A Letter To Those Who Would Troll MLS

I’m tired of having to talk about MLS as a whole league all the time.  I know other leagues are discussed as a whole on a regular basis, as evidenced by the repetitive “best in the world” conversation that’s constantly going on between the European leagues.  But MLS teams seem near inseparable when discussed outside the circles of MLS fans.  They/we don’t discuss the quality of Dallas FC, LA Galaxy, or the New York Red Bulls.  We discuss the quality of MLS with the teams as examples of our point.  Constantly.  

But I got sucked into that conversation today, and it’s my own fault.  

I usually steer clear of responding to inflammatory remarks, especially about a topic like the Europhiles vs. MLS debate.  But as we celebrated the 2015 Supporters’ Shield banner in Red Bull Arena before today’s game I was feeling full of pride for my team’s accomplishment, and I let it cause me to bite on a troll comment on Twitter.  In response to a video of the banner someone posted this tweet:

 

ML$’ version of the Participation Trophy.

 

I should have let it go.  I know that.  Instead, fired up by my team pride I responded.

 

Takes being best across 34 games. If that’s a “participation trophy”…

 

Over his next several responses it became perfectly clear, as if it wasn’t already, that he was simply a Europhile whose argument could be boiled down to “MLS is bad because it isn’t Europe, and because I said so.”  I could have left it at that with a perfectly clear conscience.  But I continued to defend the league because I enjoy supporting it and am emotionally invested.  This exchange isn’t what I want to write about, but it’s the inspiration, so here’s a snapshot of it just for context:

 

Him: If US didn’t play fake soccer, it would be a league championship.

Me: Ahhh, so it’s based on biased dislike. Gotcha

Him: Imagine #LCFC winning EPL, only to have to enter playoffs. Ridiculous.

Me: How can you disrespect the season winners in US while glorifying single table in England?

Me: That literally makes no sense

Him: How can you tolerate watching shit football?

 

He went on to discuss such original criticisms of the league as the single-entity structure, lack of promotion/relegation, how it’s set up differently from the rest of the world’s major leagues, and drafts.  And all of these were surrounded in a sweet candy shell of insults and a lack of insight or actual opinion.  He referred to the league as “McSoccer”, “one giant team, scrimmaging itself”, and compared it to cow dung.  A second person joined the conversation and criticized the pro/rel aspect as well while mysteriously suggesting multiple pyramids within the country’s league system.

None of this is anything that we haven’t heard, and ignored, a thousand times as fans of the league.  But for some reason this time, on this day, it got under my skin.  Eventually, too late I think, I realized that there was nothing to be gained by continuing with either of these trolls (for that’s exactly what they were), and simply stopped responding while they continued the conversation with others.

But it got me thinking.  And there are a couple points I thought worth writing down, even if just for myself.  I’m sure they’ve been made other places, but they’ll keep popping up until the conversation goes away…soooo basically never.

 

The image of recreating a European single-table league here wouldn’t work, and it has nothing to do with us being arrogant Americans.  There’s this idea that MLS is different, and does what it does, because Americans are arrogant and they reject the world’s version of the game.  A version, so the narrative goes, that works for everyone else, so why not us?  “Stupid Americans!  What makes them think they can add penalty SHOOTOUTS!  Why do they think they can improve something that’s owned by the rest of the world?” (Keep in mind that some of the folks saying this ARE American)

In reality there was grain of truth in this argument, but it’s not really relevant anymore.  Once upon a time there was a thought that Americans wouldn’t accept the version of the game played in most of the world’s leagues because there was something different about them and about the American sporting landscape.  The results are infamous now: the shootouts instead of ties, the countdown clock, 1.0 names (and uniforms) for teams, and even the considered but thankfully discarded idea of having playing area that extended behind the goals hockey-style.  As it has matured most of those have been left in the league’s past, and the few that remain are less products of the view of Americans as different and more from the way the league approaches finances and attempts to maintain parity.  

But what the staunchest critics really want is an all-or-nothing shift to look just like a European league–no salary cap, promotion/relegation, and arguably biggest of all the scrapping of the playoffs and the creation of a single table structure.

You could say that the playoffs are the last great hold over from the “American’s need something different” sport mentality that existed at the beginning of the league, but really the playoffs exist because the single-table simply wouldn’t work.  The travel and difference in geographical locations in the United States and Canada (remembering that the league is multinational now) are far greater than anything any of the European leagues face.  The United Kingdom is smaller than the state of California alone.  Spain is just a little bigger than California, closer to the combined size of Nevada and Utah.  Italy falls in the middle of those two, and Germany is a little smaller than Montana.  One of the things that foreign players always mention as being hard about MLS is the travel.  That geographical reality means that there’s simply no fair way to create a single table.  Yes, each team would face the same travel, but the rest and recovery required to have teams travel across the continent multiple times, potentially in close succession due to the random nature of how a single table schedule is created, means that results and conditions faced would be wildly uneven.  The conference system, and as a result the playoffs, is the way that MLS addresses this.  Yes the playoffs are a part of all major sports in the US and Canada, but it’s more necessary because of the nature of the geography of the countries involved.  

Besides, if you really wanna be technical the US isn’t the only country that uses playoffs in it’s soccer leagues.  Mexico, as well as the English Championship, all use some form of a playoff system in the existing league format.

 

Most of the criticisms that relate to the single-entity structure would be fixed with support rather than disdain.  Everyone hates single-entity really.  Most all of us, critics and fans alike, understand why the decision was made to go that route in the early days of the league (thanks, COSMOS), but it can sometimes feel like it’s continued use is more about power and control.  It’s quirky and creates for some strange moments, and many of us who are fans of the league don’t really like it.  I have the same thoughts about single-entity at times as those who hate MLS for having it.  But I would point out that a much better way to go about hating the single-entity structure is to support the league rather than criticize it from the shadows.

See, single-entity is about league health and longevity.  The systems designed to clamp down on any team growing into a super club are really only there because the central office has so much power.  And the central office has that power because of the single-entity structure, which is only there because the early days of the league were almost solely about making sure the league still existed the next season, and then the next.  Yes there may still be a salary cap in place if MLS wasn’t single-entity (like many US sports leagues), but other things like free agency, teams owning their own contracts, eliminating extraneous drafts and possibly even the college draft would have much more space to exist and flourish if it was a healthier, wealthier league.  Even pro/rel, the favorite hot topic of Europhiles who spew hate at MLS, is potentially more palatable to investors if there’s more money in the league and in soccer as a whole in this country.  This means butts in seats and viewers in front of their televisions.  If you want to know why MLS insists on being “one giant team, scrimmaging itself” instead of multiple franchises or individual teams it’s because soccer is still growing in this country.  It’s because there is a very real history of teams struggling to draw spectators, overspending to try to compensate, and folding as a result.  That scares away the people who would invest in the game.  MLS had to reassure them that it wouldn’t happen again.  And the modern sports landscape in the US is even more cluttered with options, and the ability to obsess over those options, so the noise through which MLS must cut is greater.  We’ve absolutely made progress.  But that fear, as well as the current reality for some teams, is what prompts the central control in Major League Soccer.  If you want that to go away and for MLS to look like a more traditional world soccer league then you have to quit turning your nose up at it and go to games, watch on TV and support rather than stand outside and shout insults.

Sidepoint: even if single-entity stayed, more supporters = more money in the game, which in turn means higher salary caps, which draws better players, which means better soccer.

But those folks don’t actually seem to want MLS to be better.  They want a premade league that meets all their expectations, and no other country anywhere should join the party.  If MLS had started and continued as an exact carbon copy of England, Spain, Germany or Italy these same people would criticize it for being a poser league.  They want to sit at the table with the cool kids, not be part of growing something from the ground up.


The reality is that the only people among the league’s supporters who don’t have a sense of humor about MLS’ flaws is the league executives.  All the rest of us, from casual television watchers to the most dedicated season ticket holders, know it’s not a perfect league.  We know it has it’s rough moments and highs and lows in standard of play.  We lament the moments where good players use coming to MLS as a bargaining chip when we know they have no intention of ever coming here, and most of us cringe just as hard every time a 35 year old established player gets signed as much for their ability to sell shirts as their play on the field.  But we accept it warts and all because there’s something very authentic about supporting local soccer.  We want to see the game grow here because we’re fans of the game as much as anything.  MLS is getting better as it matures, and we’re thrilled to be along for that ride and part of that history.  

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The Case For The 2016 New York Red Bulls To Play A 4-2-2-2, & Why Gonzalo Veron (and Anatole Abang) Might Be The Key

Ralf Rangnick

That’s a name that should be familiar by now to most fans of the New York Red Bulls. Rangnick is the sporting director for RB Lepzig and Red Bull Salzburg as of 2012. In 2015 he was also named the head coach of Lepzig. But Rangnick has a history in German football going back to when he took over the Ulm 1846 youth side in the early 1980s. Rangnick is largely responsible for the early development of the high tiempo high press in the Bundesliga, inspired by teams from outside Germany, that Jurgen Klopp’s smile and press conferences would later make fashionable on a wider scale with his pressing system at Dortmund. (highly recommend you read Das Reboot by Raphael Honigstein for more on this)

There are many aspects of Rangnick’s successful high tempo strategies that Red Bull New York are only just beginning to incorporate. One of the aspects that has not translated yet to this side of the Atlantic is the 4-2-2-2 formation that Red Bull Lepzig and Roger Schmidt’s Red Bull Salzburg utilize, under Ralf’s direction as sporting director.

Jessie Marsch and New York are pretty firmly dedicated to the 4-2-3-1 that they’ve used almost exclusively since the middle of the 2014 season when then coach Mike Petke paired Eric Alexander with Dax McCarty in the center of midfield to stop the team bleeding goals and dropping points. That stability pushed them on to the Eastern Conference finals verses New England. When Marsch took over for the 2015 season he maintained that formation despite the departure of Alexander, bringing in Felipe and Sacha Kljestan to build one of the best central midfields in all of MLS.

If this midfield trio was so successful why blow it up? There’s a few reasons I think the 4-2-3-1 may not be the most effective formation for the Red Bulls in the coming year, but more so it’s about the fact that I like the 4-2-2-2 more for the personnel and tactics that the squad has at the moment.

(Tactical set up of a possible 4-2-2-2 & the game flow of the same)

First, and probably least influential, there really isn’t anyone else in MLS using the 4-2-2-2. At the beginning of 2015 the Red Bulls managed to surprise a lot of teams with their new style because there weren’t a lot of other teams in the league pulling the high press off the way they were. It meant that teams had to prepare specifically for that whenever they were to face New York. Those extra preparations stretch a team and make them try to learn to do things that maybe they aren’t able to get fully comfortable with in a week’s time. But now teams have seen the press for a season. Marsch and the Red Bulls will have to continue to evolve if they want to continue to succeed at the same level. The 4-2-3-1, even though Coach Marsch and his staff have created a nuanced and adapted version, is in vogue across the world’s leagues. Teams just see it more often.

The 4-2-3-1 relies on a congested midfield to win the ball back in central areas high up the field, or drive play wide, where wingers can cover their fullbacks to achieve the same aim. The 4-2-2-2 allows the team to continue the same style, thus keeping the same basic tactical idea as the 2015 team, but instead leans the whole formation to press the ball. The 4-2-2-2 is ideal for not only the high press, but the counter press (winning the ball back immediately after losing it) by keeping the formation tight around the play area.   The team has license to spread when necessary, essentially morphing into a variation of the 4-2-3-1 with one of the strikers dropping off the highest line, but the basic idea is numbers together to play with the ball, and numbers together to kill space and lanes when the team is without the ball.   The 4-2-3-1 with its dedicated wingers is by definition a more spread formation.

In reality, there are only three true wing players on the Red Bull roster: Lloyd Sam, Shawn Wright-Phillips and Gonzalo Veron. SWP is not a 90 minute starter any more, at least not in MLS, and is more effective as an impact sub anyway. He is on the wrong side of 30 and not someone you want to be building a high tempo squad full of young players on. Lloyd Sam is a player that I am a huge fan of, and can be one of the truly dangerous players on the Red Bull roster. But he is also on the wrong side of 30, and spent much of the 2015 season cutting inside to effect the game centrally. And he had diminishing returns as the season wore on. The injury in the Open Cup derailed his season, and if he stays through the offseason he may find himself in a position where he’s no longer getting 30+ games as a starter. That leaves Veron, who I’m convinced we haven’t seen the best of.

The squad has Mike Grella who played left wing all year, but he’s a converted forward. He struggled to adequately cover his fullback throughout the season. He’s a hard working player, but there might be smarter ways to use him. There’s also Sal Zizzo, but his lack of pace, or even a change of pace after his injury, saw him struggle until he switched to right back later in the year. Even Bradley Wright-Phillips played on the wing for the team this past season. Clearly the wings, especially on the left side, are not an area that have depth and strength in the current Red Bull squad composition.

Now we come to the issue of Sacha Kljestan, and here in I think lays the key reason why Gonzalo Veron might be the man to make this formation possible for the Red Bulls. Kljestan’s role as an unconventional playmaker in the #10 spot was great, but he has one major drawback: a real lack of pace. We saw Kljestan get the ball in dangerous space with a chance to counter numerous times this season. But if he didn’t have a player with speed reading the play with him he was often forced to hold up or risk being caught from behind because he simply didn’t have the speed to run the break himself. Veron, who has a high technical ability and passing ability and therefore is capable of being a part of the attacking midfield area, would be able to link with Kljestan in that area of the field and supply speed on the break. Kljestan and Veron together would make a formidable attacking midfield pair. Veron was bought with the future in mind. Although he was played in 2015 in some big moments he never got the game time to fully integrate into the squad before he was asked to step up in pressure playoff situations. With a preseason under his belt and the chance to be part of the group from the start of a season I think he’s going to be a big factor in whether or not Red Bull continue to rise through 2016.

In the forward areas you have the options of BWP, Grella, and Anatole Abang. Abang is just 19, but I think he makes a better foil to Bradley Wright-Phillips than Mike Grella, especially since he has qualities that make the 4-2-2-2 an attractive option for the tactical tendencies the Red Bulls have.

BWP spent a lot of 2015 adding more facets to his game. As a result we saw him drop into the playmaking hole a lot especially early in the season (which often caused Kljestan to peel out to the left where he was rather successful at times). He managed to pick up seven assists, the most of his time in MLS. With BWP capable of dropping more that allows for the two attacking midfielders to cover both the middle and the wide areas, and to not have to give up the high middle of the field in doing so. This past season Bradley dropping off meant that the forward space was left for Kljestan or a winger to run into. The better option might be to have Abang be the one responsible for hold up, knock down and link play, something he showed he was capable of on several occasions considering he created the go ahead goal verses NYCFC at Yankee Stadium that way and that he changed the home playoff game against Columbus in just a few minutes with his physicality. Those are just a couple of examples, and they don’t include his general play. At 19 he has a way to go and a lot to learn, but we stuck with Miazga at 19 and look how that turned out for us. By adding another forward, especially one with Abang’s hold up play, you can maximize BWP’s playmaking ability AND his ability to be in front of goal in key moments to provide a crucial finish, which is his true strength.

Also, more than once the Red Bulls reverted to crossing the ball into the box when they were seeking a crunch goal. They were pretty much handed those chances against Columbus due to the numbers being kept inside the 18. But Bradley as the lone forward isn’t the strongest in the air. He has been known to score with his head, but it’s from his movement not from general ability to get on the end of a cross. In fact, by my count, of the 62 goals from the regular season, only eight of them were headers. BWP had two, one of which was a wide open flick from a Connor Lade cross against Columbus. Damian Perrinelle had the same number of headed goals as Bradley, and even used his head to create a knockdown for Bradley to finish verses Philly later in the season. If you count the playoff series verses DC, Dax McCarty also had the same number of headed goals as BWP, and I’m not sure I believe the Red Bulls’ website that lists McCarty as an inch taller than Wright-Phillips. Abang, being the taller and more physical of the forward options, might provide a better target for those moments and allow the team to use the cross as a more effective part of their attack rather than a last resort to a lone forward who is not playing to his strengths in those moments.

Will the Red Bulls move to a 4-2-2-2 in 2016 as part of the move to come more in line with the European contingent of Red Bulls teams? No, I don’t think they will. Marsch had various aspects of Rangnick and Schmidt’s favored formation working within the 4-2-3-1 already. Kljestan’s role, Sam’s instruction to cut in, Bradley’s dropping off the line, the high tempo/high press system…all of these things are tactics that the team used in the formation they held over and adapted from the previous season. If I had to guess I would say that they will continue to grow in the way they approach the 4-2-3-1 and diversify the number of in-game adaptations they have at their disposal from that same basic set up. But I thought I’d have my two-cents, for what it’s worth.

Probably less than two cents.

2015 Varsity Season – Early lineup challenges

The 2015 season will represent my 5th season as the head coach of the varsity girls’ soccer program at the Manhattan school that I teach at.

While I think I’ve done reasonably well so far and picked up what I needed quickly, I know I have a long way to go to reach a level that I’m genuinely happy with.  I’ve decided to spend some time in the coming season reflecting on the diversity of the moving parts that make up a team, as well as my own role as the facilitator of the growth of the program.

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We’ve not even made it to the end of the 2014-15 school year and there are already challenges developing with the lineup for next season.

Some of the issues were anticipated given that this is the largest graduating class I’ve had since I started four years ago.  I’ve been very fortunate to never lose more than three players to graduation in a given season prior to this.  I had a roster of 15 in 2011, and only three of those were senior.  Of those three only two were starters.  I graduated three of 22 in 2012, and three of 21 in 2013.  With incoming freshman classes being five or more, and player attrition for other reasons usually being no more than one or two players per year, we’ve been basically building a very cohesive team for years.

Our 2015 squad is losing seven players from ’14 to graduation, including three girls who were four-year starters, and four players that run right up the spine of the team.  I knew it was coming, but it certainly is a hit to the squad.  And with only one freshman on the squad in ’14, that leaves us with 13 returners.  During last season we worked hard to bring younger players into places on the field that were going to be vacated in the off-season, but that is not a 1-year process any more than teaching those previous players the system was.  I expect a bit of a step back next season for this reason alone, but I have confidence in the girls who are returning to keep playing at a high level.

Another major challenge is at the goalkeeping position.  I’ve been working on grooming a goalkeeper across the last three seasons.  She was new to the position as a freshman, and struggled with some of the basics.  But over the last two seasons she’s really come into her own, and been a standout player on our squad.  She struggled with injury in 2014, but still played 8 games, with a 0.75 goals against average.  Unfortunately her injury problems followed her into a different sports season, and she tore knee ligaments playing basketball.  After surgery it is extremely unlikely she will return in time for next year.  There is the potential for a freshman goalkeeper to come in, someone I’ve spoken with, but that is far from certain.  The number of potential additions to the team next year is a complete unknown at this point.

IMG_2840

If we choose to keep our system, a 4-4-2 variation that plays more like a 4-3-1-2, this is how I project us setting up.  The numbers are all 2014 numbers.  It is worth noting that this projection includes several girls playing in new positions, including the attacking midfielder, and the left center back.

Of course there is always the option to adapt the system to the players we have, something I’ve done before, but right now our team not only knows this system the best given that we started it when most of the will-be seniors were freshman, but also doesn’t readily lend itself to a different one at this moment.  Preseason may bring a fresh perspective.

The main concern in formulating a line up that I think will be successful is the lack of a true center or defensive midfielder.  I helped the last girl ease into that role over a couple seasons, and would be more than happy to start that process again, but the girl that lends herself most readily to that position is needed elsewhere on the field, and there aren’t any ready replacements for her there either.

As I said before, preseason always brings a fresh look at the squad, and new things stand out to me as girls grow and progress, but I do usually give some consideration to where the squad is at as we shuffle from graduation each year.

2015 Varsity Season – Setting the schedule

The 2015 season will represent my 5th season as the head coach of the varsity girls’ soccer program at the Manhattan school that I teach at.

While I think I’ve done reasonably well so far and picked up what I needed quickly, I know I have a long way to go to reach a level that I’m genuinely happy with.  I’ve decided to spend some time in the coming season reflecting on the diversity of the moving parts that make up a team, as well as my own role as the facilitator of the growth of the program.

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I’m starting this reflection now in March because, although the bulk of the season takes place from August to October, Feb/March is when I begin my preparations in earnest.  This is the time of year when my athletic director and I begin discussing the schedule for the coming fall and putting games into place.  This is an ongoing conversation as we decide how to supplement our short league schedule with teams outside our league that can both challenge us and help us grow.  By my count most competitive teams in our area play between 14 and 18 games in a full season, counting playoffs and preseason scrimmages.  I have been pushing for a 15 game schedule since my first year with the team.

This is somewhat of a tall order though.  It’s not as simple as just scheduling 15 games in our area.  It is very difficult to find field space for a game as there’s a lack of available fields, and additionally the fall season is the shortest season of the year by far.  A typical season for us runs about nine or ten weeks from the beginning of preseason until the week of playoffs, assuming we qualify.  The league sets their schedule, and then my AD and I try to fill in the holes.  Since there’s only seven teams in our league (actually nine, but two schools drop their girls soccer season due to lack of players in most seasons) that leaves a lot of ground to make up to create a competitive schedule.

When considering dates to put games on we look at trying to avoid three games in a week where possible, or at least avoid having that for more than one week in a row.  We also avoid putting games on Tuesdays, because that’s the one day each week we’re guaranteed a permit for practice space at the public field.

Here is a look at the preliminary schedule we have for the 2015 season.  Dark blue dates are confirmed games, and light blue dates are suggested game dates:

Nonspecific schedule for post

The beginning of preseason and first day of school are still not confirmed at this time, so that may be adjusted in the coming weeks, but the game dates and days off school are definite at this point.

As you can see only two of the confirmed dates are non-league right now, which leaves us with at least five or six holes to fill to round out the season.  This particular year, if it comes close to this, would be the most games we’ve played in my tenure.  We are still looking at who to play, mostly considering teams we’ve played in recent years, but also looking at school size and recent results to determine who else might be a good addition.  It’s important to choose teams that are good enough to push us, but not so big as to beat us out of hand.

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I expect that the schedule will be mostly set before we end school in June, but even before it’s finished I will have to consider our summer workout plan.  At the end of each school year I gather the returning players and discuss getting fit in the summer.  That’s something I’ll go into in a future post.

2015 Varsity Season – The Program

The 2015 season will represent my 5th season as the head coach of the varsity girls’ soccer program at the Manhattan school that I teach at.  I’ve learned the ropes of coaching largely on the fly as I’ve never really been an assistant anywhere.  My previous coaching experience has been that of a counselor at soccer camps of various ages, from 3rd – 12th grade, across various years, and one season of co-coaching a varsity coed team in the DC beltway area.

While I think I’ve done reasonably well so far and picked up what I needed quickly, I know I have a long way to go to reach a level that I’m genuinely happy with.  I’ve decided to spend some time in the coming season reflecting on the diversity of the moving parts that make up a team, as well as my own role as the facilitator of the growth of the program

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First, a little background on the program I run.  The school is a private school in Manhattan.  It’s a preK-12 school with about 650 students total, about 250 of which make up the high school.  They have no sports facilities of their own aside from a very tiny gym in the high school building, but rent gym space from a local church at a nearby site, and use local public fields for outdoor sports.  These public fields require permits for use.

The girls’ varsity soccer team is now eight years old as of the completion of the 2014 season.  The previous four seasons were all lead by the same coach, but the team was not in a league, so each season was comprised of around eight or so games against an ever changing group of schools.  Before the girls got their own team the school had a coed team for a few years, and before that it was strictly a boys team.  The only championship in school history was won by a boys team in the early 90s.  We compete in a small league that is comprised of private schools in the New York City area, most of which are in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

I typically have around 20 girls each season, although my first season was less than 15.  The commitment level was lower then, and things like practice and preseason were more optional than mandatory.

In the last four years we, meaning the girls that have joined the program in that time and I both, have turned the entire tenor of the team around.  Whereas I was lucky to get seven or eight players out for the first week of preseason in the past, this season we had 17 girls, with the other three joining us in the second week.  Practice attendance has risen from about 60% to about 90%, with almost a quarter of the team attending every practice.  Given that I’m working with girls who are under tremendous pressure to also be successful students, and who have numerous commitments in a school that offers them a tremendous number of opportunities, I’m pleased.

The intersection of progressive education and athletic coaching

I had an odd moment this morning while I was running around in the cold moving the car.  I was walking back from having parked too far away from my building.  As I am prone to doing, I started kind of talking to myself.  The topic this morning was thinking about what I’ll say at the end of the year athletics banquet when I have to get up and give the remarks about this year’s season with my girl’s soccer team.  I started thinking (talking about) the challenges I faced, the girls I have on the team, and how we made it through another season by accomplishing things together.  But my area of focus the longer I talked (it was a long walk) was the challenge I faced trying to mesh my ideals as a progressive educator and my ideas of what it means to be a soccer coach.

When it comes to soccer I come from, but am not necessarily married to, a bit of the old school.  When coach speaks, you act.  Practice is priority one, and is not to be missed.  Being a part of the team takes precedence in all the best ways.  There is no question about effort level: always the max.  Teammates are like family.

This list, and more, are what drove me in competitive sports growing up, and to some degree still do.  I believe that competitive sports offer something that few other things can, and in a way are a microcosm of real life cause-and-effect that few other settings can replicate as accurately.  The ball will do what the ball’s going to do.

And this is increasingly true as we struggle to figure out what it means to educate and develop a human being.  I feel like people used to see education as a more black and white issue.  Students were buckets, and teachers filled them.  And discipline and conformity were job one for the student.  As we have learned that those things might not be as true as we thought, especially for the changing world, the world of “school” is trying to adapt and change.  Students now are growing up in a very different world than the one their grandparents and even parents did.  I’m sure this is true of most generations to some degree, but the ideals I mentioned for sports are some that aren’t being gotten in the same ways as they were when I was in school.  Of course, this may all just be one aging man’s perspective, but I don’t see as much overlap as I did when I was in high school and college and at the peak of my school/sports crossover.  The attitudes of students/players aren’t the same as the ones I encountered then.  Both school and sports seem to be more of an afterthought to them.  I’m not saying this is all bad, mind you.  I think my players are more well-rounded as human beings and much more independent thinkers than we were as student athletes.  It’s just different.

But I think that emphasizes the importance of each arena separately now.  School offers something different than the sports team, and vice versa.  There are differences that I, even as someone who has experience in both arenas, am just now learning.  Here are a few that I  have noted:

1) The concept of team – In the classroom we use cooperative learning, but the focus us still on individual outcomes.  Sport is one of the few areas where individual outcome is truly secondary.  Your role in a play lasts split seconds.  Your sum total role in a game will most likely be a tiny fraction of the minutes played.  Outcomes are judged almost solely on team achievements.

2) The physical nature – A physical action is different from a mental exercise.  There are many different ways to achieve the thought process behind many mathematical operations and still achieve the same outcome.  The perfect shot or pass has a narrow range of kinesthetic forgiveness to be correct.  Repetition and observation are vital to getting that right.  It’s not really a “do it whatever way makes sense” kind of thing.

3) The power to poison the well – Players are like apples: one truly bad one can destroy everything.  A player’s attitude and approach are everything, and they all have to be in synch to make a team hum.  In a classroom this is true to some degree, but you can remove a student from the environment and get back to work.  Individual outcomes are key after all.  But even a few weeks into practice, a team dynamic comes to rely on all the talents and personalities in it.  Even bench players have a massively important role in dynamic.  If you remove one player it sends waves of messages and losses that can affect the team, and it takes time to reestablish identity even if the move was for the best.

And so it is with these things in mind that I am trying to bring consistency to my approaches.  It wouldn’t make sense for me to do everything the same, no, especially not after having said what I did about the differences.  But at least a consistency of belief.  If I see them as independent thinkers and individuals in the whole sense, rather than just buckets to be filled, I can’t treat them that way in the classroom and then expect them to just be good little soldiers on the field.  “Do what your told” goes against my beliefs as a teacher, so it would be hypocritical of me to use that approach as their coach.  I’m still figuring it all out, but it was a big focus for me this season.  I’ve still got a lot more improvement to make, and a long way to go both as a teacher and a coach, but here’s a few things I’ve come up with.  These are a mix of similarities and differences that I think are all notable in making me the best, and most consistant, teacher/coach combo I can be:

1) High expectations in the class and on the field – Expectations do not determine pedagogy.  Just expecting a lot out of my students and my players doesn’t determine if I take a traditional approach or a progressive approach… authoritative or authoritarian.  The actual methodology can be many things, but expectation comes first, and must be clear.  I want my players to be giving maximum effort and taking maximum pride and benefit, the same way I want my students to.  I cannot and should not back off on expectation just because I’m afraid of drifting too far into an authoritarian approach.  Conversely, I cannot allow myself to be convinced that having high expectations is a sign of a traditional or authoritarian approach by outside sources.  That’s just good coaching…and good teaching.

2) When you have to achieve together, sometimes you have to fall in line – As I’ve pointed out, in the classroom the emphasis is on individual outcomes.  If a student’s group is sabotaging that individual’s ability to achieve, or if the group is poisonous to achievement over all, sometimes one student can either take that group on their back and do the lion’s share of the work, or they can withdraw and complete something that shows that they’re still achieving.  While the group won’t have been as successful, that one student will still succeed and learn.  An athletic team has to grow together, or not at all.  I can’t make the right run or the right pass, have everyone else do the wrong thing, and still wind up with a positive outcome.  Sometimes there are moments of individual brilliance that benefit the team: a great individual shot or dribble ending in a goal, a beautiful individual defensive play that saves an otherwise dragging squad, a heroic goalkeeping effort that turns a game on it’s head, but a team can’t achieve on the back of those kinds of moments alone.  Sometimes the MVP is what’s crippling the team.  In order to make any kind of growth and achievement as a team sometimes the individual needs or wants have to go by the wayside.  You may not feel like practicing today, but if you aren’t there then the dynamic for your team will be completely different then what you’ll see on game day.  The team can’t practice the right scenarios to grow.  In a classroom it’s individuals working at max capacity that makes a group strong, but you walk away with different individual levels of success.   Teams live and die by the team.  Individuals work at max capacity to make the team strong, but you walk away with the same outcomes.  The team has a right to ask your individuality to take a bit of a back seat where it doesn’t step on you as a person.

3) The experience factor – In both classroom and on pitch we who are in charge of the education of these young people are trying to develop them in the best way possible to be competent in what they do.  But we are coming at it from a perspective of vast experience in these fields.  I’m currently 32.  I’ve been playing soccer since I was 12.  That’s 20 years of experience and knowledge about this game.  When I’m dealing with a 15 year old player, or even an 18 year old player, it can be hard for me to realize that the concept I’m trying to teach them has developed in me over a long period of time.  They’re not going to get it to the same depth I have in that 2 hour training session, and probably not over the 8-10 week season either.  Possibly not even in the 4 seasons I’ll have most of them.  But it’s easy to get over zealous in trying to convey information.  It’s also easy to mistake mimicry for mastery.  i.e. – If they can make the good pass that splits the defense in practice those few times when I yelled at them to see it, they can now read the game and see it on their own, they’re looking for it and understand when to attempt it or not.   The same holds true in the classroom, but I think teachers tend to be way more patient than coaches.  I will give a student multiple classes, multiple weeks, sometimes even months, to demonstrate that they are starting to master a concept, and then it’s much easier (I feel) to keep in mind that they will continue to build on this their whole lives.  We’re trying to recreate for them, in both settings, our vast experience and expertise.  But you cannot create experience without patience.  Experience by it’s definition, by it’s very nature, takes time.  They go hand in hand.  And not surprisingly, it seems to go hand in hand with failure as well, and I mean that in the best possible way.  Failure is an important part of experience, which is the best teacher.  In the classroom this is easy to set up and understand.  On the field less so because we are waiting for things to click.  When they don’t it can be frustrating because it means more repetition, and that’s hard on our attention spans.

Good coaching, I think, balances repetition and focus.  And doing that, while respecting your individuals but getting them to fall in with the team’s objectives, and holding everyone to a high standard, is the essence and beginning, I believe, of being both a progressive educator and an athletic coach.

If you stumble across this and happen to have read this far, please please feel free to comment and give me your thoughts on this subject that I’m immensely interested in and yet still seeking my own thoughts and best practice on.  I am open and interested in all view points on both education and coaching.

Learning from the test (Arsenal vs Man City, Sunday, September 24th)

I’m not going to lie…I was straight up nervous going into this weekend’s game against Manchester City.  It wasn’t that I didn’t have faith in the Gunners, far from it actually.  I knew that win, lose, or draw, this one game wasn’t going to define us, and we could go on to have a great season no matter what happened here.  But I was still nervous the same way anyone gets before they take a test.  And make no mistake, yesterday was just that: a test.  Reactions to the Arsenal early season results went from being way overly optimistic to not taking any of it seriously because of who we’ve played.  Even the win at Liverpool was to be taken with a grain of salt because of the season ‘Pool are having thus far.  So the butterflies were kicking around in my stomach because I knew that this game meant something about our progress so far, and I wanted us to acquit ourselves well.  All in all the 1-1 draw wasn’t the best outcome we could have gotten out of that game, and that’s actually a good thing.  We looked like we were on very even keel with City, but I believe we should have won it.  Here’s some of the thoughts I had while watching the game:

1) Gervinho and Aaron Ramsey are really frustrating players.  And it’s for two different reasons.  Ramsey frustrates me because the issues I have with him seem to be his mental game.  He obviously has the skills to play well and be an important part of the first team, but he tries to do way too much with the ball.  He’s one of the few Arsenal players who doesn’t just play the simple option more often than not.  He tries to dribble out of trouble.  He tries to play tricky passes or chooses the fancy ball over the simple one.  He takes poor first touches because he’s not looking at the next move he’ll make.  He doesn’t go into tackles straight up, instead trying to flick the ball away or poke at it.  I’m not impressed with these parts of his game, and I get frustrated watching attacks stall at his feet and his passes going astray.  He’s not settled in when he’s playing.  He seems to me to be the nervous animal running around among the calm members of the team.

Gervinho’s touch let him down multiple times, but only in scoring position.  He made good runs, played good passes, and did well stretching and putting pressure on the City defense, but multiple times his final touch, final shot, chance to score was terrible.  The question he presents, and it’s a frustrating one for the team, is to figure out whether it’s just his game or if he needs to play through it.  This isn’t the first time this has been his M.O. and it needs to be given consideration that he might not be able to contribute as a regular starter in the attack.

2) There will be selection problems on the horizon.  With several players, including Jack Wilshire and Bacary Sagna, looking to be returning in the near future (some sooner than others), there will be some issue over who should be playing.   Carl Jenkinson has played well at right back, but should he stay in the side after Sagna is healthy?  Who should find the bench after Wilshire comes back, assuming he gets back up the best 11?  Which of the three center backs should be on the field once they’re all healthy?  Per Mertesacker has made a case that he should be one of the first considered, so what does that do to Laurent Koscielny, who showed very well yesterday?  How about the keeper battle going on?  And then there are the issues of fatigue.  Who can be selected to replace Cazorla when he needs his inevitable rest?  What about Arteta or Podolski?  These are the questions that will define Arsenal’s season as much as any playing style questions at this point.

3) Are Manchester City really the team to beat this year?  What about Manchester United?  Okay, so this isn’t really an Arsenal question directly, but it does affect the squad.  Manchester City did not look completely convincing to me on Sunday.  They struck me as (for lack of a better word) sloppy to be quite honest…I mean, as much as a professional squad can be at this level.  They were very individualistic, they didn’t take chances, they had passes missing the mark, they went on too many dribble runs that ended in nothing.  I just wasn’t as impressed (or as scared) as I’d expected to be.  Are they really the team to beat this year?  An for all of United’s win’s so far, they haven’t looked the part either.  They seem to be getting covered by (truly unfortunately) a few moments of luck (or whatever you want to call it) that comes along with being a good team…i.e.-getting calls, having a good bounce go your way, etc…  The obvious answer is that they’re still good teams that will be in the hunt and are finding ways to keep it together even when they’re not playing well, but the reality is that a team can’t ride that through an entire season, and how they handle the inevitable ebb of those moments will determine if they are challenging deep in the season, or just staying afloat.  For the moment Chelsea is the only team to actually impress me with their potential credentials, and even they have had their moments.

 

 

Thoughts on being a high school coach

I’m in my second season as the varsity girl’s coach at a Manhattan school, and a couple things are occurring to me that I thought I’d punch out in case anyone out there has anything to share in return…

The season is one week old, with three weeks of preseason had before that.  We are a private school, so historically commitment and attendance has been a concern, and in some regards is this season.  But we have new things to deal with that we didn’t last season.  Last season I had a roster of 15 girls, which would have been perfect if they’d all shown up at one time…ever.  I traveled to games often with 11, had no goalkeeper to speak of, held practice with 6-8 girls, had no field space, and struggled to build any kind of work ethic or tenacity with in the team.  They just didn’t take pride in their efforts.  This season I have a roster of 23 girls, and for the most part they show up.  They still aren’t the most tenacious group, but there are some who have caught on to the commitment and desire, and who respect the idea of working hard and it’s pay off.  I have a whole host of new girls, both to the team and to the game, many of whom are either freshmen or sophomores.  They don’t really have the internal drive to push themselves in drills, and often kinda half@$$ it through practice, gripe about the harder things they have to do, and constantly complain about what positions I want to use them in if it isn’t the one they had in mind for themselves.  I’ve got more girls than I can play, less pure talent than we need, and still have no regular field space to practice on.

But my biggest issue isn’t really with any of that.  My biggest issue is with myself.

I’ve been playing soccer since I was little, and had both moderate success and crushing failure.  The game has given me a lot, and taken a lot out of me as well.  I love being a coach now because it gives me a chance to be part of the game in a whole different way than I’ve previously been able to.  I think I’m a little bit of an over-thinker to be a high school girl’s coach at a school with a small program, but I’ll take it.  I’m not saying I believe I’d be more successful at a larger school or that I think I’m too “big” for the school I’m at (quite the opposite actually), just that I’m a strategy-junky amongst a group that hasn’t quite gotten that far in their understanding of the game yet.  But I think I have a shallow bag of tricks right now.  As I said, this is my second year, and my third year as a varsity coach over all.  I’ve been working coaching soccer on some level since I was in the 9th grade, but I’m discovering that my knowledge of drills, my ability to run a drill, to find just the right drill for a particular need, and how to build practices so that we’ve worked on basic skills effectively before they’re expected to use them to learn other things…is all still growing.  My practices this year are steps beyond my practices last year, but my preseason practices were all planned to a T, even if they didn’t all go off exactly that way, and now that I’m going more with the flow of what’s needed the practices are less effective I think.  Granted a lot of what I can do is limited by what amount of space I have that day (23 girls in a tiny gym isn’t exactly a recipe for successful practices) but the days I do have a field are below where I want to be both as a team and a coach.  I am still developing the finessed understanding of what it means to be a coach.

Darn…and other Arsenal thoughts (Arsenal vs Southampton, Saturday, September 15th)

Well, as I’d been fearing it would at some point, the “I-live-in-America-but-try-to-follow-European-soccer” bug bit me already this season.  I wasn’t able to watch the Arsenal-Southampton game on Saturday.  I was away from home all day, but I couldn’t even find the game listed in any of the 2000 channels I have at home…although there were plenty of other “exciting” matches on offer…there were three different opportunities to watch West Ham and Norwich battle it out to a 0-0 draw if I’d wanted to (insert sarcastic “woohoo”).  Aside from watching the highlights video, I didn’t see the play of the team, but 6-1 is a pretty resounding statement to make.  A 1-0 or 2-1 type score can sometimes be misleading, but unless Southampton mysteriously decided to send their first team on vacation and field a local youth team for the day, there’s nothing misleading about 6-1.  I don’t have to have seen much to have a decent idea of what the game must have looked like.  None the less, I will try to keep too much commentary about play out of my thoughts…you know, since I didn’t see it.

1) Patience is required despite these encouraging early results.  When we were sitting on back-to-back ties, there was some measure of skepticism floating in the air around this year’s version of Arsenal.  Now that we’ve won two in a row, racked up some goals, and only given up one goal in four games, there seems to be a lot of that ol’ good feeling floating around.  And it should be.  But there’s also a lot of reasons to shake hands, smile, and hold on to our wait-and-see reflex for the moment.  For one thing, none of the teams we’ve played are sitting in the top half of the table at the moment.  Their combined goal differences aren’t all that impressive, even if you take the Arsenal games out of the math.  The four teams have a combined -5 goal difference…and that’s NOT counting the scores vs Arsenal.  We’re playing well (in the three I’ve seen) and seem to be getting better, but there’s still bigger tests on the horizon.  Manchester City is up next, and we play them on short rest because of the Champion’s League tie verses Montpellier mid-week.  I’m not suggesting pessimism, just not ready to start applying our current run and form to our chances in the league this season yet.  I’ll be feeling much more ready to make pronouncements applying results to what they might mean for the rest of the season after the Man City game.  I think we have all the tools we need to go in there and hang one on the baby blue half of Manchester next weekend, but then lack of tools has never been the problem at Arsenal.

2) I may not have seen the game, but I did see the goal Szczesny gave up.  I know he’s been out for a little while, and is not ruled out of the CL match for health and fitness reasons, but that (imho) was quite the gaffe.  Can “embarrassment” be a reason to say someone isn’t match fit?  I don’t think anyone expected the clean sheets to last for ever, but that was a softie to give up.  I don’t know if his fitness played a role, but the root cause of it was mostly mental.  Let’s hope that goalkeeping doesn’t turn out to be our downfall this year, especially if Szczesny is going to be our #1 when fit.

3) Let’s just all stop talking about Oliver Giroud and see how that works out.  I have seen more tweets, commentary, posts, and articles that mention Giroud and his supposed trouble in front of the net than I care to admit having taken the time to read.  We’ve been a little spoiled in Gunnerland by the quick adaptation of Podolski and Cazorla, and the impact they’ve made in our early fixtures, that Giroud is under a little more scrutiny than he deserves…or is good for the relationship.  The man will score. I have no doubt of that.  In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion, given the intelligence of his runs, the positions he puts himself in, and his obviously high work rate (again, in the games that I’ve seen), that it’ll be a little like the olive and jar metaphor.  To his credit he’s dismissive of the idea that he’s struggling, and seems confident.  But then again, how do you expect him to react when asked about it over and over again?  Break into tears and talk about how hard it’s been?  Pressure creates expectation, and scrutiny creates pressure.  We have high expectations because of the player he’s replacing, but we disliked being reliant on that one player anyway.  As long as the rest of the team is stepping up and spreading out the scoring, we’ll be fine, and Giroud will get his chances, he’ll settle, and he’ll contribute.  And it’s better for us that way.  But for goodness sake, quit talking about it.

*Whew* (Arsenal vs Liverpool, Sunday, September 3rd)

I’m writing a day late because I wasn’t able to finish watching the whole game yesterday, and I didn’t want to comment too much on what I didn’t watch.  Regardless, I have now finished and have taken several things away from the game that I think are worth mentioning.

And there were a lot of things noteworthy during this game.  From the question of Vito Mannone, the play of Arteta, scoring, defending, and a lot more.  I’m only going to look at three of them, as per usual.

But first…

Lukas Podolski, Oliver Giroud, and Santi Cazorla.

There, I said it.

It seems like every single article I read about Arsenal these days has to mention these guys in concert.  They have to be put together and talked about because they’re what’s really new about the team.  Despite the return of Diaby, the formation shuffle, and the seemingly adaptive style of play so far this season (some of which I’ll get to in a minute), it’s those three that have to be mentioned together like they’re the three little pigs.  So despite the fact that I have things I could happily discuss about Cazorla’s continually impressive pin-point passing, Giroud’s trouble scoring despite bringing a much needed physicality and mentality to the front line, and Podolski’s deserved swagger that seems to be developing, from here on I’m leaving them out.  Just seems like the right thing to do.

1) What are the real questions about Arsenal this season?  Correct me if I’m wrong, but a lot of the questions that people tagged Arsenal with seem to slowly be getting answers.  No, things certainly are not perfect right now, but the game against Liverpool went a little further to answering some of those questions we were all so afraid of even just a week ago.  Where will the scoring come from?  Can we replace the massive haul of goals that came from one player last year?  No, but a more balanced approach may prove to be a more dangerous one.  This is a team that isn’t trying to force things in, even if the play is square and the opponent is round (so to speak).  Will the midfield hold together without Alex Song?  It may look different, but it’s working so far.  Mikel Arteta is taking his defensive responsibilities seriously and playing aggressively.  He’s still looking like the possition is a little against some of his instincts at time, but he’s been solid enough so far and seems to have formed a great partnership with Diaby, who’s playing extremely well.  What about the defense?  Three clean sheets in three games sounds pretty good to me.  Were Stoke and Sunderland ever expected to light us up?  No, but keeping Liverpool off the board, and doing what needed to be done against the other two is a positive start.  Per Mertesacker has looked solid, Thomas Vermaelen has been all over the place, and although Mannone has just done what’s been asked of him and looks like he’s being covered for the rest, it’s been exactly what’s needed.  There are much stiffer challenges to come, and questions will be asked of our defense, but Steve Bould seems to have brought a settled hand to a defense that has been much maligned in recent seasons.

2) Service has just been terrible for three games.  If there is a specific area that I have to point out as being absolutely, ridiculously, ludicrously, (other negative adjective)-ly bad for these three games it’s service from the wings.  For three games we have watched every player who takes a swing from out wide knock the ball ten yards over everyone’s head and past the box, or lob it hopefully in to watch it be easily cleared by lumbering defenders who don’t even have to stretch for the ball, or see the first defender clear it with ease.  No matter who has been out there, Gervinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Diaby on a wide run, Gibbs, even Walcott’s few minutes, the service has been a complete waste.  I don’t expect us to fill the net from the air, but if we can’t even get the ball into the box on a cross, that makes the defensive planning by opponents that much easier.  Even if it’s not a major component of our attack, it has to be better.

3) The times, they are a’changing…maybe.  It was a much more wide open game against Liverpool.  ‘Pool played very well I thought, but were too frantic in the attacking end.  They gave us a handful.  The possession was close, but did go to Liverpool.  The shots went to Liverpool.  It was a very different looking game from the park-and-counter teams we’ve seen the last two weeks.  And Arsenal seemed to be able to adapt.  Not that they didn’t have their moments of tiki-taka looking football, but they were sitting back more as Liverpool owned the ball, and took their chances on the counter.  They defended aggressively late in the game and our central defenders even did a little of their own bullying in the middle.  There was a physicality to the Arsenal side that we’ve been criticized for lacking in recent years.  We went after the net, we countered, we played tough and agressive, we defended well…these are not qualities Arsenal have been noted for.  In my notes on the first game of the season I said that this team looked like it was more of the same, referring to many of the criticisms leveled against us for multiple seasons now, and that I just hoped time would prove that this was a different kind of team.  Yesterday’s game was a sign that that hope might pay off.  It’s not that I don’t love Arsenal’s style of play, quite the contrary.  It’s a huge part of why I’m a fan, but there are times where being a slave to style betrays a team…what’s really needed is to step into the game and do whatever is required to win, adapt, fight.  This is something Arsenal have struggled with.  But yesterday was a different story and the result bears that out.

BONUS — 4) Luis Suarez is an ass.  Seriously, if you are blanching at that statement, go back and watch the game.  That guy’s an ass.