then you still have a lot to learn.
Yes, once again I’m referring to possession.
Everyone has their preferences; which are usually formed from experiences, education, and culture. And that’s fine.
For instance, some pieces of art may be great, but I might think: “wtf is this … next.” And it’s likely because I haven’t immersed myself in its study or practice.
Similarly with possession soccer, when someone says “it’s boring”, it indicates a deficiency in understanding and sophistication. A lack of having played the game with that style – a possession style – could easily lead to this opinion. 
Because it’s difficult to appreciate how fantastic it feels to execute that 3 yard pass with true class and calmness while under pressure, no pressure, winning, losing, or the infinite other circumstances. It’s a display of mastery at the deepest of levels – a sense of control not only of the ball, but of your opponent both individually and collectively. Each pass like a drop in Chinese water torture, with every successive one compounding your rival’s agony. It’s an incredible feeling!
As a spectator, one gets enormous pleasure when such apparently simple things are showcased. If not, you likely haven’t “lived it”. I don’t even know if giving enough thought or study to the philosophy and its corresponding efficacy, instead of living it in some capacity, is sufficient to fully appreciate the spectacle.
Then again, I choose to be optimistic. Otherwise, what is the point of this blog if people can’t be shown the light?
 In essence, one can replace this whole post with just “soccer” instead of the more specific “possession soccer”, and apply it to those people who have had little to no involvement with the sport.
ya a coach i know described the recent barca v. arsenal game as so boring to watch LMAO
It’s like the difference between chess and checkers– maybe even bigger than that.
I certainly haven’t “lived it” as a player, because I’ve unfortunately always been pretty horrible, but I can say I live it as a spectator.
As a Sounders fan, the lack of touch on the Sounders, and in MLS generally, is my greatest pain point. I just hate seeing all the wayward passes, the bad traps, and the pointless head tennis that dominates the play. I long for crisp passes that either find a player’s feet or deftly slice into space; a gently tapped first-time backheel, rolling the ball precisely to a teammate; a precise flick over an opponent as the player races by. Those are the kinds things that make what make the game beautiful and we don’t get nearly enough of them here.
I once had the experience of watching the end of an Inter game and the beginning of a Sounders game at the same time, and it was a pretty stark contrast. In the former, the ball moved from player to player with purpose and efficiency for both teams, and it stayed on the floor for the vast majority of the time. In the latter, there was a lot of back and forth, with possession being traded constantly, and big stretches where no one really had it at all, where the ball was just bouncing from head to head almost randomly. Everybody knows about the difference in quality between Serie A and MLS, but seeing it side-by-side like that was highly instructive.
Gary Kleiban says
It’s great to hear you have this appreciation. We need fans like you to demand better from your teams. Without pressure to change, the front offices and coaches alike will always have the same product on the field. It’s good to support your team and players, but it’s also important to express you discontent. If you see Riley launching balls forward ten thousand times a game, he needs to be told off! If Zakuani is a turnover machine, he needs to be told off!
Along the lines of the post, allow me to further provoke your thoughts on the Sounders. First off, Montero is true quality. He understands and feels this concept. The same goes for Fernandez, Hurtado, and maybe Alonso. The others don’t get it. You can tell by the way one plays. You can get into their minds with every possession and movement off the ball.
Most designated players get it too. The dirty little secret is nobody knows just how frustrated these guys are with their teams. As good professionals, they can’t say anything publicly and sometimes not even in the locker room. Instead, you get cookie-cutter interview responses – and the fans eat it up. On several occasions against the Sounders, Beckham wanted to kill himself with his teammate’s poor decisions and quality.
I wonder what really happened with Nkufo … hmmm …
I’m Sounders till I die, but I tell anyone who’ll listen how frustrated I am with their play. My least favorite cheer ever is “Come on Sounders, score a goal”, which I find completely pathetic because I can’t imagine fans at the Nou Camp or San Siro begging Barcelona or Inter to score. But if we really wanted to make that pathetic cheer accurate, it should be “Come on Sounders, trap the ball” or “Come on Sounders, complete a pass”. Add to that horrendous finishing and life in the stands at Qwest can be extremely frustrating.
As for Nkufo, I think it’s pretty likely that his frustration with the way the game is played here in the US was a big part of the decision. Everyone says it’s a physical league, which is code for “you’re going to get fouled constantly and the refs won’t do much.” What I’ve read said that Nkufo didn’t like the idea of playing the target forward role (which is mostly to be a punching bag), and instead wanted to play deeper in midfield. Apparently that didn’t fit with the Sounders plans and they didn’t want to carry his salary or roster spot in that case. I think our GM, Adrian Hanauer, has done a pretty good job, all things considered (after all, he was the one who went and found Montero, Fernandez, Hurtado, and Alonso). I just hope he hasn’t miscalculated here.
Wow, did this post speak to me!
First, the possession is boring crap comes from the traditionalists who see the Barça-Spain style as the death of the type of game they love. They love long balls sent to giant center-forwards to hold up, and bone-crunching tackles delivered by both sides. Its Stoke, and MLS that gives us this shit. I think the “its so boring” comes from the inability to really articulate what they don’t like about it, the antithesis of the football they grew up playing. Getting past this issue is one of the keys for both English and American football/soccer to get past their current competitive limitations.
There are some really interesting statistics out there regarding the MLS (see the NY Times). It turns out that MLS referees call the fewest fouls and issue the fewest cards of the major leagues and EPL is second. Does this mean these leagues are cleaner and more sporting? If you watch the games, its pretty clear that the level of physicality is inversely proportional to the referee’s taste for fouls. The technical leagues (Spain, Germany, and Italy) have a lot more fouls and cards, but if you watch the games its clear that these leagues are less physical. To some extent, the physicality that is tolerated is related to the taste of the fan base. If we want the game to change, the refereeing must actually lead the way.
Coaches interested in winning will make team selections based on who can compete best. The level of physicality in a competition provides one of the conditions. There are plenty of examples of players who are failures in England, but superstars in other leagues or international play. The opposite has relatively little data because English players do not do well anywhere except the MLS. That’s worth thinking about.
Don Garber (MLS commissioner) asked for referees to encourage attacking play. The Ref in Sounders-Galaxy tie did precisely the opposite, he allowed continual fouling to breakup the continuity of play. This resulted in a large degree of loss of possession, and the mindless chicken-with-their-heads-cut-off structure to the match. Defensive players were generally somewhat out of control in closing players down, and constantly made contact with passers after they released the ball, i.e. committed a foul, that was almost never called.
I am a referee, and my general rule is “a foul that results in a change in possession or loss of advantage is called”. My goal is to remove these fouls from the match by making certain the offender does not benefit. Think about what happens when these are not called (i.e., MLS or EPL referees). MLS (and EPL) players are put under constant pressure and hit after the ball is gone. Player selection in US soccer (and English) is strongly influenced by this character to matches. Players are chosen for speed and power over skill because of this. One clear step for better soccer in this country is to get the referees to call tighter games from the MLS to College to High School to Club. This will improve the value of technical skill relative to physicality.
I agree with Alberto, you’re absolutely right, and Prus is pretty much the best that MLS has, too, so it’s all downhill from there. As you allude, I think this is something else that can be attributed to the malign influence of British soccer on the American game. EPL is what most Americans watch and that conditions them to prefer a game that’s played at meth-head speeds, with players beating on each other, and little regard given to individual skill.
The thing is, other than there being no language barrier, the English game doesn’t have much to recommend it as a model. They’ve won the World Cup once, when they hosted and played every match in Wembley. Their next best finish is 4th place. On the other hand, the two leagues I most often watch, Serie A and the Brazilian league, represent two nations that between them have won nine out of the 19 World Cups. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both those leagues have a much higher emphasis on skillful play than in the English game.
I love your phrase “meth-head speed” its literally perfect!
It also gives the correct connotation of the lack of thought and intelligence when compared with the sort of play seen in the Champions league.
After watching some recent CalSouth National Cup games in Southern California, I was temped to make a similar comment about the affect refrees have on development. Thank you for doing a better job than I could have– and you are a referee, no less! Especially in these big state tournaments, it seems the will to win brings out the most physical tactics, even at the youngest youth levels. After all, this is the time for results. In one game I saw, for example, a BU13 forward dribbled around two defenders in the area as he went to goal, at which point he simultaneously got grabbed by the arm, dragged down (backwards) by one player, and pushed by another player, and no call was made. For this game, that was a typical uncalled foul that had an impact on the game (as you explained effectively above). The more mature linesman would shake his head slowly, in disbelieve or in resignation. The other linesman, who was a kid, simply stopped flagging everything.
In these situations, the least technical teams almost always win in the lower age groups, and the basis for “development” is thus set in the minds of parents and some coaches, based on the “results” at a major tournament.
I wonder if the new SoCal league is thinking about changing the reffing standards at all? Its supposed to be about development, so having more stringent reffing would be a good step. Our blog hosts are pretty connected to the youth scene, They might know?
I think its not just the big tournaments, I’ve watched plenty of AYSO games, and there is lots of uncalled grabbing, pushing, and tripping. Everybody seems to have the American football style contact in their heads. Its really hard for young kids to develop moves if they are going to get hacked down after every nice step over.
Gary Kleiban says
About the new league … I have tons of thoughts. So far I haven’t written about it for three main reasons:
1) Nothing is set in stone. It’s still conceptual. And the concept seems to be in a state of flux.
2) I’m connected and certainly have info that the consumer (ie parents) don’t have, but I don’t have a chair at the table. So who knows what’s really said behind those closed doors.
3) As brash as my posts seem, I haven’t really let loose. I still hold my tongue because there’s still a self-imposed pressure to do so. And for good reasons. If people are absorbing and learning anything from the blog, they’ll be able to judge the merits of the new league on their own. And it’s better this way, rather than me telling them if it’s garbage or not.
But who knows, I might start letting some things out. 🙂
I was at the US / Argentina game last night and let me tell you it was not boring watching Argentina make the American side look likes fools chasing the ball the entire first half. Yes the game was tied in a FRIENDLY but set pieces and counter play is NOT going to win you a World Cup!
Gary Kleiban says
Wish I could’ve been there!
It was a clinic! Sad to see the press today focusing on the result, then obviously the fans following suit. The real story is one of domination. One of demonstrating just how far behind US Soccer is.
Gary Kleiban says
I like everyone’s contributions here.
But there’s one theme I’d like for you guys to reconsider. That is that refereeing is some fundamental barrier to the way soccer is played here.
This is no reason for playing like crap. This is no reason for not playing the beautiful game. This is not stifling our development.
I’ll have to write something up …
I look forward to seeing what you have to say, but it seems to me that refereeing is part of the problem by incentivizing the wrong kind of play. Why focus on developing top notch ball skills when an opponent can take you out with impunity? Or from the flip side, why develop good defensive skills when all you need to do is body check the player off the ball? If refs at all levels consistently called a tight game, then players with great technique would be better able to show their value.
I guess it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem: a soccer culture that valued technique would demand more protection for technical players, and more technical players would encourage people to value technique more highly.
Gary, refereeing isn’t an excuse to play like crap, but it is part of the overall culture that helps produce the crap we see. I think the way the rules are interpreted is important. It encodes what the game is supposed to look like in an ideal, and ultimately defines what is allowed. It defines what works in competition and provides a physical path to victory.
Players around the world compete to a win, the referees draw the line on allowable behavior. In continental Europe, the line is drawn at less contact, which allows higher technical play to be successful. The same is true for South America. In England the line is drawn to allow more contact, which allows speed and strength to be relatively more valuable in competing. In the USA, even more contact is allowed with the predictable results.
When looking at players to compete, coaches choose those who can compete by the rules, and the rules of the game as they are implemented influence the decisions. The whole thing rolls downhill toward the youth ranks in the form of the accepted cultural norms for the game. The professional referees also influence the referees all the way to the youth ranks.
I look at the issue holistically, the oversight of the game in the form of coaches and referees need to work together with the competition’s governing powers to encourage a better environment for the game. We want attractive, attacking soccer, but the culture of the game in the USA is working against that.
At the upper levels including the youth ranks, the game is borderline violent with the common refrain, “but it IS a CONTACT sport!” being the emphasis to help avoid being called “grass fairies”. Its how the game defends its macho standing. A little bit of blood and broken bones help to make the case. If we want to compete at the highest level, this must change because it works against the USA. Our player pool of big and fast players is depleted by the other major sports, and international soccer is generally on the more skill, less physical side. We don’t develop players who can compete in the more technical leagues because of the nature of our competitions.
Referees simply enforce that nature. If the training and expected performance from referees encouraged them to allow less contact to encourage skill, it would help. We are taught to allow play to continue far too much ala the EPL because the fans like it. It is a short-sighted and destructive path.
p.s. I changed my moniker to “BillR” since I’m not the “Bill” that saw the game this weekend (wish I were there too).
David S says
Look at this
This is pretty much what this blog wants right? It is Barcelona USA teaching young latin american kids to play in the barcelona mode.
They dominated celtic’s kids 5-0 and they even beat barcelona spain’s kids 4-1
Two of their kids were accepted into Barcelona’s youth academy and a third will be trying out.
Gary Kleiban says
Hi David. Welcome!
Yes, that’s exactly what every coach should be trying to emulate. That’s an excellent video, and a great example! Those kids are getting developed.
This is currently the BU-11 Samba team right? I’ve seen Benny and this team play. My brother has the U-10s that are traveling to Barca in the next couple weeks. Sucks that I’m stuck teaching some classes, otherwise I’d be on the plane too.
I also want to add how many parents believe their teams play possession, but in fact they do not. They may try, and their coach might even want to do it and preach it, but the end product is not right. It takes very specialized knowledge and understanding to select the “right players” and train them properly.
The team you’re pointing to, at least for now at the U-11 level, is being trained properly.