Blogpost, SoccerLifeBalance

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes of Soccer: The opportunity of COVID-19 to fix American youth soccer

When music stores still existed on a large scale, I was mainly listening to punk rock. As I would shuffle through the CDs in the punk section looking for something by Millencolin, I would invariably see Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. It was a strange enough name to catch the eye but I never really looked into them because Youtube and other sampling tools weren’t available. In preparation for this article, I decided to look more closely at their history and catalogue. I just liked the name to hammer home an idea but it turned out to be more perfect than I thought. Me First… is made up of members from different rock bands and they perform punk cover versions of popular songs like “Mandy” by Barry Manilow or “Hello” by Lionel Richie. They take other people’s winners and dress them up a little differently. There’s nothing really wrong with what the Gimme Gimmes are doing because the original songwriters get a portion of the revenue produced. Now that you’re up to speed on Me First… let’s see what was can do about youth soccer.

The system of youth soccer in America is in need of an overhaul. The dissolution of the DA may end up being a positive in the long run but from top to bottom there’s a lot more wrong. Me First and the Gimme Gimmes are not pretending to be anything more than what they are a cover band. However their name seems to be a perfect way to describe the overall ethos of youth soccer at the moment. Leagues, clubs, trainers, tournaments, etc. are all part of a system that seems to be less about soccer and more about money. This is a game that could be almost free for kids to play but here it is big business. Why? Because the system is so disjointed that it allows people to take advantage and there is no real incentive to act in the interest of the greater good. So my hope is that the hiatus that we are on will shed some light on those issues. Allow me to explain.

In most countries there is a soccer pyramid that makes some form of sense. Teams that are higher up the pyramid get there by a type of meritocracy. The same is true about players. A player must climb the pyramid as well. Perhaps they are fortunate to get discovered early in their career. In the professional ranks, teams can either develop their own talent through their academy system or buy talent from elsewhere. If a player is bought, then their youth club gets some form of financial compensation called development payment. This money allows the smaller clubs to continue to develop players. Sometimes the financial gain is worth letting go of a good player. It helps the club’s finances and the player usually moves on to a higher level.

In the American system, there is no incentive for clubs to let go of their players. Development payments are not recognized yet by the USSF. Therefore clubs are less likely to help talented players move on. A quality player or team of players raise the perceived clout of the club and can bring in more money. Since the US does not embrace development payments, all of the money is brought in from the families of the players. So every player is also a customer and losing customers is not a good strategy for staying in business. Although this is a major problem, it is not the only one. Due to the lack of overarching structure the United States soccer “pyramid” has many organizational flaws. The lack of a concrete system allows perception to dominate common practice. NCAA, NAIA, ECNL, NPL, AYSO, US Club, ODP, and so many other acronyms are part of a landscape of muddied waters. Each acronym with their own vested interest that may or may not serve the betterment of their players or soccer in general.

Although the system is dysfunctional and needs an overhaul, a pandemic might be the perfect cure for what ails soccer in the US. More than anything, it is giving people time to reflect.

  1. Path to the Pros – USSF has already taken this opportunity to dissolve the DA. Although it may take some time for MLS to get its replacement right, in the end, any club in the “Development Academy” league should have some direct path to the professional game. This change can separate the cream of the crop from the pretenders who pay a lot for the prestige of being in the DA.
  2. Going Solo – The pandemic has forced all training sessions to be shut down. So since players can’t see their high priced trainers, they’re practicing on their own. It probably shouldn’t be this big of a revelation but American kids and parents are recognizing that skills practice in isolation can help. The flip side of this coin could also be a revelation. A kid who is not practicing during this huge opportunity to get ahead of competition, probably doesn’t love the sport enough to justify a huge financial investment.
  3. Dollars and Sense – With the economic impact of the pandemic on the average family’s income, most people are going to have to consider their expenditures heavily. So high priced soccer clubs are going to have to take a backseat to things like food, health care, electricity, etc. With the loss of DA status and the financial crunch that so many will be feeling, clubs will either prove their value or struggle to survive. If you’ve ever read my work before, I’m a huge proponent of the local club for the vast majority of players.
  4. Come Together – We can’t right now but eventually when we can, the game is going to need fans. Support your local MLS, USL or NPSL team. The common refrain that I get when I talk to people about supporting professional soccer in America is “I can’t watch MLS, it sucks!” This stance only helps the ego of the person who is willing to believe it. MLS is NOT the Premier League or La Liga or the Bundesliga or the Serie A. Roger that! However, do you really desire to have the best leagues in the world be an ocean away? Or would you rather have the best soccer in the world being played right in your backyard? If the answer is that you love the long distance relationship, then great. If you want the best to be within your reach, then you have to pay attention NOW! Investors are going to put money into soccer, only if they see that the product is selling. So Euro snobbery is only going to perpetuate the status quo.

So now I circle back to the beginning, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. I’ve seen a lot of things throughout this pandemic and the attacks of 9/11 and other tragedies to know that people in this country are not all about themselves. Not everyone has got their hands out looking to take from others. However when things are “normal”, we’re so damn busy and distracted that we don’t think much about the collective. How we all fit into the bigger picture. Soccer is a we sport! My hope is that this pandemic will teach us the lesson that WE are all in the together: soccer, life, the world.

SoccerLifeBalance

Hard Work Pushing Young Bull Forward – Brian White (New York Red Bulls)

bwhiteBrian White was the first draft pick taken by the New York Red Bulls in the 2018 MLS Draft.  In this conversation we talk about some of the things that set him apart as an athlete and the transition to life as a professional athlete.

SoccerLifeBalance

If The USMNT Doesn’t Win The WC By/In 2026, It’s My Fault!

There are some things that are just NOT done in polite American society!  You don’t ask a woman if she’s pregnant.  You don’t talk politics with your in-laws.  You don’t talk about money in mixed company.  And if you’re an American soccer fan, you don’t agree with Alexi Lalas!  I am about to break that last social norm.  Alexi gave a description of the apples to oranges comparison of US Soccer’s failings to the successes of Croatia and Iceland.  I totally agree.  The component pieces of the soccer landscapes and national culture in each country are so completely disparate that comparison is a fool’s errand that is at best click bate and at worst sophisticated soccer tail chasing.  So let’s take the American soccer “watermelon*” and inspect it on its own merit to see where we’re going.

First of all, let’s take the population discussion completely off the table because it is irrelevant on many levels.  Only 2 countries in the top 20 by population have won a World Cup (Brazil and Germany).  Of that same top 20, nine nations have never qualified for a World Cup.  If more people was the answer, China and India would be in the final every four years.  The fact that the US is larger than another country does not indicate that it should be more likely to win (or perform well) at the World Cup.  So it is much more complicated than that.

The story of the nations that have won at least one or even multiple World Cups comes down to a convergence of many factors but probably the most crucial is a soccer (football) culture.  The nations that have been able to win or compete well at World Cups all have a culture that supports and/or increases their success on the field.  Culture, in very general terms, can be characterized by the statement “People like us, do things like this.”  So in those high performing soccer nations, people do several things that perpetuate the high level of play or induce improvement.  Generally speaking this is not a top down process.  Culture is a product of many little decisions made by thousands or millions of individuals, not a handful of powerful individuals making decisions.  So if World Cup success is in the future for the United States, it will follow the adoption of a soccer culture, not create one.

So even though the size of Iceland does not matter, the fact that so many Icelandic people do the Viking clap does.  It sends a message to every single player on the team and child who is adopting the game.  The message is “This matters to us!”  That message changes the daily actions of people.  Given the choice between extra ball work or not, players in those environments recognize that something important is at stake.

With that understanding well established, I will go back to the title.  If the USMNT doesn’t win the World Cup in/by 2026, it’s my fault!  This statement may seem crazy to some but if you’ve been paying attention it becomes plainly obvious.  Culture is created by individual decisions made by the masses.  It’s on ME!  And YOU!  And everyone else attached to this game in the US.  No longer can we hope that copying Barcelona drills or hiring English trainers or attending foreign friendlies on their summer tours is enough.  Every one of us that considers ourselves a part of soccer in the US needs to up their game.  What does that mean?

pulisicIt means action by the many.  In some ways this endeavor is truly in line with American culture (of the past at least).  It is almost inherently American to identify a challenge and conquer it.  For most of our country’s history, that was almost common place.  We (the people) took on monumental tasks as a collective.  Unfortunately we seem to be at a point in history where we expect other people to do it for us.  We can outsource it or it’s the government, corporation or system’s fault that things aren’t going right.  The problem lies with someone else or it’s just too hard and I can’t be bothered.  FUCK THAT!!!  We need to step up for the next eight years!  Not in some grandiose, out of reach way but in simple ways that can have a cumulative effect.  The main thing that will be required is a long term view.  So here are some of my suggestions based on a variety of perspectives.  It’s by no means a complete list but it’s a start.  Add your own thoughts in the comments.

  • Watch MLS games – More eyes = more dollars = better players = better league = better US player pool.  If you watch the EPL or la Liga but don’t watch MLS, you need to start.  I know that MLS is not as good as the top leagues at the moment.  However if we don’t pay attention now, it won’t have the monetary resources to get better.
  • Focus on players getting better  – If you’re a parent, coach, or associated with youth soccer in any other way; put progress of the player over the result on the day.  This is so extremely difficult for people to embrace because the desire for status is so hardwired into our minds.  One of the reasons that we continue to struggle on the international stage is that we are enamored with being the biggest fish in the small pond.
  • Be active – There are all kinds of ways that the US soccer culture could improve but it needs people to do.  Passivity is only going to perpetuate mediocrity.  Let your voice be heard, your actions be seen and your passion be felt.  You matter in this endeavor.

As you finish up reading this article, I hope that you have a small inkling of the feeling that I have.  It’s only a matter of time before the US wins a World Cup.  Soccer is no longer the game for everyone else but US.  The momentum of the sport in this country is well on its way but now it needs our help to reach escape velocity.  To overcome the inertia of ambivalence and low expectations, WE all must do our small part to reach the highest of heights.  But there are no guarantees.  WE must bet on the fact that together it will be enough.  And if it’s not!  IT’S MY FAULT!

Pete

 

*I’ve chosen a watermelon because it is my favorite fruit.  It’s also large but lacks overpowering flavor and its seeds are possibly potent but they are often discarded or made to disappear before they can materialize.

SoccerLifeBalance, Uncategorized

The Sport of the 21st Century

MonroeThe 20th Century of the United States was largely dominated by an industrial economy.  The US rode the wave of the industrial revolution into prominence on the world stage.  Factories flourished thanks to interchangeable parts and largely interchangeable people.  Most workers in the 20th Century were able to earn a substantial living by doing simple repetitive tasks under the orders of their bosses.

In this system, it is no wonder that the sport of the century was Football.  In so many ways, football was representative of the American way.  It was progressive.  Moving forward was success and moving backward was failure.  It mirrored our historical land acquisition with its own “land acquisition”.  The decisions were made by a few bosses and executed by largely  interchangeable people.  The sport was the perfect corollary for the industrial age and both served the country well in their time.

Now that the industrial age has passed and we have moved into what many are calling the “Connection Economy”.  The people who create value in the market place are not interchangeable cogs in a vast machinery.  Cogs can be replaced, automated or outsourced to other countries.  True value in the modern economy is created by an individual whose contributions are irreplaceable and unique.

This change begs for a different representation in sport.  The football model of “run the play” holds little value when the rules of the game change so quickly.  Soccer’s flexibility and subjectivity require that players deal with complex problems and must make individual decisions for the betterment of the collective.  Since each player is a decision maker, principles rather than directives are the dictating forces.  No one person is in control.  Therefore players must learn to control themselves and direct themselves in an uncertain environment.

The beautiful game will become “America’s Game”.  It is just a matter of time.

SoccerLifeBalance, Uncategorized

Can The Next USSF President Undo Trump Damage?

Trump
Make American Soccer Great!

The election of a new USSF President is almost upon us.  Although the holder of this post may not be as recognized as the President of the United States, the impact of soccer on the world is not a thing to be discounted.  It has both started and ended violence.  So with this decision looming in the near future, what impact will the new POTUSSF have on the sport and the country at large?

To the general public, the answer would most definitely be “none”.  It is an absurd thought to give this decision anything more than a passing glance on their newsfeed.  This is an organization that specializes in a sport that garners almost complete indifference from most of its populace.  It’s national power would, to the average citizen, rank somewhere around that of the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts of America.  Mostly kids and adults running around to get medals and club patches.  While that characterization might be accurate on certain levels, it completely discounts several factors that could have a tsunami type affect based on this relative flap of a butterfly’s wing.

Perception Is Reality

It’s often not pretty but the perception of truth often has greater staying power than the actual truth.  At the moment, the United States has an international perception problem.  Regardless of your personal feelings about Donald Trump, his policies or his impact on the United States; he is projecting many of the characteristics most disliked about Americans.  His overall agenda to “Make America Great Again” seems to come with the postscript, “non-Americans watch out.”  Despite being only one man, the President has the dubious responsibility of being a partial personification of what the United States is.  Mr. Trump’s actions, statements and Tweets may be his own but they also belong to all Americans when viewed from afar.

The Butterfly’s Wing

Eight candidates are being considered with varying degrees of experience, personal motive and leadership potential.  While I’ll keep my personal preference on candidates completely out of this, the worst thing that the voters could do in these circumstances would be to elect on celebrity rather than ability.  The reason being that the perception of the USSF and its new President has very real implications in a short period of time.  The selection of the host for the 2026 World Cup will be made on June 13th.  While the North American Triad of the USA, Mexico and Canada may seem like a sure thing when pitted against Morocco, small nations have dealt us unlikely defeat recently (and I won’t bring up Qatar either).

Winning the bid to host the 2026 World Cup is one of the crucial components to a successful Presidency for any of these candidates.  Failure to secure this bid is not just bad for soccer, it is bad for this country.

In the mind of the general citizen of the United State in 2018, the World Cup is nothing more than a soccer tournament.  It’s a fun diversion at best and non-factor for most.  However in an even more interconnected world of 2026, it is a spotlight shining directly onto the United States.  This event gives us the opportunity to be gracious hosts to the world.  While seemingly trivial from the inside, this role could be crucial to change an international perception of a nation that exports entertainment and soldiers under a leader of singular self-interest.  As news becomes more dependent on the “man on the street”, it is conceivable (if not) probable that brand America’s reputation in the remote corners of the world will depend on the personal experiences of a group of soccer fans supporting their team in egocentric America.

Stirring the Melting Pot

In addition to the World Cup bid, the new President will at the very least have an influence over the involvement of Hispanic communities in US soccer.  The recent loss of Jonathan Gonzalez to the Mexican National Team system is not so much a loss of talent but a loss of contact.  The roots of many Hispanic Americans in this country run deep.  US history is so inextricably intertwined with that of Hispanic heritage that a number of our states and cities have Spanish names (regardless of how we pronounce them).  The involvement of Hispanic players, coaches and fans (or lack thereof) in US soccer will be another key to US soccer counteracting the more pervasive American perceived ethos.

While soccer does not possess the ability to cure all that ails this country, it can be a catalyst for positive change.  The leadership that is selected must realize the importance of this game, not only as a sport but a form of quasi religion that can galvanize the people under its spell.  With this power comes great responsibility, here’s to hoping that the lesser of the two presidents is able to learn from the missteps of the commander in chief.  “Let’s Make American Soccer Great!”

Thanks for reading!

Pete

PS – Historically speaking, host nations seem to have a greater likelihood of winning the World Cup.  With young players like Pulisic and Adams being in their mid twenties in 2026, there’s a fighter’s chance.