Tuesday, December 7, 2021
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What’s Stopping Major League Soccer

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Major League Soccer, what first comes to mind when someone brings up the league?  Probably the few stars who have crossed the pond for millions of dollars to play (and sometimes dominate) in North America.  Zlatan, Beckham, Rooney, Gerrard, some of the worlds’ best players have come to play in the MLS but, the league is still struggling to get young talent on a consistent basis, especially for longer term contracts. 

Wayne Rooney (9) of D.C. United prepares for corner during regular MLS game against Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena Red Bulls won 1 – 0. via lev radin www.shutterstock.com

The most common case is players who are at the absolute end of their career and are trying to squeeze a few (million) more dollars out of their playing career; Gerrard for example.  Although it garners a ton of attention from media around the world, the hype is always short lived. The other case is short stints from stars near the end of their career, who are looking to revitalize their careers before one last push in Europe: for example, Rooney or Zlatan.

MILAN, ITALY – February 09, 2020: Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates his goal 2-0 during the Serie A 2019/2020 INTER v MILAN at San Siro Stadium. via ph.FAB www.shutterstock.com

Indeed, the MLS player pool has growing in terms of top side talent and depth, but still we must ask:  why do international soccer stars only come to Major League Soccer well past their prime, or not at all? 

In preparation for the MLS season opening week in mid-April our next few change the game blogs we will explore, MLS pay, level of play, football culture, and finally how it effects their international status. 

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Mexico defeated Canada in the U23 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifier last week, going on to win the tournament continuing their reign of football supremacy in North America.  With the USA also eliminated in the semifinals from the qualifiers by Honduras, El Tri has once again qualified for a competition that its’ North American counterparts did not.

A few stats to support my argument:

  • Qualified for 16 World cups, 2nd best is in CONCACAF the USA with 10
  • Won the Gold Cup 11 times, 2nd best is USA with 6.
  • Although all time the USA has qualified for the most Olympic games (14 and Mexico 11) the USA has missed out on the last 3 editions and Mexico won the gold in 2012

For me, the biggest part of why Mexico does not get the hype it deserves is that they has been on top for what feels like decades.  Despite their consistent form there has been a presumption that the USA was one step away from supplanting them as kings of CONCACAF.  Recently there has been a rise in American and Canadian football optimism, and rightfully so, but we must not forget who has been consistently at the top of CONCACAF.

An influx of money and interest has been great for the game in the ‘soccer’ nations, but that alone cannot propel development of football talent. What makes Mexico able to develop more world class talent consistently than its North American counterparts?  A thriving football culture.  A football culture is not born on the 4G floodlit pitches of elite clubs, it is born in the back yards and school yards, the muddy patches of grass between houses, or wherever kids can be found playing for hours on end.  You might learn the game in your few hours with your club, but you become a footballer away from your team.  I could not put it any better than Johan Cryuff:

 

Pay To Play

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North American youth football, often what first comes to mind are two types of programs: recreational programs that cater to less serious players and ‘academy’ or ‘competitive’ programs that usually sell themselves as the destination for serious players looking to develop their talent. It will come as a surprise to most from other parts of the world, but the higher you rise in the ranks of youth football in America; the more you pay

Part of the problem is that there is such a variety of football federations, leagues within federations, divisions within those leagues, and so on.  There are several different pathways, but there is no clear IT path for players who are trying to make it in the game.  With so few places with professional team connections nearby there is either no option for most to pursue the game or must travel several hours to get to the right youth development programs.  Many players that do not get into one of these programs are left to try and play NCAA or other collegiate football.  That is not to say College football is not a great way to help pay for an education but it leaves American players behind their European counterparts who have been playing football as a profession since their teens.   

This creates massive competition between kids to get into the select number of clubs who have access to the best coaches, connections, and facilities.  Essentially there are a series of ‘local monopolies’ empowering these clubs to then charge thousands of dollars per year because players are so desperate to find a chance to be seen by colleges or professional scouts. Without any one system in place, it is impossible to regulate the thousands of American clubs and ensure that the game remains open to everyone.  Proposing an entire pathway might be a bit ambitions for this author, but what I do know is there needs to be one.  There needs to be a single pathway for the most dedicated players, and it needs to be unequivocally accessible to all.

Ones To Watch : The USMNT

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The United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) has been getting a lot of talk in the media and socials recently for being one of the greatest in American history.  Some have even said they should be considered among the favorites for the next two FIFA World Cups.  That might be a bit extreme but if you look at the lineup they put out today against Jamaica in a friendly it is easy to see where the excitement is coming from.

If you replace the two MLS midfielders with Mckinnie and Adams, and replace Adam Long with Chelsea’s CB Matt Miazga, you have a USMNT starting 11 entirely made up top tier European players.  Even without those three players the team is chalked full of UEFA Champions League talent.  There has certainly been a bit of over reaction from American fans saying that it would be a disappointment if they do not win the 2022 or 2026 World cup.  They may not really have a chance to win a World Cup but being among the teams who could win is a massive step forward. If you told most USMNT fans from two or three decades ago they were one of the favorites to get out of their group in any world cup it would seem like a pipe dream, now its almost expected that the team will be competing in the knockout stages of all of the competitions they enter.

USA players celebrate after winning the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Final match between The United State of America and The Netherlands at Stade de Lyon on July 7, 2019 in Lyon, France. via Jose Breton www.shutterstock.com

The men certainly have a chance to make history for their program, but will they ever be able to match the success of the women’s team? Who can say, but certainly this generation of players is the one with the most potential in modern football history.

 

 

Offside The (Marco van Basten) Update

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In past editions of the blog we discussed the offside law in detail and proposed removing it all together.  Even your humble author admits that the idea is an extreme change, but it does seem like a natural destination in the evolution of the law.  Recently former Dutch international – and one of the best attackers of all time– Marco Van Basten came out and endorsed the idea.  Here is what he had to say.

The idea itself is great but the best part about him saying this is that it shows a willingness to experiment from a top footballer.  Of course, he can not know the result of the change, but why not try something different, we can all agree there is some issue with the offside law.  To me, football is a game that is supposed to flow, unimpeded by the officials and laws as much as possible, and right now that seems like the only thing that offside is doing.  Perhaps even just excluding offside from VAR would do that trick, but we will never know until we try.  

For those as annoyed about the recent offside VAR decisions as I here are some highlights from one of the all-time greats Marco van Basten to soothe your eyes.

via Marius Eugen YouTube Channel

Ones To Watch – North American Chances

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With the influx of American and Canadian players into top European sides there has been a lot of talk about those nations’ chances in the coming two FIFA World Cups.  Along with Mexico those two teams will be hosting in 2026 and there is a ton of enthusiasm for those teams, especially the USA men’s national team.

In the next three editions of one to watch we will look at what those three teams might look like for the 2022 Qatar World Cup, and take a longer vision look to what might be for 2026 in North America.  Some are getting a bit ahead of themselves saying the USMNT is one of the favorites to win a World Cup over the next decade, that I can not co-sign, however the fact is that USMNT has never been stronger.

For now, check out the tweet that started the conversation. What do you think about the Americans’ chances in the next two World Cups? If you ask some American fans they have a great chance to win.

via ESPN FC Twitter

Change The Game Blog – Experimentation

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There are two parts to experimentation within football; being willing to try new things and to admit when you were wrong.  In Monday’s English Premier League match between Wolves and Liverpool there was a single moment where both elements of experimentation were on display.

Patricio was involved in a collision with his own defender after the assistant kept his flag down to let play continue after a close offside. Although he has since been cleared of any serious injury he was knocked unconscious and received oxygen on the field.

Patricio in a previous game for Wolves vs Arsenal. via MDI on shutterstock.com

The Premier League has implemented a ‘concussion substitute’ which enables the club to sub on a player to replace a player with a head injury even if they have used all their substitutes.  This is a great example of something that all parties can agree on and represents a change with seemingly little downside, so why not!? 

Unfortunately, in modern-day football culture you are usually given a truly short leash in all the administrative positions.  This disincentivizes those in with the power to change from trying new things because of the fear of making a ‘mistake’ that ends their career. 

There are times where a law has no downside to implementing but then there are unforeseeable consequences to those law changes; in that same play with Rui Patricio, we saw an example of a law that was thought to be a clear improvement but now that we see it play out, there is a major issue.

Assistant referees keep their flag down unless there is an obvious offside, this way play can go on and if a goal is scored from an offside position VAR can always review and correct the mistake.  I must applaud the leagues who tried this idea out, it made sense on paper and there was no real way to foresee the issue.  On the surface this makes absolute sense, you do not want to stop a potential goal if you can not be sure it was offside, but what if that results in unnecessary collisions that cause serious injury?  Is it still worth a few more goals being scored that may have been wrongly chalked off?

If the referee put up his flag for offside likely the collision between Patricio and his defender would not have occurred.  So maybe its time to look at keeping the flag down and perhaps VAR as it pertains to offside as a whole.  Jota sums it up in his post game interview perfectly: “Life is more important [than football].”.

Media, fans, and all the people in football need to remind themselves that without giving room for administrators to experiment there will never be progress. 

You can not be afraid to Change the Game.

2026 Ones To Watch – Tyler Adams

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Tyler Adams Champions League campaign came to an end last night with Red Bull Leipzig but his performance with the Bundasliga side since his move in 2019 from New York makes him one to watch for the USMNT in the next two world cups.

LEIPZIG, GERMANY – MARCH 10, 2020: Tyler Adams Player of Red Bull Leipzig vs Ryan Sessegnon player of Tottenham
via Vitalii Vitleo on shutterstock.com

Tyler’s story is one that is familiar to those in Europe, he started playing with his local club – Red Bull Academy in New York – in 2011 and moved up the ranks of the youth system before signing his first professional contract with the New York Red Bull in 2015 at only 16.  From there he spent time bouncing from first team to second team until he was a consistent starter for the first team in 2017.  As you can see in the video below, he impressed with the MLS side and made the jump from one Red Bull Club to another – from New York to Leipzig, Germany. 

Here is a video from before his move in 2019, as you can see the hype already building in 2018. via MLS YouTube Channel

So, what about this story is so remarkable, why is it noteworthy?

As far as Tyler himself, he is an amazing footballer who has a diverse set of skills – yesterday he featured as a wing back, has previously played winger, and his normal position is as a defensive midfielder.  Being born in 1999 he will be in his prime for the next two world cups, so he is certainly one to watch in 2022 and 2026. 

His personal potential is noteworthy but what he and many of his countryman represent might have a seismic impact on the power structure of world football.  He is among the first generation who had the resources of an Academy like Red Bull Academy in North America.  Around the world this system is remarkably familiar, the academies of Ajax, Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona, and many clubs outside of Europe have been producing talent through this system for a century or more.  American and Canadian players of the past would often go outside of the continent to get the training necessary to get to the top level.  With the recent influx of North Americans into top European sides, we can see the power of having more local resources like Red Bull Academy can have for a footballing culture. 

Next week in ones to watch we will look at the youth football system in North America; how it started, how far it has come, and what might be with the 2026 World Cup coming to North America.

CTG Blog – The Pitch Part 3

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The pitch is the most fundamental part of the game – a place to play – and yet it has not been adjusted for almost 100 years.

Last week I talked about making the pitch smaller, this week we look at one of the most notorious small pitches in the world, Yankee Stadium.  New York City FC has made its home in Yankee Stadium of the New York Yankees in Major League Baseball, on a pitch that is listed at the MLS minimum of 70 yards wide and 110 yards long.  There is one problem, by all accounts -besides NYC FC themselves of course- the pitch is much smaller than that; Sporting KC’s manager walked it off in 2015 and was quoted as saying it was about 68 yards wide and 106 yards long. It does not sound like a lot but that is about 500 square yards less than the minimum. So, the pitch is smaller, what effect did it have?

 

New York, NY – May 3, 2015: Fans of NYFC in light blue colors during the game between New York Football Club and Seattle Sounders FC at Yankee Stadium. via lev radin shutterstock.com

I thought that the small pitch would result in an extreme outcome but seemingly, it did not.  According to stats from WhoScored.com their home games were well within the range of normal goals scored from 2015-2019 (they did not play Yankee Stadium in 2020).

So, what did we find from this inquiry? With no clear data to show its benefits I think we require some more experimentation. Football is the most popular sport in the world, and that leads us to hesitate to change and understandably so but as players evolve the game must evolve as well.  We see attempts at progress with the implementation of VAR, goal line technology, more substitutes, evolving the ball, but if we do not look at the more fundamental parts of the game it risks the growth of the game coming to a halt.

Next time we will look at how football can experiment and what are the appropriate venues.  Youth football seems to be the current favorite for a place to test new laws and the professional’s game is where we test new technology, but maybe there is a better way.

2026 Ones To Watch – Marcelo Flores

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Marcelo Flores – who has been called the Mexican Messi and the Canadian Craig Bellamy – will be one of the players to watch in the 2026 World Cup, but will it be for Mexico or Canada?

First, let me address this Messi comparison, surely there is no equal to the Argentinian past, present, or future, right?

Check out Flores’s Highlights! via: PBcomps YouTube channel

Watching him absolutely rip apart defenses change your mind at all? It did for me; the free kicks, his balance, field awareness, how close he keeps the ball to his foot, I could not help but be reminded of Leo Messi.  So, who is the promising young Gunner and which country will he play his men’s football for? Let’s take a look.

Born in Canada, Marcelo grew up in Georgetown, Ontario and spent time in the Cayman Islands because his father – a former professional footballer from Mexico – coached the Cayman Island women’s team.  That is where he was first discovered by a chance encounter with an Ipswich Town Academy coach who was in the Cayman Islands as part of a coach exchange program.  He spotted Flores at a camp where he was by far the most standout player, suddenly at just 13 years old Marcelo was off to England to join the Ipswich Town Academy.

After playing at Ipswich for a few years Flores caught the eye of Arsenal, who signed him on a free transfer in March of 2019.  Incredibly, after less than 2 years, he impressed enough with the Arsenal and Mexican youth teams to sign his first professional contract in September of 2020.  Immediately after that he began to train with the Arsenal first team, it might not be long before we see the young midfielder alongside Aubameyang and Saka.

Flores’s Dad’s tweet when he trained with the first team for the first time.
Via: Ruben Flores Twitter account

Although Flores played his international youth football for Mexico, he was invited to the latest Canadian men’s soccer team training camp in early 2021.  It still is up in the air who he will play his men’s football for but given his extensive resume, and ridiculous quality, either Mexico or Canada will be lucky to have him.  Marcelo Flores will be one to watch in the 2026 World Cup.