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!

For Coaches, For Parents, Matches

3 Reasons Why Italy Failed to Qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup; And What We Can Learn From Their Mistakes – Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #61: 11/26/2017

Hi Everyone,

In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, I discuss the Italian Men’s National Team’s recent failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, following their 1-0 defeat in a 2-leg Play-Off with Sweden.

All three of the reasons I’ve provided as to why I feel Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup are centred around coaching, so I have also provided some suggestions for possible improvements which may be made to the coaching methodology of the Italian team, as well as some take-home messages that all soccer coaches – including those of us who are working here in Canada – can learn from Italy’s recent failure.

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

For Coaches, For Parents, Matches

Why Giovinco, Altidore and Co. Were WRONG – Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #60: 11/19/2017

Hi Everyone,

In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, I discuss the recent Major League Soccer (MLS) Eastern Conference Semi-Final 2nd Leg Play-Off match between Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls, which took place on Sunday, November 5th.

While Toronto escaped with a 2-1 aggregate victory and thus progressed to the Conference Final (which will begin with the First Leg this coming Tuesday, November 21st) they did so while losing two of their star players – Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore – to suspension, primarily because they could not keep their cool when the referee’s calls did not go their way.

In the Blog this week, I discuss why these and other TFC players were wrong in losing their tempers and criticising the referee, and why other young and aspiring Canadian players should think twice before doing so themselves.

I hope you like it and as always, please feel free to provide your thoughts/feedback!

For Coaches, For Parents, Matches

3 Things Every National Team Needs to STOP Doing to Better Ensure Future World Cup Qualification:

In the past month, Italy (4-time FIFA World Cup champions) Chile (2016 Copa America champions) and the United States (2017 Gold Cup champions) all failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.  Each of these three National teams have had a history of regional and international success, and thus the failure of all three to qualify for next year’s tournament in Russia has been met with equal parts shock, anger, and of course criticism – of everything from the referees, the coaches, and even the so-called “entitled” millennial players.

But is all this criticism being dished out by fans, former players and everyone else in the media warranted, or could it be misguided?  Below is a short list of three things which, in my opinion, every National Team – and its administrators, coaches, players, fans and media – need to stop doing in order to better ensure future World Cup qualification.

  1. Stop Blaming the Players: As mentioned previously, even though today’s generation of soccer players – the dreaded millennials – may very-well be the most self-centred, entitled group of people on the planet, all young soccer players from all National Teams around the world – including those from the teams that qualified for the World Cup – are selected from this same generation.  Thus, other National Teams programs have found a way – perhaps through better coaching and sport psychology programs – to reach this entitled generation of players and get the most out of them in international competition. In any competitive environment, attitude reflects leadership.  Thus, if the National Teams of Italy, Chile and the United States had better leadership – that is, coaching staffs better equipped to deal with today’s generation of players – then the attitude of their players would not have been a contributing factor to their teams’ poor performances.
  1. Stop Blaming the Referees: I’ve written about this topic before, but it bears repeating here: top level soccer referees have the toughest job of any official in any competitive sport by far.  And it’s getting tougher and tougher for them with the combination of the increased speed of the modern game, and advances in technology that make scrutinising their every move and decision easier and easier to do.  Top level referees are required to do almost as much high intensity running and sprinting as top level midfielders, despite being, on average, 10-20 years older than them.  As if this weren’t bad enough, today’s referees are expected to be perfect – to go through an entire match without making even a single mistake.  Even the best players in the world – who are younger and fitter than the referees and thus, should be better equipped to prevent fatigue that can negatively affect their decision-making ability – routinely make mistakes and are not criticised as much for them.  Thus, instead of blaming the referees, it might make more sense for teams to focus on correcting, limiting and preventing the mistakes they make themselves in each and every match they play.
  1. Stop using the “too many foreign players in our domestic leagues” excuse: Admittedly, this concern has primarily been raised by Italian supporters, as the Chilean and American domestic leagues lack the resources to attract top foreign players; however, it is a popular excuse nonetheless. Unfortunately the excuse lacks merit.  If having too many foreign players in a country’s domestic league – ostensibly limiting the opportunities for its home-grown players to develop and flourish – were truly a problem, why has it not affected the National Teams of Germany and Spain (both of whose top teams are laden with international talent from all over the world)?  The answer is that Spain and Germany have produced domestic players in their current National sides with enough talent to earn starting roles alongside their foreign teammates within the top professional clubs, as was the case with the top Italian players from their most recent successful generation, the mid-2000’s.  Many of the current generation of Italian National Team players – including goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, and defenders Giorgio Chielini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli who together formed the defensive backbone of the very successful Juventus teams of the past five years – have also clearly not been held back by the large number of foreign players plying their trade in the Italian Serie “A”.  If other Italian midfielders and attackers were as good as the top players in those positions 10 years ago – such as Andrea Pirlo, Francesco Totti and Luca Toni, just to name a few – they would be starting with their club teams as well. Thus, instead of blaming poor performances on the abundance of foreign players (limiting opportunities for domestic players), in their professional leagues, Italy and other nations should focus their energy on developing players worthy of these opportunities in the first place.

Ultimately, the success or failure of any National Team in World Cup qualification must be the responsibility of its leadership – the coaches in the team itself, plus those who work in the top professional clubs, youth academies, and youth National Teams programs.

If these coaches and programs are able to produce talented, resilient, and mentally tough player with the ability to compete and excel at the international level, then the need to provide excuses for not qualifying for the Word Cup will not exist, because in all likelihood, World Cup qualification will have already been secured.

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

For Coaches, For Parents, Matches

Even the BEST Teams Have a Bad Game, So What are YOU Worried About? Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #59: 11/12/2017

Hi Everyone,

In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, I discuss the recent losses suffered by reigning La Liga and UEFA Champions League Champions, Real Madrid, in both their domestic league (to Girona) and Champions League (to Tottenham Hotspur).

What is the lesson that can be learned from these rather surprising losses? That even the best teams in the world can have a bad game – or two! – and, if it can happen to them, it can happen to you!

What you should be focusing on is how to learn from the mistakes made during losses or poor performances, and then how to become better and prevent those same mistakes from happening again.

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

For Coaches, For Parents, Matches

Coaches – Like to Keep Possession and Press High Up the Pitch? Make Sure You Don’t Make This Mistake! Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #58: 11/5/2017

Hi Everyone,

In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, I discuss the recent UEFA Champions League group match between Italy’s AS Roma and England’s Chelsea. This was an entertaining match which – in  my opinion – Roma should have won due to their ability to keep possession deep into their opponent’s half of the pitch, as well as some very good individual efforts in the 3 goals they scored. Unfortunately, Roma had to settle for draw, primarily because they were too careless in possession and frequently gave the ball away in the middle of the pitch, allowing Chelsea to generate scoring opportunities from counter-attacks by running quickly into the space behind the Roma back line – space which existed because Roma continually possessed the ball very high up the pitch in the first place!

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

Fitness, For Coaches, Injuries, Matches

How Canadian College and University Soccer Is STILL Hurting Young Soccer Players – And What Can Be Done to Change It

It’s hard to believe, but I originally wrote a very similar article to the one you are about to read, exactly 2 years ago (in early November, 2015).  Much to my disappointment, since that time nothing has changed in the Ontario and Canadian inter-university soccer competitive schedules.

The original article, which was published here on our Blog as well as in Inside Soccer Magazine and on the Red Nation Online website, discussed some of the problems associated with the current university soccer schedules here in Ontario and Canada – primarily the fact that too many games were being played without sufficient time off in between games.

Unfortunately, as noted above – and as you will see from continuing to read below – nothing has changed.  Despite overwhelming evidence demonstrating the significantly increased risks of injury for players who play 2 or more 90+ minute soccer matches per week and/or have less than 2 full days off in between matches, Canadian College and University Soccer is still hurting young soccer players with the same antiquated, congested schedule of 1.5-2 matches per week.

Below is a revised version of my original article, updated to include all OCAA, CCAA, OUA, and U-Sports competitive regular season and post-season schedules for the 2017 men’s soccer seasons.  I hope you enjoy reading it and I also hope it might motivate those of you in the soccer community to seek out ways in which changes can be made for the safety and protection of young soccer players nation-wide.

It’s also hard to believe, but we are now approaching the first week of November, 2017.  For college and university soccer players, if you’re lucky enough to still be playing by this time of year, it means you have progressed deep into the play-offs and are very close to qualifying for the National Championships, which are typically finished by November 15th.

In college and university soccer, the play-offs and National Championships are microcosms of the competitive season, with multiple 90+ minute matches scheduled over a very short period of time, including several instances of back-to-back matches, as well as periods of time with 3 games played over just 4 days.  As an example, take a look at this year’s CCAA (Canadian Collegiate Athletics Association) and U-Sports (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) men’s National Championship tournament schedules:

  • CCAA Men’s Soccer:
    • Match 1: Wednesday, November 8th
    • Match 2 (Semi-Finals): Friday, November 10th
    • Match 3 (Bronze and Gold Medal Matches): Saturday, November 11th
  • U-Sports Men’s Soccer:
    • Match 1: Thursday, November 9th
    • Match 2 (Semi-Finals): Saturday, November 11th
    • Match 3: (Bronze and Gold Medal Matches): Sunday, November 12th

Of course, in order to get to the National Championships, teams need to have qualified from the play-offs, which are scheduled in a very similar way.  Typically, the first play-off matches in college and university soccer begin between 3-6 days after the conclusion of the regular season.  In Ontario, the play-offs finish with the OCAA (Ontario Collegiate Athletic Association) Championships, and the OUA (Ontario University Athletics) Final Four, both of which comprise multiple 90+ minute matches played over a 2-3 day timespan.  Below is a summary of these schedules for men’s soccer in 2017:

  • OCAA Men’s Soccer Championships:
    • Match 1 (Quarter-Finals): Thursday, October 26th
    • Match 2 (Semi-Finals): Friday, October 27th
    • Match 3 (Bronze and Gold Medal Matches): Saturday, October 28th
  • OUA Men’s Soccer Final Four:
    • Match 1 (Semi-Finals): Saturday, November 3rd
    • Match 2 (Bronze and Gold Medal Matches): Sunday, November 4th

Working backwards even further, it is critical to note that, in order to qualify for the play-offs in Ontario college and university soccer, teams must endure the OCAA and OUA competitive seasons, both of which pack two and sometimes even three 90 minute matches per week, every week, from the beginning of September until the end of October.  Here is what the 2017 OCAA and OUA competitive schedules looked like:

  • OCAA Men’s Soccer competitive season:
    • 10 matches played from Saturday, September 6th to Wednesday, October 16th
    • Total of 10 matches in 6 weeks = 1.6 matches per week
  • OUA Men’s Soccer competitive season:
    • 16 matches played from Saturday, August 26th to Saturday, October 21st
    • Total of 16 matches in 8 weeks = 2.0 matches per week

I cannot help but wonder why, in the year 2017, we are still subjecting young student-athletes to this type of competitive schedule.  Virtually all of the scientific research done on the intensity and loading in soccer has indicated that a minimum of 24-48 hours is needed in order for players to optimally recover from a 90 minute match.

Furthermore, most if not all of the world’s leading authorities in soccer-specific sports science have recommended that players do not play more than one match per week in their competitive seasons.  This is because when players do play more than one 90+ minute match per week, they will experience both a significant decrease in muscular strength, speed, power, and endurance, as well as a significantly increased risk of over-training and injury due to inadequate repair and recovery from muscle damage caused during the match.

Compounding the problem for college and university soccer is that the great majority of the players are in school between the ages of 18-22, and their bodies are not fully physically and physiologically developed and thus are at an even greater risk of injury.

Several of the world’s most prominent soccer coaches and fitness coaches, including Jens Bangsbo of the University of Copenhagen, Raymond Verheijen of the World Football Academy, and Jurgen Klinsmann, former Head Coach of the United States Men’s National Soccer Team, have been critical of college and professional competitive leagues that require players to play more than one 90+ minute match per week.

In fact, Klinsmann was one of the harshest critics of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) soccer schedule (which also comprises an average of 2 matches per week), criticism which eventually led to a proposed change to a full academic year schedule (September to May) that took effect in 2016-2017 season.

If the rest of the world (including the Americans, who are traditionally resistant to change) has been able to structure their competitive soccer seasons so that they average a maximum of 1 match per week, there is no reason for Canada not to follow suit.

Competing in college and university soccer in Canada is a unique and rewarding experience.  For the great majority of young players who do not advance into the Canadian National Teams and/or into professional soccer, competing at the college and/or university level represents the highest competitive level they will reach in their careers.

If the CCAA and U-Sports are truly concerned with the long-term development and overall health of the young soccer players competing in their leagues, they should seriously consider revising their competitive schedules, to lengthen the season and/or to decrease the total number of matches played to a maximum of 1 match per week.

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

Fitness, For Coaches, Injuries, Matches

How Canadian University Soccer is STILL Hurting Young Soccer Players – Soccer Fitness Gols Video Bog #57: 10/28/2017

Hi Everyone,

In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, I discuss the congested schedule of the regular season and play-offs in Ontario and Canadian university soccer, and the inherent problems associated with making adult players consistently play more than 1 competitive, 90+ minute match per week.

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

For Coaches, For Parents, Matches

WHY Don’t They Talk About Soccer on Canadian TV Networks?? Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #56: 10/13/2017

Hi Everyone,

In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, I discuss the complete scarcity of soccer coverage on all mainstream Canadian television networks, especially TSN and Sportsnet, and why in my opinion, this lack of media attention to soccer in Canada is a problem that hampers the development of Canadian soccer players.

With all of the recent talk (and complaints) regarding the United States Men’s National Soccer Team’s failure to Qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, it’s interesting that no one in the U.S. has mentioned the lack of media attention their National Team receives as a possible contributing factor to their recent poor results.

Fortunately, this is one soccer problem for which there is a simple solution – start discussing the game and showing more highlights on TV – immediately!

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

For Coaches, Matches

Why Carlo Ancelotti Should NOT Have Been Fired by Bayern Munich – Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #55: 10/7/2017

Hi Everyone,

In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, I discuss the recent firing of Bayern Munich manager Carlo Ancelotti, following the team’s 3-0 defeat at the hand of Paris Saint-Germain in a UEFA Champions League group match last week. In my opinion, the decision to sack Ancelotti – a 3-time UEFA Champions League winner with clubs from two different countries – after only 3 weeks of the season, was not a good one, as it displays a profound lack of patience from the club.

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

Fitness, For Coaches, Matches

How a Real Professional Soccer Club Does Soccer Fitness Training: Paolo Pacione and the Miami FC – Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #52: 8/25/2017

Hi Everyone,

In this week’s edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, I summarise the week o August 7th-13th, 2017, which I spent sitting in and observing training with the Miami FC and their Fitness Coach (a long-time friend and colleague) Paolo Pacione. I also provide some recommendations for Canadian fitness coaches and soccer coaches, based on what I observed from Pacione and the Miami FC, as to how best to integrate fitness training into soccer training sessions.
Hope you like it and as always, please feel free to post thoughts and comments!

Credit: The Miami FC
Fitness, For Coaches, Matches

How The Pro’s Incorporate Fitness into Soccer Training – Paolo Pacione and the Miami FC

(Photo credit: The Miami FC).

On the week of August 7th-13th, 2017, I visited my old friend and colleague Paolo Pacione, who has been the Head of Fitness and Performance at the Miami FC of the North American Soccer League for the past 2 years.

Pacione has had an extensive background working at the highest levels of the game in North America – including the Toronto Lynx of the A-League, various clubs in the Canadian Professional Soccer League, the Canadian Men’s and Women’s National Teams, and the Montreal Impact of Major League Soccer – and internationally, having worked with Faenza Calcio, a professional club in Italy.

He and the staff at the Miami FC, including Head Coach Alessandro Nesta, were gracious enough to allow me to sit in on an entire week of their training, leading up to their home game versus the Indy Eleven on Saturday, August 12th.

One thing I saw during training that week which was very interesting to me – primarily because it is so rare in Canada, even in the higher levels of the game in which I have worked over the past few years – was that at the Miami FC, the Fitness Coach was integrated into, and had a hand in planning, all aspects of the team’s training – not just the “physical” part of the sessions.

This means that Pacione works as part of the Coaching Staff – through a collaborative process in which Head Coach Nesta – who met Pacione in his final season of professional soccer, when Paolo was the Fitness Coach of Montreal Impact – draws upon the knowledge and experience of all of his supporting staff in order to optimise the planning of training, from the first minute of the warm-up to the final minute of the small- or large-sided games.

Why is the integration of the Fitness Coach into the planning of all training so important?  Simply put, it is the only way to ensure the optimal training environment for players, and thus the only way to ensure optimal performance of players in training and game play.

I’ve written about this topic before, including as a means of explaining the rationale behind the creation of my Soccer Fitness Trainer’s Courses, which teach Canadian amateur club/academy soccer coaches how to plan and implement physical fitness training into their sessions in the absence of a professional fitness coach (a reality for the majority of amateur clubs and academies in Canada).

 

In the elite Canadian soccer environments, including university Varsity teams, Provincial and National Teams, and professional Academies and First Teams, coaches should not be expected to plan and implement fitness training on their own, nor should this work be passed off onto Athletic Therapists or other staff, as is unfortunately too often the case.

Professional Fitness Coaches must be an integral part of the Coaching Staff in these environments if we truly wish to optimise player development at the youth level, and player performance at the adult level.

How can we be sure that this model is effective?  In professional soccer, results are what matter most.  And in the case of the Miami FC, the results speak for themselves.  The club, in only their second full season in the North American Soccer League, finished the 2017 Spring Season in first place, with 36 points from 16 matches – a full 10 points ahead of their closest rivals the San Francisco Deltas – and securing a play-off spot for this coming November.

After a slow start to the 2017 Fall Season, to date the teams sits tied with Puerto Rico FC for first place in the league, with 9 points from 5 matches.

The Miami FC also had a successful run all the way to the Quarterfinals of the 2017 U.S. Open Cup – the oldest national soccer competition in the United States open to all professional clubs in the country – During which they secured victories over Major League Soccer clubs Orlando City SC in the Fourth Round, and Atlanta United in the Round of 16.

In addition to the results on the pitch, the professional, positive, “winning” environment created by the Coaching Staff was clearly evident to me as I observed the team’s training all week.  The players were respectful, hard-working, eager to learn and very responsive to the instruction and training they received, all of which was of the highest quality.  Team morale could not have been higher than it was during the final training session prior to their match on the 12th – always a good sign.

They ended up winning convincingly, by a score of 3 to 1.

20170812_220544

Credit for the team’s success must be given at least in part to the synergy that exists between the Coaching Staff, at the centre of which is Fitness Coach Pacione.  He has developed an efficient working relationship with the rest of the Coaching Staff at the Miami FC, built on trust and mutual respect of each person’s unique knowledge, experience and abilities.

Many Canadian coaches and fitness coaches presently working in high performance environments could stand to learn a thing or two from the example set by Pacione and the Miami FC.  If we are truly serious about optimising player development and player performance in these environments, we need to find, train, and empower Fitness Coaches, and fully integrate them into their respective team’s Coaching Staff.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments about this article.  Please drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

For Coaches, For Parents, Matches

The One Thing that Needs to Change Most About Canadian Soccer – Gols Video Bog #49: 8/1/2017

Hi Everyone,

In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, I discuss our Canadian Men’s National Team’s recent performances in the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, and specifically how the great majority of young soccer players I spoke with in my business over the past 3 weeks were unaware even of Canada’s participation in the tournament, let alone the results of their matches. The underlying problem here is that young Canadian players are not well-informed about our own local soccer, and if we are serious about developing elite level players, this needs to change. I hope you enjoy the video and as always, please feel free to post your thoughts and comments!

Fitness, For Coaches, For Parents, Matches

Youth Soccer Players – Start Doing These 2 Things Weekly to Make Yourself a Better Player TODAY! Gols Video Blog #43: 5/28/2017

Hi Everyone,

With the UEFA Champions League Final approaching, this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog discusses 2 things all young soccer players can start doing every week (starting with the week of the Final match) that will help them become a better player immediately.

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

For Coaches, Matches

Defence Wins Championships – UEFA Champions League Analysis – Gols Video Blog #42: 5/20/2017

Hi Everyone,

In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, I discuss and review the defensive performance of Juventus’ centre back Giorgio Chielini, from their mot recent UEFA Champion League match, the second-leg of the semi-final versus AC Monaco.  Chielini’s defending in this match was one of the key factors that helped Juventus to win and progress to the Final next weekend.

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

Fitness, Matches

How NOT to Defend Deep – UEFA Champions League Analysis – Gols Video Blog #41: 5/15/2017

Hi Everyone,

In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, we discuss the recent UEFA Champions League semi-final match between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. Atletico used their usual strategy of defending deep in this match, however they were uncharacteristically sloppy at the back.  They frequently left too much space between the payers in the back line, and also in between the defensive and midfield lines, which left them exposed and ultimately led to the concession of 3 goals.

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

For Coaches, Matches

Let’s Stop Using Jargon and Being Vague when Commenting on / Criticising Canadian Soccer – Gols Video Blog #40 5/7/2017

Hi Everyone,

In this week’s Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, we discuss some of the recent criticism posted online following our Canadian Men’s National U17 Team’s failure to qualify for the FIFA Men’s U17 World Cup.   Critical to this discussion is that we in the Canadian soccer community are able to avoid being vague, or using meaningless jargon, in our comments and criticism.  Being specific, providing constructive criticism, and suggesting possible solutions to problems, are the only ways to move towards improvement.

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

Matches, Science, Technology

It’s Time For Instant Replay in Soccer! UEFA Champions League Analysis – Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #39: 5/1/2017

Hi Everyone,

last week, the second-leg matches of the UEFA Champions League quarter final were played, and one match in particular – that between Spain’s Real Madrid and Germany’s Bayern Munich – ended in controversy thanks to two consecutive, late, off-side goals scored by Cristiano Ronaldo, goals which sealed the outcome for Madrid.

In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, we discuss how the addition of instant reply in soccer could have alleviated and even eliminated the controversy surrounding the outcome of this match.

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

 

For Parents, Matches

How Great Goalkeeping Wins Games: UEFA Champions League Analysis – Gols Video Blog #38: 4/24/2017

Hi Everyone,

Over the past two weeks, the first and second legs of the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final matches were contested.  In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, we discuss some of the top class goalkeeping on display in some of the first leg games, between Juventus and Barcelona, as well as Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Hope you enjoy it and as always, please feel free to post thoughts and comments!

For Parents, Matches

UEFA Champions League Analysis – How NOT to Defend Corners! Gols Video Blog #33: 3/20/2017

Hello Everyone,

I hope you are as glad as I am that March Break is finally over!

With that out of the way, in this next edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, we analyse the recent UEFA Champions League matches between Real Madrid and Napoli, as well as Borussia Dortmund and Benica, which were the second legs of the first knockout round. Specifically, we look at how Napoli’s and Benfica’s inability to defend corner kicks resulted in goals which sealed the games for Madrid and Dortmund.

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

For Parents, Matches

UEFA Champions League Analysis – Defending Principle of “Restraint” – Gols Video Blog #31: 03/06/2017

Hi Everyone,

a few more first-leg matches from the knockout round of the UEFA Champions League were played last week, including one between Juventus of Italy and FC Porto of Portugal.  In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, we discuss this match and in particular, the plays by Porto’s left back Alex Telles, which led to two consecutive yellow cards (and of course one red card) in the 25th-27th minutes.

A key take-home message for young soccer players and coaches from this blog is the importance of the defending principle of “restraint”, and how in many cases, players applying pressure on the ball need to learn and better understand how to use this principle when they apply pressure.

I hope you like it an as always, I welcome your thoughts/comments!

Matches

UEFA Champions League Analysis – How Benfica Beat Dortmund – Gols Video Bog #30: 2/27/2017

Hello everyone!

The UEFA Champions League started up their knockout rounds last week, and that is always something that can put me in a good mood!

In this edition o the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Bog, we discuss the game between Benfica and Borussia Dortmund.  While it may have looked as if Benica were outplayed in the game, they actually employed a clever strategy that involved changing their tactics during the first 15 minute periods of both the first and second halves – a strategy that wound up producing the only goal of the game in their 1-0 victory.

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

 

Matches, Science

How to Win Without a Shot on Target – Analysis of the 2016 MLS Cup Final

On Saturday, December 10th, in -4 degrees Celsius weather at Toronto’s packed BMO Field, the Seattle Sounders defeated Toronto FC in the 2016 MLS Cup final, 4-3 via a penalty shoot-out, after a scoreless draw over 120 minutes.

How did they do it?  By all accounts, TFC appeared to have dominated the game.  They held an 8.4% edge in ball possession, a 9% advantage in passing accuracy, and they created significantly more chances, with 19 total shots – to Seattle’s 3 – and 7 shots on target – to Seattle’s 0.

Sometimes in soccer, however, a more in-depth analysis of closely-contested matches is required, and often when this happens, a completely different story can unfold.

While TFC certainly did have greater ball possession, a better pass completion percentage, and created many more scoring chances than Seattle in the match, it was clear from the outset that Seattle’s plan to defend deep, frustrate Toronto’s attacking players and prevent any sort of offensive rhythm from developing was working to their advantage.

The resolute Sounders defense, led by centre back Romeo Torres, left back Joevin Jones, and former TFC goalkeeper Stefan Frei, frustrated Toronto’s star attacking players, including 2016 MLS Player of the Year Sebastian Giovinco, and striker Jozy Altidore.  Giovinco in particular was neutralized by the Sounders defense, who kept him playing with his back to goal and brought him down the few times he managed to turn and break free.

In the middle of the pitch, Toronto’s central midfielder and captain, Michael Bradley, was defended well and contained by the Sounders’ defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, who limited Bradley to a 50% completion percentage on passes made in the attacking half of the pitch.

Offensively, despite the fact that they did not create many scoring chances, the Sounders were dangerous on the counter and central striker Nelson Valdez in particular – until he came off with an injury in the 78th minute – was a constant threat in transition.

Any time a team elects to defend deep and tries to counter-attack, they are bound to concede ball possession and a greater number of shots on target.  What the numbers don’t demonstrate, however, is that the great majority of the shots Toronto created were not clear-cut scoring chances, but rather efforts from long distance or from bad angles that were well defended.

The one true clear-cut scoring opportunity that TFC had, which came from a lofted cross and a near-post header by Altidore, produced a spectacular save from Frei, who was the deserving man-of-the-match with 12 total saves, including 5 from shots taken inside the 18-yard box.

One telling statistic that could get overlooked is that although Seattle conceded nineteen total shots, ten of them – over 50% – were blocked, with an additional two that were forced off target coming from good defending and goalkeeping.

Another is the number of corner kicks conceded by Seattle – 10 – to only 5 conceded by Toronto.  While it might appear that generating more attacks leading to corner kicks is a positive outcome for TFC, the fact is that the majority of those corners were earned after attempted penetrating passes or crosses were intercepted by the well-organized Seattle defense.

Unfortunately, Toronto was not able to alter the course of the game through changes in tactics or personnel.  In spite of the above-mentioned trends, which were fairly obvious by half-time, TFC elected to stay with the same tactics and the same line-up, not making their first substitution until the 77th minute, when Will Josnson came on in place of Jonathan Osorio.

TFC’s second substitution, bringing on Benoit Cheyrou in place of Armando Cooper in the 88th minute, also came without a tactical change and also failed to make an impact on the match.

Most important – and perhaps controversial – of all, however, was the delay in brining on Tosaint Ricketts, who had been an impactful substitute in previous TFC regular season and play-off games (most recently in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Montreal Impact on November 30th).

Ricketts did not see action on Saturday until the 103rd minute – nearly half of the way through the 30-minute extra time period, affording him minimal time to influence the match.  He was also brought on in place of Giovinco, Toronto’s leader, top regular-season goal scorer, and overall most dangerous attacking threat.

Ironically, among Giovinco’s specialities is taking penalty kicks – he has been successful in five of six attempts in Major League Soccer – and he was substituted just 15 minutes prior to the shoot-out that cost his team the title.

Admittedly, Giovinco was not having a great night and seemed to be hampered by an injury that may well have been the reason for his being taken off, but he was visibly upset at the moment he was replaced, and he certainly would have been a valuable addition to the side during the ensuing shoot-out.

Furthermore, throughout the extra time period the Sounders seemed to have resigned themselves to the inevitability of a shoot-out – as evidenced by Toronto’s 67% edge in possession over the course of the 30-minute period – so leaving an injured Giovinco on the pitch for an additional 15 minutes probably would not have been a problem.

Ultimately, Seattle’s strategy in the MLS Cup Final was not pretty, but it was effective.  They used a deep, tight defense, pressuring TFC’s attackers in their defensive 3rd quickly and preventing them from settling on the ball, and using “tactical fouls” to disrupt attacks that were started in the middle 3rd.

They also demonstrated how – with the right tactics – it is possible to win a cup final without taking a shot on target.

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

For Parents, Matches

Canadian and American Soccer – We’re More Similar Than You Think

Last week, I gave a presentation about periodization for youth soccer to the West Windsor Plainsboro Soccer Association (WWPSA for short) located in Princeton, New Jersey.  This experience was unique for me because I was in the United States on the evening of Wednesday, November 9th, 2016, when Donald Trump became the 45th U.S. President.

While I certainly do not intend to discuss politics in this article, there was something about the experience of being in a foreign country at the exact moment when a controversial figure was elected President, which left a lasting impression in my mind.  And that something was the realisation that we Canadians are not very different from our American neighbours, both with regards to our politics, as well as our soccer.

Again, this article is not about politics, but it is worth noting that – based on the conversations with Americans I had following the election last week – almost all of them said they did not really care much for either of the presidential candidates, nor about identifying themselves as “democrat” or “republican”, but rather that they were concerned only with things that affect the long term health, welfare, and security of themselves, their families, and their country.  In this regard, it seems to me that Americans and Canadians are, for the most part, very similar.

Back to soccer now.  After working directly with soccer coaches and administrators from the WWPSA, and speaking to some other coaches and players in the area, I came away with the sense that Americans and Canadians also share some similarities in the sport – specifically, with regards to coaching and coach education – and that these similarities have resulted in similar challenges in the development of the game and the success of each country at the international level.

The primary similarity between American and Canadian soccer which has ultimately led to coaching challenges is that in both countries, the sport has huge numbers of participants, but lags behind several other sports in terms of popularity and history.

The Canadian Soccer Association’s website http://www.canadasoccer.com states that Canada has over 850,000 registered soccer players (almost 3% of its total population), and that an amazing 44% of children in the country participate in the sport.   This makes soccer the largest participation sport in the country.

In the United States, http://www.wikipedia.org states that there are over 13 million registered soccer players (over 4% of their total population), making soccer the third-largest participation sport there, behind only basketball and baseball/softball.

In Canada, hockey is clearly our most popular sport, and based on the amount of media attention devoted to different sports; both baseball and basketball are more popular than soccer.  In the United States, baseball, football, basketball and in many cases hockey could all be considered more popular than soccer based on the media attention they receive.

A common coaching problem that has emerged in both the United States and Canada as a result of the large numbers of participants in youth soccer is the lack of qualified, knowledgeable, and experienced coaches available to work with all of these players.

I have been through the coach licensing programs in both Canada (up to and including the CSA National “B” License) and the United States (up to an including the USSF National “A” License) and, while they are both certainly very challenging courses, they require significantly less time to complete as do similar coach licensing programs in other countries.  In Uruguay, for example, elite level youth coaches must complete a 2-year coach licensing program comprising 1400 hours of in-class and on-field instruction, plus multiple exams; I wrote a previous blog article about this topic which can be viewed here: https://soccerfitnessgols.com/2016/09/26/3-things-canadians-can-learn-from-uruguayan-youth-soccer/.

Most countries that have been more successful in developing talent, as well as in winning games and tournaments at the international levels, have been able to ensure that the more talented youth players they have – the “best” players – are placed in programs where they get coaching and training from the most knowledgeable and experienced coaches – the “best” coaches.   This concept is known as “best with best”, and there is considerable evidence to suggest that putting the best players with the best coaches will lead to optimal player development, which in turn will lead to optimal performance at the senior international level.

While it is certainly possible for America and/or Canada to develop a “best with best” model, the systems present in both countries at the moment – in which huge numbers of players are participating without enough knowledgeable and experienced coaches – may not be sufficient to develop it.  Some potential solutions to this shared American/Canadian soccer problem might be:

  • Decrease and/or set limits on the total number of “competitive” players registered in the country, provinces, and states:

This would require the great majority of registered in youth soccer players to compete in “recreational” programs rather than in “competitive” programs.  If recreational players want to participate in a competitive program, they should be given fair and equal opportunities to try-out, but the standards by which players are selected must be stricter as the total number of “competitive” payers accepted into the programs would be significantly lower.  This could also help to streamline the process of identifying who the “best” players are in specific age and gender categories for the higher level programs (state/province, and National Teams).

  • Hold more frequent coach licensing courses and make requirements stricter for coaches who wish to work with these “competitive” players:

If the ultimate goal of “best with best” is to provide good players with access to better coaching, then the number of “better” coaches needs to increase.  This can only be done if the North American state/provincial and national organisations hold their licensing courses more frequently so that more coaches can attend them and reach higher levels of coach education.  Furthermore, if the total number of “competitive” players in a certain region or city is lower, then the licensing requirements for coaches working with those players can be made stricter, thus demanding a higher standard of coaches to work with the better players.

  • Raise the standards of state/provincial, and national coach licensing courses:

As mentioned previously, it I not uncommon for coaches working with top level players in other countries to be required to spend several years (and more than 1000 hours) on coach education and licensing courses in order to meet the licensing requirements.  Although the American and Canadian coach licensing courses are challenging, well organised and very educational, it is possible that increasing the length of the courses and adding more content – including more content around sports science related topics such as periodization, energy system training, and sports psychology, for example – could help to raise the overall standard of the courses and of the coaches who participate in them.

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

Matches

Soccer in Uruguay – Day 10 -Reinforcing My Opinion

Today the Academy teams who played matches yesterday had a recovery session, while the teams who played on Saturday had an off day. I got a chance to get (slightly) caught up with all the other work from my business, while at the same time preparing for two long days of fitness assessments, which start tomorrow at 2:00pm.

A friend who I met in the old city a few nights ago forwarded me a link to an excellent recently written article by Nick Rider, posted on The Independent’s website, titled Exploring Uruguay, the world’s most successful footballing nation.

The author – although he visited Uruguay solely to watch professional matches and tour the country’s many famous soccer stadiums and museums –  seems to have coma away with a very similar impression of the country’s soccer culture as I have from my travels here.

If the title of the article isn’t enough of a giveaway, Rider goes on to say in no uncertain terms:

“And it’s true: Uruguay is without any challengers the most successful footballing country in the world, per capita. No other country this size has come even close.”

Rider also wonders aloud how some of the most humble Uruguayan professional clubs, like Montevideo’s Danubio, defy the odds by continually producing top quality players such as Edinson Cavani, Jose Maria Giminez, and Christhian Stuani – their youth academy has even earned itself the nickname “the University of Uruguayan Football.”

He visits the very largest and most popular clubs (Penarol and Ncional) and also some of the smaller, poorer, “barrio” clubs (unfortunately he did not visit the training grounds or home stadium of Canadian SC – maybe next time)!

And of course, no soccer fan’s visit to Montevideo would be complete without spending some time at the National Uruguayan Football Museum, located inside the Estadio Centenario, itself one of the most famous soccer stadiums in the world and home to the first-ever FIFA World Cup, which Uruguay won by defeating Argentina in the final match in front of 100,000 people.

This interesting and very well-written article made for a good read on my final day off in Montevideo.  Below is a link.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and as always, please feel free to post your comments or feedback.

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/americas/uruguay-football-team-argentina-euros-luis-suarez-a7125561.html

Matches

Soccer in Uruguay: Day 8/9 – Player Development

This weekend we worked at 5 different games for the Academy, with teams ranging in age from U14-U19.   We got to see some other stadiums and facilities from professional clubs in the city, and of course got to meet and speak with the coaches and fitness coaches from all of the different teams.  Interestingly, there is one fitness coach who works exclusively with each Academy team.  And not just in our club – all of the clubs in Uruguay with academies have one fitness coach working exclusively with one of their teams/age categories.  Imagine that!

Among the topics I discussed with the coaching staff this weekend was the subject of player development.  More specifically, I was questioned by several coaches about the system we have in Canada, and the methods – if any – we use to develop our players.

In Uruguay, the development – and eventual sale – of players is an integral part of the livelihood of all professional soccer clubs, including Canadian SC, the club that I am working with.

While Uruguayan clubs do earn a small amount of revenue from the rights to television broadcasts of their matches, and an even smaller amount from live attendance at the matches themselves, the money earned from selling players developed through their own academies to other – typically larger and wealthier – clubs, is literally the only way for a Uruguayan professional soccer club to survive in the long term.

Prospective revenue from the sale of homegrown players is thus a primary incentive for all professional soccer clubs in Uruguay, to do the best possible job they can to develop their own players.  Furthermore, players developed through a club’s own academy can also play professionally for the club’s first team, thereby saving the club from the expense of having to purchase other players developed in other clubs.

This isn’t rocket science, and Uruguay is just one of literally dozens of counties around the world whose youth soccer systems function in this way.

Yet, when attempting to explain to my Uruguayan colleagues how our own Canadian system of player development functions, I found myself at a loss as to why – even in our own domestic professional academies in Major League Soccer – there is no financial incentive for youth clubs to develop and sell their own homegrown players.

I have written about this topic in the past, in an article which also questioned why our domestic professional clubs are not incentivised to win via a promotion/relegation system.  Below is a link to that article:

https://soccerfitnessgols.com/2016/04/04/the-2-missing-ingredients-for-success-in-canadian-soccer/

Among the different Uruguayan coaches and fitness coaches I spoke with over the weekend, the consensus regarding player development was clear: without a strong financial incentive to develop and sell players, youth soccer clubs and academies in Canada – even those which are connected to domestic professional clubs – will never truly be motivated to become experts at developing professional players.

Simply being able to say “I used to coach that kid when he was younger” does not constitute adequate motivation for any coach or club in Canada to really invest all of their time, energy and resources into proper, professional player development.

Until all Canadian clubs and academies have very clear financial incentives,  we will likely never reach our full potential when it comes to the development of professional soccer players.

After watching 3 straight Academy matches today, we capped off the day by catching the Euro 2016 Final between France and Portugal, which means I have basically spent the past 10 hours of the day watching soccer – and I’m still not tired of it!  Tomorrow is an off day before we get the last round of fitness assessments done with the Academy on Tuesday and Wednesday.

I am looking forward to seeing what comes next!

 

Fitness, Matches

Soccer in Uruguay: Day 7 – Underdogs

Today the Academy team had a light day of training, because it is a day sandwiched between 2 matches (yesterday and tomorrow).  We got a chance to walk around the “ciudad viejo” which stands for “old city.”  When it rains, it seems as though everyone in Uruguay stays inside their homes, but on a day like today where the sun was shining, the streets in the ciudad viejo were buzzing with people.  This part of Montevideo looks similar to other older European cities I have been to (like Barcelona, for example) but with a distinctive style which is uniquely Uruguayan.

In one of my conversations with the Academy’ Fitness Coach, I mentioned to him something I had noticed both during this trip, as well as the one I made here three years ago – that the players here appear to be more aggressive than the players in Canada, and that they seem to train and play with more intensity.

This aggression and intensity is visible amongst players not only in the youth categories and smaller professional clubs like Canadian SC, but also at the highest levels of Uruguayan soccer (remember Luis Suarez during the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil)?

When I asked the Fitness Coach, he told me that in his opinion, aggressiveness is a trait which is inherently part of Uruguayan soccer, and that it is one of the factors that has allowed the country to punch well above its weight at the international level for over 100 years.

Uruguay might be the greatest underdog in the history of international sports – not just in soccer.  Based on its size (a population of just over 3 million people) and location (in South America, possibly the most competitive soccer continent in the world), Uruguay would seem to have no business even qualifying regularly for international tournaments like the FIFA World Cup, let alone achieving success in them.

To illustrate this point, consider that in CONMEBOL (the South American football federation in which Uruguay is a member) there are only 4.5 slots for qualification to every FIFA World Cup (and this number is greater than the 4 slots they had up to and including the 1998 World Cup).  This means that only the top 4 teams from South American qualification automatically advance to the World Cup, while the 5th place team must compete in an “inter-confederation play-off” with one of the lower-placing teams from Asia, North America, or Oceania.  The perennial qualifiers and giants of South America have traditionally been Brazil and Argentina, whose populations (200,000,000 and 42,000,000, respectively) both dwarf Uruguay’s.  Neither of those nations has missed out on qualification for a FIFA World Cup since 1970 (Brazil has never missed one) and between them they have won the tournament a total of 7 times (5 to Brazil, and 2 to Argentina).

Even the traditionally less-successful South American countries like Colombia (48,000,000); Chile (17,000,000) ; Peru (30,000,000); Bolivia (10,000,000), Ecuador (16,000,000); and Paraguay (6,000,000) are all between 2-15 times the size of Uruguay.  Yet still, somehow, Uruguay (with a population of only 3,000,000 people) has been much more successful at the World Cup than any of these aforementioned countries, and in the past was on par if not more successful than even Brazil and Argentina.

Uruguay won the first three official “world championships” of soccer (the 1924 and 1928 Olympics soccer tournaments, which were considered the world championship of soccer befre the creation of the FIFA World Cup in 1930, and, of course, the first-ever FIFA World Cup on their home soil that year).  Against all odds, they won the tournament again 20 years later when they defeated heavily favoured Brazil, in Brazil, in front of 200,000 people at Maracana stadium in Rio De Janeiro.  They refused to participate in the FIFA World Cups in Italy (1934) and France (1938), mainly for political reasons but if they had, they may well have won one or both of those tournaments as well.

Since 1950, Uruguay have not won another World Cup, but they have qualified for 11 of the past 16 World Cups, and have reached the semi-finals on more than one occasion (placing 4th in Mexico in 1970, and then again in South Africa in 2010).  They have also put together a run of success in international soccer which rivals even that of the most successful nations in the world, having won the Copa America (the championship tournament for South America) an incredible 15 times.

So what is the secret to the success of soccer’s greatest underdogs?  I have already written about the role that coach education, professional leagues and opportunities, and even poverty, has played in their success.  But perhaps it is the fact that Uruguay are underdogs in the first place, which has played the biggest role and had the greatest impact.

Canadian SC’s Academy Fitness Coach put it to me in this way:

“When you are smaller than everybody else, you have to fight.  We have always been smaller than everybody else, so we have always had to fight.”

Maybe Uruguay has felt that its back has been against the wall in soccer for over 100 years, and this has led to the development of aggressiveness and intensity which is now a common trait of every homegrown soccer player.  After having spent one week here observing the professional academy system, I would have to agree with this sentiment.

 

Matches, Science

Soccer in Uruguay: Day 2 – The Importance of Coach Education

Today was an off-day, because the Academy matches were cancelled due to thunderstorms which continued basically all day long.  I did get to meet up with my friend and colleague who will also be working with Canadian SC, sports scientist Farzad Yousefian of Sports Performance Analytics Inc.  We watched the UEFA Euro quarter-final match between France and Iceland, a game dominated by France, who ended up winning 5-2 and will now face Germany in the semi-final on Thursday.

Much has been made of the success of Iceland, a nation with a population of just over 300,000 people, in this year’s tournament.  Not only did they qualify out of a European group at the expense of the Netherlands, they proved their worth in the tournament itself by drawing Portugal and Hungary, then beating Austria in group play to advance to the knockout rounds, where they subsequently beat England to reach today’s quarter-final match.

Following Iceland’s shocking defeat of England, many members of the media (including our Canadian/TSN broadcast team of Jason DeVos and Kristian Jack), in their attempt to search for answers as to how the tiny nation could have pulled of such an upset, pointed to the country’s strong emphasis on coach education.

I have blogged about Iceland and the secrets to their success in soccer before, in November of 2015, when I posted and commented on a article written by Icelandic journalist Tryggvi Kristjansson, published after the team had secured qualification for the final stage of France 2016.  In case you missed that blog/article, it can be viewed here:

https://soccerfitnessgols.com/2015/09/21/article-the-icelandic-roadmap-to-success-on-www-thesefootballtimes-co/

Kristjansson, like TSN’s DeVos and Jack, also highlighted the important role that coach education has played in Iceland’s “football revolution.”  Among the statistics presented in the article which stood out the most are that 70% of all of the registered coaches in Iceland now have a UEFA “B” License, and 30% of them have a UEFA “A” License.  These staggering numbers mean that Iceland has a higher percentage of its total coaches with UEFA “B” and “A” Licensed coaches than any other European nation, including perennial contenders Germany, Italy, Spain and France.

Interestingly, there are several comparisons that can be made between soccer’s newest underdog, Iceland, and Uruguay, which is perhaps the greatest underdog in the history of the sport. Among their many similarities (a relatively small population, a struggling professional league with few profitable clubs, etc..) one of the primary ones is that Uruguay, like Iceland, is also renowned around the world for its coaching education programs.

Coaches in Uruguay, even the ones who work with lower level youth/amateur players, must pass a rigorous licensing program provided through the Association Uruguaya de Futbol (“AUF” for short), which requires a minimum of 4 years to complete, and includes courses (and exams) in physiology, biomechanics, periodization, and sports psychology, in addition to the requisite technical and tactical training education.

According to the people I have met and spoken with thus far, Uruguay is one of the largest exporters of professional coaches in the world, a fact which speaks volumes to the credibility of their coach education programs.

DeVos in particular was adamant following Iceland’s victory over England, that it was the nation’s emphasis on coach education that had paved the way for this historic result.  He added that a similar emphasis on coach education would be required in Canada if we expect to become competitive at the international level.  After my experiences thus far in Uruguay, it is hard to argue with this sentiment.

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

 

Matches

Article – “What if Women’s Team Argued ‘Fair’ Rather than ‘Equal’?” at Sportsnet.ca

Below is a link to a very interesting article written by Donnovan Bennett and posted earlier today at http://www.sportsnet.ca.  The article presents a different viewpoint on – and potential solution to – the recent controversy surrounding the United States Women’s National Soccer Team’s dispute with U.S. Soccer over wage discrepancies between their team and the U.S. Men’s Team, which eventually led to several members of the Women’s Team filing a wage discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Bennett’s argument in this article is that the members of the U.S. Women’s National Team – as well as other prominent female athletes in other sports – should approach the issue of wage discrimination not from a philosophical viewpoint, but rather from a commercial one.  As he puts it:

  “What if we reframed the conversation from “equal” to “fair”? Make it less of an arbitrary decision, remove any altruistic reasoning for why women’s pay should increase and make this solely a business conversation. We could look at the amount of revenue that both the men’s and women’s sides bring in for the federation—whether through gate revenue or jersey sales or TV ratings—versus the amount of investment made by the federation in the respective teams and then agree on a set percentage of soccer-related revenue after expenses that the teas should be entitled to. That might be a start.”

Personally, I think this viewpoint makes a lot of sense.  I attended two FIFA Women’s World Cup matches last year.  One of them – a group match in Winnipeg’s Investor’s Group Stadium between the U.S. Women’s Team and Sweden – attracted a live attendance of over 30,000 people.

I also got to work with our own Canadian Women’s National Team during the 2015 Pan-American Games in Toronto, where Hamilton’s Tim Horton’s Stadium sold out to its 12,000-seat capacity for some of the Women’s Football (soccer) matches, including Canada’s final group match versus Brazil on July 19th, 2015.

Of course, as Bennett points out, live attendance or gate revenue in only part of the total revenue that women’s soccer can generate (the other components being TV ratings, and sales of merchandise such as team jerseys), however, the sport is clearly gaining in popularity, both in North America as well as around the world.  He goes on to note that the Final match of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, between the U.S. and Japan, drew a U.S. TV audience of 25.4 million viewers (more than any game in the 2015 NBA Finals, or Sunday Night Football, or any of the coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi).

I say that, if the United States Women’s National Team can prove that they are able to generate as much – if not more – revenue than their male counterparts, then a strong argument can be made for their wages and compensation to reflect this ability.

Below is the link to the full article.  As always, please feel free to post your thoughts and comments.

http://www.sportsnet.ca/soccer/us-womens-soccer-teams-pay-equity-hope-solo-carli-loyd-alex-morgan/

 

Matches

The 2 Missing Ingredients for Success in Canadian Soccer

Our Canadian Men’s National Soccer Team recently concluded the second of two FIFA World Cup qualification matches versus Mexico, in the 2nd stage of CONCACAF qualification, last week.  Unfortunately, we lost both of those matches, by a score of 3-0 in the first match and 2-0 in the second.

Canada’s hopes of progression to the “Hex” (the group of six teams which represents the final stage of CONCACAF competition) and ultimately of qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia now rest on our final two matches, versus Honduras on September 2nd, and then El Salvador on September 6th of this year.

Defensively, aside from the most recent games against the much stronger Mexicans, Canada has been solid.  We secured a 1-0 win versus Honduras back in November of 2015 at BC Place in Vancouver, before earning 1 point in a tough 0-0 draw away to El Salvador later the same month.

It has been on the offensive side of the ball, however, where we have looked deficient, having only managed to score the one – albeit game-winning – goal against Honduras six months ago.  This deficiency will need to be addressed soon, as the only possible scenario that would see Canada advance through to the final round of World Cup qualification would be to secure at least 3 points (at least one more win) out of the next 2 matches.

Why are we having such a problem scoring goals at the senior international level?  And by extension, why are we also seemingly having a problem developing soccer players who possess the attacking talent, skills, and insight necessary to create and score goals?  There are likely many reasons, including a need for better player development programs and coach education at the youth levels, more and better domestic professional opportunities for our best players, as well as better funding and programming for our National Teams programs.

The following two reasons, however, can most accurately account for our inability to develop creative and talented attacking players, who can in turn create and score goals for our National Team:

  1. Youth soccer clubs in Canada are not incentivised to develop players.

Why would they want to?

Canadian youth clubs and academies are not financially rewarded for producing players who become professionals (either locally or abroad) nor, in many cases, are they even recognized or acknowledged for the role they have played in the development of talented players who have progressed to these higher levels.

In most countries with successful national teams programs – especially in Europe where most professional clubs have youth academies – player development is treated as a business.  Professional youth academies, most notably those without investors or large budgets, are able to sustain their expenses partially through revenue earned when a player they developed – their “product” – is “purchased” by another club – the “consumer” – and signs a professional contract.

Unfortunately, in Canada, our own youth clubs and academies are disconnected from this “business” model, and thus there are no tangible, financial incentives for them to develop players.  This lack of incentive in turn means that the player development system in our country is fragmented, and we are not able to help our young players reach their maximum potential.

Furthermore, until very recently, the great majority of the youth soccer leagues and tournaments in Canada have only rewarded clubs for winning, irrespective of the quality of their play and/or the quality of the players they produce.  Thus, the primary aim of all Canadian youth soccer clubs has been, for decades, to win league titles and trophies at tournaments, not to develop players.  If these clubs are not incentivised to develop players, then players will not develop.

  1. Professional soccer clubs in Canada are not incentivised to win.

Once again, why would they want to?

Canada presently has three professional teams competing in Major League Soccer or “MLS” (Toronto FC, 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 (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), 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.  As long as they can continue to generate revenue by maintaining fans’ interest, attaining and maintaining a television deal, and attracting corporate sponsors, any of our professional clubs can survive and even thrive in MLS or the NASL without ever having to produce a winning team.

Interestingly, MLS and the NASL are the only professional soccer leagues in the world which function without tiered divisions and a promotion-relegation system.  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 in order to avoid being relegated to a lower division.

There could not be a more perfect example of how the lack of incentive to win has affected a Canadian professional soccer team than Toronto FC, which entered MLS as an expansion team in 2007.  Here is a summary of Toronto FC’s record (point total, place finished in their division, and place finished in the league) sine their inaugural MLS season:

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, Toronto FC would have been relegated in at least two and possibly as many as five of their previous nine seasons in Major League Soccer.  And it’s not just Toronto FC; Montreal Impact, another Canadian MLS team, finished with just 28 points, 10th out of 10 in their division and 19th out of 19 overall in the 2014 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.

In conclusion, if we expect to develop better soccer players in Canada, then we need to make some changes to the paradigms which exist in our present youth and professional soccer systems.  What we need in order to be successful is to incentivise our soccer clubs.  Canadian youth soccer clubs and academies need to be incentivised to develop and produce talented players.  Canadian professional soccer clubs need to be incentivised to win.   If we can find a way to set up and enforce these incentives, then maybe we can be more successful at the international level.

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

 

Matches, Science

How Ball Possession Influences Match Performance in Soccer

In its simplest form, ball possession in soccer is typically approached in one of two ways. A team will either look to maintain possession of the ball often with the intent of unbalancing the opposing defence through passing and movement, until a space is created through which to penetrate, or a team will look to willingly concede possession, with the aim of exploiting space created through quick transitional play.  There are hundreds if not thousands of different strategies – including variations of team and group tactics as well as line-ups and formations – with which teams can achieve these objectives, however, almost all of these strategies can ultimately be grouped into two sub-categories:

  • High Percentage Ball Possession
  • Low Percentage Ball Possession

Despite the differences in game strategy, a recent study by Soccer Research Group at the University of Sunderland (Bradley et al., 2013) found that there is no significant difference in the total amount of running or high intensity running between teams using high and low percentage of ball possession. The study examined over 20 teams and over 800 players from the English FA Premier League. The players were grouped into these two sub-categories, with “high percentage ball possession teams” or “HGBPT” (teams that had 55+/- 4% ball possession in matches) and “low percentage ball possession teams” or “LPBPT” (teams that had 46 +/- 4% ball percentage in matches).  Researchers analysed the teams based on several different physical and technical performance indicators. Among the performance indicators measured were (from the physical side) total amount of running, and total distance covered at different running speeds, and (from the technical side) passes, shots, dribbles, tackles, and possessions won and lost.  In addition, this particular study also compared performance in these metrics amongst different playing positions, including fullbacks, central defenders, wide midfielders, central midfielders and strikers.

Their findings also yielded some other interesting results. It found a significant difference in the amount of high intensity running done when in possession of the ball, compared to the amount of high intensity running done when not in possession of the ball, between the two sub-categories.  HPBPT did 31% more high intensity running when in possession than did LPBPT. Conversely, HPBPT did 22% less high intensity running when not in possession of the ball than did LPBPT. This suggests that despite using high intensity running at different times in a team’s game strategy, both sub-categories of teams engage in similar total amounts of high intensity running .

There were also positional differences in physical performance. Central defenders in LPBPT did 33% less high intensity running when in possession than did central defenders in HPBPT. Meanwhile fullbacks, strikers, and central/wide midfielders in LPBPT all did significantly more high intensity running without ball possession than did their counterparts in HPBPT.

The two sub-categories of teams differed in their technical performance as well. Players in HPBPT performed 44% more passes, and also had a significantly higher percentage of successful passes, received passes, touches per possession, shots, dribbles and final-third entries, than did players in LPBPT.  Total passes, passes received, and pass completion percentage, were all higher in HPBPT than in LPBPT, across all playing positions

So what does all of this information mean to soccer coaches and fitness coaches?  First of all, it is imperative for any coach and/or fitness coach to take note of what type of team (HPBPT or LPBPT) they are working with, and also what their particular strategy for an upcoming match will be (do they intend to have more or less ball possession in their upcoming match?).  Once this critical piece of information has been identified, then some specific training strategies may be implemented based on the findings of the study.

HPBPT are required to do more high intensity running while in possession of the ball, so coaches and fitness coaches should design training exercises, such as conditioned small-sided games, that require a lot of running off the ball to be done by players who are supporting the ball-carrier, in order to maintain possession. In contrast, since LPBPT do more high intensity running when not in possession of the ball, coaches or fitness coaches working with these teams should spend more time on defending sessions (functional exercises, or small-sided games), which elicit a similar type of movement and game play.  Position-specific training might also be an important addition to teams’ training routines, based on their percentage of ball possession. Central defenders in HPBPT, for example, may need to perform some functional sessions with a lot of high intensity running, as they will be required to do a high amount of high intensity running during game play. Players in the other outfield positions in HPBPT will also need to do more high intensity running in training, in addition to training with a high number of passes in their sessions while maintaining possession of the ball.

Ultimately, the planning and implementation of strategies and tactics prior to match play in soccer is a complicated process. When planning training and preparing for an opponent, coaches and fitness coaches must account for a variety of factors including the strengths and weaknesses of the individual players in the team, as well as those of the opponent, and they must consider the results and evidence gleaned from recent studies like the one done by the Soccer Research Group.  If their strategy involves maintaining possession of the ball, their players will be required to perform large amounts of high intensity running, while at the same time managing a high number of passes, all while they are attacking and in possession.  Thus, the physical and technical training for a team striving to maintain a high percentage of ball possession must include exercises which mimic these actions on the pitch. On the other hand, teams aiming to play with low percentage of ball possession must do most of their high intensity running when they do not have the ball.  In this case, coaches and fitness coaches must plan exercises that force players to do the majority of their high intensity running when defending, rather than when attacking.  If and when these teams do win possession and transition into attack, they must also train and prepare to maximize the efficiency of their movements, limiting the amount and speed of their running and trying to get to goal as quickly as possible.

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

For Parents, Matches

Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #23: Friday, March 18th, 2016

Hi everyone,

Welcome to the next edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog. In this Blog, we will be providing weekly video content relating to all things soccer and fitness. In this edition, we discuss the importance of watching high level soccer (such as the UEFA Champions League) for aspiring young soccer players.

I Hope you enjoy it, and as always, please feel free to post thoughts/comments!

Fitness, Matches, Science

Specificity – the Most Important Rule in Soccer Fitness Training (Part 2)

Last week, in Part 1 of this article, I discussed the principle of specificity as it relates to fitness training for soccer players, and also presented a brief chart with examples of how to train the main athletic qualities in soccer, in a soccer-specific way.  This week, in part 2, I will be following up with detailed explanations of these different soccer-specific exercises. Here they are:

  1. Speed Training:

SpeedCrossingAndFinishing

  • Coach starts the exercise by serving a ball in to inside forward player (grey line)
  • Outside forward player makes a curved run underneath the inside forward, and receives a short lay-off pass (black lines)
  • Wide midfield player makes a 20 metre sprint down the sideline, to receive a long pass from the outside forward, while the inside forward travels horizontally across the pitch (red lines)
  • Wide midfield player crosses the ball to both forward players, who each make a 10 metre sprint (one to the near post, the other to the far post) and try to finish on goal

This exercise requires players to perform repeated bouts of maximal sprints (in the case of the wide players, 20 metres, and in the case of the forward players, 10 metres.  If sufficient rest is given to players between each repetition (about 30 seconds between each sprint) then all of the sprints will be performed at maximum speed.  Of course, there is a lot of specificity and relevance to the sport in this exercise, because players are performing the exact type of running and movements they are required to do in an actual match.

  1. Power Training:

PowerJumpHeaders

  • Divide players into groups of 2, with 1 ball between 2 players
  • 1 player is designated as “server” and the other as “header”
  • Server serves the ball by throwing it into the air, in front of the header
  • The header must perform an explosive jump, as high as possible, and try to head the ball back to the server at the highest point
  • A hurdle can be used under the header, to encourage a higher/more powerful jump

This very simple exercise requires players to perform repeated bouts of maximal intensity jumps, in a soccer-specific way that includes the ball.  Like with speed training, power or jump training must give players sufficient rest in between repetitions.  In this case, about 5-6 seconds of rest between each jump is enough.  One player can do 5-10 headers, before switching to become a server.  3 sets for each player as both server and header work well to develop power without over-using the muscles.

  1. Strength Training:

Strength1Vs.1

  • Coach starts the exercise by serving a ball centrally, for 2 players to chase
  • The player who arrives at and secures the ball first must then try to score in one of the small goals near the start area
  • The player who arrives second becomes a defender, with the objective of winning the ball and playing it back to the coach
  • All movements, including the sprint to the ball, and 1 vs. 1 play, must be done at maximal intensity

While it may seem a bit unconventional to think of 1 versus 1 training as “strength training”, a closer look at the movements and intensities involved in this exercise presents a clearer picture for the rationale for its use to improve soccer-specific muscular strength.  Performing a short sprint to a ball requires maximal acceleration immediately followed by a quick and powerful deceleration – to slow down, either to secure and protect the ball (if the player arrives first) or to defend and prevent forward play (if the player arrives second).  These decelerations require very high eccentric strength in all of the major leg muscles, including the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps.  When performed repeatedly over the course of multiple repetitions, high speed eccentric contractions will help to strengthen these lower body muscles and prepare them for the exact movements needed in match play.  Once again, rest periods between repetitions are critical for this exercise, in order to allow for enough recovery for all players involved.  Most of the plays in this exercise should last between 5-10 seconds, so 1-2 minutes of rest between each repetition is sufficient.  Players can perform between 8-12 repetitions of this exercise.

  1. Endurance Training:

EnduranceTraining4Vs.4

  • Players are divided into small teams of 4 players
  • Play 4 versus 4, on a small field, 30 metres long x 20 metres wide
  • Balls are placed all around the field, so that if the ball goes out of play, the game can be re-started very quickly
  • Other conditions may be put on the game (for example, all players must be over the half line to score, or simply by minimizing the number of touches allowed per player)

This exercise, as well as other variations of small-sided soccer games, represents the best and most effective way to develop soccer-specific endurance.   Small-sided games are effective at improving endurance as long as they are played at a high intensity.  Coaches can ensure that the intensity is high by following the recommendations mentioned above.  Prevent breaks in play by playing a new ball in immediately after a ball in played out.  If the pace of the game starts to slow down, add a condition like minimizing touches to help speed it up.  A simple protocol to work with is to play for 4 repetitions of 4 minute games, with a 3 minute rest period between each game.

The exercises described in this article represent just a few ways to incorporate the principle of specificity into soccer fitness training.  Coaches and fitness coaches working with soccer players must strive to plan fitness exercises and training sessions that are as specific and relevant to the sport as possible, as this is the only way to ensure that improvements made during training will translate into improvements in match play.

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

Fitness, Matches, Science

Specificity – the Most Important Rule in Soccer Fitness Training (Part I)

This summer I took a trip to Montreal, to watch both a Women’s World Cup match, as well as a Major League Soccer match between the Montreal Impact and Orlando City FC.  During this time I also got to visit and catch up with an old friend, Palo Pacione, who is the Fitness Coach of the Impact.  We discussed our work, some of the ups and downs we have both experienced in our careers, and also how the role of a soccer fitness coach has changed and developed over the past 10-15 years, since the two of us got started in this industry.  During our discussion, one issue that continually came up was our shared opinion that the most important role a fitness coach can have in soccer is the work done with the players on the field, during training.  As we looked back on some of the experiences we have had at higher levels in the game, including the Canadian National Men’s and Women’s Teams, and both Canadian as well as international professional soccer teams and academies, we both recognized that the most important contributions we have made to players and teams at these levels came not from the work we did in the weight room, but rather from the soccer-specific work we did with them on the pitch.

As a sports scientist, I am inclined to consider the above-mentioned realization in the context of the principles of training, which provide fitness coaches with a framework from which they can develop their training strategy and tactics.  In doing so, I have come to see that the reason the most impactful and rewarding work soccer fitness coaches do occurs during training on the pitch is because of the most important of all of the principles of training – the principle of specificity.  The principle of specificity states that sports training should be relevant and appropriate to the sport for which the individual is training in order to produce a training effect.  Put another way, specificity refers to the development of any particular athletic quality, in the exact, specific manner in which it occurs in a particular sport.  In soccer, then, the principle of specificity dictates that the best way to develop the specific athletic qualities needed for soccer is to train them in the specific manner in which they occur in the sport, on the pitch.

To understand how the principle of specificity would affect training in soccer, the first step must be to identify what specific athletic qualities are central to performance in soccer, and then to determine how these athletic qualities occur in a match.  Below is a chart that lists the necessary athletic qualities in soccer, and how they are manifest in the sport:

ATHLETIC QUALITY MANIFESTS ITSELF IN SOCCER AS
Speed –          Short sprints (0-5 metres) to outrun opponents into space or to get to the ball

–          Long sprints (10-30 metres); usually recovery runs or overlapping runs

–          Multi-directional running (backwards, sideways, and diagonal)

Power –          Jumping to head the ball

–          (for goalkeepers) Jumping to catch/parry the ball

–          Shooting / ball striking

Strength –          (general) All soccer actions including running, jumping, kicking

–          (specific) Shielding, challenging for the ball on the ground or in the air

–          (specific) decelerating / slowing down from sprints and fast movements

Endurance –          Aerobic capacity (to be able to cover a specific total distance during a match)

–          High intensity running ability (to be able to perform a specific amount of high intensity – fast – running during a match)

–          Recovery (ability to recover in between bursts of high intensity running)

Flexibility –          Prevention of muscle injury when performing soccer actions such as running, jumping, kicking, and challenging for the ball

After determining the necessary athletic qualities in soccer and how they are manifest in the sport, the final step for soccer fitness coaches must be to determine what types of exercises or training will help to reproduce these athletic qualities in the same manner in which they occur in the sport.  When considering all of the specific details relating to the manifestation of each of the five athletic qualities in soccer, it is difficult – or maybe even impossible – to imagine a training program in which the execution of these athletic qualities would remain specific without having players on the pitch, actually playing soccer.  Thus, the only way for soccer fitness coaches to apply the principle of specificity to the physical training of soccer players is to come up with exercises and training sessions that are done on the pitch, with the ball, and preferably while actually playing soccer.  Below is a chart which briefly describes one practical example of how to use the principle of specificity to train for each of the 5 athletic qualities in soccer.  In Part II of this article (next week) I will provide detailed examples and descriptions of each of these 5 practical training sessions.

I hope you enjoyed this article, and would love to hear your thoughts/comments.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

ATHLETIC QUALITY PRACTICAL TRAINING EXAMPLE
Speed –          Crossing and finishing exercise, where wide players must make long sprints (10-20 metres) to receive a through ball, and then cross to forward players who must make short sprints (5-10 metres) to finish on goal
Power –          Technical exercise, involving repeated bouts of maximal jumps to head the ball
Strength –          1 vs. 1 exercise, done in a small/restricted space, to facilitate multiple decelerations and challenges for the ball
Endurance –          Small-sided soccer game, played at a high intensity for a specific amount of time, with a work-to-rest ratio of 1:1
Flexibility –          Soccer-specific warm-up exercises, following the FIFA 11+ program, that include flexibility and mobility exercises for soccer-specific muscles
Matches

Article – ‘The Icelandic Roadmap to Success’ – on www.thesefootballtimes.co

Below is a link to a very interesting article written by Tryggvi Kristjansson, that was posted last week on http://www.thesefootballtimes.co, an international soccer specific website/blog.  The article describes the ascension of Iceland – a country which, with a population of just over 300,000 is one of the smallest European member nations in UEFA – as a soccer contender capable of consistently producing results against the traditionally stronger teams on the continent.  At week’s end, Iceland sits in 1st place in Group A of UEFA Euro 2016 Qualification, with 19 points (8 wins, 1 tie, and 1 loss) from their first 10 games.  Incredibly, they have already qualified and secured their place at Euro 2016 in France.

The success of Iceland’s National Soccer Teams has been the result of several changes instituted over the past 20 years by both the Icelandic government and municipal sport authorities, as well as the “KSI” (Knattspyrnusamband Íslands; the Icelandic FA).  Among them include investment in development and improvement of soccer facilities, better funding for National Teams programs and. perhaps most importantly, a comprehensive, nation-wide restructuring of their coach education program.

According to the author, the Icelandic FA:

“created a training programme for coaches (both UEFA A and B license training, as well as a Pro License in cooperation with the English FA) which has been made available to all coaches in the country at the lowest possible cost – KSÍ does not make a profit on the programme.”

Furthermore, he adds:

“These changes have seen a drastic increase in both the number of academic seminars (from 2-3 to 20-25) and the number of participants (from 70 to 700-800), and in this way KSÍ are able to accommodate every coach in Iceland, of which there are around 700.”

The end result is that in Iceland today, over 70% of the coaches have UEFA ‘B’ Licenses, and over 30% have UEFA ‘A’ Licenses (the highest license available to amateur coaches).  This is unprecedented not only in Canada/North America (where the overwhelming majority of coaches are volunteers who do not hold any coaching licenses at all) but also in Europe, as Iceland now have a higher percentage of UEFA ‘B’ and ‘A’ Licensed coaches than any other European nation.

Of course, there are some factors working in Iceland’s favour, including their small population (only 300,000), small total number of coaches (only 700), and small geographical landmass/area (just over 100,000 square kilometres).  The influence of the changes made to their soccer programs, however, including the emphasis placed on coach education, has produced results that are impossible to ignore.  It would be very interesting to see if these results can influence other nations, including our own, to push for the same type of changes.

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.

http://thesefootballtimes.co/2015/01/15/the-icelandic-roadmap-to-success/

Matches

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 http://www.screamer.deadspin.com 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.

http://screamer.deadspin.com/u-s-soccer-continues-to-sabotage-soccer-in-the-u-s-1728268664?utm_campaign=socialflow_deadspin_facebook&utm_source=deadspin_facebook&utm_medium=socialflow

Matches

One Thing Canadian Soccer Fans Can Do Better

Last night I attended the Pan-American Games Women’s Soccer match between our Canadian Women’s National Team, and Brazil, at a packed Tim Horton’s Stadium in Hamilton, Ontario.  The match was exciting, and although Canada lost 2-0, there were some positives to take away from the contest for the home team.  After having worked directly with this Canadian team and coaching staff in the week prior to their opening match against Ecuador, as well as in the match itself, I was very keen on watching them play live.  One thing struck me as the second half was winding down, however, and ironically it had nothing to do with the way either team was playing.  What stood out to me last night was the number of Canadian fans leaving the game early – many of them around the 75th minute!

I live and work in Vaughan, which at best is an hour drive to and from Hamilton, so I can appreciate that many of these people were leaving the match early simply to get a head start on the traffic leaving the city and to try to get to bed at a reasonable time.  But in doing so they missed out on a unique opportunity as Canadian soccer fans.  Although Canada lost the match to Brazil (its second straight 2-0 defeat in this tournament) their strong showing and 5-2 victory over Ecuador in their opening match was enough to actually put the team through to the semi-finals, which will take place this Wednesday evening against Colombia.

As any soccer fan knows, one of the best experiences of attending a live match in which your team is playing is at the end of a successful game (even if it is a loss), when the players come around to the section of the stadium where you are seated and you get to cheer them on and applaud their performance.  For the players, too, this moment can be very rewarding, especially in the case of our Canadian team at this year’s tournament, who despite being a collection of mostly U23 and U23 players, have held their own competing against 3 full senior World Cup women’s teams.  Although a good majority of the fans in attendance did stay to send off the Canadian team, the visual of so many fans heading for the exits did not look good from where I was sitting, and I can imagine it did not look very good from down on the pitch either.

Canada has again successfully fielded a Women’s National Team, which is only one win in two games away from winning a medal in a major international tournament.  I think last night was a missed opportunity for many Canadian soccer fans, who could have shown more support for the accomplishments of this team.   Hopefully this Wednesday, in the semi-final against Colombia, all of our Canadian fans will stay to cheer on the team until the final whistle blows, and maybe even longer than that!

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

Matches

The Future Really is Bright for the Canadian National Women’s Soccer Team

Last night I experienced a “first” in my career.  I got to work my first ever senior international soccer game as a fitness coach, with the Canadian National Women’s Team at their first match of the 2015 Pan-American Games tournament, versus Ecuador, which Canada won by a score of 5 to 2.  The experience was amazing, and having the opportunity and privilege of working with a young and talented group of players in front of a home crowd of over 10,000 people is something I will remember forever.

The best part about my experience, however, was getting a sideline view of the quality of play of our young Canadian team.  In the Pan-American Games, all of the other participating female National Teams have shown up with their full rosters, excluding a few star player exceptions like Marta from Brazil.  All the CONCACAF (North, Central America and the Caribean) and CONMEBOL (South America) federation teams who participated in the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup earlier this year sent teams with rosters virtually identical to their World Cup rosters.  The Canadian Pan-Am Games team, in contrast, is a much younger team with several recent U20 and even some U17 National Team members.  In fact, aside from goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe, the only other players from this year’s Pan-Am Games roster who also participated in the World Cup are all 20 years old or younger (20 year-old Ashley Lawrence, 19 year-old Kadeisha Buchanan, and 17 year-old Jessie Flemming).

With so many younger players in the squad, some fans and those in the media may have been concerned that Canada would have a difficult time competing with the best players from North, Central, and South America.  If last night’s performance was any indication, however, those concerns are completely unfounded.  Canada’s young team produced an excellent display of soccer, on both sides of the ball.  They were able to dominate possession, create and capitalize on numerous scoring opportunities, and defend well both individually and as a group.

As a fitness coach, two things stood out in particular to me about the team’s performance yesterday evening.  Firstly, since we know that Canada have more young players than their opposition, and we also know that younger players recover better following training and competition, we can expect to see the Canadian players look more fit and fresh throughout each 90-minute game than their opponents.   This was, in my opinion, clearly evident in the match versus Ecuador, and the three second half goals Canada scored – plus numerous other scoring chances created in the second half – stand as strong evidence.   Second, recent research (including a study done by myself, Paolo Pacione of the Montreal Impact, and Robert Rupf of the Canadian Sport Centre Ontario) has also indicated that speed and high intensity running abilities in elite female soccer players tend to peak at earlier ages (sometimes as early as 15 or 16), so we can expect to see our younger players run faster – and run more – in matches than their older opponents.  At yesterday’s game, this was also very evident, especially in the play of Canada’s attacking wide players, Emma Fletcher and Janine Beckie, and also from fullbacks Shelina Zadorsky, Kinley McNicoll, and Victoria Pickett.

Of course, there are several other factors that contributed to the Canadian team’s strong performance in yesterday’s game, the most important of which is their technical and tactical preparation.  The enhanced physical abilities of our talented younger players, however, including a better ability to recover and better speed and high intensity running ability, cannot be denied.  If we can continue to develop and improve upon the technical and tactical abilities of our young female players, then the future really is bright for the Canadian National Women’s Soccer Team.

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

Matches

Article = ‘Inside Double Pass: The Best Kept Secret in Youth Development is Coming to America’

Below is a link to a fantastic article written by Brian Bickerstaff and posed on vicesports.com last week.  This article discusses a company called Double Pass, which is a football consulting firm based out of Brussels, Belgium.  I was very impressed after reading about what this company does.  Here is a quote from the article:

“(Double Pass) regularly audits and evaluates the youth academies in both nations and presides over a system of incentives and rewards that drives investment into the academy systems.”

The history of the company’s involvement in German soccer is telling and I’m sure Canadian soccer enthusiasts will be interested in learning about it.  Following a disappointing performance at Euro 200, in which the German team finished 16th out of 16 teams, Double Pass was brought into the German FA as an unbiased third-party, to evaluate the performance of the country’s professional clubs and youth academies.  In just over 15 year’s time, the changes initiated by Double Pass have been instrumental in Germany becoming not only one of the best – if not the best – soccer nation in the world, but also a country with one of the best reputations and track records for youth development in the world.  Now the company has greatly expanded into several different countries ad professional leagues around the world, including Major League Soccer in the United States.  Can they achieve similar success in that league?

I hope you enjoy the article as much as I did.  I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/inside-double-pass-the-best-kept-secret-in-youth-development-is-coming-to-america

Matches, Science

A Soccer Fitness Lesson from Canada’s Performance at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup

Canada’s 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup experience is over.  It ended yesterday in their Quarter-Final match against England, when two costly first-half mistakes in the span of three minutes allowed the English team to build a 2-0 lead that the Canadians were not able to overcome, despite a good overall performance throughout the game.  Although they failed to win the World Cup, this year’s Canadian team has been an incredible success story, both because of the results they were able to achieve on the pitch, as well as for the way they have inspired an entire nation – including hundreds of thousands of young aspiring female players.

As a fitness coach, there has been one lesson regarding the physical side of the game that I have taken away from Canada’s performance at this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.  That lesson is that we can be more assured and confident in the ability of our young players to succeed at the senior international level in this country.  In the starting 11 of this year’s Canadian Women’s National Team were two players that I had the pleasure of working with three years ago, as members of the Canadian Women’s U17 team: Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan.  While several Canadian players had outstanding performances in this tournament, in my opinion it was the performances of Lawrence and Buchanan that stood out the most.  Lawrence displayed speed, athleticism, good close control under pressure, and even came up with two game-changing plays; first, the crucial goal that helped Canada draw with the Netherlands to secure qualification into the knock-out rounds of the tournament, and second, a dribbling run and shot on target that set up Christine Sinclair’s rebound goal to get Canada back into the game after falling 2-0 behind to England in the Quarter-Final.  Buchanan, already a star in the Canadian team, cemented her reputation as one of the best centre backs in the women’s game with a combination of tenacious defending, accurate and reliable passing, and incredible composure under pressure.  She seemed to get better with each game in this tournament, and her performance against England even included some exhilarating runs into the opponent’s half of the pitch to start counter-attacks.  At just 20 and 19 years of age, respectively, Lawrence and Buchanan represent a new breed of women’s player, both in Canada as well as in the rest of the world.  While their youth (and accordingly, lack of senior international experience) may be seen by some as a hindrance, there is a lot of scientific evidence to support the use of more young (ages 20 and under) female players in senior international competitions.

Four years ago, at the 7th World Congress on Science and Football in Nagoya, Japan, Paolo Pacione (then the Fitness Coach with the Ontario Soccer Association and the Canadian Men’s U20 and Olympic Teams, and now the Fitness Coach of the Montreal Impact in Major League Soccer) and I presented a paper titled “A Longitudinal Analysis of Speed and High Intensity Running Ability in Elite Canadian Youth Female Soccer Players: A Pilot Study.”  This study was conducted in conjunction with the Ontario Soccer Association and the Canadian Sport Centre Ontario, and involved a four-year longitudinal analysis of fitness test scores of elite female soccer players from the ages of U14 to U17, from the Ontario Provincial Program and National Training Centre of Ontario (or “NTC”, a pool of players that represents Ontario’s feeder-system to the Canadian National Women’s U17 Team).  Speed and Yo-Yo (endurance) test scores from players who (eventually) were selected into the NTC Program, were compared with those from players who (eventually) were not selected.  What we found was that, at the U14 age category, the “eventual” NTC players had better speed and endurance scores that the “eventual” non-NTC players.  This was not so surprising.  What was more surprising, however, was that four years later (when the selections were made for the NTC program), the “non-NTC” players, even though they did improve, never reached the speed or endurance level that the NTC players had reached at the U14 age category.

While this may sound confusing, what these results indicate is that it may be possible that crucial physical abilities in soccer like speed and endurance may be peaking in female players in as early as the U14 age category.  Accordingly, players who exhibit speed and endurance abilities which meet or exceed the NTC or National Team standards beyond the age of 14 should presumably be able to meet the physical demands of youth (U17, U20) or even senior international level competition.  In other words, Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan are not the only young female players who have the physical tools to compete at the Women’s World Cup for Canada.  Indeed, this year’s Canadian team even included 1997-born, 17-year-old Jessie Flemming in its roster.

Of course, just because a player achieves a certain standard level of performance in speed and endurance testing does not mean they will be technically, tactically, and psychosocially ready to compete at the international level – these are all factors that need to be considered and evaluated by the coaching staff prior to any selection decisions being made.  The importance and value of scientific data like that presented in our study four years ago is that it can provide coaches with the rationale to consider – and possibly to eventually select and include – certain younger players based on their physical ability.  In Canada, we have many other young female players who can meet the physical demands of senior international competition.  They may get their chance in the years to come.

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

Matches, Science

A Soccer Fitness Lesson from Canada’s Performance at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup

Canada’s 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup experience is over.  It ended yesterday in their Quarter-Final match against England, when two costly first-half mistakes in the span of three minutes allowed the English team to build a 2-0 lead that the Canadians were not able to overcome, despite a good overall performance throughout the game.  Although they failed to win the World Cup, this year’s Canadian team has been an incredible success story, both because of the results they were able to achieve on the pitch, as well as for the way they have inspired an entire nation – including hundreds of thousands of young aspiring female players.

As a fitness coach, there has been one lesson regarding the physical side of the game that I have taken away from Canada’s performance at this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.  That lesson is that we can be more assured and confident in the ability of our young players to succeed at the senior international level in this country.  In the starting 11 of this year’s Canadian Women’s National Team were two players that I had the pleasure of working with three years ago, as members of the Canadian Women’s U17 team: Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan.  While several Canadian players had outstanding performances in this tournament, in my opinion it was the performances of Lawrence and Buchanan that stood out the most.  Lawrence displayed speed, athleticism, good close control under pressure, and even came up with two game-changing plays; first, the crucial goal that helped Canada draw with the Netherlands to secure qualification into the knock-out rounds of the tournament, and second, a dribbling run and shot on target that set up Christine Sinclair’s rebound goal to get Canada back into the game after falling 2-0 behind to England in the Quarter-Final.  Buchanan, already a star in the Canadian team, cemented her reputation as one of the best centre backs in the women’s game with a combination of tenacious defending, accurate and reliable passing, and incredible composure under pressure.  She seemed to get better with each game in this tournament, and her performance against England even included some exhilarating runs into the opponent’s half of the pitch to start counter-attacks.  At just 20 and 19 years of age, respectively, Lawrence and Buchanan represent a new breed of women’s player, both in Canada as well as in the rest of the world.  While their youth (and accordingly, lack of senior international experience) may be seen by some as a hindrance, there is a lot of scientific evidence to support the use of more young (ages 20 and under) female players in senior international competitions.

Four years ago, at the 7th World Congress on Science and Football in Nagoya, Japan, Paolo Pacione (then the Fitness Coach with the Ontario Soccer Association and the Canadian Men’s U20 and Olympic Teams, and now the Fitness Coach of the Montreal Impact in Major League Soccer) and I presented a paper titled “A Longitudinal Analysis of Speed and High Intensity Running Ability in Elite Canadian Youth Female Soccer Players: A Pilot Study.”  This study was conducted in conjunction with the Ontario Soccer Association and the Canadian Sport Centre Ontario, and involved a four-year longitudinal analysis of fitness test scores of elite female soccer players from the ages of U14 to U17, from the Ontario Provincial Program and National Training Centre of Ontario (or “NTC”, a pool of players that represents Ontario’s feeder-system to the Canadian National Women’s U17 Team).  Speed and Yo-Yo (endurance) test scores from players who (eventually) were selected into the NTC Program, were compared with those from players who (eventually) were not selected.  What we found was that, at the U14 age category, the “eventual” NTC players had better speed and endurance scores that the “eventual” non-NTC players.  This was not so surprising.  What was more surprising, however, was that four years later (when the selections were made for the NTC program), the “non-NTC” players, even though they did improve, never reached the speed or endurance level that the NTC players had reached at the U14 age category.

While this may sound confusing, what these results indicate is that it may be possible that crucial physical abilities in soccer like speed and endurance may be peaking in female players in as early as the U14 age category.  Accordingly, players who exhibit speed and endurance abilities which meet or exceed the NTC or National Team standards beyond the age of 14 should presumably be able to meet the physical demands of youth (U17, U20) or even senior international level competition.  In other words, Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan are not the only young female players who have the physical tools to compete at the Women’s World Cup for Canada.  Indeed, this year’s Canadian team even included 1997-born, 17-year-old Jessie Flemming in its roster.

Of course, just because a player achieves a certain standard level of performance in speed and endurance testing does not mean they will be technically, tactically, and psychosocially ready to compete at the international level – these are all factors that need to be considered and evaluated by the coaching staff prior to any selection decisions being made.  The importance and value of scientific data like that presented in our study four years ago is that it can provide coaches with the rationale to consider – and possibly to eventually select and include – certain younger players based on their physical ability.  In Canada, we have many other young female players who can meet the physical demands of senior international competition.  They may get their chance in the years to come.

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

Matches

European Dominance in Women’s Soccer – It’s Only a Matter of Time

Over the past two weeks, I had the opportunity to travel to Winnipeg, Manitoba, and then to Montreal, Quebec, to attend three different FIFA Women’s World Cup matches (Australia versus Nigeria and U.S.A. versus Sweden on June 12th, and France versus South Korea on June 21st).  Of course, during this time I also watched many – if not almost all – of the other Women’s World Cup matches that took place.  Among many noticeable trends in the women’s game that stood out this year, including a shift towards the use of younger and less experienced players, an emphasis on wing play, and better overall technical ability of the players, one thing was apparent to me the most from my experience of both attending and watching this year’s matches on television: the fact that the top European women’s National Teams appear to be pulling away from the top teams from the rest of the world.

In men’s soccer, European teams have won the past three FIFA World Cups (Italy in 2006; Spain in 2010; and Germany in 2014).  These elite men’s National Teams, along with others such as France (runners-up to Italy in 2006), and Holland (runners-up to Spain in 2010), share several common traits in their programs that have contributed to their overall success.   Among these common traits are:

  • A strong, competitive, national professional soccer league with multiple divisions of play (typically at least 4 or 5 divisions)
  • Highly regarded coach educational programs, conducted through UEFA and their own country’s Football Associations
  • A high ratio of UEFA “B” and “A” Licensed coaches relative to the number of registered players in the country
  • A strong emphasis on youth development, including the most well-respected and professionally run youth academies in the world

It stands to reason that, if these countries are so successful in the men’s game, they should be able to achieve similar success in the women’s game by patterning their women’s soccer programs after their men’s programs.  Indeed, over the past 5-10 years, we have seen both Germany and France emerge as Women’s World Cup favourites, partly because of their own very successful domestic women’s professional leagues, academies, and coach educational programs.  In the next 5-10 years, I expect to see other European women’s National Teams, including Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, to continue to improve and to also develop into Women’s World Cup contenders.

I was fortunate in that the matches I attended this year included two very strong European teams, Sweden (who have traditionally been one of the better women’s National sides), and France (who have really improved in recent years and looked unstoppable as they swept aside South Korea 3-0).  Of course, at the moment there are teams from continents other than Europe, including the United States, Japan, Australia, and even Canada, who have looked very impressive and have progressed through to the knock-out rounds of this year’s tournament.  Looking at the bigger picture, however, the technical skills, athletic ability and tactical discipline of the top European women’s teams at this year’s World Cup is impossible to deny.  It seems to me that it is only a matter of time before the Europeans become as dominant in the women’s game as they are in the men’s one.

Matches

3 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the National Women’s Soccer League

This past weekend, I took a trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba.  Thanks to Vanessa Martinez, a friend and colleague of mine and the Head Coach of the University of Manitoba Bison’s Women’s Soccer Team, I had the opportunity to attend some Women’s World Cup matches at the U of M’s beautiful new stadium, and also to tour the rest of the soccer and athletic facilities of the campus.  During the trip, I also got to speak at length with Coach Martinez and her staff, and in the process I learned a lot of things that changed come of my misconceptions about women’s soccer in general, and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL; a new professional soccer league for women that was founded in 2013) in particular.    Below is a summary of the three things I – and probably many others – didn’t know about the National Women’s Soccer League:

  1. The top professional players in the NWSL are paid – and paid well.

First of all, when examining salaries of professional athletes, it is important to keep everything in perspective.  It is not realistic to expect to see women’s professional players in a new league like the NWSL, which is barely 2 years old, make the kind of money that the big stars of European leagues, or even Major League Soccer, are making.  What I found surprising, however, was that the top players in the NWSL are able to earn a good living, plus benefits, while working 6 months of the year, and in most cases also getting cost of living expenses paid for.  I have been guilty for a long time of advising young female players that “there is no money in women’s professional soccer,” but this simply is not the case anymore.  The average salaries of the W.P.S.L. range from $6,000 to $30,000, and are growing each year.  The best players in the NWSL, however, area paid well.  Abby Wambach, star striker for the United States National Team and for the Western New York Flash in NWSL, for example, will earn $190,000 in 2015.  Marta, the Brazilian forward and one of the greatest female players ever to play the game, will earn an incredible $400,000 this year.  Of course, these players and many others will also be earning a lot more revenue from advertising and sponsors in addition to their salaries from the NWSL.  Two of our top Canadian Women’s National Team players, Adriana Leon ($36,000) and Rhiann Wilkinson ($54,000) are also among the top 10 highest paid players in the NWSL.

  1. The FA’s of the three largest CONCACAF Countries – U.S.A., Canada, and Mexico – have partnered with the NWSL to ensure its long-term success.

Another unique aspect of the NWSL that I was really surprised to hear about was the agreement that the league has in place with the Football Associations of the three largest CONCACAF countries (U.S.A., Canada, and Mexico).  Spearheaded by United States Soccer Federation (USSF) President Sunil Gulati, the WPSL has secured contracts with the USSF; the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA); and the Mexican Football Federation (MFF), whereby all U.S., Canadian, and Mexican Women’s National Team players playing in the NWSL will have their entire salaries paid for by their home country’s Football Association.  What this means for the NWSL is that a huge chunk of all teams’ salary budget (Abby Wambach is a great example of this) will be alleviated, allowing for more money to be spent on young up-and-coming players and/or foreign star players.  This is a unique move that is really unprecedented in women’s or men’s professional soccer (imagine the USSF paying Toronto FC star Michael Bradley’s $6.5 million per year salary!).  It is both surprising and refreshing to see that the Canadian Soccer Association has committed to this agreement and to help its top players develop in the highest level “domestic” league they can.

  1. Many – if not all – of the players in the NWSL have college or university degrees, meaning they have not sacrificed their education for a career in professional soccer.

I think that this is the one fat about the NWSL that resonated most with me, because of the amount of time I have spent in university soccer, first as a player and then as an Assistant Coach and Fitness Coach with several different women’s university teams.  I grew up in an era in men’s soccer where, by the time you had been accepted into a university program, you had basically zero chance of becoming a professional soccer player, regardless of how good you were.  Things have changed a bit with the development of Major League Soccer and its college draft, but in the men’s game the chances of becoming a pro at the age of 22 or 23 – when most young adults finish their undergraduate education – are still slim.  This is because, in most men’s professional soccer leagues around the world, players can be signed as professionals when they turn 18, so often the more talented players are forced to forego their education beyond high school if they decide to become a professional player.  In the NWSL, the opposite is almost always true.  Most of the female players in the nine-team league are drafted by clubs at the conclusion of their college or university undergraduate education.  Also, in many cases, players will continue their post-graduate education while playing in the league, as the spring/summer schedule does not interfere with typical fall/winter school schedules.  What this means in the long run for young, talented, aspiring female soccer players is that they will not be forced to choose at the age of 18 between getting an education and becoming a professional soccer player.  Indeed, our current Canadian Women’s National Team is full of players who hold either a university undergraduate diploma or higher, or are presently in school working towards their degrees, while at the same time are playing professionally and earning money in the NWSL.

Speaking with an experienced coach like Coach Martinez, who has been a National Team player (with Mexico), an NCAA Division I College Player (with the University of Texas), and a women’s professional league player (in the German Women’s Bundesliga), was a very eye-opening experience for me.  After learning more about the NWSL and how they are helping to develop the female game, I am now a lot more optimistic about the future of women’s soccer in North America in general, and in Canada in particular.

Matches

2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Preview – Mexico: Live High Train Low

Because this is a Women’s World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 24 participating nations. In this instalment, I will look at Mexico, who are making their third appearance at the Women’s World Cup (in both of their previous tournaments they failed to advance past the group stages) . Mexico have been drawn in Group F, along with Colombia, France, and England. They will play their first match against Colombia on Tuesday, June 9th, 2015.

Physiologically, Mexican players have always had an advantage over their opponents, simply by virtue of the fact that so many of them grew up in Mexico City. which is situated approximately 1500 metres above sea level.  At that altitude, the partial pressure of oxygen is significantly lower than it is at sea level, and as a result there is significantly less oxygen available to the heart, lungs, and skeletal muscles to perform exercise.  Soccer players and other athletes who grow up and live at altitude will eventually acclimatize to these conditions, and their heart, lungs and skeletal muscles will develop the ability to perform with less oxygen available, and thus become very efficient and oxygen transport and utilization.  If these same athletes/soccer players then train and/or compete in matches and tournaments played at sea level (as is the case with the Women’s World Cup in Canada), they will have a significant physiological advantage over their opponents, whose oxygen transport and utilization will not be as efficient.  Termed “live high / train low”, this strategy can be very useful for athletes with efficient cardiorespiratory systems, because when they do train or compete at sea level they will be able to push themselves harder without experiencing as much fatigue.

Sine many of the Mexican Women’s National Team players are from Mexico City, they will have grown up experiencing the “live high, train low” phenomenon.  Can this strategy help them to get past the group stage for the first time in their history?  We will have to wait and see what happens in 1 month’s time.

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

Matches

2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Preview – Colombia: Perfect 10

Because this is a Women’s World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 24 participating nations. In this instalment, I will look at Colombia, who are making their seconds appearance at the Women’s World Cup (their first was in Germany in 2011, in which they failed to advance past the group stage) . Colombia have been drawn in Group F, along with England, France, and Mexico. They will play their first match against Mexico on Tuesday, June 9th, 2015.

Colombia is an emerging nation in South American women’s soccer, having finished as runners up in the 2014 Women’s Copa America tournament to winners Brazil.  Among the strengths of the Colombian team is their central midfield play-maker, Yoreli Rincon.  At only 21 years of age, she was voted player of the tournament in the Copa America, and she had a hand in almost all of Colombia’s 12 goals in their 7 matches played, either as scorer or with an assist.  Rincon is one of the most creative women’s players in the world, and she is a traditional “number 10” player who is most comfortable playing in the hole behind two central strikers.  Below is a highlight video of some of her best plays in recent years.

Can the strong play of Colombia’s number 10 help them to advance past the group stage this year?  We will have to wait and see what happens in 1 month’s time.  I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

Matches

2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Preview – England: Strong Defence Plus More

Because this is a Women’s World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 24 participating nations. In this instalment, I will look at England, who are making their fourth appearance at the Women’s World Cup (in each of the previous three times they entered the tournament, they reached the Quarter-finals) . England have been drawn in Group F, along with Colombia, France, and Mexico. They will play their first match against France on Tuesday, June 9th, 2015.

England have been a consistently solid team in the Women’s World Cup, as evidenced by their three previous Quarter-final appearances.  This year, they had an excellent qualifying campaign, winning their group while scoring 52 goals and conceding just 1.  This strong defence will be put to the test in their first match against one of the pre-tournament favourites (and leading scorers in European qualification), France.  It remains to be seen if they can use this combination of good defence and efficient attack to get past the Quarter-final stage at this year’s tournament.  We will have to wait and see what happens in 1 month’s time.

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

Matches

2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Preview – France: The Best Attack in Europe

Because this is a Women’s World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 24 participating nations. In this instalment, I will look at France, who are making their third appearance at the Women’s World Cup. The French have been drawn in Group F, along with Colombia, England, and Mexico. They will play their first match against England on Tuesday, June 9th, 2015.

The French team has come out of relative obscurity (in their first appearance at the Women’s World Cup, in 2003, they failed to advance past the group stage) to become one of the strongest teams in the world and a possible contender to win the title. As is the case in some other European countries, the emergence of the French National Women’s Team has occurred simultaneously with a more favourable opinion about Women’s soccer in the country.  In the past 10 years, France has been victorious at the 2012 Women’s U17 World Cup in Azerbaijan, won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics, and also finished 3rd in the 2014 Women’s U20 World Cup in Canada.  They breezed through qualification, winning all 10 of their matches while scoring 54 goals and conceding just 3.

Among the strengths of the present France team is its attack, which is statistically the best in Europe.  In qualification, France scored more total goals (54) than any other European country, and they also had the top European goal scorer (Gaetane Thiney, 13 goals), and the assists leader (Louisa Necib, 13 assists).  They will be favourites to win their group and if they can sustain the strong offence and equally good defence, they could contend for the trophy this year.  We will have to wait and see what happens in 1 month’s time.

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