Fitness, For Coaches, For Parents

It’s Time to STOP “Holiday” Soccer Camps! Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #67: 12/31/2017

Hi Everyone,

I hope you all had a safe and enjoyable Holiday season!

In keeping with the Holiday theme, this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog discusses the prevalence of “Holiday” soccer camps that run throughout the December/January Christmas break, and whether or not it is worthwhile for young soccer players to participate in these camps during their time off from school and their regular soccer schedules.

I hope you like the video and as always, please feel free to post your thoughts and comments!

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For Coaches, Matches

3 Ways that Major League Soccer and Toronto FC can Capitalize on Their Recent Success to Improve the Performance of the United States and Canadian Men’s National Teams – Part 2

On Saturday, December 9th, in front of a packed crowd at BMO Field, Toronto FC defeated the Seattle Sounders 2-0 to win the 2017 MLS Cup.   Their win was decisive; they dominated the possession, defended well, controlled the rhythm of the game, created more scoring opportunities and capitalized on enough of them to ensure victory.

In the 20 days that have passed since this historic win, the city of Toronto has been abuzz with support for their Football Club.  It has been evident and visible in person across the city, as well as all over social media.

A question which must be asked amid all this success, however, is when – or even if – it will ever translate into improvement in the performance of the Canadian National Men’s Soccer Team.

With popularity of soccer in Toronto and Canada at an all-time high, our Men’s National Team still toils in obscurity; at the time of the writing of this article, we are ranked 94th in the world, behind countries like Gabon, Belarus and Armenia.

The United States has seen a similar surge in the popularity of soccer in the 23 years since their hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 1994 and subsequent inception of Major League soccer the following year, and yet, they too have had a recent drop in the performance of their Men’s National Team, having failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

Just what is it about Canadian and American soccer that has led to these poor results internationally?  And what – if anything – can be done to capitalize on the popularity of Major League Soccer for the Canadian and United States Men’s National Teams to perform better in the future?

In this 3-Part article, I will provide my 3 suggestions, which began with Part 1 (instituting a limit on the number of foreign players playing in MLS, and non-Canadian players playing for TFC) last week.  This week, we’ll have a look at Part 2.

Part 2: Major League Soccer must develop a 2nd and 3rd Division, and Canada must develop its own national professional league, with a promotion-relegation based system.

In other words, incentivise clubs to win.

This may seem surprising to many American or Canadian soccer fans, but Major League Soccer is one of the only professional soccer leagues in the world which functions without lower divisions and a promotion-relegation system (whereby the top teams from the lower division are promoted to the higher division, and the bottom teams from the higher division are relegated to the lower division).

Let’s start by looking at the Canadian teams in Major League Soccer.  Canada presently has three professional teams competing in MLS (TFC, as well as the Montreal Impact, and the Vancouver Whitecaps), and another two in the North American Soccer League or “NASL” (FC Edmonton, and the Ottawa Fury).

Because neither MLS nor the NASL have a tiered-division system with promotion and relegation, none of the teams competing in these leagues (including the Canadian teams) are ever going to be truly motivated to win.

Of course, if a team in MLS od the NASL wins enough games, they will have the opportunity to make the play-offs, and eventually to win the league championship (the MLS Cup in MLS or the Soccer Bowl in the NASL), and this success could in turn bring more fans, exposure, and revenue to the team.

Regardless of any potential motivation that the prospects of success from winning games might bring, however, none of our Canadian professional teams will ever have to face the threat of being punished for losing through relegation to a lower division.

In the United States, the lack of incentive to win for professional clubs in MLS and/or the NASL must also be seen as detrimental to the success of their Men’s National Team.  Provided they can continue to generate revenue by maintaining fans’ interest, attaining and maintaining a television deal, and attracting corporate sponsors, any American or Canadian professional club can survive and even thrive in MLS or the NASL without ever having to produce a winning team.

Unfortunately, it does not appear as though a promotion-relegation system will develop anytime soon in North America.  In August 2017, MLS rejected a proposed $4-billion global media rights deal, involving a proposed partnership between MLS and the NASL, from international media company MP & Silva (a company owned by the owner of the NASL’s Miami FC, Ricardo Silva).

This does not bode well for the American and Canadian players – including the great majority of the US and Canadian Men’s National Team members – who ply their trade in these two leagues.

The need for a promotion-relegation system could not be more obvious.  In any other country, anywhere else in the world, soccer teams who finish in last place in their division (or, in many cases, also in 2nd or 3rd last place) get relegated to a lower division.

This means that the teams playing in MLS and the NASL (including the Canadian teams) are the only soccer teams in the world who do not have an incentive to win to avoid being relegated to a lower division.

MLS: D.C. United at Toronto FC

Toronto FC and star player Danny Dichio (pictured here) struggled in their first seasons in MLS

Ironically, prior to their recent – and unprecedented – success in MLS, there could not have been a more perfect example of how the lack of incentive to win has affected a Canadian professional soccer team than TFC, which originally entered the league as an expansion team in 2007.  Here is a summary of TFC’s record (point total, place finished in their division, and place finished in the league) in their first 9 seasons in MLS:

SEASON POINT TOTAL STANDING (DIVISION) STANDING (OVERALL)
2007 25 7th (out of 7) 13th (out of 13)
2008 35 7th (out of 7) 12th (out of 14)
2009 39 5th (out of 7) 13th (out of 15)
2010 35 5th (out of 8) 12th (out of 16)
2011 33 8th (out of 9) 16th (out of 18)
2012 23 10th (out of 10) 19th (out of 19)
2013 29 9th (out of 10) 16th (out of 19)
2014 41 7th (out of 10) 16th (out of 19)
2015 49 6th (out of 10) 12th (out of 20)

In any other professional soccer league, in any other country in the world, TFC would have been relegated in at least two and possibly as many as five of their first nine seasons in Major League Soccer.  And it’s not just TFC; Montreal Impact, another Canadian MLS team, finished with just 39 points, 9th out of 11 in their division and 17th out of 19 overall in the 2017 MLS season.

You get the point.

It seems only logical then, that the Canadian players competing in these leagues and for these teams (many of whom end up representing Canada at the senior international level) may end up lacking some of the competitive edge needed to be successful in World Cup qualification and, ultimately someday, at the World Cup.  For the Americans, who missed out on World Cup qualification for the first time in 30 years, the same lack of competitiveness also likely holds true.

If Major League Soccer can find a way to set up and enforce incentives for its teams to win through a tiered-division system with promotion and relegation, then perhaps the United States and Canadian Men’s National Teams can be more successful at the international level in the future.

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

For Coaches, Matches

3 Ways MLS and TFC Can Help Improve the Performance of the United States and Canadian Men’s National Teams – Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #65: 12/24/2017

Hi Everyone,

In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, I discuss the recent success of Major League Soccer as a league (which is currently ranked 6th in the world in total attendance), and Toronto FC (which has been MLS’s best club over the past 2 years).

I’ve identified three key changes that can be made to MLS and TFC, which may be able to help improve the performances of the United States and Canadian Men’s National Teams.

Hope you like the video and as always, please feel free to post your thoughts and comments!

For Coaches, Matches

How to “Gegenpress” and Counter-Attack Effectively – Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #64: 12/19/2017

Hi Everyone,

In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, I discuss the recent UEFA Champions League group match between Liverpool and Spartak Moscow.

In this match, Liverpool was able to dominate by pressing high up the pitch and counter-attacking at high speed once they regained possession (the style of play nicknamed “Gegenpressing” by their manager, Jurgen Klopp).

The end result? A 7-0 victory, seeing Liverpool winning their group and progressing to the Round of 16. I analyse some of Liverpool’s best pressing and counter-attacking moments in the match, and provide some useful tips and suggestions for Canadian coaches and players.

Hope you like the video and as always, please feel free to post your thoughts/comments!

For Coaches, Matches

Three Ways Major League Soccer and Toronto FC can Capitalize on their Recent Success to Improve the Performance of the United States and Canadian Men’s National Teams – Part 1

On Saturday, December 9th, in front of a packed crowd at BMO Field, Toronto FC defeated the Seattle Sounders 2-0 to win the 2017 MLS Cup.   Their win was decisive; they dominated the possession, defended well, controlled the rhythm of the game, created more scoring opportunities and capitalized on enough of them to ensure victory.

In the week that has passed since this historic win, the city of Toronto has been abuzz with support for their Football Club.  It has been evident and visible in person across the city, as well as all over social media.

A question that must be asked amid all this success, however, is when – or even if – it will ever translate into improvement in the performance of the Canadian National Men’s Soccer Team.

With popularity of soccer in Toronto and Canada at an all-time high, our Men’s National Team still toils in obscurity; at the time of the writing of this article, we are ranked 94th in the world, behind countries like Gabon, Belarus and Armenia.

The United States has seen a similar surge in the popularity of soccer in the 23 years since their hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 1994 and subsequent inception of Major League soccer the following year, and yet, they too have had a recent drop in the performance of their Men’s National Team, having failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

Just what is it about Canadian and American soccer that has led to these poor results internationally?  And what – if anything – can be done to capitalize on the popularity of Major League Soccer for the Canadian and United States Men’s National Teams to perform better in the future?

In this 3-Part article, I will provide my 3 suggestions, beginning with Part 1 below.

Part 1: Institute and limit of the number of foreign players allowed to play in Major League Soccer.

In other words, incentivise clubs to prioritise domestic players over foreign ones.  This has been an interesting and hotly debated topic ever since the infamous “Bosman Ruling” – so named after Belgian professional Jean Marc Bosman went to the Belgian Civil Court to challenge his Belgian club, Standard Liege, when they attempted to prevent his move to the French League 1, on the grounds that this decision was a violation of the “freedom of movement between member states” tenet of the Treaty of Rome, signed during the creation of the European Community – in the mid-1990’s.

Essentially, the Bosman ruling ushered in an era of player movement across all the top European professional leagues, because it added “football” – previously recognized as a “sporting consideration” and thus not applicable to the guidelines of the Treaty of Rome – to the list of “employment considerations”, and thus it became seen as unlawful and discriminatory for European professional soccer clubs to restrict the movement of soccer players based on their nationality.

From 1995 onward, all European leagues – not wanting to be seen as discriminatory and afraid of fines and sanctions – eradicated their quotas on the number of foreign players, and the results were that top leagues and top clubs who could afford to import foreign talent, did so at will.

jean-marc-bosman

Belgian professional soccer player Jean-Marc Bosman, during his court proceedings in 1995

The influx of foreign players into top European leagues has been of particular concern in England and Italy, two countries who have both seen a relative decline in the development of their domestic players and subsequently, in the performance of their Men’s National Teams, since the time of the Bosman Ruling.  In England, prior to the Bosman Ruling, the percentage of foreign players in the English Premier League totaled 20%; this number has risen to 69.2% – higher than any other professional league in the world – as of 2017.

The English failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1994 and have had a string of poor performances at major tournaments since that time, including failing to qualify for the 2008 UEFA European Championship in Poland and Ukraine; failure to progress past the group stage at the most recent World Cup in Brazil in 2014, and losing in the Round of 16 to minnows Iceland at the 2016 UEFA European Championship in France.

In Italy, a decline in performance of the Men’s National Team following the influx of foreign players arrived more slowly, but it arrived nonetheless.  Italy’s Serie A ranks 5th among professional leagues in percentage of foreign players, with 55.5%.  While the Italian Men’s National Team did have some great international performances in the 2000’s, culminating with winning the 2006 World Cup in Germany, they have failed to progress past the group stage in the two World Cups since then and, most recently, failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the first time they have done so in 60 years.

For Canada and the United States – both countries which have not had a sustainable professional soccer league prior to the inception of Major League Soccer, and both also countries in which soccer is not the most popular sport – the lack of restrictions on the number of foreign players seems to have been even more impactful.

Major League Soccer has a total of 49% of its total players coming from foreign countries, and Canadian club Toronto FC, the current MLS champion and the best team in the league over the past two seasons, employs just 4 Canadians – 14% of their total of 28 players.  Even 25% of TFC II – Toronto’s USL team – hail from countries outside of Canada.

And of course, it bears mentioning again that, despite the recent surge in popularity of Major League Soccer in the United States in general, and of Toronto FC in Canada specifically, both the United States and Canadian Men’s National Teams have not been able to capitalise on this success in terms of improved performance in international competitions.

Whether the relationship between the high number of foreign players in MLS or other aforementioned European leagues like the English Premier League or the Italian Serie A, and the subsequent poor performances by these countries’ national teams, is based simply on correlation, rather than causation, is another matter.

Proponents of allowing foreign players into domestic leagues point to the increased challenge that domestic players face for starting spots and playing time as a positive factor that will contribute to their overall development and mental toughness; detractors argue that by not giving domestic players a fair chance, they end up languishing on the bench or with weaker teams and thus suffer developmentally.

In this author’s opinion, if American MLS teams instituted a quota or rule limiting the maximum number of non-American born players, and Canadian MLS teams did the same with non-Canadian born players, eventually the development of young American and Canadian talent would improve and thus, the performance of the American and Canadian Men’s National Teams would too.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this 3-Part article next weekend, and please feel free to share thoughts and feedback prior to!

Fitness, For Coaches, For Parents, Science

Coaches – Don’t Make This Mistake When Teaching Kicking Technique

By: Abdullah Zafar

Picture this: your team has won a free kick on the edge of the box and your dead ball specialist lines up the perfect shot. You expect the ball in the back of the net but instead it ends up flying high over the crossbar.

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind?

If your answer was “they didn’t keep their body over the ball” then you’re on the right track BUT what you observed was just a side effect and not the root cause of the poor technique.

In fact, not only does leaning back not necessarily mean the ball will launch high into the air, numerous studies have also shown that maximum power is generated in this way.  Leaning back when striking the ball maximizes the range of motion and muscle recruitment of the kicking leg.

Think about it, in which scenario would you feel more powerful when striking: when you plant your foot directly under your body or slightly in front?  The fact is, planting your foot in front of your body creates a bigger distance for the kicking foot to travel and build speed, resulting in a more powerful strike.

Leaning to produce more power is definitely a plus, but a powerful shot is useless if there is no accuracy, so how does lean affect accuracy?  As a matter of fact, there are only three factors which contribute to the flight path of the ball:

  • foot orientation during ball contact
  • foot speed during ball contact
  • area of foot-to-ball contact.

Notice the common theme here? All three factors depend solely on the instant of foot-to-ball contact (not whether you lean back or not).

To explore further, foot orientation means how the foot is positioned when striking (e.g. ankle locked, toes pointed down) and determines how much energy is transferred from the foot to the ball.  Foot speed is simply how fast the foot is moving and determines the resulting speed of the ball.

Finally, and most importantly for accuracy, the area of foot-to-ball contact refers to the area on the ball that the foot strikes (e.g. dead center, above/below center, right/left side of ball).

It may seem obvious, but think about playing a ground pass straight ahead versus to the left or right. The only consideration when playing that pass is that the ball is hit dead center for it to move straight forward or hit on the left/right to pass it sideways.  The same idea would apply when talking about the ball in the vertical direction: hitting the ball below center lifts it into the air while hitting the ball dead center keeps it level.

Pirlo

So, what is the best way for coaches to take all of this information and correct their players’ kicking technique?

Instead of saying “body over the ball”, it would be more effective to say “plant your foot beside the ball”.  What then happens is that the arc of the kicking foot naturally contacts the ball closer to its center.  If the foot was planted behind the ball, the kicking foot would “reach” forward, contacting the ball below its center causing it to lift into the air.

Coincidentally, reaching forward with the leg means leaning back more with the body, which is where the concept of “body over the ball” originally came from.  While this concept was a certainly a good start, a more thorough analysis would indicate that leaning back wasn’t the main issue but misplacing the plant foot was.

Ultimately as coaches, this example should encourage us to examine the information we are giving our players and ensure it is as accurate as possible.

I hope you enjoyed this article.  Please feel free to leave your comments and feedback!

Abdullah Zafar is currently studying mathematics and physics at the University of Toronto, as well as working at Soccer Fitness Inc. as a strength & conditioning coach and research associate in biomechanics. For more from Abdullah, you can follow his soccer & physics content on Instagram @abdul.zaf, or check out his research work at: utoronto.academia.edu/AbdullahZafar.

 

For Coaches, For Parents, Science

KNOWLEDGE – The One and Only MOST Important Quality for Soccer Coaches – Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #63: 12/10/2017

Hi Everyone,

In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, I discuss the importance of knowledge in coaching.

It may seem surprising to some, but there are actually people out there who think that knowledge of the subject matter – in this case, the science of coaching – is not the most important quality for a soccer coach to possess, and thus should not be the focus of coaching education courses.

In my opinion, these people are WRONG. Check out my latest video to see why, and please fee free to share your own opinions too!