Friday, November 23, 2007

A Sad Ending

Dear Anson,

You said I had a unique appreciation for the drama that soccer holds. Well, I guess that’s one of the reasons I felt so bad when the season ended so abruptly for my 18s

There we were, cruising along through the State Cup. First weekend -- eight goals scored, two allowed. Six points, five bonus points, one game to go. All we had to do was tie and we would advance to the Final Four.

That was all my players wanted. This was their last year together. The core of the team had played together since they were 10, and every Fall was like a reunion. They laughed about "the old days," they played hard, and they played with heart. The funny thing about this team is that most of them play other sports, and soccer is the primary sport for only a select few. But when they get together, they can achieve things beyond what should be expected..

"The last time" was a theme throughout the year. "This is the last time we will play a home game ... this is the last time we will practice together." After we switched training fields from a baseball outfield to a real soccer field, they were sad. They had trained on the baseball outfield for years, and they would miss it.

So when the "last time" came for real, it was devastating. There was out-and-out, uncontrollable sobbing. I felt horrible.

You see, it was my job to get them to the Final Four, my job to put them in a position to win, my job to give them a happy ending. And I was proud of the job I did. I managed to find a way for my basketball player to play a position that allowed her to hold the ball, distribute, and score. I was able to clear space for my cross country runner to run and run and run, and for my incredible athlete (basketball and tennis) to create havoc with her unorthodox style. And I was able to put my soccer players in positions where they would get the ball the most.

But I couldn't get that one last win.

One girl cried for two solid hours, partly because we lost but mostly because it was over. She couldn't even lament the "last times" anymore. It all ended so suddenly and so cruely.

I didn't know what to say to them after the game. All I could do was tell them to hold their heads high. Obviously, I couldn't stop thinking about it. How can you not think about devastated girls you have coached for four years. They were 13 and 14 when I first met them. Now they are getting ready for college. They mean a lot to me, they always will.

We had a team party a week later. Getting together helped them, and it helped me. I gave them each a nice gift that will serve as a reminder of their time together. All week I thought long and hard, trying to come up with some deep philosophical wisdom to relay to them. At first I thought they would expect me to give them some meaningful speech to help ease the pain. But then I had a revelation. To them, I wasn't a philosopher. I was the guy who inspired them by making them laugh, the guy who cares about them as people, and the guy who always found something slightly off the wall to say that grabbed their attention and made them think.

So I told them that I was heart-broken when we lost and the tears were devastating to me. "But", I said with a sudden burst of energy and enthusiasm, "I have a quote for you. It's from Dr. Seuss." (No lie, look it up). The quote is ...

"Don't cry because it's over; smile because it happened.”

When I think of more, I'll write.
You know who.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Again, Ryan Must Go

Dear Aaron,

Don't mean to pile on, or kick a guy when he's down. But U.S. coaches certainly should understand the dangers of yapping away in the media.

This adds to the disasterous performance of our National Team coach.

When I think of more, I'll write.
You know who

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Obviously, Ryan Must Go

Dear Tony,

I have never done this before. I didn't do it when Bora refused to work on youth development or coaching education. I didn't do it when Sampson fell in love with his own importance and devised the silly 3-6-1 formation then embarrassed us in France. I didn't do it when April had a meltdown in Australia and her team continuously under-performed. I didn't do it when you didn't produce in Sweden in '95.

But I'll do it now. Greg Ryan needs to go. If we can pull it off before the third-place game, that would be nice. But I understand we may need to wait until he gets back from China.

He's a nice guy, but he has ruined the U.S. women's national team -- their confidence, their reputation, and their popularity. Our place atop the world is gone. Of course, everyone knew it was coming some day. Brazil, Germany, Norway ... they were all right there. And we knew as early as 1998 that if Brazil got more of their population involved in women's soccer, it would be very bad news for us. The fact is that our place was gone about a year ago. It just hadn't been proven yet.

I've seen it before. The pressure of playing in a World Cup or an Olympics gets to coaches. They over-react to it and do something that can't be fixed. Replacing Solo was an over-reaction if you look at it in the rear-view mirror or through a clear windshield. It told the players he was desperate to change the team in order to play another team. This came from a guy who had little or no confidence in the roster he selected, rarely using his bench through the first four matches. Then all of a sudden, he goes to his bench for a new goalkeeper? By the way, he embarrassed Bri, a player who has done as much as anyone for women's soccer in this country. He put her in a situation she was not prepared for, and set her up to fail.

His management of the Brazil match was, as Foudy said, "mind-boggling." Using two subs on defenders when you are down three goals with 10 players? That's hard to justify. What that told me is that he needed more people to thump long balls to Abby, which is the style of play that got him in this mess to begin with.

The style is what bugs me most. That set us back as a country 10 years. Is that how our youth and college teams are supposed to play? If our national team is a model for the rest of our system, then, yes, that is what we are supposed to be doing. Won't catch me playing that way, though.

All of that tells me two things. First, he wasn't prepared to coach at the World Cup. Second, he didn't do a good job picking his staff. Was there no one sitting near him to suggest that he was killing the team by replacing Solo? Did no one suggest that he might need to put an attacking player in the game when he was down by three? Or did he refuse to listen?

So, who do we get to replace him? I have one choice.

Brandi Chastain. Not only does Brandi have a solid background in the women's game, but she is also a student of soccer with a very high-level understanding of tactics. She is well-respected, says and does the right things (later in her life, not necessarily earlier in her career), and she would help mend the team’s image which took a horrible hit this month.

I'm sure you remember. After you won in 1999, you went to the Federation AGM and got grilled and ridiculed for the way you won. China was better, they said. We didn't have enough combination play, they whined. Well, if the Fed wasn't satisfied then, what will they say now? I don't have a very good track record trying to understand the moves the USSF leadership makes, so here's my prediction. A new four-year contract for Greg Ryan.

When I think of more, I'll write.
You know who

Monday, September 24, 2007

Heart, Effort, Quality and High Standards

Dear Roger,

Last week I wrote that my U13s got stomped in a lackluster performance and then came back the next day (after a couple long "chats" with me) and put in the performance of the season.

I ended that post saying how was able to start talking to them about maintaining high standards. Well, we played a game this past Saturday and now I have to adjust my coaching a little bit.

We played a team with which we have a long history of close, hard-fought games. Four seasons of matches, I'm told, have all ended in loses or draws. Not this time. It wasn't even close. It was nowhere near the performance I was expecting from this bunch. In fact, it was very hard for me to believe.

Just six minutes in, it was 1-0. By halftime, it was 3-0. The second half was much of the same dominance, but no more goals.

We were just unbelievably good. I challenged them to get a goal in five minutes. It took six. I told them to shut down service out of the back, they did. I told them to play to feet and keep possession, they did. I told them to stay organized in the back to handle the other team's fast and strong striker. She was never a threat.

Now, I have to step back a bit. I told them at halftime that they just set a new standard and it was pretty high. The job now, I said, is to see if we can raise that standard higher. The standard didn't drop in the second half, but I'm not sure it was raised. I could really care less. Now, it's about consistency of effort and quality.

Let me tell you, this is downright fun.

When I think of more, I'll write
You know who

Friday, September 21, 2007

Balancing Development and Creativity

Dear Bob,

Soccer Dad over at On the Pitch has an interesting post about player development.

One of his points is this:

If proper development means less structure in practice to allow for creativity at the expense of a few wins, I think many would be cool with that. But they have to be convinced that there is ‘a better way’ and shown why and how.

In my opinion, less structure is not the entire answer, just as too much structure is not the entire problem. Soccer Dad is posting about the balance between individual skill development and nurturing creativity in young players. He begins by talking about how we strive to create players that can pass well so we can create teams that can pass well.

There are two separate issues here, so first is a little history. Thirty or so years ago, the U.S. coaching community was greatly influenced by the Dutch, as was most of the world. The Dutch, led by Rinus Michels, promoted small-sided games as a means of training youth players. Four-v-four was main component. We adopted that into our coaching education. But being a naive soccer country, we saw four-v-four as a shape to play out of, not a teaching environment. We started teaching two-touch play. Everything was two-touch. It's pretty obvious that you can't dribble much with two-touch restrictions, but it wasn't obvious to us at that point. Our national team was lucky to be able to play two-touch soccer, let alone our kids.

As a soccer country, we have always been influenced by the Europeans, not the South Americans or the Central Americans, because, frankly, our immigration heritage has seen Europeans emerge into leadership roles much faster than any other ethnic group. The European model is structure, organization and team. South or Central Americans lean more on flair, creativity and individualism. But both have heavy emphasis on skill development.

So, that left us with a bunch of two-touch players who had never been allowed to be creative.

Now back to the idea of what coaches allow in training. If we allow and encourage players to make creative mistakes, we promote creativity. If we put players in an environment where they can be creative, they will become more creative. But we can't just throw them out there and let them play. They need to proper technique first, obviously.

And we can't allow improper technique, even in their free play. Receiving the ball with their shin guards or with their knee is not creative, waiting for the ball to arrive before playing it, is not something we can allow, nor is reaching across your body to receive a ball with your dominate foot. The worst is lazy technique -- a half-hearted effort at an important skill.

Less structure, more freedom is an easy way to look at it. But it is kind of like talk radio -- Conservatives good, Liberals bad. There's more to it, and that is what I love about soccer -- there is always more to it.

I think the ideal training environment is when a coach can organize free play -- combine the European structure and the South American freedom. We have to create a situation where players learn the proper technique then have the freedom to learn by themselves how to best utilize that technique.

A different -- and a little more high-faluting -- way to look at it is how a national team coach once explained it to me. "Players have to have technical solutions for tactical problems." That makes sense. We have to have the skill to get out of sticky tactical situations -- whether it's in front of our own goal, in midfield, or in front of the opponent's goal. And we have to be able to do it under pressure. I think it all begins with what we allow.

Oh, and by the way, we should never allow a kid to be called a "ball hog" unless it is said in praise. Ball hogs just haven't learned their options yet. So if you have one on your team, you are a lucky coach. I'll write about ball hogs soon.

When I think of more, I'll write
You know who