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!

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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

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.