By Dr. Jay Martin
This past summer saw the usual flood of international teams come to the United States to play an assortment of MLS teams. They came to make money, gain exposure in the States and prepare for their season. Chelsea played the MLS All Stars and lost. Barcelona and Real Madrid also made star studded appearances in places like Seattle, LA and Salt Lake City. Everton played in Columbus against the Crew. Most of these games filled all the seats in the stadium. And most of these games generated headlines similar to the headline the day after Real Madrid defeated Real Salt Lake 2-0; US Soccer still has a long way to go!”
It seems that every visit by these international teams exposes the weaknesses of US soccer. Fans and players have come to expect that the MLS team will lose, the “big” team will go home richer and US soccer will remain the same. There are two concerns here about these trips.
The first is an economic concern; are these trips worth the great expense? The press corps in Salt Lake uncovered the following costs of the Real Madrid trip for owner David Checketts and the Salt Lake franchise:
- $2 million dollars and all expenses paid
- 30 exercise mats and stretching bands, one for each Madrid player
- 35 medicine balls of different weight(s)
- 45 adidas soccer balls…it seems Madrid could not use the Salt Lake soccer balls
- Special flavors of Gatorade
- Exercise hurdles
- $100,000 for a grass field in the University stadium
Both games were sold out. The first in Seattle against DC United drew over 60,000 fans and the game in Salt Lake had 44,000 attend – including Beckham friend Tom Cruise. The Real Madrid players did make some appearances both for adidas and Real Salt Lake. And Madrid had a training session open to the public that drew thousands. And, maybe more importantly, real Salt Lake used this visit to gain support for a new stadium for the MLS team. Real Madrid players attended the ceremonial “first shovelful” ceremony with David Beckham leading the way! So the trip could be viewed as a success. For one week in Salt Lake City there was “soccer pandemonium”. Great PR for the MLS and RSL and great visibility for RM…and don’t forget the number of RM shirts sold during the week.
But is a trip like this worth the cost?
With attendance down in the MLS and the teams fighting for every dollar should MLS teams spend this amount of money? Or, is there a better place to put this money? For one week in all MLS cities visited by international team soccer had its fair share of headlines. But for the other fifty one weeks the status quo continues. Soccer continues to struggle for the entertainment dollar. Would that money be better spent at the grassroots level in each MLS city? One of the problems with a single entity league is the focus on the national sponsors and the international teams at the expense of the local grassroots. It is true that David Beckham and Co. piqued the grassroots interest in Salt Lake City. But for how long? To what end?
Would that money be better spent on player salaries? How about adding a few games to the developmental league schedule? How could this expenditure make an immediate impact on US Soccer? The MLS? Youth soccer?
All of this raises a second concern that is more germane to the NSCAA. What do we, as players and coaches, learn from these trips? The press reminds us that we are not there yet! How can these trips help the soccer culture in this country?
In Salt Lake City Real Salt Lake and Real Madrid played before 45,000 fans. Real Madrid won 2-0 and Real Salt Lake comported themselves well. But, there were some differences in the way the teams played:
- The speed of attack whether on the dribble, off the ball running or passing was a huge difference between the teams. Madrid attacked with speed and after some time simply caused the RSL defenders fatigue.
- Real Madrid exhibited “possession with purpose”. They constantly probed the RSL defense and patiently created a 1 v 1 or 2 v 1 and (again) attacked with speed!
- Real Madrid committed players to the attack. When RM had control in the attacking third both backs (but primarily Roberto Carlos) attacked and were instrumental in the RM attack.
- The movement off the ball for RM was fantastic but more importantly the way the players prepared to receive the ball was far better than RSL (see Wayne Harrison’s article in this issue). The preparation of the RM players allowed for better touches, better vision and better possession. This is clearly an area that American players and coaches must improve upon!
- RM exhibited a far greater understanding of the “subtleties of the game” than RSL. They never turned in midfield, they played the way they face, they let the ball come across the standing leg etc.
- RM seemed to enjoy the training sessions leading up to the game more than the RSL players. Part of that may have been the different time in each teams season (i.e. preseason v final stage of the season), but part of that is because of the deep seated passion of the RM players. They simply love to play! Read more about the week in my article in this issue.
Why, after all these years are these differences still so apparent? Why do coaches from other countries continue to question the tactical acumen of the American player? Why aren’t we learning from these visits? Why aren’t we getting better?
There is a lot that MLS players and fans (and NSCAA coaches) can take away from these visits by very good international teams. It is not just that these teams and players are better; it is why and how they are better!
We tend to blame the soccer culture in this country, the distractions for the players, the fact that soccer is not ingrained in the American sport psyche and many other things. But maybe it’s the way we teach the game…or don’t teach it!!! Maybe we have to do things differently. The American athlete is as good as any athlete in the world and better than most. Some of the RSL players are as good an athlete as any RM player. So, why can’t the American player play like the Europeans or South Americans? Can we, as coaches, teach the subtleties of the game? Or, must our players learn the subtleties for themselves? And, if they must learn for themselves then we must offer the proper environment for them to learn. That may start with something as simple as more pressure during training. That pressure may force our players to do the little things correctly. The players aren’t doing that now.
So if we continue to invite these teams to the USA let’s at least learn from them. We don’t need more articles saying that we are still behind in soccer. We must identify why these teams are better and use it to make the USA teams better!! Change the way we approach the game. Drop all the excuses. Change the way we teach. Understand what the rest of the world is doing…and do it!
This issue has a variety of different articles. Lynn Pantuosco Hensch brings us up to date on how the law may affect volunteer coaches. This is a very important article since the majority of our youth coaches are volunteers!
JP O’Connor offers cures to those of us who choke in part two of his article on choking. Dr JC Meeroff chronicles the history of South American nutrition and the effect on the players. Very successful Stanford coach Bret Simon is the SJ interview. The ‘Five Favorite Practices” comes from Brent Hills, the assistant coach of England’s senior women’s team.
It is becoming apparent to some soccer people that our young players do not know how to work off the ball or even prepare to receive the ball. Wayne Harrison offers insight into this problem by sharing with us the beginning steps of his Awareness Training Method.
(Note: This article was re-published from an article written by Dr Jay Martin in 2008.)