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.

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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!

Fitness, For Coaches, For Parents, Science

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

By: Abdullah Zafar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pirlo

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

For Coaches, For Parents, Science

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

Hi Everyone,

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

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

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

Announcements, For Coaches

Why ALL Canadian Soccer Coaches Should Consider Joining the National Soccer Coaches Association of Canada TODAY! Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #61: 12/4/2018

Hi Everyone,

In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, I discuss the benefits of Membership in the National Soccer Coaches Association of Canada, among which are:

  • Access to our free journal “The Journal for Soccer Coaches”
  • Free admission to our Coach Education Clinics, which will be presented every month in 2018
  • Discounted pricing on events including the up-coming Coach Education Course at the Coverciano Coaching School in Pergugia, Italy
  • Discounted joint Membership in the NSCAC and United Soccer Coaches
  • Access to exclusive content including webinars, video training sessions, articles and more Message us here or visit http://www.nscac.ca for more information!

All Canadian soccer coaches who are serious about their professional development and the impact they will have on the next generation of Canadian players should consider Membership in our organization!

Message us here or visit http://www.nscac.ca for details!

 

Fitness, For Coaches, Science

Coaching Courses Didn’t Kill Coaching. Lack of Knowledge Killed Coaching

The trouble with the internet is that it allows anyone to say anything, about anything, regardless of their credibility or expertise.

To make matters worse, if somebody says something on the internet that is popular, they are bound to generate a reaction in which others agree with what has been said, regardless of whether what was said is factually true or not.

Lack of objectivity in the dissemination of information online can lead to the rise in popularity of ideas and opinions which have no factual basis in science or objective truth, and unfortunately, this was the case with a recent article written and published on the blog, www.newsportfuture.com, titled “How Coaching Courses Killed Coaching.”

Here is a link to the full article:

http://newsportfuture.com/coaching-courses/

Its main points can be summarised as follows:

  • 90% of the material presented in coaching courses is available on the internet, and most of it is available for free (so there is no need for coaches to pay for or attend courses in which present information that can be attained for free elsewhere).
  • When coaches at a National high performance coaching workshop were asked the question “what are the key qualities a successful coach must have?” they responded with: ““commitment,” “dedication,” “vision,” “passion,” “empathy,” “creativity,” “compassion,” “connection” (the point being, they did not list knowledge of any particular coaching or sports science topic among the key qualities coaches must possess).
  • Prior to the advent of the internet, coaching courses were full of sports science because this information was difficult to access; now, with the relative ease of access of information relating to sports science, presenting this information in coaching courses is a waste of time and is “killing coaching”
  • Coaching courses must instead focus on teaching coaches how to “create positive, enjoyable, interesting and engaging sports experiences for them – based on their, i.e. the kids’ and the parents’ specific needs”

Once again, it must be stated that these opinions, while they may be popular, are simply not rooted in objective, scientific facts.

Below are three reasons why coaching courses – including and especially those which present and teach  sports science – did not kill coaching, and how to objectively argue with those who ascribe to this popular – albeit incorrect – theory.

  1. Just because coaches listed “commitment, dedication, vision, passion etc..” as the most important qualities for a coach to possess, doesn’t mean that these qualities are truly the most important.

In any profession, including coaching, the most important quality that coaches MUST strive for is knowledge of the subject matter they are teaching.  Without knowledge, a coach could be highly committed, but he or she would still be presenting incorrect information to his or her players; without knowledge, a coach could be the most passionate person in the world, but he or she would still be presenting information that may be misleading or harmful to the development of his or her players.

You get the point.

Imagine, for instance, that medical schools, rather than prioritizing that aspiring doctors demonstrate their knowledge and competence in biology, physiology, etc. instead prioritized personality traits and the ability to communicate effectively with patients.  Of course, such abilities are important – and they ought to be taught in medical school – but to think that anyone in the medical profession would dismiss the teaching of scientific information in medical school is a “waste of time” simply because this information is available for free on the internet, is ludicrous.

And it isn’t any less ludicrous if it happens in coaching courses.

This isn’t to say that commitment, passion etc. aren’t important qualities for a coach to possess – they most certainly are.  The key point is that coaches must use their commitment and passion to drive their acquisition of knowledge, which is the only way for a coach to truly maximize the development of athletes under their charge.

  1. Just because sports science information is available for free online, doesn’t mean that coaches will use this information. 

And, furthermore, it doesn’t mean that this freely available information will lead to coaches actually improving their knowledge of the subject matter.

Think about this logically for one second.  If we accept the idea that, simply because information about a topic is available for free online, there is no need to present or teach this information in educational courses or schools, then why, since the advent of the internet, have we not seen the development of hundreds of millions of “experts” in all areas of scientific study?

The answer: most people do not learn or acquire knowledge simply by reading articles on the internet.  People – coaches included – learn in a variety of ways, including by listening to knowledgeable teachers and instructors, by writing and taking notes, by communicating and interacting with others, and by participating in activities related to the subject matter they are learning about.

Knowledge of the relevant subject matter – which is the most important quality a coach must have for them to effectively teach this subject matter to players – is thus best acquired in an environment in which these different forms of learning are made available.

Any of you who attended a college, university or any other type of technical school to gain knowledge or learn a particular skill or trade, ask yourself the following question:

“Would I really have learned this material and developed my expertise in this subject matter in the same way and to the same degree, had I not attended school and simply read about these topics on the internet?”

I think you will likely find that the answer to this question is “no.”

  1. Just because knowledge – the “technical” side of coaching – and passion – the “personal/ psychological” side of coaching – are both important, doesn’t mean that coaching courses cannot instill and develop both attributes – and others – simultaneously.

In fact, the best coaching courses do!

I would venture to say that, if coaches who attend coaching courses which present sports science are coming away from these courses disappointed or disinterested in the content that was presented – or, as the author of the article seems to suggest, disinterested in coaching altogether – the problem is not that this subject matter is not interesting or relevant to them; the problem is much more likely to be that the instructors of these courses lacked passion, dedication, creativity, empathy – the “personal/psychological” qualities that would have made them better teachers of the subject matter in the first place.

A good teacher or course instructor should be able to get coaches to become passionate about all aspects of their sport – including sports science – and to teach coaches how best to transfer this passion about the subject matter to their athletes.

Furthermore, a good coaching course should be able to combine the technical and scientific content of the course with content related to the “personal/psychological” side of coaching – in other words, to teach coaches how to be knowledgeable AND passionate at the same time.

The reality is that soccer, like all other sports, is first and foremost a sport.  Moreover, as a sport, soccer is also a form of exercise.  Thus, coaches who plan training for soccer – or any other sport – are in fact planning exercise, and planning any form of exercise requires a strong knowledge of exercise science; knowledge which is best attained by enrolling in coaching courses.

Ultimately, they way to objectively assess the success or failure of any sports coaching methodology – and thus, any coaching course curriculum – is whether or not the countries or sports programs utilizing them have found that they have actually lead to improved sports performance; that is, when we look at countries or National teams who succeed at the highest level in soccer, are their coaches the most knowledgeable, the most passionate, or both?

I’d like to leave you to decide.  Please feel free to leave your comments and feedback below!

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!