This year has made me a bit more optimistic for the future of the US game. When compared to my sentiments in years past, this one has been by far the best.
No our national teams have not shown any progress, MLS and college remain barely watchable, and our youth development is still piss poor.
So what am I talking about? Well, there are many macro-level events that transpired in 2010 that can, and I believe will, influence US Soccer positively.
1) World Cup
Forget about TV ratings and exposing the beautiful game to “non-soccer” Americans – I’ll leave that to those who do soccer news. In my opinion, these are transient effects that have negligible impact on the quality of soccer.
No, the real influence lies with the World Cup winner.
Spain showed the world what the purest, most precise, clean and effective form of the beautiful game looks like. And England, the entrenched US Soccer role model both in style of play and players, was exposed yet again for the impostors they are.
Influence: Possession is more mainstream now than ever before.
If Barcelona wasn’t already good enough, in the latter part of this year they have superseded themselves. Putting on such incredible displays that the world is a buzz about how it’s the greatest spectacle the sport has ever seen. Much of the American fan-base might still not fully appreciate it, but they are getting exposed more and more to this “alien” notion of possession. Hmmm … maybe the EPL isn’t the best place to learn about this game. Maybe we’ll start taking off those EPL goggles that so influence our ideas? Maybe?
Well, I’m hopeful. Visca Barca!
Influence: Possession is more mainstream now than ever before.
3) 5’7, 5’7, and oh yeah … 5’7
Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi are the three finalists for FIFA’s World Player of the Year. Need I say more?
Influence: Another blow to America’s obsession with ‘physical attributes’.
Caleb Porter’s Akron, in their best American version of Barcelona, showed the country how you can dominate opponents with possession. Breaking this notion that you need Iniesta, Xavi, or Messi caliber guys to execute this style. Or the notion that the “college game” is different, that it just can’t be done.
It is a choice! A choice that is dependent on a coach’s capacity for proper player selection, training, and instruction.
Influence: Successful possession is not something reserved only for professional teams whose rosters are valued in the hundreds of millions.
5) Bob Bradley
No he’s not the man that can lead us forward. Actually he’s quite the opposite – he’s the perfect embodiment of the status quo. The exact thing we do not need. So why is he a positive you might ask?
Well, for the first time ever I saw a large outcry for the head of our national team coach. I’ve never witnessed it on this scale before. From comments on blogs to discussions on soccer forums, people were actually being very critical of Bob. This is exactly what we need!
It is not unpatriotic or wrong to criticize Bob and want something better, any more than wanting a Mercedes instead of a Ford.
People are coming out of their passive and soft-spoken politically correct shells, and being more direct. This I believe is evidence of a more soccer savvy nation. Evidence that we’re hungry and actually do care.
We need heated discourse! We need to exert pressure and get pissed off! We need to bring more accountability! We need to demand better!
Influence: Our identification of mediocrity is improving, and our tolerance for it is waning.
Macro-level events such as these are required to sway public opinion towards the light. Our players, coaches, and all involved need to know who and what are the right and wrong models. And even though the soccer gods rarely make it obvious, in 2010 they could not have made it more clear!
Have you witnessed these influences in your soccer neighborhoods? Have you seen some philosophical changes as a result?
In keeping with your post, I will try to stay with the positives.
6. High-level games available on TV.
More than ever before high-level games from Europe are available in the USA, including ESPN. Before this last year you had to subscribe to Fox Soccer, Gol TV or Setanta to see European games, but now ESPN has them. Granted, the broadcasts are questionable in quality, basically reproducing the garbage fed to the English public, but it is an overall positive. I would love to see a more intelligent approach to broadcasting the game with commentators that were actually knowledgeable (a yellow card has nothing to do with intent), but it is still better than before. Most of the games are EPL, but a good bit of La Liga and the majesty of Barcelona FC are available too.
7. Improved standard of play.
Everywhere I look, the standard of play is better. The EPL is improving with more teams playing a “European” style of play (Arsenal-lite or Manu-lite) instead of the kick and run, blood and thunder (Stoke and Blackburn). The game played in Europe is generally good with the Spanish leading the way (Barça is great, but Villareal and Madrid are generally positive too). German soccer is on the upswing too and even Italy has some positive approaches to the game.
It is not just Europe either. MLS, College and the youth game here all have pockets of positive possession based soccer. It would be great if the powers that be did more to support this, but more and more it can be found. I think the nature of the refereeing should be looked at more critically because the referee sets the conditions for the game. This “setting” defines to some extent what sort of approach will have the competitive edge (i.e., as a coach do you go for skill or power to win).
8. Good information available online.
To pat you and others on the back, Bloggers now provide the best commentary available on the game. The Guardian online is fantastic (Jonathan Wilson get the biggest hurrah). ZonalMarking sets the standard for independent bloggers, and ESPN and SI now employ some of the writers in a freelance capacity. With any luck, the mainstream media will start to use these resources to improve their broadcast product (maybe an ESPN broadcast with some decent tactical analysis!).
9. More critique in the USA (and England).
The online bloggers now allow critique of the game to have a powerful voice. Those wishing to see an improved product now have an outlet to speak. The English are involved in deep soul-searching about the game because their shortcomings are so self-evident. The open conflict between English tradition and the desire for success is a positive that will hopefully lead to improvements in the English game. Since the USA follows England rather mindlessly, we can benefit. The critique of Bob Bradley is simply the leading edge. Within the next couple of years I predict that his reign will be viewed as completely unacceptable due to the exposure of the soccer-loving public to the way the game ought be played. The voice of discontent is really the voice of growing knowledge.
Gary Kleiban says
Thanks for these good additions Bill!
I might have to hit you up for guest posting sometime, seriously.
If I may add a bit to your #8.
First thank you for the complement! But I want to say that along with the increase in commentary, there comes an increase in the amount of garbage as well. Obviously we need different points of view – nobody is the singular holder of the truth. But I gotta tell ya, there’s a ton of trash out there.
I’ve long wanted to create a sizable list of sites with great commentary and analysis that I can share with the readers. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t find many (ZonalMarking is good). There’s countless destinations that do an excellent job writing about the “news” of soccer, but when they try to do a deep-dive into the game or players themselves, it’s an atrocity. And fans who might not know any better get adversely influenced.
Admittedly, it’s one of my frustrations …
Try surfing through the Guardian’s recent post on the top 100 football blogs, mostly good stuff. I agree that there is too much “soap opera” content rather than serious discussion of the actual sport.
Optimism on 3four3? I never thought I’d see the day. Hopefully there is more in the new year.
Love the blog by way.
Gary Kleiban says
LOL Chad, and thanks!
While writing this piece I felt lots of people would share your sentiment. Hell, I said the same thing myself!
I’ll always write the way I see it, positive or negative. But don’t get too used to the glass is half full. 🙂
There’s a lot of work to be done, and painting or spinning things into a rosy picture, when they’re clearly not, does not turn the wheels of progress.
Happy new year. First, I think your blog deserves mention as one of the positive influences of 2010. In addition to building awareness for the problems you mention, you do an excellent job of educating coaches, fans, and parents like me, so we can “up our game” as well.
Next, I’d like to address what I see as an emerging misunderstanding in many forums, a false dichotomy: I’d like to clarify your entry number 3, above. Lately, many people have been singing the praises of Barcelona’s little guys (NB: if Messi is 5’7″, I’ll eat my hat! Maybe in a pair of work boots, he is). The fact they are little means it is obvious that their key virtues are not strength and size; however, that does not mean that players with strength and size are incapable of playing a highly technical, possession-oriented style like Barca’s. Ibrahimovich, whose technical level and soccer IQ is as good as anyone’s on Barca, made a fine contribution when he was there- they won and scored lots of goals. He just wasn’t happy for personal reasons, and for the problems his ego created there.
This is a relevant and crucial distinction because, like the Dutch, Germans, et al., we are a country of big people, so lots of our good soccer players will be big people, not just little people. And in fact, there are attractive, successful examples of possession-oriented soccer that comes out of those big-people countries, not the least of which is the prototype for the Barca style. Americans just need to be taught to THINK and play the right way. Still, I like the way you use the 5’7″ thing to make your point.
Also, I liked Bill’s additions to your list.
And finally, thanks for generating excellent discussions and gracefully allowing us to present our opinions. Yours is a civilized and enlightening forum!
Gary Kleiban says
Happy new year Alberto.
You are absolutely right in your clarification of #3. As I’m sure you know, I wasn’t implying that smaller players are better…
One of my favorite players of all time and one I consider among the greats at 6’1 is Fernando Redondo. But there are countless guys of that stature who have exquisite touch and movement. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. This guy was amazing.
And thank you so much for the compliment! Hopefully one day 3four3 will become an influential behemoth. Spread the word … 🙂
I think the issue about height is a good point of discussion. The height of a player is a secondary characteristic, but for many coaches it is a primary characteristic (especially in the USA and UK). Intelligence, and skill are primary, if you can get this with size and speed so much the better, but it should not be the first thing you look for!
Some of the crap I found online was an interview with an academy coach in the USA (former pro, head of the Cosmos Academy). During the interview he states that he wants big strong players at two positions… guess… striker and center back. Its so stereotypical. We have two of the greatest strikers on the planet at 5’7″ in Messi and Tevez, who make an enormous impact on the quality of their teams’ play and this head of coaching is oblivious! He is coaching from a playbook written in the 70’s (or 50’s). Granted, not everything he said in the interview was bad, but this really set me off.
I could not figure that Cosmos Academy’s directors comments either. He went from talking about running a 4-3-3, and then switched over to the big forward stuff. It seems almost impossible to be running a 4-3-3 and not realize that Barcelona is running it with players that are 5′ 7 across the front 3. You would think he would at least qualify his statement, especially since most of his recruiting area has short but skilled latino players.
In keeping with the positivity of the original posting, I can say that working from a basis of 4-3-3 is a step forward. Around here, its all 4-4-2, which seems to be very English, and movement to embrace other tactics in any way shape, or form seems stunningly progressive.
Too bad he screwed it up by talking about regressive player selection! I still can’t get away from the issues of typecasting players based on their raw physical characteristics. For player development, we should be moving players all over the pitch, and working through various tactical systems over the course of a youth’s “career”. Too many players are simply put in a single position leading to an inability to adapt.
In England, this is typified by Steven Gerrard who seems to be incapable of adopting anything but his attacking centermid role. He would have been well-served by some time at center-back, fullback, wing, etc… Instead he is just a square peg.
That is a great point. In fact, just last weekend, my kid’s coach was talking about trying a 4-3-3 with the team, and he also moves kids around, as you mention. But he seems to be having some trouble implementing his schemes, as I’ve observed. I think one of the big problems with doing these things is parents who coach their kids from the sideline, especially the ones who would have their kid go to goal from anywhere on the field that he/she may be. It makes it tough for the coach to teach them anything (if you are lucky enough to have a good teaching coach).
Once again, I will paraphrase Jim Collins: “you have the have the right people on the bus.”
I think that whether you use a 4. 3. 3. or 4. 4. 2 has nothing to do with what country developed or embraces the stategy. The formation that a coach decides to use is based on the talent and style of players they have.
Barcelona tends to use more of a 4.3.3. becuase it fits the team best.
For a 4.3.3. formation it requires that you have very mobile players up top and in the midfield which is the case with that team.
For example: Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, & sometimes Villa are extremely mobile players who play even better without the ball sometimes, but can creat space for their teamates by the movement they make and can spread the defense at any give time due to their movements without the ball.
If barca did not have these mobile players that could cover ground and constantly move would only result in loses to teams like Villareal, Atletico, Real, Valencia.
A coach has to be aware what a 4.3.3. , a 4.2.2., a 4.5.1 or any other formation really requires as far as talent and style of players in order to execute the game plan.
Again that goes to lack of knowledge in regards to the beautiful game.
We need knowledgable coaches teaching our kids and not just some person who has some time to burn who knows how to kick a toe ball…
oh by the way Bill, Steven Gerrard shouldn’t ever play any other position than the one he plays now. the team was developed to play around him becuase of the talents he posses. he is great player with great abilities to play with and with out the ball. he draws so much attention that it creats great opportunities for others around him. good at passing, good at dribbling, great shot, why would you want to loose all that abilty by placing him on defense. Just my opinion.
My only point about shape is that most coaches in the USA go to 4-4-2 without regard to the talent they have, its just hammer whoever I have into this shape, and without regard to the tactical setting of the game. We need variety in tactics and shape so that our players and coaches can adapt to the demands of the competitions.
As for Gerrard, I think he would have benefited as a child/teen from playing in a lot of different positions. It would have improved his education as a player, and his ability to make the most of his ability. He probably is best at some sort of center/attacking mid, but his inability to adapt his play to other positions hurts himself, and his team. He could have been much better than he is.
soccer grit says
Preach your soccer sermon Brother Gary , whenever ,wherever, or however long you want….. AM LISTENING….. and your flock is growing. Am so disappointed watching American Shit Kick , what the Hell was that player or coach trying or thinking he could do, or listening to the banter , babble and excuses of drones in US. soccer establishment. The strides deep pockets have invested in MLS stadiums , in growth of game, marketing and infrastructure isn’t even being appreciated, acknowledged, or matched by the soccer brain trust of US thinking. . I apologize and pray MR MLS OWNERS and IMG ….changes are a coming…. to reward your ROE that your vision so courageously dreams about. Keep the faith but also seek some new Prophets and leaders like ….Miracle On Ice,,,, US US US …. hockey team AND ESTABLISHMENT did some years ago.. And remember this isn’t hockey….. this is soccer the largest most popular sport on the planet Earth. You and America deserve MORE. The legacy of changing America Soccer Brand world wide is event waiting to happen.
Should the women win the cup in a few weeks, I think that could have a great effect onto the men’s side. With a USWNT win, it will make the men’s team work that much harder to achieve their goals. It would remind America that we are capable of producing World Cup winners and it would help out youth soccer a lot to see a champion, even if its the women. Besides, who likes getting beat by a girl? =)
Gary Kleiban says
This is probably the last World Cup the USWNT have a chance of winning. From here on out, our players lack of proper development along with incompetent coaching will continue to get exposed. The downward spiral will continue and asymptotically approach the men’s program.
I should shut up now …
Coach J says
I was reading over some old posts and thought this was a good one about the WNT. I was on another forum and was debating with another guy that I thought the WNT was gonna be in BIG trouble if they do not change their style of play for the future. One of the main reasons they have been successful is that they have a MAN, Wombach, playing one of the Forward positions and she bails them out all the time with a header goal that she would not get if it weren’t for her HUGE size and strength advantage.
Do we have the next Wombach waiting in the wings? And even if we do, should we rely on simply overpowering teams or should we try to outclass them? This other poster said, “If it aint broke, don’t fix it. Our Direct style of play has us ranked #1 in the world. No need to change things.”
I said, “We WILL get passed by countries like Japan because they are simply more technically and tactically advanced than we are. We play an unsophisticated style that is arcaic and will only be successful for so long. We MUST change our style now BEFORE it’s too late. If you wait to change your style AFTER you’ve been passed, you will be years and years behind.”
He did not agree with me, but there were a LOT that did agree with me. There are tons of people out there that do want to see our NTs move to a possession based style of play because they know it is THE way to play. Barcelona/Spain have shown that if you want to be the dominant force, day in and day out, you must have possession of the ball. The goal needs to be……DOMINATE POSSESSION OF THE BALL!!! The finishing will come in time, but you must first possess the ball. There are more and more people in the USA that are seeing this.
Gary, your blog IS making a difference because there are more and more people being educated as to what “good soccer” is. More coaches are learning how to implement things that lead to more possession. Your article/instructional on “playing out of the back” was fantastic. We would love more of those :). More parents are getting educated as to what a good coach is and which ones to stay away from. Slowly but surely, the tide is turning.
Just wanted to encourage you Gary…..your work IS making a difference!