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.

Blogpost, SoccerLifeBalance

The Comparison Problem (Soccer in the USA)

Women’s Soccer is an American sport. Men’s Soccer isn’t (yet). Therein lies the problem of comparing the two on every level. Although they kick the same ball, they are very different for a variety of reasons. Just in case anyone reading this is waiting for my arguments against equal pay, they’re not coming. I believe the women’s compensation from USSF should be “equal”. (actually fair is the right word because the structures of compensation are vastly different and should be for now) The drum that I’m banging on is the need to separate the men’s game in this country from the women’s game for a while (about 12 years is my guess).

Women’s soccer is an American sport and if that was not obvious before, it should be after the 2019 Women’s World Cup. All American sports have a distinct characteristic: first mover’s advantage. The reason that the best leagues in the world for football, baseball and basketball reside within the United States is that these leagues existed before the rest of the world was overly interested in them. Yes, the players in baseball may now come from a variety of islands to the south but they are playing in the stadiums that were built by the legacy of the Babe, Rose, Clemens, etc.

“But the women’s league in the US has failed multiple times and the NWSL is propped up by National Federations.” Absolutely correct but the institution of Title IX gave women’s soccer a place to breed female talent before any other nation cared. The proof was on full display during this Women’s World Cup. Both coaches in the final played soccer in college and neither were born in the US. Soccer on the women’s side has been growing in the United States for decades. It is only recently that other nations are beginning to invest in the idea of women playing soccer. France and Spain in particular have begun the difficult game of catch-up but they have many obstacles to overcome and many don’t rely on money. Rose Lavelle was a standout performer in this World Cup because of Mia Hamm. A culture of women’s sport does not develop overnight and the rest of the world needs to contend with that issue. Unfortunately a majority of the female soccer stars on the international stage are from one country.

The exact reverse situation exists on the men’s side. Soccer is not an American sport (yet). The heroes that young players in the US idolize are usually not from their country. The best talent from the US is exported rather than imported. The game does not have a “first mover’s advantage”. It is one of the last dogs to get to the feeding bowl and often the traditional American sports have taken the greatest athletic talent before soccer gets a sniff. So the comparison of women’s and men’s soccer in the United States is at best apple to oranges and at worst unfairly skewed. But do not despair comparison people! The playing field will eventually be level, again I’d guess in about 12 years.

To use a phrase from Peter Diamandis’ book “BOLD”, men’s soccer in the United States is in a deceptive phase. Diamandis uses this moniker to describe a period when progress in technology seems to be almost non-existent. Results have looked basically the same for a long time with the USMNT. Win some, lose some but never a sense of dominance like the women enjoy, even in our own region. The reason why this is a deceptive phase is because all of the groundwork for the breakout of the men’s game has been happening for 25 years. Slowly, fathers who played now have sons who play. Soccer is becoming less of an afterthought and more of staple. The professional game is stable in this country and there is more soccer shown on TV in this country than ever before. So while the results of the Gold Cup may be disappointing, it is not truly a representation of where the men’s game is now. It is on the cusp of disruption.

This is where I’ll stick a pin in my argument for not comparing the women’s and men’s soccer programs for a while. Eventually the two will be on a level playing field as the rest of the world catch up to our women and the men disrupt the status quo in American sports culture and world soccer. I’m not sure which will happen first but I’m fully confident that they are both going to happen!

Enjoy the games!

Pete

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Freedom Is Responsibility (Trump and Rapinoe)

The World Cup is always filled with drama. Most of the time it happens on the field. It also usually happens between players, coaches and other people involved in soccer in some way. As the United States Women’s National Team prepares to take on France, host nation and one of the other favorites to win the cup, the biggest drama coming from France has almost nothing to do with France, the World Cup or soccer at all. Many more eyes and ears have become focused on the World Cup because of the comments made by Megan Rapinoe and Donald Trump. Since most news outlets have latched onto the story, I won’t repeat it here. This clash has sprung out of the fact that even though the two seem to have nothing in common, they both like the spotlight. So how can we use all of the light that’s been shone onto this situation? Remember that freedom is responsibility.

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In so many ways, freedom has become fashioned into a thought process that “I can do what I want.” While there is some truth to that statement it glosses over one of the inherent costs of freedom. “I need to let other people do what they want, even when it diametrically opposes what I believe is right.” Embracing freedom is easy when it is your own, it becomes difficult when it belongs to others.

So as the lights are focused on these two characters that represent very different factions of our country, my hope is that one or both of them remembers their responsibility. They both represent this country on an international stage and they have the opportunity to exercise their freedom of speech and action for the betterment of themselves OR the people who are watching. This is not Reagan imploring Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”. It is a professional athlete who represents several ideals like equality in compensation, LGTBQ rights and racial equality and a president who has promised to “Make America Great Again”.

During their moment in the spotlight together, what will each of them do? Will they choose the spotlight and the clicks or will they choose the responsibility of their freedom? Rapinoe can turn that light from herself “not going to the White House” and shine it directly onto the people that she represents and their stories/struggles. The President could equally use the bright lights of this situation to address those same people and help “Make America Great” for them because Again excludes them. America was not great for women, LGTBQ or minorities in the past.

Both people have the freedom that this country affords them. My hope is that they take the responsibility seriously and see that it is not about them. It’s about us. The US may win or lose today against France. The question is can we find a way to win as a country in our daily lives? Or have we become so enamored with our own freedom that we no longer recognize the freedom of others? Republican, democrat, black, white, brown, green, woman, man, transgender, gay, straight….. at a certain point we need to figure out how to be neighbors and make America great! Even if it is for the first time for everyone.

Have a great day!

Pete

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The Women’s World Cup (Spoken and Unspoken Messages)

The Women’s World Cup has been a roller coaster ride from the beginning.  Although I support the US Women’s National Team, I am much more interested in the women’s game growing and being accepted in its own right worldwide.  Most of the results have been in line with expectation.  However the results are not all that matters.  Even though there are more games to be played, this World Cup is sending messages.  Some of them need to be heard and emulated, others need to be learned from then possibly forgotten.  Regardless, I thought it was worth the time to recap some of the biggest beats so far.

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Lone voices aren’t loud – The absence of one of the best players in the world has largely gone unnoticed.  Norway has performed relatively well without their Ballon d’Or winner, Ada Hegerberg.  Her decision to stay out of the Norwegian National Team was a mild source of intrigue but in the end has been overtaken by other story lines.  There is just too much happening in a World Cup that the absence of one person is going to invoke great change.  If the World Cup is the best platform for female athletes to make a statement (and I believe that it is), then it requires a much more evident and pervasive stance.  Perhaps all of the teams deciding, they are not going to play for the first minute of each game because they want to make a statement about inequality.  Instead of kicking of an internationally televised game exactly when the whistle blows, a minute, thirty seconds, ten seconds is taken for all of the players to stand together against a common foe of inequality.

Objectively Subjective – Although it has people behind it, one of the loudest voices of the tournament has no voice at all.  VAR has all but taken over a tournament that is supposed to be about human beings playing and interpreting the beautiful game.  Unfortunately in an effort to “get it right”, it’s all gone wrong.  The games have largely been robbed of the emotion of the moment.  Referees without VAR get things wrong (and obviously with VAR things still go wrong).  Based on what I’ve seen from this World Cup, I’m much less worried about the getting the call “right” as I am the referee doing her/his best to endeavor to make the “right” call.  Human error is part of the process but two minute discussions over earphones about a possible infraction have not improved the game, they’ve cheapened it.  This is largely the reason that I’ve not watched a NFL game in four years.  The game has been taken away from the humans, so they defer, rather than decide.

Entitlement Doesn’t Lead to Titles – As a fan of the USWNT, it pained me to watch the match against Spain.  In an almost Rocky IV type moment, I felt myself almost wanting for Spain to win.  This was not me renouncing my citizenship.  It was the simple fact that I saw more instances of pride producing behavior from the Spanish team.  As a fan, pride is one of the emotions that we rely upon to continue our association with a team.  When we are no longer proud to support our team, there is little point in being a fan.  The Spanish team had a plan and they executed it well.  The US didn’t and didn’t.  At a variety of moments, it seemed as though the US were waiting for Spain to give up.  Rapinoe and Morgan seemed to want the referee to be the one to help them past the defenders.  Expectations of calls for any contact were fully on display.  Although some of Spain’s tackles were reckless, the general feeling that I got was that they were actually trying to win the game through skill and hard work rather than reputation.  My hope is that this was a blip on the radar screen but I am fearful that we are more show than GO!

One last word before she leaves – In one of the most shareable moments of the World Cup, Marta exited the tournament by laying down the gauntlet to the future of the sport.  Although the message was intended toward young Brazilian girls, it is a strong message for anyone.  The heroines or heroes that we esteem so heavily will not always be there for us to adore.  Someone, maybe you, needs to pick up where they left off or possibly challenge for their spot.  It is not going to be easy.  As Marta put it, you need to cry before you can smile.  The picture needs to be painted over and over again that the exceptional do not get there by chance or in born talent.  There is work that no one sees and most people fear but if you want to get to the highest levels, you need to embrace.

So even though it is not over, there is so much to take from the World Cup so far.  It is one of the reasons why I love soccer so much.  The result is only part of the story.  Stats and scores can only tell you so much.  The experience of the 90 (+7 COME ON!  VAR!) minutes is necessary to tell a story about the people that are trying to get that result.  Their stories run parallel to our stories and allow us to live more fervently because it resonates around the world!

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