In my previous life as editor of Culture of Soccer I used to do a weekly roundup of stories that I creatively called What I’m Reading. I made no particular attempt to be comprehensive with this feature; it was simply a collection of stories I had found interesting that week with a bit of commentary to tie them all together. With the launch of XI, it seemed like a good idea to reprise this concept. So here it is, renamed for this new venture, as “Good Soccer Reads.”
The new season in MLS has brought some interesting stories on the place of the league today. An video interview by Pat Coyle with Chris Schlosser, general manager for MLS’s digital operations, is well worth viewing. Particularly interesting is the discussion (at 8:50) of the role that social media has played in the reinvention of Sporting Kansas City (nee Wizards and Wiz). Watching Kansas City beat the Galaxy last week, I was struck by just how completely the club has reinvented itself. From the days of very few fans in the cavernous Arrowhead stadium to today, when the team regularly fills up their new LiveStrong Sporting Park, the turnaround has been incredible.
The growth of Sporting KC is only one example of a trend of growth in MLS. Gone are the days of contraction. Today many MLS teams boast new stadiums and rabid followings. So it’s interesting to note that for all the professionalization and growth, the lives of many MLS players are still less than glamorous. As Randy Phillips wrote this week in the Montreal Gazette, many players eek out lives on salaries similar to those of average workers. Phillips quotes Montreal Impact director of operations as saying that, for many players,
“It’s hard,” he said. “It depends on the city the player lives in. It easier to survive on that in Montreal than it is in New York City.
“There are different things guys can do,” he added. “Most guys are single and share an apartment, which helps to bring down their expenses.”
Jordan said the league is examining an initiative that might help players on the low end of the salary scale by allowing certain luxuries, but added: “Nothing has been approved.”
The growth of MLS has come about, in no small part, because the quality of young, homegrown players has improved drastically from the early years of the league. US Soccer has focused on youth development in the past few years, putting in place the Academy system. The recent announcement that players on Academy teams would be prohibited from playing high school soccer has brought about controversy. Numerous articles have popped up in papers about the impact this new policy will have, and I was struck by one in a paper close to where I grew up. Writing in the Springfield (Ohio) News-Sun, David Jablonski quotes Lakota East high school coach Danny Landrum:
“If there’s a player who’s seen by the right people to be a future professional-caliber player, sure I think maybe you skip high school soccer and do what you have to do to make that jump,” he said. “You’re talking about less than 1 percent of the players who play. Of course, you need a whole team for that one player. The other kids are going to be sold a bill of goods: ‘This is what you need to do. Skip high school soccer.’ At the end of the day, they’ll have missed out on something that’s pretty special.”
One of the goals of the changes to the youth development strategy that US Soccer is implementing is to reduce the emphasis on winning in favor of developing young talent. On the release of the new coaching curriculum Claudio Reyna told Soccer America’s Mike Woitalla:
“Our players are naturally competitive,” Reyna said. “We don’t need to ramp that up anymore. The whistle blows, our kids want to win. That’s one of our strengths and we’re proud of it. But if we’re manipulating and thinking winning-over-development, we’re making a huge mistake. We’re short-cutting the development of players. …
“Our aim is to produce skillful, creative, confident players.”
Reyna, who made several references to Barcelona’s famed youth program, quoted star playmaker Xavi: “Some youth academies worry about winning. We worry about education.”
So it was interesting to me to read an article this week with Spanish journalist Marti Perarnau about La Masia, Barcelona’s famed youth academy. Interviewed by Paul Grech for the website Blueprint for Football, Perarnau disputed the idea that Barcelona youth teams only focus on development. Instead, he argued, they focus on development and winning.
Q: How important are the results?
A: A lot. Pep Guardiola says that you cannot separate training and competition. You aren’t there not to lose: you are there to win. Winning or losing is part of the comprehensive education and the club looks to win always, but through a set way to play. In this they are ruthless: you have to do everything possible to win, but with an undisputed way of play.
The challenge in US youth soccer, then, may be more a question of balance between development and winning, rather than focusing only on development. A good argument could be made that the emphasis has become skewed towards winning, in part because, as US youth clubs have long been self-sufficient entities, separate from professional clubs, there has been less payoff (literally and figuratively) for developing young players. A top youth club of a professional team can distinguish itself by developing players for the first team; many top youth clubs in the US have no connection to pro teams and so winning is the easiest way for them to distinguish themselves. Moving away from an overemphasis on winning may be a good thing, but, as Marti Perarnau shows, winning need not be completely separate from development.
Two other quick items from these shores:
1) Historian Roger Allaway lists the top attendances at US stadiums for soccer games.
2) Did you know that the parents of Yu Darvish, the Japanese pitcher for the Texas Rangers, met in the US, where Darvish’s father had come to play college soccer. As Jim Caple wrote for ESPN in December 2011,
“If the name Darvish doesn’t sound Japanese, there is a reason. He is the son of an Iranian father, Farsad, and a Japanese mother, Ikuyu, who met — where else? — in Florida. Farsad said he played soccer at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg until the U.S. embassy takeover in 1979 and the coach benched him.”
Reminds me of former Real Madrid midfielder Santiago Solari, who played for Division III Richard Stockton College in New Jersey for a single season in 1994. Yes, really.
Beyond North American shores, the New York Times ran an article this week by Robert Andrew Powell about his new book on the Indios, a former soccer team in the violence-ridden Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez. Unfortunately, as Powell write, the team disintegrates and is no longer in existence. It makes the comparison with the Xolos of Tijuana even more striking. Tijuana, like Ciudad Juarez, has long suffered through violence related to Mexico’s crackdown on drug trafficking. But unlike Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana has been able to do more to control the violence and the city has rebounded. While the Indios no longer exist, the Xolos have made it to the first division and are now pushing for a playoff spot.
American coach Bob Bradley, currently in charge of the Egyptian national team, is getting an education in politics in ways that would never have happened during his time in charge of the US. A controversy arose recently over whether the comments he made to the BBC blaming the military for the Port Said tragedy were taken out of context. At the same time, Bradley is being harangued by former Egyptian boss Mohsen Saleh, who, according to Hatem Maher of Al-Ahram, “went so far as to accuse Bradley of being part of a ‘conspiracy’ orchestrated by American NGOs operating in Egypt.” Bradley may have received his fair share of criticism during his time coaching in the US, but I’m willing to bet this is the first time he’s been accused of plotting to destabilize a sovereign government.