Mike's Best Guess

Mike's Best Guess
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Cullman, Alabama, United States
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December 31
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I cover high school sports for a newspaper in North Alabama, but I secretly want to write about soccer from my living room all day. Life is a compromise sometimes.

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Salon.com
Editor’s Pick
JUNE 27, 2010 5:08PM

The future of US Soccer: A six-step process

Rate: 6 Flag

Twenty-four hours after the fact, fans and players are still sifting through the wreckage that was the United States’ 2-1 loss to Ghana in the Round of 16 at the World Cup. But while the post-mortems are still being written and the second-guessing has only just begun, now is also a good time to start looking towards the future. Four years from now, the World Cup will be in Brazil, and the United States will look to at least match its run to the Round of 16 in South Africa. But how will that be done? Can the US reload and regroup? What should the US do next? Without further ado, here are six suggestions for the Yanks as they start the process over all again.

1) Embrace your inner geek: Over the past decade or so, America’s national pastime, baseball, has gone through a revolution. It’s been a revolution led by number crunchers and geeks — the kind of guys who would never be mistaken for athletes. Led by Bill James, these so-called Sabermetricians have put an unprecedented emphasis on the science and statistics behind baseball. In short, Sabermetrics attempts to assign a numerical value to a player based on verifiable information such as past performance, age and even the location of games. Whereas players were previously evaluated based on batting average and earned run averages, they’re now evaluated based on things like on-base percentage and WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched).

The transition, predictably, was slow in what is America’s most tradition-laden sport. Veteran manager Dusty Baker famously shrugged off the value of on-base percentage — which takes into account the number of times a player earns a walk — by claiming that walks are good only for “clogging up the bases for somebody who can run.” I don’t think I have to tell you that Baker has never won anything as a manager.

On the other hand, some baseball executives embraced Sabermetrics and immediately started winning. The Oakland Athletics and general manager Billy Beane did so and turned a low-budget team into a perennial playoff contender. Furthermore, the Boston Red Sox hired Theo Epstein, a fresh-faced twenty-something, as their general manager in the early 2000s — and promptly won their first championship for 86 years in 2004.

Admittedly, soccer is not as statistics-driven as baseball. But the game is coming around to the idea. These days, stat-heads record the number of touches by each player, as well as the number of kilometers he runs during a match. The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) must embrace these statistics while pursuing innovative sport-science methods to increase its chances of winning.

The idea here is simple: Once you get to the knockout stages of the World Cup — or the Major League Baseball playoffs — the difference between winning and losing is sometimes literally inches. Everyone is good at that point, and games can be decided by random chance or a moment of genius. But by studying science and statistics, you can give yourself a competitive advantage at that very moment.

2) But look outside for new ideas: Especially outside England. This point, and the first one, are borrowed mostly from the excellent book “Soccernomics,” which I’m currently reading. In it, authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski argue that England has fallen behind the core of Western European countries in the international game precisely because it relied on its own outdated methods for too long. While England relied on its own methods into the 1990s, Western European countries had the advantage of bouncing ideas off each other. Due to their proximity, an open network of new ideas and tactics developed — allowing countries like Italy, Germany and the Netherlands to overtake England, the inventors of the game.

The USSF needs to take notice of this and act accordingly. For much of its history, the USSF has, understandably, looked to its former colonial master for its soccer know-how. That was fine then, but now it’s time to open up to new ideas. For instance, Hispanics now form the largest minority in the United States, but that fact is not reflected in American soccer — with the players, coaches, administrators, trainers, etc. Opening American soccer to all kinds of new ideas, tactics and formations can only be a good thing at this point.

3) Overhaul the team: This isn’t an earth-shattering suggestion, seeing as the next World Cup is four years away. By that time, Landon Donovan will be 32, Clint Dempsey will be 31, and Tim Howard will be 35. There’s a good chance that all three will be on the World Cup roster, but if that’s the case, the rest of the team should have a new look. The entire front line, barring Jozy Altidore, should never see the World Cup again. Ditto for midfielder Ricardo Clark and defender Jay DeMerit. Defenders Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra should retire gracefully and give someone else a chance.

4) Deepen the talent pool: This is closely related to the second point, especially with the part about the booming Hispanic population in the United States. Millions upon millions of young, talented, enthusiastic Hispanic-Americans play the game, meaning the USSF potentially has a very deep talent pool at its disposal.

But here’s the thing: In American culture, soccer is seen as exclusively for the middle and upper classes. Much like in hockey, only affluent families can afford to have their children play for elite club teams. This is a crying shame, because everywhere else in the world, soccer is the people’s game. In England, for example, middle- and upper-class youths play cricket and rugby, while the working classes play soccer. England would do well to attract more players from the upper and middle classes, but the USSF would do well to attract players from the other end of the economic spectrum.

This is where baseball again provides a fine example. For decades now, African-American participation in baseball at all levels has been declining sharply. In response, Major League Baseball now funds programs to attract inner-city African-American youths to the game. The USSF and Major League Soccer need to do the same, with Hispanics and African-Americans being the targets.

In short, the biggest talent pool is most likely to produce the best players. And your talent pool will never be big enough if it’s too monochromatic and it excludes one economic class.

5) Change the manager: Berserk Bob was rightly praised for his in-game adjustments during the World Cup. Because of those adjustments, his team consistently played better in the second half than it did in the first. But it doesn’t take a genius to see the flip side of that coin: Berserk Bob wouldn’t have had to make those adjustments if he had only made the right decisions before the games began.

But that’s not what Berserk Bob did. Instead, he invariably made tactical blunders involving personnel and formations. Starting Ricardo Clark in central midfield against Ghana was more than puzzling: It was stupid. Maurice Edu starred in that position against Algeria and since he had only played one full game, fatigue was not an issue. But instead of sticking with the player that got him there, Berserk Bob went with the player whose error directly led to England’s goal in the opener. Unsurprisingly — to us, but not to Berserk Bob, apparently — Clark made a similar error against Ghana that led to a similarly devastating early goal.

But that wasn’t his only error. Berserk Bob insisted on pairing Jozy Altidore with Robbie Findley or another equally poor striker in the starting lineup of every game. After invariably struggling in the first half with poor strikers who fluffed clear chances, Berserk Bob invariably chose to move Clint Dempsey from midfield to forward at halftime and bring in Benny Feilhaber to fill Dempsey’s spot. The results were always good: The US looked more dangerous and scored more goals. So why didn’t Berserk Bob ever start a game like that? Only he will ever know.

In the end, the Yanks met their pre-tournament expectations by reaching the knockout stages. But that’s no reason to keep Berserk Bob around. They made it that far in spite of him, not because of him. The team was never adequately prepared to play, and that showed in its tendency to allow early goals. That’s on the manager. Furthermore, though the pre-tournament expectation was to reach the Round of 16, that changed the moment the US received its favorable draw in the knockout round as the winner of Group C. Bob Bradley did not do enough to keep his job, and he has to go.

As a replacement, the USSF should bring in a non-American with a new perspective and new methods (see Point No. 2).

6) Don’t expect instant success: Here in Alabama, another form of football is king — college football of the gridiron variety. But it's not just king —  it’s nearly a state-sponsored religion. The Alabama Crimson Tide is the most important entity of any kind in the state. Good or bad, it is what it is. But before last year, Alabama and its fans had been living off of old glories for decades. Under legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, the Tide won six national championships in the 60s and 70s, and established itself as a perennial power. But after the Bear retired in 1982, the program fell on hard times. Another national title in 1992 under Bear-disciple Gene Stallings proved to be a false dawn, and the Tide consistently fielded a poor team for the following 15 years.

But in 2007, the university brought in a new coach named Nick Saban, who had won a national title with Louisiana State only four years before. Understanding the fans’ expectations, Saban knew he had to deliver the goods — but he also knew that tempering those expectations was prudent. From the day of his hire, Saban went on and on about what he called “The Process,” which was really just fancy talk for rebuilding the team. But by recruiting superior players and bringing in the best coaches, Saban delivered the national title in 2009 — in only his third season on the job.

Now, the USSF doesn’t have a glorious history to live up to, but it does have the weight of expectations from a US public that’s used to backing winners. With that in mind, the USSF can’t set unrealistic goals for itself anymore. After the success of the 1994 World Cup, the USSF set itself the goal of winning the World Cup by 2010. It was laudable, but misguided. These things take time, and even if you have a great team, there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever win a World Cup (just ask the Netherlands or Spain). Instead of setting unrealistic expectations, the USSF should follow Saban's lead by recruiting the best players from across the country and hire the best coaches with fresh ideas that can turn talented players into great players. 

For now, the goal should be to advance out of the group stage every time. Beyond that, the USSF needs to continue developing players — Project 40 was a good start — but stop neglecting athletes from less affluent backgrounds. With a bigger talent pool and fresh ideas circulating throughout the country, winning a World Cup is possible — one day. But the fans, players and coaches need to be patient and understand that it’s a long, hard process.

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world cup, soccer, football

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Mike,
I totally agree!!! Jurgen Klinnsman basically espoused the same beliefs you have about player development but he and Gulati could not agree which is why "Klinsi" said "Nein" to to him about the job in 2006. I am hoping and praying that Sunil and USSF will do the right thing this time around. Hey Klinnsman is still available..it's never too late to rectify a mistake !?!? I really think that would take this team and program to the next level..look at what Germany did to England today!?!? Now if we had a team like that which Jurgen basically laid the groundwork for during his coaching stint in 2006 with Germany imagine how awesome the USMNT would become?? I grin from ear to ear thinking about it. ;-)
I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw Clark starting against Ghana. Another example of Bradley making a smart change after the damage was already done: Onyewu. Gooch had no business starting in the world cup. He was never 100%. His poor performance against the Czech Republic should have ensured that he wouldn't be in the starting 11. It almost cost the US advancing out of the group stage with the two goals he gave up to Slovenia.
Thanks for the perspective, Mike.
With all due respect, these x number of things the US should do to make marginal improvements in a team picked from a pool of untalented American players is a waste of time. You only have to take a liesurely drive around any American town, looking at the soccer fields, school grounds and parks to realize that the United States will never field a team that can compete at the level of teams that consistently finish in the top 4 at the World Cup. See any kids playing pick-up games of soccer the way kids play basketball? Nah. It's all organized. Kids never get a chance to learn from older kids by playing the game. Baseball went down the same drain, a fact that's been covered up by performance enhancing drugs. Black kids aren't interested in baseball? They're too busy playing basketball on every available court. They don't need organized leagues and amateur coaches, trying to show them how to do something based on some info in a book. Even if the United States disbanded every organized kid's soccer league in American, it would take a couple of generations of kids learning the game on their own before America is ready to compete in the World Cup.
Very interesting analysis. I don't know a lot about soccer, but your commentaries have made me more interested in the sport.
A thoughtful analysis and very specific. It seems to me too that the other successful teams have several quicker ball handlers - more skillful dribblers - than the U.S.
Seems as if we go more for position and strength. Donovan was the only one that seemed to ever control the ball in traffic - the others just looked for the straight open shot and blasted it. Maybe I'm missing something? Any thoughts?
The bottom line: in countries with amazing soccer teams and a passionate fan-base, the kids start out kicking around any roundish object they can find in the streets, during any spare time they can find. There is nothing else, and your parents don't have a dime to help you. It's a religion and the goal is to achieve sainthood.

Here in America, your mommy signs you up for a soccer team where "everyone plays" and hassles you about attending practice twice a week, in between all your other lessons and activities. If you're good, she pays for you to be on a pricey club team, where again, practices are organized by adults. There is rarely any free-play soccer, pickup games, and the parents worry about "spending too much time in sports."

When the drive and determination doesn't come from the child himself, when it's not totally up to him to perfect his skill, he will never develop that insane love for the game that's necessary to cultivate a truly remarkable national team. Here in America, we have professional athletes. In other countries, they have gods.
Diamonds&Rust and Billy Glad: I think you're both on to something here. I've been trying to come up with a response, and I can't think of much. The only thing I'd say is that by continuing to build the game's profile in America, more and more kids will see people like them excelling at it while wearing American colors at the World Cup or playing for an elite European team — and thus want to emulate those players. But your points are very valid.

Grif: You're also right. Our players, even Donovan, don't have the touch that the world's best do. That's especially true of their first touch. On American TV, Jurgen Klinsmann said the same thing. He was interested in the job four years ago before pulling his name out of the running. Maybe he'll take the job this time if Bradley is let go.
I agree with a lot of what you say, with a couple of exceptions:

1) Overhaul the roster. As you say, four years will bring changes anyway. But I hope that Dempsey, Donovan and Howard are in form and make the 23-man roster in 2014. I think you have to plan on Michael Bradley and Altidore as well. It seems like a fair bet that Guzan will also be there. After that, everything is conjecture. But I would be very uneasy if we have a completely new defense corps with absolutely no World Cup experience. I, for one, hope that either Bornstein or Gooch at least is able to make the squad. If not them, maybe one of the old men still has some gas left in the tank (Cherundolo, Demerit or Bocanegra). Two seasoned defenders minimum, please! And up front, Davies seems like a possibility. In the midfield, other than those mentioned above, seems like Feilhaber and Edu should at least get a shot to prove they belong before we banish them.

2) Fire Bob. While it would be intriguing to see what Klinsmann could do, I don't see that Bradley's performance has warranted his firing. Also, contrary to soccer conventional wisdom, I think the team could benefit from some stability. Maybe he's not Sir Alex Ferguson, but why must we ditch the man who led us to possibly the most successful two years of modern American soccer history?

People have to let a player have a bad game here and there without always blaming the coach for believing in them. Everyone loved Rico last year during the Confed Cup run, when he and Clint were clicking, but now he's a pariah and Bradley a fool for starting him. To be fair, I wouldn't have started him either if it was up to me, but I'm sure Bradley had something in mind other than "Hey, Rico is an old favorite of mine." It just didn't work out this time. And Findley didn't perform as well as Gomez or even Buddle (who wasn't much to look at in his 39 minutes either) but all three were not up to snuff for the World Cup it seems to me. We just didn't have the options at forward. I, too, question why Feilhaber never started. But I also question whether I need to bother to shower or put on clean clothes before I take up residence on my couch every afternoon, so maybe I must defer to someone who sees these guys play every day.
Mike, I happened to be thinking about your piece as I watched Brazil v. Chile today. You can teach Brazil's first goal. But I don't know how you could teach Kaká's first touch to Fabiano to set up the second goal. On the other hand, Kaká seems to have come from the kind of family that's driving youth soccer in the US. Maybe we should pour more resources into our Olympic Development programs.