In this episode, Peter Loge and I have a wide-ranging conversation on soccer’s many uses as a metaphor. Peter is the author of “Soccer Thinking for Management Success.” Throughout the book, he discusses several different ways that soccer overlaps with management concepts. Check out his work at www.soccerthinking.com
It’s far off in the future but it will be here in a developmental instant. Although the World Cup of 2026 is almost a decade away, the present is the only place where we can impact the future. Recognizing that Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams may be the “veterans” of that team gives the extremely realistic picture that while our future could be bright, it is in our best interest to make it brighter. The loftier heights of the sport world are not reached by the individual but rather by a cultural movement that serves as a base to raise the many. So the US soccer needs to realize that it’s chess, not kick ball.
The reason is that our soccer culture has gotten extremely effective at creating only pawns. Christian Pulisic is an anomaly as an American player because of his versatility and vision. Generally speaking the youth systems of the country are extremely effective at creating players who can make the next pass and not much else. A slightly dumbed down version of the beautiful game where creativity is superseded by practicality. Although pawns are necessary in the game of chess, they are unable to win the game on their own. The major pieces, like rooks and queens, give the best possibility for victory because they are dynamic and possibly game changing. Opponents must fear them because they are unpredictable. They are in the right spots because they think five moves ahead from where the play is right now. And that’s what we all need to do with the game.
The recognition that right now is not the goal. The goal looms in front of us in the distance but we can’t reach it playing kick ball. We need to be playing chess, developing rooks, queens, bishops and even knights. Seeing a path that leads to eventual checkmate will only come if we are developing enough quality pieces, not pawns for our small game.
The 90s had many memorable events and people. Kurt Cobain, the OJ Simpson trial, Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton were all extremely noteworthy. Both for their own unique reasons and the media circus that followed them. It was not just that something happened but that it was perpetuated daily for probably longer than needed. One of the most ridiculous stories of the decade was the ice skating scandal involving rivals Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. For those too young to remember, the major event was an attack on Kerrigan’s knee orchestrated at least partially by Harding’s ex-husband. There was a movie released last year called “I, Tonya” that chronicles the entire episode.
Reality had to happen first in this case because even Hollywood could not have come up with a story as far fetched as this. It’s easy to look back at a time that was truly “last century” and chuckle. It’s no surprise that from such a chaotic decade sprang reality television. A weekly public reminder that even though your life might have problems, you can feel good about yourself in comparison to “those people”.
Seeing the problem is always so much easier when it belongs to someone else. Each of us has within ourselves the solutions to the problems of our friends and family members. However we all struggle with our own issues that seem so difficult. Time and distance both seem to have a clarifying effect on the problems of the world.
I’m sure that if the issue of youth soccer politics were someone else’s, each of us would have a plausible solution. Since it’s now and it’s close to us, the issues of last decade persist with even higher price tags. Children are pawns and commodities in a game that has nothing to do with soccer but rather egos and territoriality. This coming fall, an unknown number of player who want to play soccer will not have a team. Not due to a lack of resources. Not due an insurmountable distance to travel. The deciding factor will be a focus on “our club” rather than the kids. These players end up being acceptable casualties to a soccer culture that is focused on prizes that are apparent and available now.
In so many ways we are now reaping the rewards of our fast food culture. Rampant obesity, depression, anxiety and others are all symptoms of the NOW culture that we’ve begun to accept as normal. Even though many people recognize that the ultimate prizes come from long term commitment to small improvements made over years or decades, it is so much easier to sell the cash grab of today. Risking that small and almost insignificant prize of the short term seems to be almost unbearable.
So I implore you. Yep! I’m talking directly to you because as I said last week, if the USMNT doesn’t win a World Cup by/in 2026, It’s my fault! So I need some help. If you have anything to do with youth soccer in this country. Take the long term view. See how more kids playing is better for them and better for “US”. Understand that letting your best player move on to a more appropriate team may hurt your record slightly but it could also be the opportunity that makes that player’s life better, both on and off the field. Realize that your small pond is not actually a pond. It’s part of a more expansive body. Trying to keep it separate is an exercise in futility and may cause its destruction when the wrong current comes along. BE the first person to do the right thing. It’s often difficult because there is a culture of short sightedness. People are so used to being hurt that they are either on attack or defense, rarely in a mode to assess. And more than ever that’s what needs to happen.
I’m sure if this was someone else’s problem, we’d have it all figured out but it’s not. It’s ours and it’s close to our hearts. So we get blinded by the shiny thing that’s right in front of us but I swear the bigger jewels are down the road. The hardest part is foregoing the prize of now because it feels like everything.
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?
It 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!
*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.
With the World Cup only a week away, the passion of nations is about to be put on display for the world to see. The line between ecstasy and exasperation will be measured in moments and inches rather than hours and yards. Preparations for this spectacle have been going on for years because for most of us, it is just that big of a deal. Soccer truly is its own religion. The problem, however, is the same as it is with most religions. When people care that much about something, they tend to leave their ability to reason at the door. Passion trumps perspective and people lose sight of what is TRULY important. This is extremely evident in soccer’s hate triangle*.
This past weekend at my son’s game, it became evident that there are a lot of negative feelings swirling around the soccer fields these days. There is obviously plenty of excitement and passion to go around but the negative feelings are also ubiquitous. Most of the time these feelings are directed at a particular group of people involved. Every game has the potential to become a powder keg as tempers (both expressed and unexpressed) flare up. Three groups represent the biggest sources of animosity and project it outward toward one or both of the others. Coaches, Parents and Referees are the adults surrounding a game. While stuck in the middle are the young people that the game is supposed to be for. Obviously not every parent, coach or referee has these negative feelings toward the other groups but it is so ever-present that most kids are affected.
So in the name of the children that we are supposed to be helping navigate this game and life, here are some suggestions on how to break the hate triangle:
Walk a mile – It’s so extremely easy be an expert on something that you’ve never done. Perspective is a game changer. So if you’re a parent or coach who regularly finds fault with referees, sign up for a course or volunteer to “referee” a scrimmage game within your club. These simple actions can give you the perspective of the other party. Empathy is a key component to breaking down the walls between opposed people. One of the best ways to cultivate empathy is through a different experience.
Communicate only when emotion is low – Do your best not to say (or scream) what you’re thinking in that heated moment. Pause and wait for a time when you and the other party are calm to discuss situations.
Remember people – More than likely you’re not dealing with the reincarnation of Genghis Khan. This person is not a demon. They are another human that has a family, friends and a job. It’s easier to judge someone else as bad based on one moment of their life. While I’m sure that you’ve handled every situation of your life perfectly, it might not be fair or helpful to hold everyone to a standard of perfection.
Be a person you’d like to meet – If the roles were reversed, would you want to deal with you? Putting the best version of yourself forward gives an example for the other side to live up to. At bare minimum in these tumultuous times, people might not show you their best side. You should never lower yourself to become a person that you don’t like.
These are not the only strategies but they’re a start. In the end we need to remember every single weekend that the World Cup is most likely not at stake in the game that we’re involved with. Something more important is. The future of how our young people relate to one another is being formed at every moment. How many more generations do we want to keep in soccer’s hate* triangle?
Break the cycle!
*(I use the word hate on purpose. It is more to describe the depth of feeling rather than pervasiveness of that feeling.)
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!
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.
One of my bucket list items is completely out of my control. I want to see the US Men’s National Team win a World Cup before I die. While I believe this is completely achievable, it will take some doing. There are many moving parts to this endeavor both on a national and an individual level. Although I am sure that USSF policies will influence the speed at which this goal is achieved, the greater shift will need to be a cultural one. Those types of shifts happen in small groups first, then extend outward. Since the children of today are going to be the major influencers of future culture, my plea is “Don’t think that Messi is special!”
This may come as a slap in the face to the thousands of kids who have Messi on the back of their replica jersey. That’s not my intention at all. My hope is for the young players out there to not give themselves an easy way out. Messi is arguably the best player in the world over the past few years. This is not due to genetic engineering, magic or divine intervention. He is a man who has chosen over and over again to hone his craft. Every day of his life has been spent toward achieving the lofty heights that he has. Despite all of his accomplishments, I don’t want our young players to think he is special. Because that let’s them off the hook!
Each one of us has greatness living within us. It lies dormant until we wake it up and press it out into the open. Not every young person who likes soccer will be willing to do the work to become a great player like Messi. However it’s important not to cut it off as a possibility due to a belief that he was in some way predestined to do any of this. He’s a human who chose to be great. Don’t put him on a pedestal to be worshiped. Put him on a staircase to be climbed and leave steps above him.
Greatness is bestowed upon no one, it’s earned everyday with consistent action.
Be great today!
In 1998, my best friend, Schaefer, and I spent a month in Europe. We truly went to watch five matches at the World Cup but we also traveled to England, Spain, Germany and France. In many ways you could not have picked a more perfect vacation for me: soccer, best friend, Europe and soccer.
We actually arrived prior to the Cup starting and did some traveling in England and then headed to Barcelona, Spain. After spending about three days in Barcelona, we were scheduled to take a train to Paris on Sunday in order to pick up our ticket and start the soccer part of our trip. That Saturday, we were taking the Metro down to the Las Ramblas area. We sat on the bench waiting for the train. Schaef was rearranging some things between his money belt and backpack when the train arrived. Thirty seconds after the train pulled away, Schaef realize that he’d left his money belt on the bench with his passport in it. (Don’t judge Schaef here, out of character moment.) At the next stop we turned around and went back but the money belt and everything in it was gone.
We figured out where the US Embassy was and took the train to get there. Please bear in mind that the internet was not as widely accessible at the time. Upon our arrival we were hit with the next problem, it was Saturday and the Embassy was closed. The only person at the Embassy was a guard who only spoke Spanish. I explained the situation to the guard and he put me on the phone with an official from the Embassy. In order to cross the border into France (pre European Union), we needed a copy of his passport (we had) and a police report explaining that the passport had been stolen. My Spanish abilities were put to the test by filling out a police report. So the next day we went to the train station with our flimsy documents and a great deal of hope. Luckily we made it across the border.
On Monday morning we had our next hurdle to clear. We needed to pick up our tickets before 5pm at a hotel on the outskirts of Paris. Since the tickets were in Schaef’s name, we needed his passport first. We went to the US Embassy in Paris and spent hours waiting. I don’t recall what time we got there but I know what time we left 4:30pm. As fast as we could run with our large packs on our backs, we got to the Metro. We found the street we needed on the Metro map. There were two stops on that street but we had no idea which would be closer to the hotel. 50/50 chance and we blew it! The hotel was about a mile up the road and it was 4:55. So again, we ran as fast as we could and with our packs on our backs did about a 7 minute per mile pace. At 5:02, we reached the hotel! Upon entering we were informed that the pick up time for tickets had been extended two hours.
From a month long trip to Europe with my best friend, going to the biggest soccer event in the world, this is the story that I’ve told the most. I remember who won all of the games that we saw but I can’t remember the scores. How is it possible that my favorite part of the trip is when everything went wrong?
Life is not a spectator’s sport. It is intended for people to take what God, Allah or nature has given to them and do the most that they can with it. The times when you are going to figure out what you are truly made of are the times when things fall apart. ANYONE can take the guided tours at the Louvre or Prado. It takes little thought or ingenuity and it teaches you very little about yourself. The limits of you are not found on the guided tours. Easy, comfortable and failure-free are the lives of spectators.
We spend much of our life avoiding something that we call “failure”. Usually failure is associated with mistakes and we try to avoid making big ones at all costs. Schaef made a pretty big mistake. It wasn’t fatal and it allowed us to live in a scenario with an outcome that was uncertain. Uncertainty is something that we need at times in life. Balance between certainty and uncertainty is what makes life interesting. The thing is that we spend so much time trying not to fail that we often fail to live. Anything that is truly worth having is a gamble on some level.
Life is a scenario where the outcome is uncertain. That is part of the deal. If you are looking for a life without failure, discomfort and difficulty, then you are looking for boredom. Don’t go looking to fail but don’t avoid it either. Failure is often where you learn the most about yourself and what you’re made of. Make yourself better by learning from failure.
Get out there people!