This week the USA men got together for the first time since …so long ago it feels like decades. Actually , it was February of this year, not that long ago, but the match against Costa Rica was 1) played with a team made up of MLS players only – thus was devoid of many of our best people and 2) before the pandemic, therefore back in ancient times, or so it seems.
As pointed out in our last post “The USA Is Quietly Building A Powerhouse”, a number of youthful American players are doing very well in Europe and for some highly regarded teams. USA fans have been waiting anxiously to see these developing stars get together and show us what they can do. The situation is not one of immediate need as the USA doesn’t see any real competitive action until late next spring, but the sooner the better as far as coach Gregg Berhalter is concerned. He wants to see how the players work together, what positions they fit in best with their teammates and, like all of us, he wanted to see what the caliber of this USA team really is, given that perhaps they are the most credible bunch as far as world club credentials are concerned that the United States as ever put together.
So lets take a look at this match with eyes on the US as an up-and-coming world power.
First- the opponent. Now no one is going to confuse Wales with France or Brazil or Belgium, but against mediocre competition they have done very well lately. While England handled them quite easily (3-0), they have beaten Bulgaria (twice), Finland,Hungary, Azerbaijan and drew with highly regarded Croatia during the last 12 months. They aren’t Argentina but they aren’t the weakest team in the world either. And the side they used against the USA was almost the same side they played in those games. However, there was one major exception. Wales has only one world class player – Gareth Bale. Bale is capable of turning a match around all by himself as he demonstrated against Liverpool in the Champions League final in 2018. Bale didn’t play against the Americans which reduced the offensive threat that Wales possessed by about 100% (not joking about that either). The rest of the Welshmen are a capable bunch, particularly on defense, but without Bale the ability of Wales to provide a meaningful measuring stick for Berhalter was definitely reduced.
Second – the USA. The team that started for the Americans was one of the youngest lineups the USA has ever put on a field. Two 17 yr olds were among the starters and the rest were not that much older than the teenagers. While Wales was missing it’s biggest offensive threat, so was the USA. Christian Pulisic, while only 22 himself, is undoubtedly the guy that the American offense will revolve around. Unfortunately Pulisic ( who plays for English powerhouse Chelsea) pulled his hamstring while warming up before a match one week before the Wales encounter. In addition, Josh Sargent who is a legitimate striker and plays for Wolfsburg in the German league, could not make it to the match either as he was detained by Covid quarantine. This left the US without two of it’s best forwards. Unfortunately, Berhalter’s system and selections did not make up for those losses.
The USA starting lineup as a 4-3-3
As seen above, the Americans used a 4/3/3 formation as their basic system of play. However, once the game started, it was apparent that the actual positions of the players varied a lot from the pictured setup.
First of all, by design Lletget did not play in a traditional Center Forward role. He was the only MLS player on the squad and in the US , playing for the LA Galaxy he plays as an attacking midfielder. So, it would seem that playing him as a “false 9” ( a central forward who comes back to link up with midfielders) could suit him well. And it might have done just that, except that his wings did not cooperate. The false 9 concept works best when the wings become dangerous recipients of the “9”‘s work. In teams such as Barcelona and Liverpool who use this idea regularly, the false 9 has striking partners who have pace and scoring ability. This often leads to the back defenders being forced to spend extra effort on those wings and therefore those defenders leave open space for the 9 to come forward after the initial attack. Against Wales, the system did not work like that at all.
When young players play a certain position and role on a team, it becomes somewhat difficult for them to change their play once game action begins, even if asked to play a different position. The younger the player, the more that individual has a tendency to adopt the role that they have become accustomed to playing. Gio Reyna plays a similar role for Dortmund in Germany that Sebastian Lletget plays for LA Galaxy, that being an attacking midfielder. For the USA he was positioned as a right wing. But he ended up moving inside often into the more familiar spaces that he occupies for Dortmund. This is not a bad strategy when the right back behind him can move up into the space created by the movement and can act as a deliverer of crosses and passes inside to the forwards waiting for them. And Sergino Dest was more than willing to do just that. The problem was that Reyna dropped back when he went inside instead of moving laterally or forward. Thus he wasn’t available to receive any balls played by Dest or to be a threat to the goal. So, with both Lletget and Reyna playing as advanced midfielders there was only one true forward playing for the USA.
Konrad de la Fuente is a young (another “young” – get the drift?) American player (19yrs old) who is on Barcelona’s roster although he isn’t getting the minutes that Dest is getting for the same squad. But he has shown enough ability to rate a start in this game, And, he was the only forward positioned player on the field for the USA who was playing his normal spot – on the left wing up high. This left him as the sole go-to-goal threat for Berhalter. He got the best chance of the game when he was the recipient of a Welsh turnover that put him close to the goal although on the corner of the right post. He fired the somewhat difficult shot over the top and other than a couple balls from Dest that was it as far as scoring chances for the US. When one looks at the actual positioning of the Americans for most of their offensive game and when one considers Wales defensive ability, it is no surprise that our team came up empty on the scoreboard.
Ok, the score ending 0-0 wasn’t quite the result USA fans were looking for. But, how about the play? It is here, in the work, that we find the quality and the possible future success that we were hoping to see. The youthful Americans displayed a confidence and a possession game seldom seen in our sides. Berhalter wants to play from the back, maintain possession and create spaces for his attacks. His team got ( WARNING – shameless plug coming!) Concepts 1 and 2 from the Soccer Yoda’s successful book “Concept Soccer – A Step by Step Method to Score Goals and Develop Players” right. (Concept Soccer is available from Amazon in print and ebook) They had 61% possession against a decent international opponent. Concept 3 was spotty, although there were some spaces opened by the Americans, they didn’t take much advantage of them. Yunus Musah , 17 yr old player for Valencia in Spain, did a superb job of supporting teammates with the ball, Weston McKennie was very active in looking for openings to play the ball and Tyler Adams helped control the midfield from the defensive point of view. The Yanks won the midfield and shut off virtually all of Wales attacks, but it was their strikes on goal that were missing.
Perhaps if Pulisic and Sargent had played or Jozy Altidore had come from the US to participate ( he was tied up with the MLS playoffs) the USA would have had more scoring chances with more attacking threats. As it was, the squad showed it’s ball skill, its confidence with ball possession and it’s energy to play hard even in a friendly in the middle of a hard-to-mange Covid-affected season. They clearly knew that they represent the future of American international men’s soccer and were eager to show what they could do. In the end, their potential was there for all to see even if it is still unrealized. Considering they had only two days preparation and were missing some integral parts, that potential is very real and that is just fine – for now.
It is said that “great minds think alike”. Today (September 25, 2020) represents one of those days that proves that saying. That is, if one considers the Soccer Yoda to be a “great mind”. Included in this “great mind” scenario would be Julio Vega, writing for USA Today. The reason that these “great minds” thought alike today? That would be the emergence of a significant number of youthful American soccer players that are contributing in meaningful ways in Europe over the last few weeks and months. The Soccer Yoda has noticed that these players have been making inroads in places not typically noted for an American presence. Yes, some Americans have played in Europe for some notable teams. Michael Bradley started for Roma over a period of years in Italy, Clint Dempsey toiled for Fulham in the Premier League, Tim Howard was Everton’s number one keeper in that same league, considered by many to be the most competitive league in the world. Overall though, Yankees have been absent from high-level competition in Europe. However,there are now more young American players on European fields than ever before , actually contributing to competitive teams, with even a few playing for some of the most elite clubs on the continent. The Soccer Yoda noticed it and was inspired enough to write this post describing the promising situation brewing in Europe. But Mr Vega beat me to it. He published an article, today- September 25, 2020 postulating a USA national side playing a 4/2/3/1 that would be completely staffed with players presently playing in Europe. He noticed the same situation that I did. And wrote about it just before this post, the one you are reading, was begun.
So how come this situation has not been observed and written about in any major way by the American soccer community? Well, like everything else, Covid-19 has had a major effect on the USA national team situation. There has been no activity by the national team since the January 2020 camp and that was devoid of European players. Meanwhile soccer in Europe has begun a new season. True, it is without fans in stadiums, but it is not without the usual press and tv coverage and fan interest, even if those fans are not present at the matches. Even international soccer has begun in Europe, with the usual international breaks from club games and those national teams playing in their Nations League games. But, here in the USA, its all quiet on the national team front. The team isn’t scheduled to play again until next March with World Cup qualifying beginning next summer. Coach Gregg Burhalter is “hoping” for a couple matches this fall , but Covid concerns are making those plans difficult, if not impossible. So, the inroads being made in Europe by Americans have largely been ignored by the American sporting press and soccer community. Until now, when two perceptive soccer writers (myself and Mr Vega) decided to note the situation at the same time.
So who are these Americans who could represent a new, stronger US national team? Let’s take a look:
Christian Pulisic – Ok, Pulisic isn’t exactly a new name. He played on the unfortunate 2018 team that failed to make it to the World Cup. However, he has continued to progress. He plays for Chelsea, one of the strongest English teams and one, due to a number of additions, that is considered to be a favorite in England AND Europe. He demonstrated his ability against Liverpool earlier this summer by entering the match late in the game and scoring a brilliant goal and assisting on another. He is for real. Pulisic’s biggest challenge at this point is staying healthy as he has been very injury prone.
Weston McKennie – McKennie has recently been inserted into the starting lineup at Juventus where he links up with the likes of Renaldo, yes THAT Renaldo. Juve is the Italian powerhouse and is one of the strongest European squads. This is a major advancement for the young American and suggests a strong midfield for the USA along with Reyna.
Gio Reyna – Reyna is only 17 but is starting and scoring for Dortmund in Germany. Dortmund is one of the best German sides, trailing only Bayern Munich in reputation among German teams. He has unlimited potential given his age and the caliber of competition in which he is playing. Matched with McKennie he could command the midfield against most any opponent the USA faces.
Tyler Adams – Adams is 21 and has made inroads in the European game playing for Leipzig in Germany. Leipzig is not traditionally considered a German powerhouse but last year they advanced to the semifinals of the Champions League and Adams scored the winner in the quarterfinal vs Atletico Madrid. He can play many positions, in a 4/3/3 with the USA he would most likely play the defensive midfield role with McKennie and Reyna in front of him.
Serginio Dest – if there is a weak spot in the new American lineup it would be in defense. But it is in the back where Dest comes in and could raise the level in that important area. He is only 19 but his play for Ajax in the Netherlands has put him in an enviable position. Serginio plays an outside defender position and given Ajax is an accepted member of the European elite his play there gives him instant credibility. So much so that Barcelona and Bayern Munich are battling over him. Not bad….two of the strongest clubs in the world fighting to sign an American.
Josh Sargent – Sargent is an up front forward. His job is to create and score goals although at times he has shown an ability to combine with others to create an effective buildup. He plays for Werder Bremen in Germany. Now Werder is not Chelsea or Juventus or even Leipzig, but Sargent has made an impact with the team and is seeing regular action when healthy. This certainly qualifies him for a starting position with the USA, perhaps teaming up with Pulisic as an effective striking team in front of that midfield described above.
Tim Weah – Tim Weah is one of the USA’s best potential stars to play forward. Weah was signed by French and European power Paris St Germain 3 years ago as a 17 yr old. After some encouraging play there he was loaned to Celtic of Scotland in 2019. He did well there for the second half of the 2019 season. PSG then loaned Tim to Lille of the French first division where he was expected to start and contribute but he sustained season-long injuries. If he can regain the quality of play he displayed before last season’s lost time, Weah could provide depth and perhaps a starting role with the USA.
Reggie Cannon – Cannon is another of the defense hopes for the future of the USA squad. He plays right back in Portugal for Boavista of the Portuguese First Division. Although only 22, Cannon has had a several years as a starter for F.C. Dallas of the MLS and this season has gone to Portugal to improve his game against the tougher competition there.
Zack Steffen – Steffen is the probable goalkeeper for the Americans and he is gaining valuable experience in Europe. After doing extremely well in the MLS the 25 yr. old moved to vaunted Manchester City in 2019 who promptly loaned him to Fortuna Dusseldorf. This season he is back at City as the backup to Ederson but started just last week in a cup victory.
Konrad de la Fuenta; Chris Richards; These two youngsters are with a couple of huge clubs: Barcelona and Bayern Munich. But playing time is an issue with these two. If they gain knowledge and skills training with two of the world’s best teams then perhaps they can make their marks onto our national team.
While continental Europe is considered the highest quality place to play the game, there are other continents where young Americans are succeeding and these players could break into the national squad. Tyler Boyd (25 yrs) is scoring goals for Besiktas in Turkey and Johnny (19 yrs) is contributing at defensive midfield for Internacional in Brazil (thus the one name name following Brazilian tradition). And of course, one cannot rule out the MLS. …I think. The quality of play in our home league is a large question mark, especially in the preparation of national team players to compete against world-class opposition. Berhalter will have to compare the ability of each player and make a judgement, hopefully he will ignore any pressure from his bosses to use home-playing talent strictly on the basis of where they play.
At this point, it appears that the USA is building a regional powerhouse. There should be no repetition of the woeful result of 2018 when qualifying for the 2022 World Cup commences next June. How ready this young crew will be for competition once in the Cup is another matter. However, if these players stay healthy, and they continue to develop and gain experience, there is a longer term objective in mind. In 2026 the World Cup will be played right here on our home continent. Hopefully, the team that is building now will be at its peak at that time and perhaps the USA can put on a display that will finally earn it’s place as a world soccer power.
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For decades women in this country have fought for equal pay when they perform equal work compared to men. They have met with varying degrees of success, but it is well known that there are many businesses and industries in which women still do not garner the same compensation as their male counterparts. Overall soccer is one of those industries in which inequality still exists in many of it’s areas.
One of the most visible examples of that bias is the pay given to the US Women’s National Team in comparison to the men by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF). One example is World Cup compensation. When the USA women won the cup last year (which they have done 4 times including the last two competitions) they earned $200,000 each, not bad, but the men got $179,375 each just for playing in the regional qualifying tournament in 2018. They would have earned a mountain much more if they had won the whole championship. Of course, qualifying for the tournament is a necessary step in that direction, something the men failed to do.
After trying futilely to convince the USSF that they deserve equal pay, the US Women’s National Team (WNT) finally sued the national organization for their overdue compensation, claiming gender discrimination. They want $67 million in damages. And last week the lawyers for each group filed their initial documents, with the hearing scheduled in May. To put it in soccer terms, at this point the USSF is definitely not on the front foot. As a matter of fact, one of their top people has been red carded already.
The USSF hired a firm to defend the suit and then apparently paid no attention to the arguments those lawyers decided to use. The USSF attorneys knew they couldn’t argue that gender discrimination was ok, so they decided to push the idea that the women don’t work equally hard and therefore are not due equal pay. But their arguments have more holes than goal nets.
The USSF attorneys claim that men work harder because they are “bigger,stronger, faster”. Of course, forgetting for a minute that ALL men are not necessarily “bigger,stronger, faster” than ALL women, somehow the USSF wants to link physical attributes to work rate. Aside from the general weakness in that argument, there is also the issue of amount of work relating to frequency of work. The men play for club teams and only “work” for the USSF during designated international weeks and tournaments. Without a doubt, playing for the national team for men is secondary to club appearances. The women, however, while they do play for clubs, have many more national team matches, and more appearances in general than the men. How come?
It’s a combination of factors that result in the large number of Women’s National Team (WNT) appearances. The club games definitely draw fewer fans than men’s games do. However, in the USA the WNT typically draws as well as the Men’s National Team (MNT) and often they pull in crowds that would make the men enviable. A major part of the USSF argument seems to be incredulously based on the failure of the men to produce wins. For example, they claim that the men work harder because they face so much hostility during home games. But, that depends upon venue and recent results. The USSF has purposely played in locations where it knew that the number of attendees would contain a heavy number of fans rooting for the away team. Why? Because those fans pay to get into the stadium. The USSF earns more money for all that “hard work”; that ” hostile environment”. Why not play in more friendly stadiums? Because the men don’t draw as well with home fans when they aren’t winning. Attendance at the men’s matches has dropped drastically since the team failed to make the 2018 World Cup and since the squad changed in its composition. The women have more matches, more home fan support, more TV exposure because they deliver results. Somehow, the USSF figures that, therefore , they work less hard than the men. Of course, all that exposure increases player recognition. While many US soccer fans and even American sports fans in general know about Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe and Julie Ertz due to their World Cup play, how many are familiar with Gyasi Zardes, Wes McKennie or even the most well known of the men – Christian Pulisic? Winning and World Cups makes the Federation money. And yet, the USSF argues that the men work harder and should be paid more, because they haven’t produced on the field.
Admittedly the world soccer organization FIFA earns far more from the men than the women. And pays more to member nations for their men’s teams participation in events. However, FIFA is earning more from the women every year and that has come from the increased interest and commitment around the world for the women’s game. And that can largely be attributed to the American women. Even FIFA President Gianni Infantino referred to the greater incomes coming from the women when he mentioned that FIFA would look at expanding the Women’s World Cup and increasing the associated financial rewards: “We don’t need all this money in Swiss banks.”
It should have come as no surprise to the USSF that the arguments presented by their attorneys did not exactly draw praise once the papers were filed. Actually, it appears that the federation was indeed pretty surprised, just as the rest of us were, by the sheer bias and convoluted logic that passed for their position. As a matter of fact, a number of USSF sponsors quickly announced that they did not agree with their associated federation on these points. Deloitte told one news company that they were “deeply offended by the views expressed by the USSF”. Other, larger sponsors such as Budweiser and Visa demanded meetings with the groups lawyers. They are not happy with the USSF at all. And Coke blasted the organization,” The Coca-Cola Company is firm in its commitment to gender equality, fairness and women’s empowerment in the United States and around the world and we expect the same from our partners.”
In response to all the criticism, USSF President Carlos Cordeiro issued this statement,” On behalf of U.S. Soccer, I sincerely apologize for the offense and pain caused by the language in this week’s court filing, which did not reflect the values of our Federation or our tremendous admiration of our Women’s national team.” The organization hired a different law firm to continue it’s defense of it’s position. But It is notable that, at this time, the USSF has not changed that position, just retooled the way its going to defend the suit.
For Cordeiro, his apology came too late. Without a doubt, he came under pressure to do more than merely apologize and the day after issuing the apology he resigned. How do we know that he was under the gun to give up his position? Well, remember that the USSF was now faced with trying to convince the American public that it isn’t totally anti-female. And the higher-ups in the federation knew that, should the President resign, the Vice President would take over the office of President. So he did and the new President is Cindy Parlow Cone, not only a women, but a member of the most revered bunch of female soccer players in the history of the game – the “99ers” – the group of women who astounded the sporting world by selling out the largest stadiums while winning World Cups and Olympic championships and inspiring a new generation of American soccer players of all types and genders.
Will Cone be able to repair the image of the USSF? She has a mountain of work to do, and not just in reputation. U.S. Soccer is a mess right now in numerous areas. But having a women at the top at this moment is a step in the right direction, it will be very interesting to see what she can do.
It’s an observable fact that many human skills started as individual attempts to produce a product which differed from person to person. The finished product was unique, other people recognized the style of the maker and therefore those products were considered as “art”. Centuries ago skills such as shoe-making, clothes production, food preparation, even medical treatment, were basically art. Many still are. Knowledgeable observers can recognize music, paintings, even food, by the people who produced it because of those differences. But what about other endeavors? How come autos, clothes, shoes, etc are more standard than in decades past and when improvements and changes come, it happens so much more quickly than years ago? It was the introduction of technology into the development of the various products. As technology improves and becomes more involved in the inspection, analysis and development of a product, there tends to be less art and more “science”.
So, what does this have to do with soccer? Well, one of the attractive parts of the sport is the combination of art and science that is unique to soccer. Many fans value the individual skills and decisions made by individual players above team -oriented play. Others appreciate a 10 pass- five player combination that results in a great chance to score or an impregnable line of defense above an individual run through half an opponents team. Its a personal preference. But that preference has been made easier through the years by a lack of technology involved in the preparation of the “final product”.
Soccer has been a sport bound by tradition. Rule changes come slow and the nature of the game on the field tends to change slowly compared to many other sports. It comes, to an extent, from the top, after all FIFA still doesn’t recognize the invention of the stopwatch. Public outcry, encouraged by technology itself in the form of the massive increase in viewership and replay observations of fans watching television, pushed the introduction of goal-line technology and, more recently, VAR rulings on game play. But, how about increased technology in the analysis of the game and of its players?
For decades the scoreline of a match consisted of the score, who scored and when, and warnings given. A very detailed report might have included the numbers of shots taken by each team; maybe the number of saves by the keeper, perhaps it might have included the number of corner kicks. Those events were easily seen during the course of play, the only necessity was a pair of eyes, a recording instrument and the ability to count. And many fans liked it that way. The intrusion of statistics and “science” into the game was something not welcomed by lots of fans. They preferred the”art” of the game and the lack of numbers encouraged each person’s idea of what was considered to be good play.
However, time marches on and so does technology. And in the last couple decades the introduction of many types of measuring devices has changed the observations of the game and its players. Now, when analyzing a game, observers can look at how much running was done, where the team and individual players spent their time during the match, numbers and percentages of successful passes and many other statistics. Technology has changed the manner in which teams and players are viewed and their various successes and failures on the field. Training also has been affected. Players wear measuring devices during practice and coaches can tell how hard they are working among other measurements and can adjust team and personal training according to those measurements. Professional teams often hire computer skilled people for the singular task of measuring data on their players and the team as a whole and at times those observations have made meaningful contributions to results on the field .
But what about the youth club? What about the individual parent and players? Have the technological advances affected them in any notable manner other than home videos to post on social media? Not so far. The expense, the time needed and the expertise to judge a players performance and degree of improvement, has been beyond the scope of the average youth club and player family.
That situation, however, is about to change. A new company titled ” Darkhorse” is putting together a package of services that could offer in-depth information on youth player performance in training and matches to those who are most interested in obtaining that data. Darkhorse is headed by some notable people, particularly Dr. Juan Delgado, formerly of the world-renowned Aspire Academy and presently heading up the academy program for the soon-to-be MLS Austin F.C. He is working with an impressive international team from diverse backgrounds who are working together to produce a service that could aid in educating American families on their youngsters progress (or the lack thereof). The information that Darkhorse is considering includes typical measures such as shots taken or passes connected, but also adds in-depth analytics including possession retention, number of ball touches, 1-on-1 duels and the success rate of those duals. This data is presented in a number of ways. Number charts are used, but more visual methods such as line graphs and pie wheels are supplied also. Even less empirical data can be viewed. Soccer IQ, general technique, appropriate speed of play; these and other more subjective traits can be measured against each other as player areas of strength and opportunities for improvement. Its a treasure trove of information about each player and the observations and measures can be expanded to include a whole team or even a whole club if desired.
So, one might ask (and I did), how does Darkhorse figure to obtain the game information in order to display it in such an appealing manner. The folks at Darkhorse were most accommodating in answering questions, at least as far as they could, considering that it turns out that they are in the process of developing and patenting some unique and therefore confidential ( at least at this time) hardware.
The game information is gained by the use of match video and wearable technology put together in a patent-pending system. This information is then examined for the statistical analysis and visual displays delivered to the client. Individual videos can be supplied by parents or the club. If they aren’t very usable Darkhorse can tutor the camera person or can be hired to do the video recordings themselves. Subjective observations would be provided by the Darkhorse staff along with some interaction with club coaches. This is very important. Darkhorse would act as a coaching/technical directing counseling source to the individual coaches and clubs. So, they get a knowledgeable guide to illustrate training opportunities that can maintain strengths and improve lower performing areas. That way the players are sure to work on skills that will advance their game.
So, who is going to be interested in this revolutionary source of analysis for youth players? Darkhorse is aiming at three main customers who are linked in their desire for information like this, which has been traditionally very difficult to obtain:
A) The clubs themselves – If a club is interested in improving performance, both in result outcomes AND player development, this information can be invaluable. It’s been said many times, by many observers (including the Soccer Yoda- like many many times!) that the youth soccer executives of this country are so focused on winning that they ignore the development of the skills that would increase the standard of play while also improving the results of our players in regards to other countries. With this type of detailed statistics, clubs can put more effort into player development which can lead to more success on the field.
B) Parents and Players – measuring improvement without aids like those that Darkhorse is developing is a difficult proposition. The viewpoint of a parent or even a player, can be very biased, especially if the background knowledge of the sport is as sparse as it is for many of these participants. Quantitative and qualitative analysis delivered by knowledgeable observers can offer families a roadmap to improvement, which, if it is deep enough, can involve the third customer.
C) Scouts – There are now a multitude of options for the talented youth player that were not available in the past. The number of domestic professional club youth programs is constantly increasing. For the extremely talented youth even Europe could be a destination. And colleges are always looking for good players who are also decent students. As the number of quality players and the number of places for those players to advance to continues to increase, the ability of both groups to communicate to the other becomes more important and more of an issue. The kind of data that Darkhorse is going to provide to scouts can be used to attract opportunities for capable youth players. At the present time this type of information is not available to average families and clubs who boast above average talent, Darkhorse is planning to bridge that gap.
Perhaps the most important impact of a measurement service such as Darkhorse is developing, is the ability for parents to gauge the improvement of their kids. This is a big problem for a sport that has struggled to drag clubs and coaches past the “win now” mentality that can retard the technical and tactical growth of young players. If a youngster takes piano lessons for 3 years and still plays Chopsticks at a recital, parents know there is a problem. But if a youth soccer player is still at a basic skill level, just bigger, than in previous years, it’s not as apparent to many parents. Skill measurement can clue in those who are footing the bill as to the real progress of their child and perhaps force coaches and clubs to concentrate on quality play improvement rather than match scores and tournament trophies.
Speaking of footing the bill, the cost of the service becomes a possible limiting factor. If average families and smaller clubs can’t afford the product that Darkhorse is going to promote, it’s ability to affect the quality of American soccer would be limited. Darkhorse is understandably reluctant to advertise a concrete price at this time, but they assure observers that their service will be surprisingly affordable to anyone who wants it once they are ready to market their “Youth Soccer Operating System”.
So, how about our original question : “will this technology drive the art out of the youth game in the USA?”. The fact is that nobody in the soccer world raves about any American mastery of any segment of the game. We are still considered a developing country in soccer circles and the failure of our youth to progress beyond basic game abilities, both physical and mental, is a major factor in that slow development. If the Darkhorse Youth Soccer Operating System is a step toward improving the skills of American youth, this observer believes the art of the game will improve right along with it.
A few nights ago I read a blog post written by a veteran youth coach in which he echoed a problem that’s been discussed by youth coaches for decades, including yours truly. He discussed the fact that very few youth play “street soccer”. Instead, the majority only gain their soccer experience through an “organized” training session or an officiated match. During matches the objective of the game is to score more goals then the opposition ,therefore any actions which prevent that stated aim from happening are considered to be negative. In many training sessions, the coach runs the training in a manner that fits only that coaches idea of a proper session or perhaps oversees a practice session with methods that he/she has been directed to use.
The difference between informal street soccer and formal soccer sessions is one of intensity and perceived outcome. Kids don’t play in the street or playground with a major objective of winning whatever game they play or even to necessarily improve their play (although that might be an unintended result). They play because it is FUN. Plain and simple, it is fun to play soccer…win or lose, effective skills or not, high level conditioning or only incidental fitness..there is joy in playing the game. Since only kids are involved, typically any results of a numerical nature are forgotten as soon as the playtime is over. Of course, this means no real pressure on the players, so if a player decides to try a tricky move or difficult pass and fails, well it is no big deal. Depending on the child, the skill might be forgotten as too tough to do …OR …it might be repeated and repeated until it becomes part of the game skillset owned by that player.
What about organized training sessions? The potential problem compared to street soccer is the nature of the session. There is an authority figure involved, therefore there is a motive to please that person. Often parents watch training sessions and that, of course, introduces a myriad of possible complications. Although the training might be an effective teaching and practicing period and might lead to higher level match performances as the player gains in experience and skill, it might not. And the pressure to win those matches can certainly affect the manner in which youth players approach and play those games. Often the “win the game or tournament or trophy or higher ranking” mentality stifles creative play and drives coaches to methods of training which have little to do with 1) improving the mental and physical soccer skill of the players and 2) having fun.
Ok, so this has all been discussed for decades, so what struck me as I read the blog post mentioned above? Well, the writer is an ENGLISH “football” coach writing about youth “football” in ENGLAND! “Wow” I thought, “they have the same problems that we, here in the USA, have!” That was a revelation. Here in America we have attempted to overcome the lack of street soccer “training freedom” through the dual methods of education and rule changes. How well does that work?
First of all, several fundamental truths must be accepted in regard to developing soccer talent.
- The more times a player executes a technique with the ball correctly the more proficient that player will become. The skill will be performed at a continually quicker speed and eventually become virtually automatic.
- The more times a player is put into a tactical situation, the more times that player will make an effective decision as to the performed action, if instructed correctly.
- In the long run, a players ability to execute #1 and #2 above will have the most influence on the players ability as a soccer player over the purely physical attributes of size, speed and endurance.
Given the above, it stands to reason that the more attempts at technical and tactical skills, the faster the player will raise his/hers playing level. When one compares the opportunities available in informal play versus organized training, the latter can be the more efficient experience, IF the coach provides for those opportunities. Here’s why : During free play a youth might attempt a move a certain % of the touches played by that player. Given the number of players in the game and the circumstances ie: size of goals, playing surface, etc., this will result in a certain number of attempts which will or will not be successful. Maybe many attempts, maybe not. Eventually, if the player keeps trying, the success rate should improve. But, in an efficiently designed training session, the move will be demonstrated and each player will be given a chance to try the move multiple times without pressure. Repeated practice will improve the proficiency of the move. Then an opponent will provide slight pressure and the player gains an understanding of the use of the move against opponents. Finally, full pressure is applied and the player joins a limited number of teammates in trying the move in a game situation. This type of training accelerates the learning rate many times over. So….why the lamenting over the lack of street soccer?
Unfortunately, the type of training described above continues to be in the minority. For decades the mantra “no lines, no laps,no long lectures” has been advocated by knowing soccer coaching instructors and yet the lines, the running without a ball, the sargent-like command direction continues. And apparently it has also become prevalent in England. Waiting in a line for 90% of a practice exercise does little to prepare a youth to be a player. Running laps? Karl-Heinz Heddergott, a well respected German first division professional coach once told me,” do you know what you get when your players run lots of laps? Good lap-runners!” Formal training can be very effective…IF the players get a maximum of touches on the ball and a maximum of play in game-like tactical situations. A coach I know told me recently of the question asked of him by his new U-14 team (all of which had been playing for years) which indicates the problem: ” how come we play soccer all the time in practice?” The players were so accustomed to non-ball and non-playing activities that the all-ball all-active sessions they were experiencing were strange to them!
As for the joy of the game? The proliferation of trophy competitions has only increased the pressure to win a sampling of those competitions. THere are at least 5 competitions for clubs which declare themselves to be “National Championships”. Each has the requisite number of lead-up championships to the big one. Each allows winning clubs to advertise their accomplishments so as to attract more fee-paying parents. Each drives coaches and parents to demand results in the win column, which often reduces the emphasis on quality of play.
One would like to believe that these adults would see the long term connection between quality of play and victories. But patience tends to run thin in American youth soccer circles. It takes time to develop skills in soccer players and meanwhile the mistakes made in attempting more sophisticated play can cost games. After years and years of trying to send the message to youth coaches through its licensing program, the USSF finally took another tack 3 years ago and changed the rules for all players u-12 and younger to encourage more touches on the ball and more creative play. The results of these changes, if there are any, would only begin to now be felt at the upper youth levels. Certainly recent results of our men’s national teams have been decidedly worse than in previous years and while the women scored another World Cup win, the younger girls teams are not dominating the international scene as much as before. But there is a crop of new young players who are growing up under a different set of rules than before and one can only hope that they will display a style and skill that shows a positive effect of these changes. Early results have not been encouraging. Our USA U-17 boys team is a unit almost completely composed of MSL youth program players. One would hope that these youngsters are receiving effective training from our top professional clubs. And yet, their results at the recent U-17 World Cup were our worst in decades. Granted, there were other complicating factors, like mainly the coaching situation right now with all our national youth programs, but those results were not encouraging. However, it is still way too early to pass judgement on the rule changes, the next few years will be very interesting in that regard.
Meanwhile though, here is a few tips for youth coaches in England: no queues, no running round, no chin wags !
If the reader would like to learn more about advanced tactics and effective training methods teachable to youth…Warning! Shameless Plug Ahead! Concept Soccer – A Step by Step Method To Score Goals and Develop Players is available from Amazon….written by the Soccer Yoda!
Sunday, July 7, 2019 was a very rare day for US soccer. It is certainly a rare occasion when both the men’s and women’s national teams play on the same day. Even rarer is the occurrence that both games count for something, that neither is a friendly. And even rarer that both matches are for the championships of big tournaments for these teams. And finally, incredibly rare ( like never before) that one of those titles is for the largest championship available for any national soccer team, the World Cup. And yet, that day, that Sunday, was exactly that day. And the results of the matches played on that remarkable day were very satisfactory… almost perfect…almost.
After blasting their way through their group in such dominant fashion that the most negative feedback from observers was the nature of their celebrations, the USA women entered the knockout rounds as a co-favorite (with France) to win the whole thing. But, in facing a Spain squad that had so far given a good account of themselves, the Americans were facing a moderate jump in quality and huge uptick in the intensity of their opponent.
The Spanish did play well with the ball. They dId display some possession and some offensive creativity. But what they did most was foul. They fouled the American forwards ,they fouled the American midfield and their pressure earned them a goal from a steal in front of the USA goal. But they also fouled inside their penalty area and that cost them the game.
That win brought the USA to the French. One of these days FIFA might realize that seeding each team rather than groups of teams could eliminate these types of “finals played in the quarterfinals” but that hasn’t happened yet and so the two co-favorites met way too early in the competition. The concern to the Soccer Yoda going into this match was the straight-on system used by coach Jill Ellis with her side. The USA typically plays a 4-3-3 with the three forwards spread across the top with little help from the other forwards or the backs behind them. Rapinoe and Heath are forced to go 1 v 1 against defenders who have help behind them and Morgan, in the middle, hopes to latch onto a cross or an errent misplay by a defender. It works fine against the likes of Thailand but against knowledgeable and skilled defenders scoring from the field can become a matter of individual brilliance. Set plays become the bread and butter for scoring as the offensive system does not create the space needed to score goals from the run of play. The fact that it took two penalty kicks to beat the Spanish reinforced my concern.
So it was with some surprise that less than a minute into the match against the French Rapinoe took the ball across the top of the penalty area and seemingly took the French unawares. The move resulted in a wicked shot but right at the French keeper.
A couple minutes later a long pass down the left wing found (surprise again!) Morgan…making a run outside the penalty area. The move forced the French into a youth soccer mistake.. Morgan got goalside of her defender who promptly fouled her.
The French then compounded their mistake by setting up a too-small 2-person wall which wasn’t positioned well anyway.
Rapinoe had plenty of room to curl the low driven ball around the “wall” while the USA runners came across the French keeper to block her view. Another set play goal for the USA. The rest of the game was typical USA play as they went back to their more conservative offense and protected the lead. Midway through the second half Morgan checked back into the midfield and laced a perfect long ball to the streaking Heath who got behind the pressing French defense and then sent an excellent pull back cross to the late running Rapinoe for a perfect one touch finish. Although the French scored late on a corner kick header, it wasn’t enough and the Americans were into the semifinal against England.
The English noticed the difficulty the Americans were having in scoring from the field and thought they detected a weakness in the USA defense which could allow them to get behind the Yanks if they attacked quickly. So they came at the Americans all out without the numbers committed to defense that other teams had used. Sure enough, they were right about the way to attack. They scored a nice goal early in the first half, had a second called back for offside and forced the USA into giving away a penalty kick. Unfortunately for them, they were offside if only by a step and Stephanie Houghton’s PK was saved by Alyssa Naeher, the USA goalkeeper. Meanwhile, they discovered that speed and athleticism can be tough to deal with if you don’t cover well and have enough numbers on your defense. Christen Press headed in an early goal when given too much room at the back post and Morgan timed her run perfectly to get behind the English and nod in another late in the first half. 2 – 1 again and our girls were in the final.
In the championship game the Dutch played their numbers back on defense and hoped to find those offensive openings like the English did on the counter attack. But the American technical skills were too good to give the Orange any real looks at scoring. The problem though was that there was little of the creativity that the USA showed against France and it appeared that a scoreless draw was imminent. The Americans were consistently outnumbered near the Dutch goal and they seldom threatened. However, midway through the second half a Dutch foot managed to catch Morgan in the chest which was unfortunate for Netherlands as Alex wasn’t really threatening the goal considering the two defenders on her. Rapinoe was on again from the penalty spot and when the Dutch came out of their defensive stance the Yankees poured in. Only some selfish play and purposeful time-consuming possession prevented the final total from reaching 4 or 5. But the USA women were happy to settle with 2-0 and another World Cup championship.
Later that day the American men had their opportunity to win a championship. Of course, the Concacaf Gold Cup isn’t the World Cup. Under normal conditions it would be expected that the USA mn would reach a final in a tournament which features teams from islands and nations that average the size of one American small city. But this isn’t “normal” times for the USA men. The team consists of almost an entirely new set of players and a new coach and the majority have no meaningful prior national team experience. The squad is young and new to each other and entering the tournament the questions surrounding the quality of the group (especially after a couple poor performances in friendlies) suggested that they would be lucky to win a few games at all. So getting to the final in convincing fashion, even if the opponents were not the world’s best, was considered an accomplishment. The opponent in the title match was, of course, Mexico and El Tri represented a major jump in quality compared to the opponents the USA faced leading to the big game. But the USA was ready for a test of its progress and the Mexicans were perfect for that.
The USA men were in an opposite situation from the women. No one questions the American women in regard to their basic abilities as players, only their tactics were at question. But while new coach Greg Berhalter’s system of play looked to be a good match for his players, it was their ability to play the game at a high level that was considered a fault. And so it was with a surprise for everyone, especially the Mexicans, that the Americans flew at the their opponents goal in the opening minutes. First an excellent combination of pace and passing opened up Christian Pulisic to drive at the Mexican goal, only to be denied by keeper Ochoa and some bad luck.
Not long after that chance the USA broke in again but Josie Altidore put a great opportunity wide.
Those misses were very important as the Mexicans settled down and worked themselves into the game. By halftime it was anybody’s guess as to which team would gain the advantage in the second half. And in that decisive second half it was the more experienced side that took the advantage as the young Americans gradually lost their edge and ability to hold the ball for any length of time. Finally, at the 72nd minute a nifty heel pass gave Jonathan dos Santos the space he needed and he hit a perfect shot just under the crossbar to give Mexico the lead. The Yanks mounted a dangerous series of attacks late in the game, but it wasn’t enough and El Tri won the Gold Cup title 1-0.
It must be said that the tournament presented a positive outlook for the USA men. They already can consider themselves a major force in the region and a favorite to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. With a number of quality u-20 players coming up to add into the mix and a couple years to gain in experience and familiarity with each other and Berhalter, the future looks very promising for the American men. Of course, if one of those early chances had gone in, they could have joined the women as champions and made it a perfect day on that rarest of occasions for American soccer.
Its been a very active June for USA soccer teams. The women are in their World Cup, the men are getting ready for the Gold Cup and the U-20 men just finished playing in the World Cup for their age group. And the results, so far, are reminiscent of the porridge in the 3 bears story. These teams are on very different tracks in regard to their development and the outcomes of their recent matches display those differences in unmistakable ways. And the discussions surrounding those outcomes are evidence of how far the sport has come in the USA…for better or for worse.
USA national coach Greg Berhalter has a tough job ahead of him. Like all national coaches he must assess the available talent and decide which players will perform the best for him at the national level. But, unlike most of his contemporaries, he was tasked with settling on a roster in a very few months and to complicate things, the time frame was during club season when many of his best candidates were unavailable for the short training times he had due to their club responsibility. He also had to install a system of play in that short period of time and again, with players unfamiliar with each other and with him and missing some of his best.
Last week the USA played two friendly matches to prepare for the Gold Cup. The first was against Jamaica. The Jamaicans have given the USA some trouble at times in the past, but overall they are not considered on a par with the Americans and the match looked like an excellent opportunity for Berhalter to give his team a chance to work together without the pressure of facing a more formidable opponent. This would be important because he had only a number of probable second team players available and they were in the learning stages of gaining familiarity with each other and Greg’s possession system. The problem was that they played like it. Completing passes was an effort, any continuity was rare and chances to score were few and far between. Mistakes were plentiful, one led to a Jamaican score, and the final result was a loss on both on the scoreboard and the field. The extent of the disappointing performance was made clear when Berhalter benched half of the starters in the Jamaican match for the next game against Venezuela.
Now Venezuela is no Brazil or Argentina despite coming from the same continent as those two international powers. They are typically considered one of the weakest South American sides. As the last practice against a foe before the Gold Cup games begin, this made them (like Jamaica) a perfect opponent for the new version of the USA men. …Oops, wrong again. In the first half the Americans made a shocking number of defensive mistakes. Mistakes, mind you, that a u-10 team might – MIGHT – be forgiven for making. At 15 minutes, goalkeeper Zack Steffen, off of a basic back pass, pushed the ball on the ground straight down the middle and into the feet of pleasantly surprised Venezuelan forward Yangel Herrera who was standing between Steffen and the intended receiver. After the goal was scored by Salomon Rondon, Steffen motioned like he expected help to come back to receive the pass. The problem was that this same mistake was made against Jamaica without costing a goal and that time it was Steffen’s fault also.
15 minutes later Venezuala had a throw-in on the American left side about 30 yards out. The throw went to Rondon, who appeared to have some space when the throw was made. Out comes USA central defender Matt Miazga to pressure Rondon. The problem was that he left the center of the American defense wide open with his move and the rest of the USA back line did not react. Rondon flicked the ball on to Jefferson Savarino who had an open center to attack. While it is true that his first shot was an excellent curling effort that struck the far post – the fact of Miazga’s run to the outside, the lack of communication with the rest of the American defense and the failure to react in time for the rebound from that first shot – put into the goal by Savarino – were the factors that gave the goal away. There was a third opposition goal in the first half, a period so bad that the USA was booed off the field by the home fans in Cincinnati. The good news is that the lineup for the USA’s first Gold Cup game will be decidedly stronger with a few better players, notably Christian Pulisic, available. Even better…the opponent is Guyana who should be weaker than either of the two teams the Americans faced last week. Thank goodness.
The American women began play in the Women’s World Cup last week. This team is almost a complete opposite to the men in it’s development. A few of the spots were settled a month ago, but the vast majority of this team has been set for years. Coach Jill Ellis has been with the squad for those same years and the players are very familiar with her style of play and her expectations for each of them. In addition, although the women do play club soccer, the national team carries overwhelming importance compared to those clubs, unlike the situation with the men.
So, it was with a great deal of confidence that the USA women opened the competition against Thailand. Thailand was the fourth best team in the Asia region, which was actually quite a surprise for them. FIFA deemed that Asia could send five teams and the Thai women took advantage of some strange seeding to finish fourth in the region. The level of play and players is much lower in Thailand and that difference became very obvious soon after kick-off. Nevertheless, some strange calls denying the Americans two obvious penalty kicks and some decent defending by the Thais kept the score moderately level for most of the first half which finished at 3-0. But a flurry of shots 5 minutes into the second half took the will out of the weaker team and the USA poured it on. The final score was an incomprehensible 13 – 0.
The good thing about the furor that was generated by the thrashing of Thailand is that it demonstrated that large numbers of Americans are following the sport and ,in particular, the women’s version of the sport. Once upon a time very few citizens of this country would have cared anything about what some girls did when playing soccer against a team from Asia. But now, even during the game, the comments were coming fast and hard about what was transpiring on the field in France. The critiques came from two definite types of fans: those who don’t know the game from an international perspective and those who do. The “sometime” fans of the sport were taken aback by the failure of the USA to take their proverbial foot off the gas. “Where is their sportsmanship?” ” Why do they need thirteen goals?” The arguments about whether just knocking the ball around the park really shows more disrespect than continuing to score are pointless. The team needed as many goals as possible to give themselves a better chance of advancing when the group games are done. Period; end of discussion. If people feel that particular rule encourages humiliation on the field…take it up with FIFA.
The second group had a different and somewhat more educated complaint. Ok, they say, but why the intense celebrations? Isn’t scoring all those goals enough? This seems to be a more valid observation then questioning the number of goals scored. However, there is more understanding of these celebrations when one breaks down the scoring itself. Four of the girls scored their first World Cup goals; that alone explains much of the celebrations, the goal of millions of girls playing soccer in this and any other country is to score a goal in the World Cup and these four had accomplished that feat. Alex Morgan scored five which set a number of records. Considering her injury-diminished performance four years ago, this represented a roaring return to big time international soccer regardless of the opposition. Other scorers had their reasons for celebrating, but it’s pretty simple: scoring goals is difficult and accomplishing that feat, especially at this level, prompts celebrations. One thing is certain – this “problem” for the women is definitely a preferred issue compared to the problems that the men are having.
The U-20 USA men entered their World Cup with hopes of performing well and going deep into the competition. The squad had an all professional roster and the group they were in was one that, on paper, looked very beatable considering the ability of the Americans. However, there turned out to be surprise bump in the road – Ukraine. In the USA’s first game Ukraine came out with a tight defensive block and an effective counter attack. The young Americans found the packed defensive very hard to break down as their possession didn’t help to create chances to score. They relied way too much on individual 1 v 1 play in attack and it didn’t dent the opposition. Meanwhile the American defense made a couple mistakes that the efficient Ukranians took advantage of to score twice. There was a moment of excellent teamwork by the USA which produced a wonderful team goal, but the 2-1 loss put a dent in American hopes. The remaining two games were more of the same offensively with the Americans spread too much and play too individualistic. However, the competition was different. Nigeria spread themselves just as much and the USA found plenty of room to attack while Qatar wasn’t up to the USA in terms of basic ability and athleticism. The results were two victories and a place in the knockout stage, although the second place finish put favorite France squarely in the way.
It was in the match against the French that the USA displayed what it could do when playing at it’s best and with that display brightened hopes of a bright future for the USA men in a few years. The youngsters played a much better team-oriented game with more effective possession, quick strikes at goal and a remarkable ability to keep playing when down (2-1 late in the game) to take a huge 3-2 victory against a very good opponent.
That win put the USA against an upstart Ecuador squad which had won the South American championship and displayed some terrific soccer earlier in the tournament. The game was tight and evenly matched. Games like this one are often decided by moments of brilliance and Ecuador supplied those moments,particularly when Jose Cifuentes fired a world class bullet from 20 yards to score midway through the first half. The USA answered off of a corner kick rebound by Tim Weah but another long range bomb by Ecuador hit the crossbar and was converted into the goal to create a lead that the Americans could not match despite some fine play in the second half.
All in all this young side provided some quality play and put itself clearly in the mix as one of the better teams in the world of u-20 men’s soccer. Ukraine made it into the championship game so the close loss to them was actually indicative of the level of the Americans in this tournament. The team was expected to advance into the later rounds of the Cup and that they did with a terrific win against France among the bright moments.
There is a wide disparity in the situations surrounding these American squads at this time, hopefully the gap between them will close and perhaps there will be more celebrations in store. After all, the “stigma” of celebrating too much is an issue that soccer teams around the world would love to have.
This week, in addition to a number of international competitions in which the USA is participating, there is an important one involving a few European teams in which the USA is absent (since we are not European). These matches are very different from the decades of international games, both friendly and not, that have preceded them. In order to understand the difference and the controversy surrounding the new format for international teams in Europe, we should review the standard organization of club teams and their international counterparts.
Club teams operate in the same structure in almost all the world, with one notable exception…..that being the good ol’ USA. In their respective countries, club teams compete with other club teams in leagues. They try to win as many games as possible in order to win the championship of the league or to place as high as they can. Nothing unique about that, is there? But the similarity with American sports leagues ends there. It is standard for soccer organizations around the world to operate more than one league, with the number of leagues being dependent upon the size of the country. Teams can move up and down, from one league to another each new season. Their movement is based upon their finish in the league in which they are playing that year. If they finish high enough, a club team can move up from a lower league to a higher one. Conversely, if they finish low they can be “relegated” to the next lower division. The exact number of sides that move up or down varies with each country, but the “promotion – relegation” concept is very standard in the soccer world, the USA being the major exception to that format. Club teams also play in “cup” tournaments but the major number of games are in their leagues. International teams, those that represent a nation, have always operated in a different manner. Their format centers on tournaments of which the largest and by far the most notable is the World Cup held every four years. There are also smaller tournaments, more regional in nature, in which national teams compete. They are held in between World Cups. And there are typically a fair number of “friendly” matches in between those tournaments. Friendlies have always been used as tryouts for new players, new formations and as tests of relative strengths of various national teams. Their substitution rules are lax compared to “real” matches and often so many subs are used as to make any score of the contest virtually meaningless. Therefore attendance at friendly internationals can be spotty at best and club coaches can be irked (to say the least) at having their best players risk injury and develop fatigue when playing these friendly matches for their country.
So, UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, decided to make a change. They reduced the number of friendlies by using dates usually used for those matches to stage matches as part of a league, supposedly similar to the leagues in which club teams play. This Nations League would be important for two reasons, one – performing well could gain a nation entry into the European Cup tournament , held every four years in the middle of the break between World Cups. The Euros, as the tournament is called, is considered as second only to the World Cup in importance and is watched by almost as many followers of the sport around the world. Second, since there are 55 soccer playing European nations, UEFA decided to divide them into leagues, four of them, based on strength of the teams and to use promotion and relegation to move the best and worst of them up and down, just like the clubs.
Ok, fairly simple so far, yes? Four leagues of European national teams, based on ability, with winners moving up and losers moving down. Easy. Well, please pay attention because it is about to get more complicated.
It seems that there aren”t enough play dates for teams to play each team in their league. Take the A league…. the best teams. There are 12 of them in the league, but playing 11 matches, given the few dates available during the year when the clubs are given the weekend off, would take the league far too long. So, the leagues are broken up into “groups’. The A league has four groups each consisting of three teams. The groups were decided by drawing, using a seeding system based on prior results. This theoretically would keep the groups even in competitiveness, each with a very strong team, a mediocre team and a comparatively weak one. Theoretically.
These were the UEFA Nations League A groups:
- Group 1: Germany, France, Netherlands
- Group 2: Belgium, Switzerland, Iceland
- Group 3: Portugal, Italy, Poland
- Group 4: Spain, England, Croatia
As one can see, the groups were not exactly even in strength. Group 1 featured all heavyweights, even if Germany didn’t fare so well in the World Cup and the Netherlands seemed to be in a downswing. Group 2 had a good Belgium squad matched with up and down Switzerland and weak Iceland. Group 4 was almost as strong as group 1 including Spain – aging but talented, World Cup finalist Croatia and England, always good, just never quite good enough. But here is the kicker (no pun intended): The top team in each group ( they play home and away with each competitor therefore only 4 matches decide the final standing of the group) goes on to the semifinals against the winners of the other groups, while the loser GETS RELEGATED. That’s right- all four of the bottom teams in each group go down to league B in the next Nations League competition in 2020. Assuming this league draws the attention that UEFA hopes for, that could be a major loss to some pretty decent nations, given the makeups of the groups.
The group matches were played in the fall of 2018. The semifinals are this week. Here are the results.
There were some definite surprises . Netherlands woke up from their 2 year slumber to take Group 1. England finally lived up to their potential to get past the Spanish while the Swiss scored a mess of goals on hapless Iceland and then rolled over a Belgium side missing some key players. The only predictable finish was Portugal taking Group 3.
But the list of relegated nations is somewhat shocking with its inclusion of Croatia and Germany…..yes Germany. Croatia finished runner-up in the World Cup, but couldn’t continue its run of over-the-top play. But Germany proved that it’s poor World Cup was not a fluke, although the point could be made that it was in a ridiculously tough group when compared to Group 2.
The semifinals are this week with the surprising Swiss playing Portugal and the English battling Netherlands while trying to claim their most international glory since they won the World Cup in 1966.
Assuming one understands the league structure, it appears basic at this point in this regard: England plays Netherlands this week for the right to play in in the Nations League final. But there is a complicating factor and it points out the overriding controversy in the existence of the Nations League.
On June 1, just 6 days before the England- Netherland match, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur play a HUGE match for the championship of all club teams in Europe. This is a match which takes a large physical and mental toll, it is the Superbowl of European club soccer. The Dutch have two vital stars playing for Liverpool. Virgil Van Dijk is considered arguably the best defender in the world and Gini Wijnaldum scored twice for Liverpool in their amazing comeback against Barcelona. Is it too much to expect them to give 100% for club on Saturday and then again for country the following Thursday? How can they get past whatever the outcome Saturday to be ready for a battle on Thursday?
England is in the same situation, but even more so. As many as nine players on the the two teams could see action Saturday in that so big game while then playing again on Thursday.
In addition to the problem of playing two very important games in such quick succession, there is the added complication of the make up of the opponents. As a former coach of both club and school teams, I faced the complexity of coaching players one season in the club, and then coaching against those same players the next school season. Of course, the players were faced with the “play with you – play against you and visa versa” situation to a greater extent than I was. In the case of England and Netherlands, these players- professional or not- are still humans and many of their teammates and opponents will switch those roles only 6 days later. The ability to adjust to that situation may have a bearing on the outcomes of those matches. While the dichotomy of club and national players interacting with each other cannot be avoided, this closeness of the dates of these meaningful matches is rare. Friendlies between national teams did not carry the physical, mental and emotional stress that these contests entail. So, how come the new leagues?
The answer is money and assumed importance. Friendlies draw fewer attendees, even the players themselves sometimes skip them. UEFA was concerned with the added attention ( press, tv, internet) that club soccer has been generating in recent years to the detriment (well, perceived detriment) of the national team version of the sport. So, fewer friendlies and more “real” games was the answer. What remains to be seen is the effect on the players considering the frequency of these matches with so much riding on them. What will be the injury rate?, the ” burn-out” factor?, the long term effect on the careers of the players involved? How long before some clubs, watching their investments risk body and mind for an ever increasing number of international contests, just say no? There is no world wide soccer police that could stop 10 or 15 or 20 of the top clubs from just dropping out of FIFA and sponsoring their own league, paying the highest salaries, and telling their players they don’t need to play for their country if they don’t want to do so. Just look at the NBA and how many of their stars forego international basketball. Too much of a good thing can be dangerous, in this case dangerous to international soccer.
The next 6 weeks represent a very big time frame for USA soccer. Three of our national teams, 2 men’s teams and our senior women’s side will play in competitions which will give American fans a very good read on the strength of our soccer compared with the rest of the world. A number of questions will be answered concerning the present development of our players and the prospects for satisfactory results in the near future.
The two men’s teams are our u-20 and senior sides. The younger are in the biggest tournament of their age group (actually of any age group) – the World Cup. Like it’s more well-known senior counterpart, this competition puts representatives from areas all over the world who have qualified by finishing high in their respective regional tournaments. The USA is grouped with Ukraine, Nigeria and Qatar. This version of a World Cup has only 24 teams as opposed to the senior mens tournament which has 32 nations represented at the final. As a result the competition is somewhat more difficult since the range of quality is more limited. The u-20 age group has produced some players who went on to star with our senior team but as a team itself its results in the World Cup have not been remarkably better than the older competition. American U-20s have qualified 16 times which is noteworthy ( the tournament is held every 2 years) with the best finish being in 1989 when they ended up 4th. The USA reached the quarterfinals in 2017. So,with enough attention to warrant televising every one of their matches, why all the eyes this time?
This year the roster looks more like a list of German or English or Brazilian players. For like those soccer strong nations (ok, that might be a compliment to put the English on a par with the other two) the American roster consists completely of professional players with the majority developing their game in Europe. Of the 21 man roster 11 are under contract in Europe with the rest all in the MLS. And these European clubs are not low division unheard-of organizations. The likes of Bayern Munich, Ajax, PSV, Benfica and even Barcelona are represented on the team. The most heralded American player is Tim Weah who played (and yes, he actually played, at least in some games) for PSG along with the likes of Neymar and Mbappe before being loaned to Celtic in Scotland where he scored a couple more goals although with admittedly less playing time than he would want. Weah has already played with the senior team so this younger tournament could be a breakout chance for him and for the squad as well. They have already run through the local Caribbean- North/Central American qualifying tournament with scores like 13,6,7 and 4 goals to zero for the competition before sewing up the championship of the region by 1-0 and 2-0 scores with Mexico providing the opposition in the final. And they are coached by longtime American soccer veteran player and coach Tab Ramos. So, is now the time for the USA to prove itself a worthy competitor on the world stage, at least in this age group? We shall see.
Next on the list is the Womens World Cup being played in France. This is the one level of the game where the USA has been dominant enough to be known as the strongest women’s soccer nation on Earth. And the team representing America this June is loaded with experienced international stars. Julie Ernst , Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe, Carly Lloyd, Alex Morgan….. sounds like the crew who routed Japan to win the championship four years ago, doesn’t it?
With that kind of talent and experience, the USA is expected to go far again as they are the considered favorites. Many Americans expect them to waltz in, after all, we have always been the best, haven’t we? But the familiarity of those names may be a problem. The rest of the world has put more effort and money into the female side of the sport. The list of comparable competitors that once consisted of Norway and China and then added Germany and Japan now has includes England, Spain, France, Sweden, Australia, Brazil. Its been said that American girls rose to the top of international women’s soccer by merely playing the game when the rest of the world didn’t care, that while other nations had tens of girls playing we had tens of thousands. Now that many other countries have woken up can our training methods, our tactics, our technical skill contribute to the ever-present athleticism of our women? Our veterans are just that…veterans… and often four years takes a toll on the ability of aging stars to maintain their standard of play. For sure the USA has added new faces to the mix. Dunn, Pugh, Naeher, these are new names, are they good enough to win another World Cup for the USA? The Americans will get past a fairly weak group, but then the standard of competition will rise quickly. Coach Jill Ellis plays a very traditional style. There is a minimum of off-the ball movement to force defender decisions, late runs into open space are secondary to overpowering opponents with size and speed. The question “is that enough anymore?” will be decided in France.
The US men’s team plays in the Gold Cup beginning June 24, thus overlapping the women. The Gold Cup is played every two years and typically the USA does well against the Central American and Caribbean competition that it faces in this tournament. But this year there is more to watch than usual. After the debacle of failing to qualify for last summer’s World Cup, the USSF took plenty of time to decide on a new national coach, finally landing on Greg Berhalter. Greg played many times for the Red,White and Blue and had a successful stretch as coach of the Columbus Crew of the MLS. He has only had time for a couple friendly matches against questionable competition, but has shown a willingness to attempt to play a high level possession-based game.
He has a very young squad, clearly looking at qualifying and performing well at the 2022 World Cup as his eventual goal. The Gold Cup represents his first test with his team against sides that care about the results. He gets a home field advantage with group matches in St Paul, Cleveland and Kansas City, none of which are liable to provide the opposition (Guyana, Trinidad/ Tobago and Panama) with the kind of support common for the USA’s Central American opponents in more southern locations. But the USA is young and inexperienced….. as displayed by the age (20) of Christian Pulisic , the generally accepted star of the team
So…..the Gold Cup will give USA fans a glimpse of the future and hopefully it will be an encouraging one.
The next 6 weeks will be telling for soccer in the United States. Are we on the track to gain and keep international respectability? Are the hundreds of thousands of youth players finally producing world class quality? Or are we still under-performing in the standard of play that our best can display? We will know much more in a few weeks..
(After the writing of this post the American u-20 men lost their first game of the World Cup to Ukraine, 2-1.)
The Unites States of America is a large country, especially when compared to those nations crammed together in Europe. And there are large bodies of water which separate us from the other continents on Earth.
So, even though we engage in the sport of soccer with its huge international scope, it is easy to forget how far reaching it is when we become deeply involved with our local teams and clubs and players and forget the connections, learnings and impact that the game can impart on us when we go outside our boundaries.
This was never made more clear to the Soccer Yoda than this past week when my youngest son and I traveled to England to watch the second leg of the Liverpool vs Barcelona Champions League series.
To fully appreciate the happenings of the week, lets review the situation as we boarded our plane in Las Vegas for the 10 hour flight to Manchester followed by a short train ride to Liverpool. I am a major Liverpool fan for reasons explained in a previous post ( “Liverpool, Seattle, and the Xbox” ). My son, on the other hand , roots for Barca, and we made a pact years ago that if the two clubs ever met in a regular season (not friendly) match we would be there. Given that Liverpool plays in the English Premier League and Barcelona contests in the Spanish La Liga, the chances for such a matchup are rare. There is only one competition which could provide the groundwork for a meeting between these two clubs. That is the European Champions League, but that requires qualifying for the competition in the first place, something that has been too much for Liverpool in some years. Then, the two teams must be drawn together, and with seedings, pots and 30 other squads involved, the chances have been slim. However, if the teams advance in the tournament, the number of other clubs is reduced and the chances of meeting increase. And this year they both made it to the semifinals where the odds finally threw them together. The semifinals are a two match affair….home and away…with the combined score deciding the winner and away goals counting extra if the score is tied after both games are done. Two weeks ago the teams met in Barcelona and the home team emerged with a resounding 3-0 victory that gave them a huge advantage coming to England. In addition to the mountain to climb that the score provided, 2 of Liverpool’s starting forwards were ruled out of the second contest due to injury. Facing the arguably best team in the world who is led by the best player of our time in Lionel Messi, it was deemed that , for Liverpool, advancing to the final was a nearly insurmountable task.
And if THAT wasn’t enough, the two teams also faced competition to win their respective national leagues, although with very differing situations. Barcelona had already won their La Liga championship, giving them the luxury of resting most of their starting team in a match 3 days before the Liverpool battle. Liverpool, on the other hand, was involved in a dogfight with Manchester City for the English Premier League title and they played a tough match with Newcastle on Saturday night, one in which they won in the 86th minute and cost them their leading scorer.
So, we arrived in Liverpool the day before the showdown looking at a game which looked like a Barcelona walkover and a boring trip while we were there. However, fan intensity, match occurrences and the international nature of soccer made it anything but that.
Manchester City was playing a league match against Leicester City on Monday night. The outcome had direct implications on the English championship in that if City failed to win Liverpool would jump into the league lead. So we looked for a place to watch the match and have some dinner….which turned out to be task. The first sports bar we entered was nice, not very big and an hour before the game completely reserved by Liverpool fans….no seats available.
After looking at other unsuitable venues we finally found an establishment built in the same style as a German beer hall. It had long benches and three floor to ceiling HD screens each with the same match on it.
By the time the game had started the place was filled with Liverpool fans, watching and hoping for City to falter. They cheered every Leicester move and groaned at missed chances or poor play.
They especially groaned when City scored on a rather miraculous long shot. One very interesting point was the number of fans there that hailed from places other than Liverpool or England for that matter. We chatted extensively with fans from Norway, representing the Norwegian Liverpool Fan Club. While Norway’s own soccer teams have loyal followings, many Norwegians also root for international teams, and there are 40,000 official members of that Liverpool club. Now 40,000 members of a fan club may seem like a lot in any case, but Norway has only 5 million citizens. If one equates that percentage of the Norwegian population to the population of the United States, it comes to over 27 MILLION official members of a fan club for a team not even in their country! The Norway Liverpool Supporters Club had chartered a plane and over a hundred of their members had made the trip to watch their favorite non-Norwegian soccer team in this big match. Manchester City used that goal to win and the crowd left disappointed, looking forward to the next evening’s match, and rather well filled with beer.
The next afternoon we took a walk through the nearby center city of Liverpool and came upon another ritual common in these international meetings….away fans, having arrived early….cheering and singing in anticipation of the game. And in this case, they were across the plaza from the hotel in which the Barcelona team was staying, which increased their fervor as they contemplated the expected victory that evening.
Once, English hooligans used these pre-game activities to engage in fights but now things have calmed down and physical confrontations between supporters of opposing clubs are much less apt to occur. The Barcelona bus, used to take the team on necessary travels while away from home, was parked in the hotel driveway and although it was several hours before the players would take the short ride to the stadium, there were already Barcelona fans lined up to catch a glimpse of their heroes as they boarded the vehicle.
Finally the game was at hand. Liverpool’s stadium, Anfield, has been a fixture in the city since 1884 and has such a revered history that the new (as of 2010) owners, the Fenway Sports Group (who also own the Boston Red Sox) added 8,500 seats in 2016 to raise capacity to 54,000 rather than build a new home for the team, which was their preferred action. The crowd at Anfield is known throughout the soccer world (which means most of the whole world) for its ability to raise the performance of its team and to rattle the opponent. The intimidation begins before the opening whistle when the loudspeakers blare out the Gerry and the Pacemakers version of You’ll Never Walk Alone. This has been the anthem of the club since 1963, the version is by a Liverpool group and the title is even on the Club’s coat of arms. The entire crowd sings with the recording as reverently as any church hymn. But the real 12th man work comes after that.
I have attended many professional sporting events. I’ve had season tickets to the NFL and the NBA and seen more major league baseball games that I can remember. American sports audiences watch, sometimes cheer, watch, get excited at a good play and then watch some more. Even in Seattle, which has the reputation as the loudest home crowd in the country, this was the pattern at the NFL playoff game I attended there. But international soccer crowds are different and the Anfield throng represents the difference more than almost any other. They never stop making noise. They have a memorized song for each player and several songs and chants for the whole club. They sing, chant, get excited for a good play, sing some more. They only stop to either throw epithets at the opposing players if they are deemed to “cheat” ( which means foul or dive) or to go crazy over home team goals. International soccer crowds participate in their events far more than American sports fans do at theirs and at Anfield that night the combination of team performance and fan involvement, at peak levels for both, was too much even for the experienced, talented, and 3-0 ahead Barcelona squad.
Regular readers of the Soccer Yoda know that typically we discuss tactics and strategies and skills. But not in this post. And although tactics certainly played a part in Liverpool’s miraculous comeback, our discussion here deals with the coming together of so many differing people that this sport facilitates. We met Norwegians, Swiss, other Americans, Indians, etc. all drawn together by the magic of their soccer team playing for a huge prize. And as Liverpool scored each goal leading to their 4-0 victory to wipe out Barca’s advantage, the Anfield multitude became louder and more persistent ….at first not believing what was happening but then realizing that they were watching soccer history and not just that of their favorite club.
Finally, when the game ended, the players embraced, the fans embraced, the Liverpool bench ran onto the field and then, appropriately enough, the strains of You’ll Never Walk Alone rang out. And the entire Liverpool squad and the delirious, exhausted but now believing stadium joined together to sing and celebrate.
And the Soccer Yoda wondered how long before the USA really experiences the immersion of commonality that this universal sport offers. The Barcelona papers commented the next day that their team had fallen to the “soul of Anfield”. But I think it was bigger than that, it was the soul of soccer manifesting itself in that northern English stadium that night. The same soul that is present in thousands of clubs, stadiums and fields all over the world. And as separated from other nations as we are here in the USA, the sport offers us the opportunity to join in that soul, that common experience, with so many of the rest of the world. I can verify…..its a unique and fulfilling experience.