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 !
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Creating Scoring Opportunities
Using our scoring zone idea, there are three requirements to score: 1) a shooting distance that is inside the shooters scoring zone, 2) enough time to shoot (which equates to space between the shooter and the closest defenders) and 3) the ball. It is not an easy task to put a player inside his/her scoring zone with enough time to shoot AND to get that player the ball. After all, there is another team on the field which is attempting to prevent the offensive team from scoring and therefore is attempting to deny at least one of those conditions, if not all of them. To score a goal, a team must beat the defense, which is another way of saying that all three requirements must be met. Accomplished offensive teams know this and they know how to do it.
It must be mentioned that often a team may have put a potential shooter in place with the time needed to strike the ball but the path to the goal is blocked by defenders. A clear path to the goal is typically needed to score. However, defenders can be in positions closer to their own goal than attacking players, but not in positions to block a shot on goal. In addition, observation shows that while defenders attempting to block shots can certainly prevent the ball from going into the goal, often they do not. Well struck shots often find their way through defenders and into the goal. Sometimes defenders deflect shots into the goal. Nevertheless, the strategies employed in Concept Soccer are designed to get offensive players into scoring zone positions with time to execute and a path to an unblocked goal.
There are three ways an offensive team can beat a defense to create scoring chances……….
1) By their very nature, restarts that occur within a players scoring zone are a chance to score. The laws of the game give the shooter the time needed to put a shot on goal. Granted, the number of defenders that are in the wall and that are marking offensive players other than the shooter make free kicks more difficult and somewhat of an art.
2) Free kick plays and corner kicks offer a different challenge than taking a direct shot at the goal. But, as we noted earlier, one touch shooting, while not requiring very much space for the shooter, does require space for the passer to deliver the ball to the shooter. Restarts give a passer all the time that player needs to play an accurate ball to the shooter who can one touch it to the goal.
B) Turning the defense
Defenders prefer to play with their back to the goal that they are defending. This allows them to keep a wide view of the field in front of them, to easily play the ball forward away from the goal and to mark offensive players, frequenting beating them to the ball due to their position facing the direction the ball has come from.
If a defender must play facing the defending goal, it can be very difficult to accomplish these tasks.
If a defender is turned 180 degrees:
- he is running towards his defensive goal so that even if he can get to the ball before any offensive players he must either play the ball backwards, play it out of bounds or turn before passing the ball. None of these actions are preferable to gaining possession facing the attacking direction.
- Making a tackle is very risky when running toward one’s own goal. Often this requires sliding which carries the risk of fouling. Depending on field position, fouling an opponent can lead to a penalty kick or a dangerous free kick. In addition, the chance of getting cautioned is raised greatly when using a sliding tackle from behind.
- A pass that turns a defender 180 degrees requires the defender to take several steps to make the turn, thus allowing the offensive player to gain ground on and/or run past the defender. This puts the offensive player into the space needed to pass or shoot (if inside his scoring zone).
This type of pass turns the defenders and puts the attacker into his scoring zone as seen below.
Even turning defenders just 90 degrees has its benefits:
- Players turned sideways have a limited view of the field which limits their ability to read the game and adjust accordingly.
- Turning a defender 90 degrees towards the touch line creates space behind the defender. The offense can play a pass through that space or run a player through that space without worrying about interference from the defender. If the turned defender is a part of the last line in front of goal the offensive player behind him will have the time and position needed to strike.
- Often a second defender will see that a turned defender is giving up an area behind and will move into that area in order to prevent offensive movement through that space. This unbalances the defense which can open even more space.
Turning defenders 90 degrees can still allow passes to be played behind the defenders into space.
In diagram C1 below, the presence of the offensive LW, LM and CF, all on the left side, has caused the defensive RB, RM and RCB, to turn 90 degrees to their left. This creates space behind the RCB for the offensive RM to run into to receive a pass from his CM.
C. Unbalancing the defense
Defenses understand that they must cover as much territory on the field as they can. They also know that it is impossible to cover all the space, so teams tend to give up more room in the offense third of the field, less in their midfield and the least in their defensive third of the field. This means that the defenders must stay spread so as to deny open areas to the offense. A balanced defense has defenders equally dispersed along the width of the field and even the midfield stays somewhat spread when not in possession of the ball. Balanced teams playing smart defense can be very tough to beat.
If an offense can cause defenders to leave the areas of the field for which those defenders are responsible, the defense will leave gaps in the field which will be devoid of defenders and therefore open space for the offense to move the ball and players forward. If the space left open is inside an attacking player’s scoring zone, that space might be enough for the striker to get off a good shot on goal. Unbalanced defenses tend to give up lots of space, to cause that unbalanced condition is perhaps the most effective offensive tool for a team to use to create chances to score. However, it is more difficult to unbalance a disciplined defense than to cause a restart or to turn defenders. The reward for unbalancing defenses, for causing them to leave important spaces open, is often a great scoring opportunity. But it takes much discipline, ball technique and teamwork to open up a balanced defense and then to take advantage of the situation.
Consider these points:
1) Unbalanced defenses give up space which can be used by the offense.
2) If by moving, a defender gives up vital space, then other defenders must move to fill in that space and in doing so the helping defenders often give up even more area. Larger spaces open up when originally only one defender was pulled out of position.
3) And, to make things even worse, defenders moving to cover open spaces typical turn at least 90 degrees so that it is difficult to play the ball out of danger even if they get to the ball before opposing players.
Overall, unbalancing a defense is a very effective way to create space in scoring zones.
Off-the-ball movement can force defenders to leave space which can then be attacked to create scoring chances. In play C2 below, the offensive LM has the ball. The offensive LW comes back to provide a pass for the LM and the defensive RB has moved up to provide pressure on the LW (move 1). This opens space behind the RB and the offensive CF is moving into that space (move 2). The RCB is following her, and this movement opens even larger space more directly in front of goal. The LM passes to the offensive CM (move 3) who, seeing the central open space, passes into that space. The offensive RM runs into the space and meets the ball there (move 4). Both the defensive LM and LCB are forced to turn and cannot make up the distance to the RM before she arrives at the ball. She is now into her scoring zone with no pressure; therefore, she has enough time to score. In this play, the movement of the LW and the CF has unbalanced the defense and created open space for the RM to run into, meet the ball and get an excellent chance to score. This play uses particular concepts to create the chance.
It is the ideas in Concept Soccer that can force a restart, turn defenders or unbalance defenses, or that can use a combination of these strategies as in C2 above to get our players into their scoring zones with time to take a shot. These concepts are designed to allow teams to accomplish this on a consistent basis. The rest of the book explores those step by step concepts and explains how they break down defenses and open the door to excellent scoring chances. Then the practice methods that give coaches of all ages the opportunity to teach and train their players in these concepts are explained in detail.
If you, the reader, want to learn more about Concept Soccer …( another shameless plug coming)… the book Concept Soccer – A Step by Step Method to Score Goals and Develop Players is available from Amazon.
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.