A Good Pencil
Before Facebook and YouTube, if something went viral, it went there via email – like the ten ways to amuse yourself in an elevator (passing out name-tags was my favorite); or the Darwin Awards, which recognized people who had removed themselves from the gene pool with acts of terminal stupidity; or this one:
When NASA first started sending up astronauts, they quickly discovered that ballpoint pens would not work in zero gravity. To combat the problem, NASA scientists spent a decade and $12 billion to develop a pen that writes in zero gravity, upside down, underwater, on almost any surface, and at temperatures ranging from below freezing to 300 degrees Celsius.
The Russians used a pencil.
A quick Google search tells me that story isn’t actually true. But for today, let’s pretend it is. We’ll come back to it later.
About a month ago, the website TheAwayEnd.com published an article called ‘The US Development Academy Player – The Fighter Who Has Never Been Hit.’ The post references a pair of games where the losing sides got manhandled by the opponents.
The theme of the article is largely that in our effort to produce better, cleaner, more technically gifted players, we have ignored the responsibility to create competitors. And when these squeaky-clean players we've engineered square off against players who aren't so... sanitized, they lose. Instead of accepting the reality that winning soccer embraces a variety of styles - and not all of them pretty - we decry the injustice of an attractive style losing out to a meat and potatoes one. Instead of creating players who can adapt to a physically combative environment, we blame the environment.
It was a fascinating piece – fascinating in a Well I’m glad somebody finally said it out loud sort of way. Due to pressure from the federation, the piece has since been pulled from the site, which, ironically, sort of mirrors the very problem the article sought to address.
The article begins with a story of a U12 State Cup match between a team relatively rich in resources visiting a team that was anything but. The author’s team, in spite of its superior training facilities, gear, talent and commitment to attractive, possession-based soccer, was put on the back foot by a group of no-nonsense grinders from Northeast Philly. The Philly boys won in PKs.
Following the match, the author heard what he refers to as “typical elite level responses” from players and parents “to losing to a team from a rougher section of town, who somehow managed the result without two uniform kits, backpacks and turf facilities. ‘That wasn’t soccer’ was the message.” The author notes a “Country club mindset that is beginning to plague soccer in the US at the elite youth levels,” and how this mindset is undermining the effort to produce players who can compete against players from around the world – players who don’t enjoy the embarrassment of riches bestowed upon the American club player.
The article spurred me to write about something that has been bugging me for years. I never mentioned it, mainly because I just wasn’t sure, and to be honest, I’m still not. I haven’t spent enough time with boy’s soccer to have absolute clarity, and certainly not enough to justify an indictment against the development system in the US. And as much as I agree with the sentiment of The Away End’s blog post, it isn’t exactly overwhelming, empirical evidence of a system gone wrong. So I’m going to say what I have to say, fully prepared to be proven wrong. And yelled at.
My main exposure to boys’ soccer over the past decade has been through camps, but this spring I got to watch a U-16 boys team play on several occasions. Maybe it was a case of confirmation bias, but the U-16 teams I saw did nothing to dissuade me from a suspicion I had developed during camps. I see two clear distinctions between the boys playing today and those of yesteryear. First, today’s players are way more technical than their predecessors. I mean it’s just crazy how much more skillful the American player has become. The things they can do with a ball, well, it’s just ridiculous. And secondly, if I had to choose, I’d take their predecessors in a heartbeat. From what I have witnessed, there is an astonishing shortage of competitive grit in the modern American player. Where the technical has flourished, the combativeness has gone virtually dormant. There's a surplus of sizzle but a dearth of steak.
This is my image of the modern-day, U-16 boy’s soccer player: He’s wearing Nike cleats and a jersey from Barcelona or Real Madrid that he’ll shed at the first opportunity to show off his six-pack abs. And he is crazy good with the ball at his feet – as long as no one is challenging him for it. He knows three dozen ball lifts. His love affair with the ball has arrested his ability to develop any tactical clue about the game’s bigger picture. And, most disturbing of all, he doesn’t compete. He doesn’t know how to put his shoulder into an opponent. He won’t go to ground. He won’t risk his legs to win a fifty-fifty. He has no interest in doing the dirty work. For all intents and purposes, he is a decoration – pretty to look at, but serving no practical purpose.
For years coached bemoaned that their players didn’t watch enough soccer on television. Now it seems they watch plenty of soccer – and a lot of it is on YouTube. Today’s players aren’t obsessed with winning; they’re obsessed with collecting tricks. They see a trick that looks cool and, because they want to look cool themselves, they devote their time and energy to mastering that trick because no one told them that, in a game, there would be no reasonable circumstance in which attempting a Homie Jay Around The World would do any practical good. These YouTube players don’t understand how to make a bending run to stay onside, but they can juggle the ball like circus performers. The digital age has replaced footballers with freestylers who seem more excited about the pregame group-juggle than the game itself.
Outside of the US, soccer is the working-class sport. Players like Neymar, Yaya Toure, and Luis Suarez all grew up poor – and I mean like dirt poor. Ironically, so did the poster boy for soccer flair – Cristiano Ronaldo. Zinedine Zidane grew up in the ghetto. Football was the way out of poverty for these world-class players. Their motivation wasn’t to be cool – it was to feed their freaking families. Football was their way to not be poor. When your options are to keep climbing or go hungry, you adapt and climb. You quickly learn the upside of desperation. You learn that there is a place for the player will do anything to win, even if that means chopping someone in half.
In America, soccer is an upper-middle class sport. Teenage players have spent their lives enduring the upper-middle class struggle, which, ya know, isn’t actually a struggle. Soccer might be their passion, but it’s not their lifeline – because they don’t need a lifeline. They aren’t desperate to escape anything. They come home each day to their cul-de-sac and their PlayStation 4s and they check their Instagram accounts. All in all, it’s a pretty good life.
If there’s an argument to be made against the US ever becoming a legitimate contender for a World Cup, this is it: We’re trying to groom players. Outside of the US, the best players cannibalize their way up the pyramid. Soccer may look like the beautiful game, but in the trenches, it’s a freaking bloodbath.
When I was getting one of my coaching licenses, a staff instructor told us a story about Jovan Kirovski – the American who signed with Manchester United in 1992.
As the story goes, in one of his first training sessions with Man U., Kirovski was matched up in a 1v1 tunnel with Ryan Giggs. Giggs passed the ball to Kirovski and moved out to defend. Kirovski received the ball, ran at Giggs, deftly nut-megged the Welshman and had a clear path out of the tunnel. Just before reaching the tunnel’s end, Kirovski began to coast. A step before the finish line, Giggs magically reappeared to swat the legs out from under Kirovski and send the American into orbit.
There are a number of valuable lessons we can take from that story. First of all, don’t meg Ryan Giggs. Seriously though, nobody likes being megged, least of all a pro. Secondly, if you want to make someone look like a fool, be prepared to pay the price. And most importantly, Ryan Giggs was playing for his paycheck. Soccer was his livelihood and he was fully aware of that fact long before he was nut-megged by an American. He wasn’t too cool to do the dirty work.
In the US, bite isn’t cool anymore. Tackling isn’t cool. Being an enforcer isn’t cool. Taking a hard foul, or God forbid, a yellow card, to send a message isn’t cool either. Being cool now requires a ball lift, a nutmeg and a side-volley all in rapid succession. Blue collar role models like Roy Keane have been supplanted by remarkably acrobatic avatars generated by some computer whiz in a graphics studio. Form is outdueling function. Soccer players are becoming less like competitors and more like performance artists.
Today I watched a soccer video that is making the rounds on Facebook. It’s a collection of 1v1 moves. It’s not a match video; it’s just a demonstration video – a video produced specifically with the aim of getting hits and likes and shares and whatever else that earns one the label of ‘viral.’
The video’s objective is ostensibly to demonstrate the most complex ways imaginable to get around an opponent. Apparently the lunge – the simplest, and still most effective way to dribble by an opponent, just isn’t fashionable anymore. Nor is the scissors. Those moves are dinosaurs in the age of the YouTube player. To be cool these days, merely beating an opponent on the dribble isn’t enough. Now you need a move that could get you into the cast of Cirque du Soleil.
In that video, one of the moves takes literally six touches, with four of those touches keeping the ball off the ground and – wait for it – two of those juggling touches done with a blind back heel. It’s not a move; it’s a freaking magic trick! It’s like Rodney Dangerfield’s Triple Lindy - except more difficult.
And you know what? I bet that today a few thousand American boys are trying to learn that move, not because it will make them more effective players, but because somewhere along the line they became convinced that they need a freaking pen that writes in space.
Look, I am all for producing more technically proficient players. We’re going to need that to compete on the world stage. But to be a world class team, we also need world class competitors. And that’s not something you learn on YouTube. To rise to the top, you can't be just an artist; you also have to be part soldier, and I'm wondering if we've lost sight of that. As the aforementioned article states, "We never expose our players to the mayhem and chaos that soccer can be... by coddling and protecting them in an academy structure that discourages physical play and competing. In comparison, we are training fighters who never get punched in the face."
Like I said earlier, I'm not even certain this problem actually exists. But if it does, I don’t know how to fix it. Our priorities in youth soccer seem creature-comfort driven. We want smoother pitches, shinier uniforms, more gear and a darn fine brochure. Function takes a backseat to form.
If this ship is going to right itself, it has to start with coaches and parents accepting the reality that soccer isn’t a country club sport. Soccer is not just about what your feet can do with a ball. It isn’t just about playing pretty. The result has to matter. Competitiveness has to matter. And there has to be an understanding that no matter how pretty you want to play, the opponent is under no obligation to accommodate your style – regardless of how much you pay in club dues.
There will be games when talent and style carry the day, but sometimes, in order to win, you just have to out-grind the opponent. And if a player doesn’t have that club in his bag, somewhere along the line he will become obsolete.
The next time that dribbling video crosses my Facebook feed, I’m going to respond by linking this video of the aforementioned Ryan Giggs.
Don’t underestimate a good pencil.
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