The Myth of the Best Players

Best soccer playerWho’s better?
Neymar or Ronaldo

To me, this is a no-brainer and practically a litmus test for who I shouldn’t pay attention to.

But there are people, for one reason or another, who think different.

And right there, in that one phrase, “for one reason or another”, is where the myth busting of the “best players” needs to start.

You see, there are no measures that definitively conclude which player is better.

Simply put, the question “Who is better?” isn’t a good question. It’s a lazy and flawed one.

The better question is, “who is better for what, and under what circumstances”.

Can we say Neymar is better than Mix Diskerud?
Yes, of course.

When there’s an outrageous gulf in the variables, then the question is trivial.

But what happens when we say:
“Who’s better; Benny Feilhaber or Kelyn Rowe?”

If you find yourself compelled to google to find some metrics and make a case, the “myth of the best player” has a firm grip on you.

How about Riyad Mahrez while he was in the 2nd division versus players who were already in the EPL?

Most laymen, the media, the non or low-level practitioner, likely says:
Since he’s in 2nd division, then he must not be as good as players in the English Premier League.

And as you all should know by now, they’d be wrong.

Most in this demographic, understandably, are dependent on the system to form their opinions.

A system, whose architects of course need you to not only believe there is such a thing as “best players”, but that their system is efficient in sorting them to their appropriate level.

The Manager’s role in your Perception

See, when there’s no outrageous gulf between players, the selections that are made are based on the needs and judgement of the manager. And that depends on the style of play the manager intends.

That is, what does that specific manager need for the execution of his vision? And then of course, his judgement of being able to identify and select the proper player.

For example, what drove Jurgen Klinsmann to pick Miguel Ibarra (then in 2nd division NASL), or Jordan Morris (then still a college player) for the Senior National Team?

Would another manager, say Peter Vermes, or Porter, or Kinnear, or Arena, or … Manager X have picked them?

If you believe the “best player” myth, you’d likely think there’s a high probability that yes, irrespective of manager these players would be picked.

And you’d be wrong.

Managers are one of the many gatekeepers whose decisions in large part drive the perception of what is “best”.

If Jurgen had not picked Jordan Morris:

  1. Most everyone in American Soccer would know little to nothing about him.
  2. He’d still be in college.
  3. When he finished college, he would not have the profile and hence the opportunities and benefits he currently enjoys.

And on and on.

For the Senior National Team, I would not have picked him.
I may have given shots to a Kelyn Rowe, a Luis Silva, or any number of others.
These players are a far better fit for how I want to play.

What then, would the perception of these guys be now, versus what they are?

Bielsa’s US National Team, or an LA Galaxy under Bielsa, would also look radically different.

As a consequence, your thoughts and opinions of the players and the pool would be altered accordingly.

Think guys, think.
Think long and hard about this.

It’s Not Just the System Architects and the Manager

So much of who makes it to “the top” is circumstantial, especially when it comes to systems dominated by gatekeepers.

The more gatekeeper-dependent the system, the worse it gets.

And we haven’t even touched on all kinds of business, political, and interpersonal influences that come into play.

But it’s much easier to just believe the “cream rises to the top”.

Because then you don’t have to think, you don’t have to deep dive. You can simply accept, broadly apply, and move on.

And isn’t that just bliss?

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  1. Gerps says

    Totally agree Gary and been saying this for years. This “best player” is especially ugly with long lasting affects in youth soccer. Career damaging for players as early as U12. Parents, clubs, DoCs, and coaches are to blame.

    I’ve seen high quality players (skill, technique, patience, vision, passing ability, double footed, smart) be completely overlooked, sit the bench and get angry and frustrated and eventually quit the game because they were on wrong team / wrong coach.

    It’s common practices in youth soccer (up to and including USSDA) for coaches to grab quality players they don’t need, don’t fit style of play, or playing characteristics for the coach and how he wants to play. The kid joins the team, then he doesn’t play. Parents compare him to other “lesser” players who start. They get angry and quit. They then join another big name club and relive the nightmare. Eventually they settle and accept their fate or the kid quits.

    Coach aren’t honest during tryouts. They choose a hodgepodge of what they think are “best” players but not who’s best for the team and how they want to play. This is often the reason teams don’t look orchestrated and can’t play how the coach desires. This is a huge problem in pay to play. In pro-centric clubs who have a philosophy and invest in their kids, the mentality changes and proper player selection does happen.

    To many parents and to lesser degree, kids — are drawn in by the name brand big name clubs. Who won State Cup, who has big trophy haul, who is highest ranked, and so on. Parents pay their $2K and think that is it. Let the babysitting and buyer’s remorse begin!

    Same is true when going to USSDA teams. Same for ODP. Same for anything else in soccer.

    Unfortunately I’ve seen many promising players get frustrated and quit by U16 because of a series of unfortunate events driven by naivety and chasing rainbows before little Johnny has the basic skillset to succeed long-term.

    Then there’s the pressure to “sign now before your spot is gone”. Collusion of the 3-day tryout is an evil beast that drives high pressure sales tactics to sign players and keep money pipeline going. This is not an issue in pro-centric academy as I said earlier. Sure it’s cutthroat, but only in looking for the best player to fit the system as opposed to roster filling with huge variety of player ability.

  2. Somecoach says

    The filter system as I once pointed out. Other coaches looked me and said if you are good you will be seen. Bull** SH**.
    We filter out players and we don’t find/ spot players.

    You nailed it !

  3. Tyler says

    And there is the problem, the filters (managers/coaches) are filtering out the talent before it can develop. I just watched the U17 team play Japan. The US won, but not because their soccer was better… I’d much rather lose and play like Japan played than look like the US, with heavy touches, late runs, inability to make the field “big”. Why are we stuck with this ugly soccer… because the filters that are in charge determine who plays, hence the style of play. There is no mechanism to push these entrenched filters out of the U.S. game.

    • Ben says

      As someone who is learning about the game in the US, I’d appreciate it if you speak more about what these ‘filters’ are and what the alternatives are. It seems to me that there will be gatekeepers in any system – how does the Japanese youth system differ, for example? Or in Germany/Spain …is the system drastically different or are the gatekeepers simply better equipped?


  4. Seth says

    As your previous post pointed out, at least other countries have the relegation/promotion system. This helps overcome bad filters to some degree. Not perfect, but better than none.

    It seems like the biggest barrier to all of this, though, is the 3 sub rule. Take that away and more people get more chances to prove themselves and grow at levels beyond their current perceived level of competence.

  5. Joel says

    I’ve read this and read this and stewed on it for a few hours…. and am rarely at a loss for words. One of the reasons I continue to come back to this place is because it causes me to struggle with expressing myself and expressing myself is something I’ve honed and sharpened over and over and over again through the years to a point of personal strength. But at this place I am required to think so critically…to measure every word, which is a challenge sometimes when passion is pushing the pen.Deep thinking stuff around these parts…nothing is ever a surface answer at 3four3 because context shades everything and you will be called out for making statements that do not stand up to scrutiny.
    One thing I am fairly sure of — such is the nature of all team sports that intense individual preparation even in the face of ‘right’ opportunity needs some bit of fortune in order to ‘make it’:: a confluence of events, a pedigree, being part of ‘the system’, a legacy, born into, connections .
    Having an actual skill set that is applied correctly within a specific plan to draw attention to the characteristics of class and quality a player has is a whole other argument…. it means nothing for the CAM who is supple on the ball, with lynx eye vision as Ray Hudson says… if the run never comes to bovine the defense with … the CAM sees the angles, it’s almost slow motion but if the players around him do not bring out those qualities he possesses is just as likely the player may go unnoticed for being a mite below 5’8” and on the lighter side…
    One question I’ve been asking lately… would Christian Pulisic be seeing this kind of playing time for his local club Philadelphia Union? And if not why? Is is safe to say because its not in the MLS value set to vet young boys at the first team level…but moreover…Christian would not likely have the skills to play so well for a first team here as the training or system or style of play would not allow for those skills to express themselves… what he does well would likely not be rewarded on the field or by the gatekeepers. Christian Pulisic would likely be considering Duke or Dartmouth or UNC or Stanford… which is tragic…
    Until our youth join the professional academy and train with the express intent of becoming a professional player from the ages of 10 and up we will continue to be second class footballers — it is staggering to my way of thinking that a kid in a ‘professional’ MLS academy supposedly training as a professional has as the final outcome of his training an amateur college career paid for…
    There are many facets to the problem but a tremendous uptick in the quality of teaching and coaching at the youth level is the single most important variable in becoming a quality gatekeeper capable of choosing the players that best represent the Gold Standard… we need better teaching at the youth level up to and through the ‘professional’ level….that and a system of rewards and punishments for choosing grade A beef over a USDA Prime… one is a decent piece of meat but when compared to the highest of quality meat… the differences are obvious.

  6. Thomas G. Hancock says

    We have gone from ignoring metrics to over-relying on them. Billy Beane used metrics–easy in baseball of course–to exploit inefficiencies in the player market. He no longer relied on whether a scout told him a player “was a five-tool guy” or other such impressions.

    That’s the pro side though, and exploiting those inefficiencies is part of the fun. I enjoy watching the big money teams fall all over themselves while Leicester clowns on them.

    But on the development side of course, it’s tragic. Development of world-class players is still a long-term project for the US because now the metrics, those number filters, are getting in the way. I still don’t see US-grown players with decent technique.

    The US-Canada friendly was shocking, even taking into account these were MLS players off-season. Passes bounced off of these guys like they were made of stone. Ugh, can barely watch.

  7. Joel says

    I have an article request….I would like 3four3 to consider addressing manners in which the pyramid could be opened that do not necessary follow the form of other countries…but none-the-less reach the same goal….
    It is easy to just say open open open…but how would YOU open it… how could the logistics be worked out that current MLS investors would be willing to accept and future MLS investors be willing to accept… how could the change in philosophy. What if there were MLS I and MLS II… I am a member of a blog that does a lot of thinking and writing about how to actually make it work and I so seldom read or here “the How’ of it all… The Magnitude and scope….. the grease- the actual blueprint…because just opening the pyramid is not realistic… Gary, I listened to your ‘Real Podcast with the clinking forks and coffee cups’ with Kephern Fuller and John P and I believe you have grand plans man and I’m all in and I listen and follow and spread the Gospel in my own way but I am yet to here you address HOW the system can change.
    We can scream promotion and relegation all we want but HOW does MLS and US Soccer make it work….
    Am I off base with a question like this… I follow very closely the conversation here and on Twitter…and in other places…has ANYBODY outlined a meaningful solution… other than just ripping the band aid off.
    Also I made a post that either was erased or never actually posted to the sight… and I can’t imagine it was erased as I’ve read many harsher things through the years here from contributors and the author himself…
    …but where are all the contributors… Where is everybody…. are you not reading anymore? Are you too busy driving your children to Travel Soccer? Are you content watching Europa League? Are the majority of you 3four3 coaching subscribers?
    The articles on this sight come once every 2 months or so now as compared to before and that is totally understandable in relation to the massive undertaking with 3four3… what I find interesting is the responders that used to be regulars are gone which makes no sense because the demand from the author has decreased… which means the supply of answers should be steady…. I think it is tragic because the content is still just as good… the thought ideas and concepts still matter… the conversation should be moving forward, you all need to be driving the eyes to this place…getting people to start from the beginning… and this leads me to the point I made the first time I wrote this a few days ago….
    Are you all master teachers?
    I’m not even an active coach but damn man…I’m here…
    Think guys, think.
    Think long and hard about this.

  8. ephemeral10 says

    This article is very reminiscent of a previous one you guys submitted called something like “a matter of circumstance”. I saw many examples of what was described therein and unfortunately continue to see them. The US will benefit because of Christian Pulisic’s circumstances. He was a late bloomer who most likely would have been relegated to the bench or even the “B” team on in most clubs during his early youth career. Small, supremely technical, he relied on the movement off the ball of his teammates to open up space for himself and provide options to him before he was crushed. He needed technical teammates to play balls to his feet so as to avoid constant 50-50 confrontations in which, spotting 50 pounds to his opponents, he would be doomed to lose. Hence he needed to play at the highest level, when many coaches would have overlooked him as “too small”. to contribute to their success.

    The circumstance that helped to bring him into prominence was his parents. Both soccer players who ensured (by coaching-managing his teams) he played with enough talent around him and in a style that fit his assets. Then got him to Germany with his grandfather’s heritage. The puzzle pieces fit together for him and we are the better for it. But how many do we lose along the way? Very similar story associated with Emerson Hyndman How many would have chosen him to be among the “best” to play up at u12 or 13 when much of youth soccer is dominated by the power of the man children?

    I know we rarely discuss the women’s game here, but the problems there are even more acute. The women’s leaders in the country don’t even understand the role of a #10 (at least in creative attacking possession soccer) much less understand that we are missing much of the entertainment in women’s soccer because those (few?) girls with “magic”, or at least the potential to entertain, are being regularly relegated. Carli Lloyd a #10? No by my estimation.

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