26 July 2006

These Are America's Questions

I'm conflicted about This is American Soccer. At times, I want to cheer Adam Spangler to the heavens, as I think he has sharply expressed an opinion that needs to be shouted to everyone associated with US Soccer / MLS / SUM. At other times, he exudes too much of the "I'm too smart and hip for this room" attitude while writing things that seem to be insightful, yet turn out to be nothing more than bland platitudes.

In his "Shooting Fish in a Barrel" post, both attitudes crystallize and decide to duke it out in my head. Rather than just moan with a headache, I think I'll vent about it here.

Adam starts by saying that much of the advice given out to date is bland and/or cliched:

ESPN the Magazine shines a light into the darkness, letting the US MNT know what it needs to do in order to compete on the international level: "deal with pressure" "play to strengths" "nurse a lead" "own the back line" "adapt and adjust" and "play with style." Genius. I thought we could use a little real world advice, a little comment on specifics that I can't find anywhere.

A noble goal, and one I agree with. Too often a goal for a team is stated as a tactic. The issue is not whether to Deal With Pressure... but how? So bonus points to Adam for delving beyond the obvious. Adam then makes big promises on what he's planning to offer:

After trolling the vast seas for wisdom, here are my sure-fire changes. This all starts with the organization, from the suits down to the coaches and players. There needs to be a major attitude adjustment.

Okay, great premise, but instead of following through on what needs to be done, he goes on an commits the same errors he blasts ESPN for. The How is abandoned simply in favor of the What:

We need more players in Europe. With all due respect to the MLS, if we enter South Africa with an equal distribution of MLS and European players, we will fail again...If our players aren't good enough to make a first-tier team, then let them eat cake with the second and third-tier teams.

We need some goals...We have targets and speedsters, ball handlers and play makers, but not someone who can do it all...

...We need an offense, so we can score goals. US Soccer always seems to fall back on its athleticism....We could use a full-court press, a fast break mitigated with a half-court offense. Lets risk a thin defense, count on our athleticism to get us back in time and yield some goals. Please, something besides run it down the flank and send a prayer into the box.

We need an international schedule...US Soccer needs to take the list from this year's final 32 teams and make sure we get a meaningful game with every one of them, preferably on foreign soil.

We need to accept MLS as a developmental league...Example: Freddy Adu. He should have been playing 90 minutes in the MLS from day one, and the second he turns 18, he should bolt for Europe. Tony Kornheiser, soccer savant he is not, even gets this one right.

Of Adam's five major points, only two are real concrete suggestions, which I rephrase as "Move away from athleticism to an offensive system" and "Treat MLS as a developmental league." I'm not even sure I agree with those points, but at least they are real strategies. The three other arguments: "Play in Europe", "Get a Goal Scorer", "Get International Competition" -- they're just as easy to say as "Play with style." It's not that the goal is bad, but I'm not sure that this is a revelation to anyone. Adam thinks more people should play in Europe, even if it is for second or third division teams. Fine. But with work permit issues abounding, how do you get those players in Europe? I'm not sure. But if you're going to demand it, you should at least think about how to do it. As for "Get a goal scorer" -- again, how do you propose that US Soccer bring that about? Will the system change do it? Adam seems to imply that it will, but I'm not sure. Again, without debating the merits of the goal, the issue here is how do you accomplish such a worthy objective. Ditto in international competition. Having listened to the Sunil Gulati conference call on Bruce (thanks Dave) you can tell that there are obstacles in scheduling European competition on FIFA fixture dates since they have Euro-qualifying. Copa Americas is again on the table. I still hold a soft-spot for the Confederations Cup (which starts with winning the Gold Cup). If Adam were to endorse any measures here, it would helpimmeasurablent immesurable.

Now, it so happens that there are other issues where Adam does make a case, and I disagree or agree with it. I think he's right on that we can't just focus on conditioning and athleticism. Word. I think he's absolutley wrong about MLS, and intensley wrong about Freddy Adu (specifically, if we treated Adu as Spangler recommends, I think he would have failed, lost confidence, and become as has-been. Piotr Nowak has done an incredible job in bringing Adu around to a point where he may not be a great Pele type star, but I have no doubt he will be a major player for the US and perhaps for some La Liga or EPL team.) But if nothing else, at least Adam makes a case there.

And that's what I'd like to see more of: Make the case. Even if I think you are wrong, at least you will have offered concrete steps which are implementable actions, not platonic ideals. Why and What are great places to start, but recommend the How. That's the challenge for all of US Soccer at this point.


At 26 July, 2006 16:55, Blogger David Lifton said...

This column takes that "2002 never happened" mentality that has been going around since we got tossed. Back then, we had offense, but no defense. This time, our defense was better (for the most part), but the offense bit.

Every team has strengths, and every team has weaknesses. A good coach will find a way to exploit our strengths while not allowing our weaknesses to be exploited. After all, Italy and France did pretty well without dominating offenses, even though all of their players are in Europe?

At 26 July, 2006 17:08, Blogger Kinney said...

Thank you for blasting him for this. I was just sitting around moaning with a headache after reading it. Your right, Spangler is either on or completely off. And he was Off like bug spray today. His post was nothing more than a BigSoccer rant.

At 27 July, 2006 00:41, Blogger Lowecifer said...

At first I kind of liked his blog, but very quickly I came to hate it. I think he's obviously a total corporate shill while trying to appear "hard". Everything from the psuedo-"from the streets" angle to his "badass" photo make me want to hurl.

This guy is in desperate need of an editor.

At 27 July, 2006 01:21, Anonymous Ole said...


It will be interesting to see what type of reaction you get from Adam. When I raised questions about his intent back in October, it led to an 'interesting conversation'.

Re his thoughts on what needs to be done, it's almost too late by the time they've reached MLS level. I'd like to see a discussion of the limits that the NCAA places on college play. It would be nice to see Nike plow some of their profits on $200 sneakers and $4.50 golf balls into the developmental leagues. MRL, SuperY, other year round options.

At 27 July, 2006 09:43, Blogger D said...

Dave: I think what you say is true, but I still agree that the US can't just rely on conditioning as a differentiator in WC games. I'm not saying we need to go all "Total Football" throughout the land, but something might be in order here.

Kinney: Thanks, and agreed.

Lowecifer: The thing is, Adam has put up some just great stuff at times. Yes, Nike is paying the bills, but he's made it more than just one large Nike advert. So it frustrates me when he decides to play all street cred and attitude and loses the fact that he's a decent writer and journalist.

Ole: I emailed him about a year back, basically asking if he was ignoring MLS because it was an Adidas product. He said that his focus was, naturally, on the USMNT and Nike areas, but that he didn't have any bias against the MLS. I think he was honest in that.

As for his points, well... I'm very curious what the USSF has planned in terms of the Technical Review panel. I wonder if Kevin Payne is typing up that report right now.

At 27 July, 2006 14:26, Anonymous matt w said...

I realize the focus of this blog is DC United (vamos!), but it might be fun for the collective DCenters mind to kick around the topic of how to improve USA soccer.

The parallels between USA basketball and USA soccer intrigue me, especially the mindset that we can throw together a team of all-stars who haven't played much together as a cohesive unit and our natural athletic ability will win out for us. Krzyzewski is right to put together one team and stick with it for three years. Soccer and basketball both require an extraordinary amount of teamwork, and that can only be achieved through actually playing together a lot as a unit. Witness the success of United this year after not panicking after last year's early playoff exit.

Just to further the analogy, one of the keys to the rise in European basketball talent has been the development of European basketball leagues. Maybe most of the very best players come to the US, but there are still some very talented players who play in Europe. I think USA soccer would be best served by strengthening the competition in MLS, and that can only happen if we keep most of the second-tier and some of the first-tier American soccer talent here. Preferably wearing the black and red.

Okay, off my soapbox.

At 27 July, 2006 14:42, Blogger D said...

Matt W: Yeah, it's a DC United blog, but that never stops us from poking out nose elsewhere at times. As for improving USA soccer... well... my problem is that I'm not confident enough in my own opinions on that matter. That being said, I think there's validity to your analogy. It's just that the rules for international soccer are an order of magnitude stranger than anything else.

Now, I do have ideas on how to improve MLS, I've just never really documented them well before.

At 01 August, 2006 13:19, Anonymous Doug said...

Adam mentioned learning how to "play with pressure". One way to do this is to change MLS. Get rid of the playoffs and make each game meaningful. Then, when the outcome of the season is on the line every game, our guys will learn how to play under pressure.


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