While the system and philosophy of soccer in the US as a whole must change, if we had a top-shelf coach we would take a huge stride.
If someone like Marcelo Bielsa (I know he’s off the table) took over …
The Current National Team Pools Would be Decimated
Maybe 2 or 3 guys from the current NT would survive, and if given control over the youth NTs (ie his coaches/staff), the current pool of preferred players there wouldn’t survive either.
He would clean house. Why? Because the players in these pools are mindless automatons. Sorry. They’re just not good.
People say Bob Bradley did the best he could with what he had.
I say he did the best he could with what he selected.
Sure “the system” with all it’s “already identified national level players” was what he worked with. But the true talent is not in those “identified pools”. Those pools are wrong. They do not identify the *best. And it’s a mistake to think so.
It’s also a mistake for our head coach not to spread his tentacles much much further.
What Players Would be Selected Then?
So the criticism I always receive through emails or article comments is:
“Ok Gary, who are the best then? You never disclose names on what players are better. Why? Because there aren’t any and you’re full of shit!”
I understand that sentiment, and I know exactly where you stand. These are statements I just can’t respond to (not to your satisfaction anyway). You want me to shoot off names? You would have no idea who these guys are. If I had said Michael Hoyos or Funes Mori a couple years ago, you would say: “Who? What are you talking about?” Let me tell you there are hundreds of players of that caliber and higher in the States. They never see the light of day because players with *global-standard-like attributes are usually on the bench, rarely play, or not utilized properly in MLS, college, or even youth club. They are not picked when ripening on the vine. Instead they end up rotting and wasted.
How do I know?
Well because I’ve seen it first hand weekly, year after year, at the youth and college level. From 14 – 18, we have junk selected for our NTs. It is unbelievable how bad it is. And if you are not in these early pools, consider your future inclusion almost impossible. That would change with NT coaches with a clue. They wouldn’t care about pedigree – what team, club, league, or college you play for. They will get a player who has never played club and in a Santa Ana Mexican Sunday league team if he has quality.
In college there’s more junk being selected. And of course we know how D1 is incorrectly seen as all that matters. So more talent residing in lower tier colleges are toast. I’ll go further, if your D1 school is not a traditional NCAA power or doesn’t rack up wins in conference and tournament, you’re likely toast as well. If you don’t have “the stats”, you’re toast.
A top-notch NT coach could care less where you play or how many “points” you have. Come to think of it, he may very well focus less on D1 schools where academic requirements have filtered out most of the better players. I’m willing to bet the Junior Colleges have diamonds. If you have quality, you’re in.
Of course there are massive logistical issues in scouting. But I’m telling you quality far greater than what we currently have would be identified and selected.
Everyone would be shocked if someone like Bielsa came. He will find the talent. He would have no problem debuting an 18 year old from the academy or from a Sunday league on the Senior Team. No U18 or U20 team, the Senior Team. (Moises Orozco would be one of them). Our NT would have complete “no names” on it. But “no names” with true quality.
The Larger Scale Effects
And those “no names”, that would otherwise ended up a Starbucks barista, would then have MLS contracts. The level of MLS would then rise.
And this effects “the system” and its philosophy. It tells everyone what a global standard model is. For the first time it correctly tells everyone in this country what a quality player looks like, and hence what they should look for and try to produce.
Furthermore, by playing great soccer and performing better than his predecessors, a Bielsa also shows everyone how they should play and that we do have the talent and capacity to be great.
Another added effect is that his selections will be purchased by top teams in Europe and actually play. This opens further doors into the virgin US market.
Having the right man and his staff at the senior and youth NTs would work wonders.
We all know the whole system and structure needs to change. But I contend it will commence along the right path and much quicker if we have the right coaches and staff for our national teams.
Thoughts? Opinions? Criticisms? Your comments either way are always welcome.
One of the disadvantages that the US faces is sports in the US are socialistic and bureaucratic, whereas soccer in other countries is a chaotic free enterprise. As you say, in the first case, it’s very easy for one kind of thinking to align down all the levels, where it becomes all about selecting players who look like the players in the next level, without actually evaluating what the players is truly capable of. It can become very self-referential and circular, where a player is judged to be good because he looks like other players who were judged to be good because they looked like… and so on and so forth.
In the other system. it’s every club out for itself. Clubs are always looking for new talent to develop in their youth systems, either to sell on to bigger clubs for big money or for their own rosters. And unlike the other system, there’s a very simple and objective criterion what tells the clubs if the player is a good player: does he perform? How does he do in the club’s U-9 level tournament? U-10? The higher age brackets? Teams will keep the ones who perform the best in actual competitions and let the rest go. This makes the selections for the national team coaches much easier. Need to put together a U-15 squad? Check out all the players on the U-15 club squads and pick the best. U-17, the same. The senior squad, look for the best players in the clubs’ senior squads and choose from them. And it’s all with that simple straightforward criterion, how does this player actually perform in games?
Gary Kleiban says
Hey Carlos. Another great comment by you!
In your first paragraph you hint on what is one of the vicious cycles we have in US Soccer. That is, the player model. Here are several other cycles we are currently trapped in:
1) Style of play.
2) Coaching philosophy.
3) American blogging/journalistic opinion.
There are many others … and they all strongly reinforce each other.
I got a little lost in your second paragraph. Are you saying it’s our system or the others that has objective criterion on what is a good player?
From my experience, it is the US that heavily relies on “stats” or pedigree to make selections; while other countries rely more on their expert level understanding (lots of subtleties that can’t really be quantified) for identification.
Yes, I guess I need to clarify: I meant the others have an objective criterion. I see how “objective” can have the wrong connotations here, and I’ve been trying to find exactly the word to pin down which connotation I mean. I think “concrete” is probably the closest one I’ve come up with so far. What I’m going for is that players are being continuously evaluated by trained professionals on an actual minute-by-minute basis for specific, real-world attributes and abilities. I don’t mean “objective” as in stats.
I agree with you that there are a lot of things that can’t be quantified. In fact, I think soccer is one of the least quantifiable games in the world. For example, how do you create a measure of defensive positioning? It’s an important skill for any player, but crucial for those who will bear significant defensive responsibilities. However, there aren’t a set of outcomes that correlate directly with good or bad positioning. In many cases, the results of either might be a pass to the exact same player, but with good positioning, he has to receive the ball in a less advantageous position than with bad positioning. Even when there are situations that can be quantified, stats are simplifications; aggregated measures that may over- or under-emphasize an aspect of the game.
So, for example, if there’s a kid who gets a lot of “points” at a young age because he’s more physically developed, he could get a big head start in the American system, one that might last for a long time. The problem is when the other kids catch up, he might suddenly “become” a very mediocre player, and everyone will be wondering how it was that the “potential” failed to materialize. The opposite case is even worse. A kid with real potential, but whose numbers are lackluster due to some early physical disadvantage in his age group, might wash out even before he has the opportunity to catch up physically.
In the rest of the world, the trained professionals observing those kids would consider how much current performance might be due to temporary factors and how much could be more permanent attributes. They might take the first kid aside and explain what they see: he’s doing well now, but it won’t last if he doesn’t invest in developing actual skills before the others catch up. The kids who are able to take that counseling and propel themselves toward becoming complete players continue rising. The ones who can’t, for whatever reason, wash out. And if they’ve got a kid with real quality, but who needs to catch up physically, they’d do everything they can to help that process along.
Gary Kleiban says
I don’t know what else to say – I agree. Your excellent description stands on its own.
3four3’s first birthday is this month. So I’ve been evaluating what my focus should be for the next year. And your post here has touched on one of my goals.
I want to take this “black art” of identifying true quality players and make it more “concrete” for people. There are hundreds of items/subtleties to consider. I think this is the single greatest requirement for the education of all involved.
What’s the difference between Iniesta & Dempsey, Busquets & Maurice Edu, or Higuain & Altidore?
People only know the former are better because of the clubs or national teams they play for. Or from some stats, or more fundamentally because the world has told them so. Those players have been validated and vetted by “authorities” – and so it is.
We can’t hope to get better unless we have the capacity to distinguish for ourselves. The same exact thing applies to coaching.
Johnny L says
The “problem” is too big to expect a solution to yield short-term benefits (ex. next World Cup). The responsible ones in the Federation need to sit down and conduct analysis and forecast on two levels:
1. Macro: how the game is going to look like 10 years from now in terms of style and quality of the opposition
2. Micro: what we have to do to give ourselves the best chance of winning in that environment (style of play and corresponding players and leadership necessary)
Once the decision has been made, ideally a charismatic figure that commands great deal of respect due to the on-field accomplishment would step up and galvanize the group and all levels of development with his vision and drive giving it a clear direction to push in.
Couple of details: there is nothing wrong with putting premium on physicality as long as it is yielding results. That clearly was/is not the case. Also, a friend of mine had played against the US Mens National Team in an exhibition game not so long ago. His on-field assessment confirmed my impression. The players are not very skillful and are fairly predictable (big handicap at the top level) but they sure can run “whole day”.
I firmly believe that it will always be so much easier to beef up a player and make him run faster/jump higher (pending his genetics and condition tendons and muscles are) then to teach him how to think and be creative.
The focus needs to be on:
1. Intelligent players
-master tactical concepts in the shortest time period
-will accept a constructive criticism
– understand their limitations and work their butts off to correct what can be corrected
2. Creative and unpredictable (to keep the opponent guessing)
3. Ones with a “chip on their shoulders”, street tough and “hungry” by having to grow up in a poor neighborhood
Being able to match the opponents’ level of physicality (speed, stamina and upper body strength) is already giving a team a great chance of success in modern game. That is where creativity and ball handling skills come in play to make a difference between the truly great teams and just above average ones.
The USMNT has a great advantage when going to the biggest of stages because of such small expectations at home. There is virtually no pressure (comparing to England and Spain until recently for an example) and every W against a high-ranked opponent is going to be a huge boost of moral.
Modest upgrade in ball handling skills (something the strong emphasis needs to be put on from the early on in the players development) and different selection of players (physical but more creative and able to process the information faster) needs to be coupled with better leadership on the bench.
Someone who is going to command a great deal of respect, both with his own players (making them give 110%) and referees, and be able to act instead of react when it comes to in-game adjustments. Throw in a unique sense of patriotism with us Americans, underdog/”us against the World” mentality due to being constantly ripped off by the incompetent refs and a mildly favorable bracket, that is a virtually guaranteed semi-Final spot.
I am a youth coach, administrator, and former high level player. Your comments are right on target. Nothing could be more true. Tell it to Sunil that’s the only one who can make the change!!
Gary Kleiban says
Good to have you here!
My sphere of influence has not gotten to that level yet … hahaha.
If you’ve noticed, I have never written anything about Gulati. There are many reasons why. One being I don’t know what drives his decision-making process. Politics, his wallet, other’s wallets, the short/long term viability of MLS & US Soccer, etc … There are just so many variables to consider when heading an organization. It would be supremely ignorant of me to judge his decisions.
But what I can do is judge the soccer, and the soccer only. And in this case, the soccer ramifications of the product we put on the field.
But you’re right, Sunil has the keys.
So what do you think about Everton opening up an academy:
is this the future?
And why don’t we have several of these in SoCal. I’m sure there is more talent in Pomona/Ontario/San Bernardino than all of Massachusetts, given the demographics.
Gary Kleiban says
Thank you for sharing that Rivelino!
Yes we need clubs in SoCal (and the whole country) to have an approach centered around true player development. We have none!
The reason is the business model for youth soccer is aligned with winning.
If we had a club of our very own (we’re working on it), that would change.
Gary, as I take in your arguments, I am constantly thinking that this situation parallels the one in American baseball described in Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball. In brief, the book describes how the wrong players were being identified in the scouting process because “they looked like baseball players” and there was a lot of true talent being left on the table, so to speak: players that have unconventional bodies or unorthodox styles but did the things that truly lead to winning more baseball games. I have long believed that there is something similar going on in soccer, a game that, as you all describe, has few statistics that capture true performance, like baseball has. So the job of identifying true talent in soccer is much tougher than in baseball, where there are, at least, have some statistics to understand who has quality and who does not.
My question: do we need someone to write the Moneyball book for soccer? Don’t look at me!
Gary Kleiban says
Hahaha, I played baseball till 13 and watched quite a bit till probably 16.
Never read Moneyball, but from your description I can make a comment.
The difference I see is that in soccer the world has excellent models of what a world class player and team “looks like”. And yet the US decides not to follow it.
Ricardo Clark and Maurice Edu are favored over Torres or Feilhaber. WOW!
Altidore and Finley over Gomez. WOW!
We choose “bigger, stronger, faster” over technical quality and Soccer IQ. The biggest reason is due to coaching deficiency. The former helps to mask coaching incompetence.
Your point is so clear that it hurts.
Well, I googled “moneyball and soccer”, and came up with this gem: http://www.hexagonalblog.com/2008/11/can-moneyball-w.html
Here is an excellent analysis that pretty much backs what you say: applying statistical methods to soccer may be futile, since it is in inherently fluid game with little correlation between statistically-measurable performance characteristics and results. Hence, your suggestion that we scout talent with a better “model” seems far more appropriate. Still, I think a Moneyball-like discussion that deconstructs soccer would be useful for the American mind, in that it would get people to think more clearly and deeply about what is valuable in a player, and what is not.
Gary Kleiban says
That is indeed an excellent article! It certainly begins to capture the complexity of the problem. Having advanced degrees in Physics and Mathematics, I regularly find myself exploring these ideas and wondering if I should pursue them further. But I always come to the conclusion that the problem is intractable – or at least beyond my capabilities.
You see it is a “pattern matching” / “pattern recognition” problem. The human brain is by far the best instrument for this. As such, the requirement for improvement and success in soccer is having the right people (coaches/scouts) in the right positions to identify true quality & be capable of real time interpretation of what’s happening on the field.
Furthermore, we need EVERYONE involved in soccer to raise their pattern recognition capabilities. To place it in perspective and in the context of our article; Bielsa has a Ph.D., Bradley has a high school diploma, and the typical American fan is in middle school.
Proper education is the key to progress!
So much for a high level coach for US Soccer, we are stuck with Bob Bradley! I’m so disgusted with the direction of soccer in the US. My son has no soccer future in the US so long as these clowns are running the show!
Gary Kleiban says
I hear ya man …
These past days I’ve felt sick to my stomach.
I am full of emotion and at a loss for words.
Any possibility for some massive grass roots petition to be started to oust BB/Gulati?
Gary Kleiban says
Oh how I wish Sinisa!
soccer grit says
While the system and philosophy of soccer in the US as a whole must change, I’m telling you that if we had a coach with a soccer brain we would take a huge stride. AMEN
If you want further insight why US soccer is not achieving more at world cup with this country’s size of population, national income, and countrys increasing experience in international soccer read ..Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stephan Szymanski . Agree with basic premise… a coach with philosophy and understanding of elite international game as blend or hybrid from European leagues networking of ideas and styles would push outcomes to almost disbelief. Some of the same reasons discussed in book why England doesn’t do better is similar to why U.S. NOT PROGRESSING OR INCREASING EXPECTATIONS. Agree the whole selection, attitude, and development process needs to be changed along with strategic model to affect the increased output influencing the outcome of individual players mental abilities and range of technical skills to help determinate American teams winning. Its the coach but also the head DOGs in administration and their collaboration of ideas overseeing the whole development system thats just as important and good luck praying for them so see the light . The change in America has to come from economic benefit to MLS teams owners to get right minds. real change, and direction necessary. If America wins world cup their teams value increases dramatically and soccers GNP brand value rises all boats.
Lol, i loved this blog, when i went to europe in 2006, http://www.yanks-abroad.com/get.php?mode=content&id=2048,
my friends were like what, you’ve only been there for 6 days, why would they want you, u weren’t all conference or all american, and I was like my coach was dutch in club soccer and irish in college soccer, not to stereotype or offend styles, but you can guess the one that helped me when i was training with the first team in Holland, and I totally agree there is so much talent out there, but these clowns don’t even notice talent when they see it, man ya’ll got me addicted reading over here LOL
What an interesting find- great blog! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and the direction you’re coming from in regards to player identification/development. A few questions though- much of this seems to be a soccer 101 or even 201 level in regards to getting your ideas out and explain your thought process and methodology. Do you plan on taking things to a deeper level? You raise countless important questions as to the type of player US Soccer should be identifying, but then stop short of either identifying these players outright or sticking to generalizations of “they’re out there” or “if they stayed in the US they’d be working at Starbucks instead of on the pitch” and I don’t disagree with you, I just would like to move forward to that deeper level. I haven’t seen much mentioned on our U-20 program, which has made great strides in identifying over 400 or so US-Eligible players for the program, many spread out across the globe. Rongen, while he has his faults as a coach, in my opinion can evaluate talent and has that college football coach-skill of recruiting potential players. The current U-20 team, even though they failed to qualify for the U-20 World Cup, is stocked with technical, possession-based players who have a fundemental basis to build on. They even play a 4-3-3 based in the Dutch/Ajax model of each player knowing the role of his “number”. Do you have any knowledge of the team and players selected you can expand upon? Which players would make strong senior squad members? I eat this stuff up, and can’t get enough. I think you’re spreading an important gospel, but I crave the next level of questions and answers
Gary Kleiban says
It’s a pleasure to have you here Scott!
So I guess I need to understand what you mean by “deeper level”.
You used the U20’s as some context with some questions at the end. Yes, I am familiar with that team, those players, and recall a bit from Rongen’s last cycle.
Now that I finished watching their qualifying matches, I plan on writing something up.
But I still struggle with what you are looking for.
Should I say Rowe & Okugo are legit for this or that reason?
Or that Doyle is incredibly overrated?
Please take a look at the following on Moises Orozco and let me know if this is what you’re after:
I’ve evaluated players on many occasions…
What’s interesting is that the blog comes across as soccer 101 or 201.
The things I write about are fundamental – indeed 101. What I find interesting is that the vast majority of those in the soccer community don’t actually understand these things. People including coaches at all levels of US Soccer!
We don’t even truly understand 101!!! Imagine that.
What does soccer 301 & 401 look like?
I should clarify- I love the “soccer 101” that you do, and I think it’s essential to both get your point across and to educate. I guess what am/was looking for is taking the thoughts and ideas posed in the articles, and taking it one step further. Take this article… I love the questions it poses and the intitial answers provided. But it’s answers at a broad, basic level. I think some of this might be because you are interested/involved at the youth development level, where as I have no affiliation with it and are more concerned with the immediate selections of the USMNT senior squad. For example, who would your 23 players be that you’d call into a USMNT camp? What kind of lineup would you propose? What kind of formation? What kind of realistic results would you expect? If you were handed the keys to the kingdom, what would you do as coach? To me, that’s the further step I guess I’m hoping to read. You and your brother clearly have a great concept of how the game should be played, and are much more knowledgeable than I am, so I read to learn more.
In addition, I did some more reading after I posted this comment and I did like the Orozco posting, yes that is what I mean. I guess since I haven’t followed the U-20 team very much a lot of the prospects intrigue me. And your comment about Doyle does very much intrigue me. I guess in keeping with theme, of the current U-20 squad do you see a general shift towards the high-soccer-IQ/possession-based style you preach, or is it still 2-3 players who “get it” and 9-15 others who just “run all day”? I guess I’m looking for good news that the state of US Soccer is improving!
Thanks again for taking the time to write this and educate- keep up the good work!
David S says
Most of these are Youtube kids that are decent some aren’t near the youth national teams but I think you have to admit they have a better skill set than conventional American players.