in the UK, with the government currently considering whether to add qualifiers to a list of “protected” events that must appear on free-to-air television.

Meanwhile, U.S. fans are heading back to their dark ages, with their qualifier this week against Honduras only appearing on closed circuit television — bars being asked to shell-out thousands of dollars for access.  As of today, only a couple of dozen bars nationwide have signed up to show it, with some states completely in the dark. Though US Soccer have been criticised for this situation, the decision was entirely down to the Honduran federation, who unsurprisingly could care less whether the game is widely available in English in the U.S. or not.

A solution could be for confederations to manage rights sales as a bloc and ensure they are sold (or resold) to mainstream broadcasters.  This may have a benefit for smaller nations packaged with larger nations, just as collective Premier League rights sales benefit the likes of Bolton and just as UEFA have started centrally selling the Europa League rights, but this would also mean a smaller share for England in UEFA or the U.S. in Concacaf (as well as the frightening thought of Jack Warner handling more money). It would also mean trouble for increasingly lucrative and powerful sports marketing agencies like Kentaro, Soccer United Marketing and Traffic, who typically resell rights to the highest bidder.

Worldwide News

  • ProZone comes to the rescue for referee Alan Wiley, accused by Alex Ferguson of being unfit after Manchester United’s 2-2 draw with Sunderland: the Daily Mail reports that ProZone shows Wiley ran further than all but seven players on the pitch, covering 6.86 miles. Not bad for a 48 year-old.
  • It didn’t last long in chronological time, but the scars will be felt for a while in Portsmouth: Sulaiman al-Fahim’s horrendous ownership of Portsmouth is over before two months have even passed. Unfortunately for Pompey fans, the new owner, Saudi Arabian businessman Ali al-Faraj, is also something of a mystery. The players, at least, will finally be paid today.
  • And Newcastle’s takeover saga might finally be entering the end-game, with Barry Moat submitting a formal offer for the club and promising Alan Shearer will take over again as manager.
  • The future of America’s lower-league structure continues to hang in the balance, as this very revealing interview with the Carolina RailHawks president Brian Wellman makes clear: the prospect of a breakaway by several USL-1 teams remains a very real prospect, though the timeline and challenges remain considerable (Wellman:”the options are: resolving with the USL and NuRock, or forming our own league, or forming our own league and in turn partnering back with USL, or with the MLS, possibly.”)  Wellman should be credited for such an open and honest interview, as fans have been left in the dark by USL’s near-silence on the entire subject for too long.
  • The Latvian FA have excluded Dinaburg from the top-flight, as the fall-out from UEFA’s investigation into match-fixing begins. This will rumble on behind the scenes for a while.
  • A Times’ journalist is wrestling with a dilemma: at Ibrox this weekend, he witnessed a stream of bigoted comments from a Rangers fan during the Old Firm derby. He seems conflicted over whether to report the supporter — and suggests that Rangers care so little to tackle the issue, he may as well not bother anyway.

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Should heads roll for the U.S.’s defeat?

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Big Story

Mexico’s 2-1 defeat of the U.S. last night is the talk of the town (Du Nord rounds up all the coverage). In his usual fashion, Jamie Tecker at Fox Soccer rips into the governing body for the defeat, writing that “U.S. Soccer seems unable or unwilling to make a change at the top, so it won’t likely be the coach.”  Trecker sees the defeat as part of a pattern of failure in big games, also citing the losses to Brazil in the Confederations Cup final and to Mexico again in the Gold Cup final.

By the end of the piece, Trecker has connected these dots into a pattern threatening the entire future of the sport here.

Keep in mind that sports fans have been burned repeatedly by the hype. They keep tuning in after being told they’re going to see something special. And every time (outside of the Spain match), they’re presented with a group of guys who can’t win the big game. The fact is, these performances — if left unchecked — will kill the sport in America.

That fact seems lost on soccer executives, who keep claiming that these failures are “learning experiences. They’re not. They’re confirmation of America’s inability to grow up and take this sport seriously. And that’s why the USA will continue to lose the big game.

This seems a rather remarkable conclusion. It seems to be based on the premise that fans do not understand the context of each big game: everyone watching the Confederations Cup final knew the quality of Brazil and that running them close was an excellent performance. Most who took the trouble to tune into the Gold Cup final (which wasn’t exactly hyped to the moons) would have realised the U.S. was not fielding its first team. And everyone knew that winning in Azteca was not something the U.S. had ever done. Moreover, if the U.S. is destined to always lose the Big Game under Bradley, how does he explain the 2007 Gold Cup final win over Mexico, the 2-0 win over Mexico in Columbus just six months ago (which was far more of a must-win than last night’s game, as the U.S. never banked on taking any points from the Azteca) or the win over Spain in the Confederations Cup?

North America

  • You can see what the win meant to Mexico in this excellent compilation of newspaper covers at Kenn.com, via newseum.org.
  • US Soccer and the World Cup bid committee has launched its World Cup bid website, gobidusa.com, a flashy site with a neat timeline of US soccer history and a rather obvious play on words plastered all over it (The Game is in US…Get it?).
  • But while a huge amount of money is being pumped into the bid and the future of American soccer, the past is in danger of being forgotten: the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, New York is in danger of being closed down. The The 40,000-square-foot facility was opened only ten years ago, but the facility is not paying for itself and in the short-term will be reducing public hours and may be closed altogether.
  • Benfica signs Justin Mapp! And many other strange and curious players! In an amusing stunt, Benfica’s official site was hacked so that users could announce their own official signings on the site. Hilariously, MLS Rumors bought the story and published it; when they realised they had been fooled, they didn’t do the simple thing and issue a retraction, but simply took the page down altogether. Brilliant! (and here it was)

Worldwide

For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Conspiracy in American Soccer?

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Blog of the Day

The blog of the day in American soccer has to be one made by an anonymous author on a popular US-blog ripping the US Soccer federation in a quite wild, spectacular, and absolutely unsubstantiated fashion. I don’t link to anonymous authors, so you’ll have to find it yourself if you want, but lets just say this kind of blogging nonsense from someone who somehow managed to get accredited by CONCACAF to the Gold Cup damages the entire circle of American soccer blogging. Sure, there are real issues with US Soccer, but this was an absurd way to address them.

Not only did this puerile but popular post lead to America’s soccer community wasting half the day discussing the piece’s problems, this kind of sub-conspiracy-theorist gutter blogging does damage to those of us who would really like to explore the problems in US Soccer and to gain accreditation to future events. Will CONCACAF be so willing to give a blogger a media pass at the next event if they read the nonsense that resulted from this?  Will US Soccer be as willing to open up to bloggers who want to actually investigate (and not just speculate on) their internal workings? Sure, we can hope everyone sees the difference between them and us, but we’re all hurt by this in a small way.  And I’m sorry I’ve had to give it even more coverage by even writing about it here. Onto real news and interesting writing:

Americas

  • A disappointing result for DC United in the CONCACAF Champions League, as they’re held to a 1-1 draw by Firpo of El Salvador at home. Except for the DC players, it didn’t even feel like home — goalkeeper Milos Kocic said “Today, we felt like we weren’t playing home. We felt like we were on a neutral field. I was screaming, I was yelling at guys, ‘Let’s go, let’s go, this is our field.” Does anyone know what the attendance was? (I can’t find it listed it on the DC site).  Even more depressingly for DC, Firpo only qualified for the tournament after replacing CD Chalatenango, who messed up their registration. Even more depressingly for MLS, DC have long been one of the teams to really take CONCACAF games seriously.
  • Bad news in Argentina, as the continual debt crisis is threatening the start of the new season next month, according to Argentine Football Association president Julio Grondona. “There is no doubt that the beginning of the tournament is at risk because several clubs have very big debts.” Clubs have been unable to pay players, who have lodged a complaint through their union. The problem, Grondona said, is that fewer and fewer players are assets of the club that can be sold to make revenue — “The invention of… agents was a misfortune,” he said. “It can’t be that a person owns 30 percent of a player and another 40 (percent). It seems like we’re talking about cows.”
  • Eric Wynalda has replaced Steven Cohen on U.S. show Fox Football Fone-In; I don’t think that will make the show much more watchable, but it’s no great shame for American soccer if we have to hear less of Cohen’s nonsense about Hillsborough, and his general lack of knowledge/interest in MLS made him an odd choice for a national phone-in anyway.
  • Excellent round-up by Melissa on the playoff situation across women’s football in the US, including the odd nugget that the Washington Freedom have a chance to win both the W-League and WPS.
  • This media conference call with US Soccer boss Sunil Gulati is not very interesting, but I like the way he gently explains just how dumb Sepp Blatter is when he makes comments about MLS needing to play a Western European schedule.  “In principle, both [MLS Commissioner Don Garber] and I agree that would be a good thing, but we’ve also explained to the FIFA president that temperatures in Chicago are not like the temperatures in London or Paris in January. They’re more like Helsinki or Moscow. So the challenges are a little bit different. … We can foresee being on a European-type calendar, but also pointing out that not everyone plays on that calendar, primarily for those weather reasons.” Just pointing that out, Sepp, ‘cos it’s not bleeding obvious….

Europe

Finding Nimo: From Liberia to Generation Adidas

According to Stephen Goff, Alex Nimo, a seventeen year old forward, will likely be announced as a member of the elite Generation Adidas today. His journey to escape civil war in Liberia to Ghana and eventually Portland, Or. is a remarkable tale, told in full on the U.S. Soccer site.

As many refugees struggle to find food and medication for illness, death took the lives of people who couldn’t fend for themselves. Nimo remembers being on the streets and his mother covering his eyes as they passed dead bodies on the street, yet this didn’t shield Nimo from the truth that people were dying every day.

“If he’s not your neighbor, (the person dying) is two blocks away,” said Nimo. “Every morning you’d wake up and somebody was dead. Sometimes someone was laying in your front yard…dead.”

At the tender age of nine, Nimo and his family were finally granted political asylum to escape the overwhelming destitution. With financial support from Catholic Ministries, the family was scheduled to move to Portland, Ore.

When Nimo’s father told him of their move in the United States, Nimo quickly turned to a world map to find his new home.

“I looked on the map and I couldn’t see Oregon,” he said. “I had heard of New York but I didn’t know where Oregon was.”

Eventually, he won a full scholarship at the FC Portland Academy and after receiving his citizenship, joined the U.S. Soccer Under-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla. Read the whole story here.