Article – “U.S. Soccer Continues to Sabotage Soccer in the U.S.” by Bill Haisley

Below is a link to a very interesting article written by Bill Haisley and posted on last week. The article immediately caught my eye, not just because of its seemingly contradictory title, but also because I have always been a big fan of U.S. Soccer and of the work they have done growing and developing the sport in their home country.  I am very familiar with U.S. Soccer, having completed my USSF National “C”, “B”, “A”, and “Y” Licenses there, and also from my time working as Fitness Coach with the Canadian National Women’s Teams, when we frequently competed against strong U.S. teams.  During my time in the United States, I became a big proponent of the changes they made to their National Teams programs, and also of the positive impact that Major League Soccer (MLS; the nationwide professional soccer league introduced in 1994) has had on the development of the sport in their country.  Several aspects of soccer in the United States, if implemented, would be equally beneficial to the development of the sport here in Canada.  Specifically, I am an advocate of the following:

  • More funding for our National Teams programs in Canada
  • The creation of full-time, residency-based youth National Team (U17-U20, male and female) programs
  • The creation of a nation-wide Canadian professional league (similar to Major League Soccer)
  • Expansion of more Canadian teams into the U.S.-based professional leagues (MLS, as well as the North American Soccer League/NASL, and the United Soccer League/USL-Pro)
  • Awarding of athletic scholarships to interuniversity sport athletes, including Varsity soccer players

Thus, it was a bit surprising to read an article that so vehemently criticizes U.S. Soccer in general, and the relationship between U.S. Soccer and Major League Soccer in particular.  The main point the author makes is that the growth and development of the other rival professional soccer league in the United States (the NASL) is hindered by U.S. Soccer’s allegiance to MLS.  Most recently, U.S. Soccer ruled in favour of a redefinition to their parameters of what defines a “Division-I” professional soccer league, a designation that affords a league significantly better chances of attracting advertisers and sponsors, and in turn of achieving long term success.  Unfortunately, some of the new requirements seem to be arbitrary, unfair, and very much favourable to the MLS.  Among them are “increasing the minimum number of teams from 12 to 16, placing 75 percent of teams in cities of at least two million people, and requiring all stadiums to have capacity for at least 15,000 people.”  Interestingly, none of these requirements has anything to do with the quality of soccer on the pitch; they are basically all requirements that can only be met by MLS at the present time.

According to the author, the hindered development of the NASL will in turn hurt both Major League Soccer, and the United States Men’s National Teams.  This is because teams in MLS, without having to worry about competition, are not necessarily going to be motivated or incentivised to achieve results, win games, or develop talented players.  A simple, if not obvious, solution proposed by the author would be to have the professional soccer system in the U.S. function in the same way as every other professional soccer system in the world – with promotion and relegation across tiered divisions.  As mentioned previously, the U.S. already has three professional soccer leagues (MLS, NASL, and USL-Pro).  Why not designate MLS as the first tier “Division-i” league, with the NASL as “Division-II”, and the USL-Pro as “Division-III”? The top 2 or 3 teams in the NASL at the end of the season would get “promoted” up to the MLS, while the bottom 2 or 3 teams from MLS would get “relegated” down to the NASL.  The system would work the same way for the NASL and USL-Pro.  This type of system would reward the teams who perform better, and incentivise them not only to win, but also to try to develop their own players in order to keep their operating costs down and ensure long term success.  In turn, this increased competitiveness and emphasis on player development would strengthen the U.S. Men’s National Teams, who must compete against countries from all over the world that already use this system in their own professional soccer leagues.

Jurgen Klinsmann, German-born Head Coach of the United States senior Men’s National Team, has repeatedly stated in the media that he believes a professional soccer league with a promotion-relegation system and tiered divisions is necessary in order for the U.S. to remain competitive with other soccer nations.  Despite the many other successes and positive achievements of U.S. Soccer in the past 20 years, I would have to agree with him on this issue.

Below is a link to the article.  I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

For Parents

Why Are We Still Playing Tournaments?

Last weekend I ran an on-field training session with a club team at Bill Crother’s Secondary School in Unionville, a relatively nee high school with very impressive facilities, including 3 full size soccer pitches (2 turf, 1 natural grass) plus a full 400-metre track and stadium-style bleachers.  For me this was a regular day at the “office” except for the fact that on this day, the school was also hosting a youth soccer tournament.  As I began the long walk from the parking lot down to the field where I would be working with the team, I passed by dozens of young soccer players, tournament participants who looked to be about the U13-14 age, and their parents.  I couldn’t help but notice some of the things I saw and heard as I walked by.  Among the things that stood out the most to me were:

  • Players walking to their cars with all of their gear still on (including full uniform, cleats and shin-guards)
  • Parents unpacking coolers full of food, snacks, and drinks, plus tents and lawn chairs
  • One player holding an ice pack on her face, and her mother trying to explain to some friends how she had been “kicked in the face, but no penalty was given”
  • Another parent speaking to a group of players, telling them they “had better win the next game” because he “didn’t drive all the way here to come away with nothing”

Once I got to the field, I saw a very familiar sight for someone working in soccer in Canada.  A game between two U13 girls teams, in which no passes seemed to be made by either team, yet parents from both sets of teams were cheering wildly and, on more than one occasion, coaching/instructing their children from the sidelines.  At one point during the game, the referee (who couldn’t have been older than 16) missed an offside call, and a goal was scored on the ensuing break-away. Naturally, one parent from the team which conceded the goal started yelling at the referee, questioning his eyesight and calling him names.  By this time I had to get to the other field to start my session.

As I mentioned, if you work in or are involved in youth soccer in Canada, the scenarios involving soccer tournaments described above may seem perfectly normal, and maybe even harmless.  The problem, unfortunately, is that tournaments actually do a lot of real harm to player development in this country.  First and foremost, tournaments hurt development because they force players to play in too many games, without enough recovery in between each game.  The fact that players are keeping their shoes and gear on in between games, and that their parents are packing so much food and snacks, can only mean that they are playing multiple games over the course of each day, and in many cases, over multiple days.  Basically all the scientific literature pertaining to youth soccer has indicated that players require at least 48 hours between games in order to recover, and all major youth soccer organizations (including our own Provincial and National associations) advocate that youth players play only 1 game per week.  This is because, when players play multiple games without optimal recovery, their performance suffers (speed, power, strength, and endurance all get significantly lower) and their chances of becoming injured become much greater.

A second and perhaps more significant way in which tournaments hurt development is that they encourage competition over player development, and reward winning at all costs.  Parents complaining about referees’ decisions (to the point that they become verbally and even physically abusive) and criticizing their own children/team for not winning, shows just how important winning can be in the typical tournament setting.  Unfortunately, placing undue emphasis on winning games and tournaments puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on players, who end up determining their own worth in the sport not by their skill level, tactical knowledge, or fitness, but rather by whether or not their team wins or loses.  Adding to the absurdity of the situation is the fact that winning any youth tournament or league means absolutely nothing in the long-term success of a soccer player.  I have worked in several different higher level soccer environments in this country, including college/university, the Toronto FC Academy, and the Canadian National Teams, and I can say without a doubt that the coaches at these levels do not care whether or not any of their players won tournaments or leagues as youth players.  What high level soccer coaches are concerned with when they are identifying and selecting players is only the players’ technical/tactical ability, physical fitness, and attitude.  The development of these key attributes in youth players is almost always hampered with participation in soccer tournaments.

I can’t help but wonder why, in the year 2015, we are still subjecting our players to 2+ games per-day, and 3+ games per-weekend soccer tournaments? The rest of the world has long since changed the way they structure youth competitions, so that even in most international soccer tournaments, teams do not play more than one game in a day and frequently have at least 1-2 days off in between games.  If our goal is truly to develop more talented, confident, fit, and injury-free soccer players, then I say it is time to stop playing soccer tournaments and to fully commit to long-term player development.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.