Sunday, January 30, 2011

Despite academies, colleges still producing MLS talent

Courtesy of Travis Clark from

As the complexion of youth development in MLS and the United States continues to evolve, the role of college soccer goes along with it. And while the role of the collegiate program will be debated down the road, given the size of the United States, players will most likely always emerge from the college system.

Over the course of 15 MLS seasons, two college programs stand above the rest when it comes to contributing professionals: UCLA and Virginia. According to the league, 54 players have emerged from UCLA school, while 41 came out of UVA. (NOTE: For the purposes of this article, 2011 MLS draft picks were not included in the numbers because it is still unclear which draftees will actually make a squad.)

However, despite the two schools’ rich history of player production over the years, no Bruins or Cavaliers were selected in the 2011 draft. According to current UCLA coach Jorge Salcedo, a couple of his players were candidates for the latest Generation adidas class, but none eventually signed a contract.

Salcedo attributes the success of UCLA to the platform originally built by current Seattle Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid, who spent nearly two decades in charge of the Bruins soccer team from 1980 to 1999. During that time, he won three NCAA championships and helped develop eventual many US internationals and pros, including Brad Friedel, Cobi Jones, Carlos Bocanegra, Frankie Hejduk, and Eddie Lewis, among others.

Top MLS Talent-Producing Colleges all-time


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Wake Forest




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“I think there are a variety of reasons, but the number one reason is that we’ve been a successful program for many years now,” he told “It’s a program that Sigi Schmid, from the early ’80s into the mid ’90s, built a program where we have continued to bring in top players from Southern California and around the country.”

The story of UCLA’s success is mirrored at Virginia, with the Schmid role played by current LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena.

Arena was at UVA from 1978 to 1995, when he left to take the reins atD.C. United in the MLS club’s inaugural year. With Virginia, Arena won five national championships, guiding such future stars as John Harkes, Claudio Reyna, Tony Meola, and Ben Olsen, into the pro ranks.

Because both handed off sterling programs to their successors, the simple buzz of UCLA and Virginia soccer helped to attract strong recruiting classes of young talent. UVA won the 2009 NCAA championship and UCLA’s 2010 recruiting class included US youth internationals Kelyn Rowe and Victor Chavez.

For those debunking the lack of games played in a college setting, Salcedo thinks that it’s positive on a personal level for rising talents to take at least a year or two and play in college. He cites the many US internationals and World Cup veterans, including everyone from Tab Ramos and Alexi Lalas to Clint Dempsey and Oguchi Onyewu, who have spent some time in the college ranks.

“So many of them used [college soccer] as a springboard to not only become a better soccer player, but to become more mature as young men, to experiencing certain things through the few years of college that are good for the rest of your lives,” he said. “To be successful professional soccer player, you have to have a maturity level and have experience not only as a soccer player but as a young man as well.”

Top MLS talent-producing colleges, since 2006


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Of late, other schools have emerged as incubators of top MLS prospects. The ACC is clearly the deepest well of talent. Along with Virginia, Maryland has developed 34 pros (3rd most), and Clemson and North Carolina have each provided 23 players (tied for 5th most). Wake Forest has developed 20 (7th most).

Disrupting the dominance of the ACC is Indiana. Under the legendary Jerry Yeagley, men’s soccer coach from 1973 to 2003, the Hoosiers produced 27 MLS pros, a number that will likely grow this year. Former IU mainstays Will Bruin, Rich Balchan and Andy Adlard were all drafted this year.

And away from the glamour conferences, Caleb Porter and Akron, the 2010 NCAA champions, have become a kind of factory for success and talent development. Already, the likes of Steve Zakuani and Teal Bunbury are thriving in the league, and seven more former Zips went in the 2011 SuperDraft, including #2 overall Darlington Nagbe to the Portland Timbers.

As MLS Academies continue to expand, going to college may not be the road most traveled by many top players in the nation in the future. However, with North America’s value of education and the size of the United States and Canada, there’s every reason to believe that these top programs will continue to be one of many paths to take and wind up as a professional in MLS.

U.S. developing a Barcelona model

From the Evansville Courier Press, January 30, 2011

The formula for developing soccer players shouldn't be like trying to solve the Rubik's cube — it shouldn't be a series of twisting, turning and guessing.

There is one club in the world that churns out world-class players more than any other. Barcelona FC developed the top three finishers for the 2010 FIFA World Player of the Year —Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi. All three joined the club before the age of 13, and all possessed some similar characteristics.

Albert Benaiges is the coordinator of Barcelona's youth program which not only oversaw the development of Messi, but also for seven players who led Spain to its FIFA World Cup title.

"The most important aspect of our program is always ball work," Benaiges told Germany's Kicker Magazine. "In all the exercises they do, whether it's physical preparation or any other kind of training, the ball is always there."

When asked about training, Benaiges responded "Only technique and tactics, not fitness, which they can catch up on later."

Benaiges referenced that technical skills can be taught and improved when players are young.

"Technical skills we can improve up till the age of 13," Benaiges says. "But every pro was born a soccer player. Instinct and game intelligence we can't create. Both of those come within."

Claudio Reyna was hired recently by U.S. Soccer to be our nation's Youth Technical Director. His first formal address came at the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) Convention in Baltimore a couple of weeks ago, when he introduced a new U.S. Soccer curriculum geared toward a specific style of fluid, fast play. His challenge is to develop a level of buy-in from the coaches on a few basic principles in hopes of being able to replicate some of Barcelona's success.

Beau Dure, the author of "Long-Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer," wrote recently about three potential problems that Reyna faces:

1. Overdribbling: Reyna repeatedly used this word to warn against holding the ball too long, saying that's simply not what works among elite clubs. Some coaches seemed skeptical, but I believe this is a massive component of Barcelona teams' success. Their players receive a heavy concentration of technical skills at an early age, but they learn not only how to dribble, but why and when to dribble. Like Xavi or Inesta, Reyna wants players to learn how to pass tout of trouble, rather than put their head down and try to dribble out of pressure.

2. Winning vs. development: Wake Forest coach Jay Vidovich lectured on "Playing to Develop vs. Playing to Win."

There is absolutely a time when players should learnhow to win but not before they learn how to play. I can understand if a coach's livelihood is based on results at the professional, collegiate and the most elite of youth levels. But for a coach of players 13 and under, the emphasis should be just as much if not more about how to play as well as learning how to win. Learning from making mistakes — as well as being encouraged to not be afraid to make mistakes, is key in development.

3. Too many paths to the top: Young players are constantly being pulled between competing clubs with different approaches.Club coaches may want to keep them away from high school games. Especially for younger age groups, the more opportunities a player has to play, the better. Players shouldn't be discouraged from playing with different teams, but rather be encouraged to learn from different coaches with different styles, playing in different roles and positions.

Benaiges says that Messi, during one year, played for teams at five different levels within the club — and never complained whether it was the A team or C team.

It is impossible to predict which players will make it as professionals at an early age, but it is critical that coaches at those age groups create an environment that encourages players to play the game the right way.

After all, even Benaiges said you couldn't predict the success of the likes of Messi at that age.

Bradley moves to Aston Villa

With the news that US international Michael Bradley has been loaned out to EPL side Aston Villa from Borussia Moenchengladbach until the end of the season, the young midfielder has taken yet another positive step in his development.

Jeff Carlisle of writes of how Bradley's move to Villa is the next natural progression in his rise to domestic and international success.

Practically from the moment Bradley turned professional in 2004 with Major League Soccer side MetroStars, his career has enjoyed an inexorable rise. After a two-year stint in MLS, he excelled for Dutch side Heerenveen, where, according to the U.S. Soccer Federation he netted 21 times in all competitions during the 2007-08 campaign, a record for the most goals in a season by an American playing abroad. He then moved to Germany with Gladbach, where he became a linchpin in the side, helping them to narrowly avoid relegation in 2009.

Bradley has enjoyed steady progress on the U.S. national team, where he's been an ever-present force in the center of midfield since 2007. He was also widely hailed for his performance at the 2010 World Cup, scoring a critical equalizer against Slovenia that ultimately helped the Americans reach the second round.

Now, for the next five months at least, Bradley will call the EPL home, and it's a move that comes at an opportune time for the U.S. midfielder. The relegation struggles of Gladbach are now someone else's problem, although why the club would sell one of its most important players in the midst of such a battle is baffling. Of course, it's no more puzzling than why manager Michael Frontzeck chose to bench Bradley in the first place, given the player's importance to the side. The public explanation by Frontzeck is that he didn't want to be accused of "not trying everything" in his bid to avoid the drop, but given the fact that the manager and Bradley have clashed in the past, it leads one to wonder whether their relationship had deteriorated further.

No matter, because Bradley gets a virtual promotion to the most-watched league in the world, something that wouldn't have been the case had his long-rumored move to Turkish side Galatasaray come to fruition. And he joins a team that is in need of some strengthening in the center of midfield. Manager Gerard Houllier has already brought in Cameroonian international Jean Makoun from French side Lyon. And although holdovers Stiliyan Petrov and Nigel Reo-Coker will provide some competition, it seems likely that Makoun and Bradley could be partnered in the center of midfield sooner rather than later.

If this scenario comes to pass, Bradley's already impressive development should accelerate even further. The move could go a long way in fending off calls for his spot in the U.S. lineup to be taken by someone else.

Rare have been the moments in key international matches when U.S. manager Bob Bradley has not had son Michael on the field, and with good reason. There has been no U.S. central midfielder who has been more effective and consistent than Michael Bradley over the past four years.

But lately, an interesting competitive dynamic has emerged. Bolton Wanderers midfielder Stuart Holden has earned rave reviews for his performances in a central role, while Rangers' Maurice Edu has made improvements as well. Throw in Jermaine Jones, who's now playing on loan at Blackburn, and there's significantly more competition for places on the U.S. team than there was six months ago.

As a result, there have been some rumblings for the U.S. manager to trot out a central midfield pairing that didn't include Michael, especially in the wake of his benching by Frontzeck. The odds that those calls will become louder are reduced somewhat now that Bradley has improved his club situation.

In the meantime, all that's left to do is to observe the new Aston Villa midfielder and see if the steady progress that has marked his career will continue

Kompany wants fiery training intensity to reflect in City's play

Vincent Kompany wants Manchester City to take the intensity they use in training into their remaining fixtures this season as they pursue silverware on three fronts.

City currently lie third in the Premier League six points leaders Manchester United, however they remain in the Europa League and the FA Cup and Kompany believes the ambition in the team is to match the success of the clubs around them in league.

"We have a very competitive squad. We may not yet be at the level of clubs who have won things for so many years but we are getting there. Our ambition is the same as theirs,” he told he told the club's official website.

"If you look in training, a defeat in training can lead to a very dramatic scene where people are very angry at each other.

"I believe with this mentality we have now and the longer we are together we will be able to achieve great things. We will enjoy it as well as we enjoy being around each other."

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Well-travelled coach guides Caps into MLS

Teitur Thordarson may only be in his first year of guiding the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer, but he has a wealth of experience.

Formerly the manager of the Estonia national team that rose from 145th to 68th in FIFA's world rankings under his watch, Thordarson also led the Whitecaps to a championship in 2008 in the 2nd division.

Thordarson was interviewed recently by the Vancouver Sun, and spoke about a variety of topics-

On being picked by many to finish last in Major League Soccer this season - "If that's the case, then we will have done sh--, absolutely," said the Whitecaps head coach. "That is definitely not part of the plan."

On the high expectations by the Whitecaps' supporters - "I know there are expectations in the city and among the owners but I have very high expectations myself and those are the expectations I primarily deal with," he said.

On the nomadic existence forced upon those whose jobs rely on succeeding at the beautiful game - "We have moved 29 times [since 1976] so we have a certain kind of training in that," he said.

On having strong assistant coaches (Thordarson recently hired former Chicago Fire head coach Denis Hamlett along with Colin Miller) - "If you want to have success, one of the most important things is to trust people around you," he said. "These are both coaches with great experience and great knowledge of the same so I look at this as an ideal situation for me, getting the maximum help possible."

On Arsene Wenger, whom Thordarson played for when Wenger was an assistant coach at French side AS Cannes in the early 1980s - "He is a fantastic person," Thordarson said. "He's calm and he's a thinker who treats his players in a fantastic way. I definitely consider myself closer to him than anybody else in the way of treating players and his style of play."

Thordarson certainly has an extensive level of experience, and despite the task of guiding a fledgling MLS franchise, I will look forward to following the progress of both he and his team this season.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Vision for the future of US Soccer

Beau Dure of ESPN writes about Claudio Reyna's vision for the future of US Soccer.

In the ballroom of the Baltimore Convention Center, nervous soccer players of varying backgrounds smiled and held up scarves for the teams that had just picked them in the MLS SuperDraft.

At the same time, one floor below at the National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention, Claudio Reyna, Youth Technical Directo for U.S. Soccer, guided a packed room of soccer coaches through a new U.S. Soccer curriculum geared toward a specific style of fluid, fast play. Reyna's challenge: Can he and the federation get the chaotic, culturally diverse American soccer community to agree on at least a few basic principles of developing soccer players? Should they even try to get all American players, regardless of background, to play like Barcelona?

Among the skeptics in the ballroom was Bruce Arena, who coached Reyna at Virginia before coach and player went on to successful careers on the pro and international stages.

"A curriculum's not going to make us any better," Arena said. "If that was the case, we'd all publish curriculums. This country, I've always said, is too large, too different to have one style of play. If he [Reyna] can get that accomplished, more credit to him."

Akron coach Caleb Porter, who saw five of his players be drafted in the top eight picks, was more enthusiastic. "I spoke with Claudio over Christmas," Porter said. "He liked the way our team played. I'm going to try to get involved in helping to spread that same philosophy and same vision."

The Reyna/U.S. Soccer vision fits nicely with what soccer fans, coaches and players want to see -- quick play, with one to three touches before moving the ball to players actively looking to receive it. That approach works for Barcelona. Of course, Barca has some of the best players in the world. But can their style of play work in a country with so many different approaches to the game?

"It depends on what you mean by 'try to establish a style of play,'" said New England coach Steve Nicol, the Liverpool legend who has mastered the art of scouting and developing players from college campuses. "We all want to pass the ball, and we all want to play good, open attacking football. If we can develop players to have that ability, the style will evolve on its own. What we'll have is players who can play the game properly."

Three problems could stand in Reyna's way as he pushes the curriculum:

1. "Overdribbling." Reyna repeatedly used this word to warn against holding the ball too long, saying that's simply not what works among elite clubs. Some coaches and journalists seemed skeptical. Aren't Americans typically lacking in ball skills? And aren't we supposed to at least teach young kids to be comfortable on the ball and not afraid to take on defenders?

2. Winning vs. development. Before Reyna's session, Wake Forest coach Jay Vidovich's "Playing to Develop vs. Playing to Win" session was less of a philosophical discussion than a showcase of what works and what shouldn't. Vidovich told fellow coaches that his program, which has produced dozens of pros, emphasizes developmentally friendly soccer.

To give a counterexample, he showed a video clip of an opposing team scoring against his Demon Deacons on a long throw-in into the penalty box. Not the style we all want, but one that many college teams employ. (Then again, the opposing coach, who was not identified in the video, could argue that if long throw-ins work in college, they just might work at higher levels, as well.)

Top draft pick Omar Salgado, only 17, spent time in youth systems in Mexico and the U.S. and sees one major difference.

"They're both equally professional," Salgado told reporters at the draft. "In the USA, they're always wanting to be No. 1."

3. Too many paths to the top. Young players are pulled between competing clubs with different approaches. Teenagers may find club coaches who want to keep them away from high school games. Then elite players run into the alphabet soup of organizations -- Super-Y, ODP, NCAA, USYSA, ECNL.

Second-round pick Michael Farfan took an especially circuitous path to being drafted -- U.S. Under-17 residency, Cal State-Fullerton, North Carolina, overseas training and several youth and Premier Development League (PDL) clubs. He doesn't think the exposure to different schools of thought will hurt young players.

"I'd say it's more of a positive," Farfan said. "It helps show your versatility so they know you can play different positions and you're open-minded."

The U.S. Development Academy, a youth league with teams that are affiliated with most MLS clubs along with many longtime youth powerhouses, seeks to simplify things. Each team plays official games only in academy competition, not in state cups or other tournaments, and players can't play for other clubs other than national teams or high schools.

Through the academies, MLS is providing a path for players to bypass college by signing directly with the senior teams. But for all the dirt tossed on college soccer's supposed grave over the years, MLS doesn't see that development path drying up.

"We're recognizing that it's a dual approach," MLS commissioner Don Garber told reporters at the draft. "It's developing players in academies and the college system, including potentially the college system in Canada. I think there is room for both the college game and the academy. … Some kids may not have the opportunity to be pro. It's great to get a college education, particularly one with a scholarship."

And Porter, fresh from coaching Akron to the national championship and bidding farewell to his players as they start their pro careers, is bullish on U.S. Soccer's "E Pluribus Unum" approach.

"Our country's unique because we've got a lot of different types of ethnicities," he said. "We've got to figure out what system is the best and what style is the best. Maybe it's a hybrid of a couple of different countries. You look at Brazil, you look at Spain, you look at Germany -- they have an identity, and it starts from the bottom up. We need to start to develop that, as well. And I know that we will. Claudio Reyna's going to do great things."

Tabatznik joins Virginia-DC Hall of Fame

Former Georgetown University men’s soccer coach Keith Tabatznik was inducted into the Virginia-DC Soccer Hall of Fame this past weekend. He is one of the first people associated with the Georgetown program to earn a spot in the Hall of Fame. Tabatznik was one of three people inducted for Meritorious Sevice and one of eight 2011 inductees.

Tabatznik coached the Hoyas for 22 seasons, and his teams compiled a record of 220-187-23 (.538) and a mark of 94-73-10 (.559) in conference play. He was named the BIG EAST Coach of the Year twice in 1994 and 1997.

Tabatznik earned his 200th career win as head coach during the 2004 season advancing to the semifinals of the BIG EAST Tournament. The Hoyas lost in overtime to Seton Hall and just narrowly missed a berth to the NCAA’s. Tabatznik also saw two of his student-athletes drafted by Major Indoor Soccer League, with Dan Gargan playing for the Philadelphia KiXX and Trevor Goodrich selected by the St. Louis Steamers. Gargan and Jeff Curtin were also drafted by Major League Soccer.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

College or Academy?

That's the question that Jason Davis of US Soccer Players Newsletter asks about the best way to find talent for the US National team, referencing the emergence of US internationals Juan Agudelo and Teal Bunbury.

Agudelo comes out of the US Soccer Development Academy from the New York Red Bulls, where Bunbury comes out of the college soccer factory at Akron University.

Prudently pushing that aside, it’s worth noting that each of the pair is a respectively the product of a much talked about development path bringing about the next generation of Major League Soccer player.

In Bunbury’s case, it was Caleb Porter’s college soccer factory at the University of Akron that prepped him for MLS and the US National Team. The path represents a bit of the “old” ways of MLS, as Bunbury entered the League through the draft with all of its quirky American-ness.

It’s a system that hasn’t yet outlived it’s usefulness - despite talk that its influence is waning - thanks in part to the type of success Porter is having at Akron. The Zips just won their first national championship in 2010 and show no signs of slowing down as the new power of collegiate soccer. As long as Porter sticks around, the school should continue to churn out stars.

Before Bunbury, Akron produced speedy Sounders winger Steve Zakuani. This year, the Zips supplied five of the first eight players selected at the 2011 edition of the SuperDraft. An Akron wave is in full swing, with Bunbury at its forefront.

Porter has proven that he has an eye for talent and a knack for developing it. MLS will reap the benefits as long as he can keep it going. Bunbury, now a National Team prospect and seemingly on the verge of a breakout year with Sporting Kansas City, is the natural poster boy for the continued relevance of college soccer in general terms. He's also the standard bearer for the influx of Akron talent in more specific ones.

For the younger Agudelo, it was Major League Soccer’s burgeoning academy initiative, and specifically the New York Red Bulls program, that allowed him to go straight from schoolboy soccer player to professional and now the National Team. A long time in coming, the push for MLS teams to develop talent in-house with the goal of producing players more prepared to be pros at an earlier age is hitting its stride.

We hardly go a day without another home grown signing being announced, proving that clubs are putting an emphasis on academies even while they continue learn how to best use them, run them, and integrate the players coming out of them into their teams. Academy signings aren’t generally expected to contribute right away, part of the reason Agudelo’s profile is so high so soon. Though he’s certainly not the first academy product to show star potential, he is the first to make any impact for the US National Team. That bestows upon him the de facto status of leading academy light.

Both Agudelo’s career and the MLS academy movement are in their infancy. Despite that, Agudelo’s early success gives reason to hope that MLS academies will provide an influx of talented players for the National Team. Agudelo’s story is unique among players with National Team caps. For now anyway.

The promise of Agudelo and Bunbury as a pair is something of a quirk of fate. It just so happened that Bob Bradley called them in together, gave them simultaneous debuts, and repeated the process a few months later in matches that allowed for trying out the new and untested. But for better or worse, the two players are now tied together. They may yet take different paths as internationals, and the difference in their ages will dictate some of their future contributions.

With them playing side-by-side in US shirts, their roads to the National Team tell an interesting story. Competitors for the title of hottest current source of new American talent, with distinct paths on how they got to their breakout opportunity.

College or academy? How about both.

Arsenal developing winning mentality

After the performances of both Arsenal and Manchester United this past week, you certainly saw two teams that have full guns blazing towards a collision clash for supremacy in the English Premier League.

The Bleacher Report writes that despite popular opinion, perhaps it is Arsenal that has developed a winning mentality, and not United.

On Tuesday night, as Arsenal FC turned on the style in a rampant second-half performance against Ipswich, Manchester United struggled and stuttered to 3-2 win against newly-promoted Blackpool, thanks largely to the referee and Dimitar Berbatov.

Manchester United have suffered only one defeat this season, which came in the Carling Cup to West Ham. They are unbeaten in the league and now lead the table by five points with 15 games still to go.

In second place is Arsenal FC, who have managed 46 points from their 23 games. But, Arsenal FC slowly seems to be coming to its best and are almost fit as a squad.

There seems to be a lot of talk about Manchester United having developed the mentality of a champion and potentially maintaining their unblemished record.

However, it is a sin to compare the current Manchester United squad to the Invincibles.

The Arsenal FC squad of 2003-04 was a cut above the rest. They dominated sides and won convincingly. They could win matches away or at home.

This Manchester United squad has won just three of their away games and drawn the remaining nine. They have looked sloppy and have struggled to impose themselves on opponents.

Two of their away wins came against Blackpool and West Brom. In both matches, opponents were denied clear penalties, and Manchester United's Gary Neville should have been sent off versus West Brom.

Manchester United has failed to dominate teams and has often had to depend on late goals to get the win.

The present Arsenal squad has struggled at times, too. It has thrown away leads and has lost at home to weaker opposition.

Yet I believe that Arsenal FC, not Manchester United, has the mentality to win the league.


Arsenal FC has suffered from injuries. Thomas Vermaelen has been out since August and has been featured in only three Premier League games this season. Manchester United's Wayne Rooney has played close to 500 minutes more than Arsenal FC's Robin Van Persie. Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas has missed matches, as well.

Hampered by injuries and a hectic fixture list, Arsenal FC is competing in all four fronts, and have even progresed to the finals of the Carling Cup. Without Fabregas and Van Persie, Aresenal FC has scored 48 goals, three more than the healthier Manchester United squad.

Manchester United has had a fully fit defense for large parts of the season, as well. Yet Arsenal FC has conceded just one goal more than Manchester United this year.

Arsenal FC has won consistently and comfortably away from home, something that Manchester United has struggled to do. Arsenal FC has taken three points from Goodison Park, St. Andrews, Villa Park and Eastlands.


Away matches test the mental fortitude of a team. Manchester United is a scrappy side that tends to struggle away from home, despite good luck and fortuitous officiating; Arsenal creates chances and dominates.

Manchester United's home form has kept it at the top, though they have struggled to victory against the likes of Stoke and Wolves. Meanwhile, Arsenal's home form seems to be improving.

With a fully fit squad, Arsenal FC is unbeaten in six matches, including run-ins with Chelsea and Manchester City, as well as three away fixtures. They have won convincingly, scoring 14 goals and conceding just three, none during the last four games.

Arsenal FC is also capable of grinding out wins, as championship teams often do.

Manchester United is a good squad, and would deserve to win the league. But they are not playing like champions, and I do not believe that they are invincible.

However, Arsenal FC has overcome pressure, injures and a chaotic schedule to display the qualities of a real champion.

As much as Major League Soccer officials like to bash college soccer for not developing young talent, the biggest challenge for professional soccer to continue to grow and develop players in the United States is the establishment of a successful second division.

With the NASL and USL D2 going through his trials and tribulations to coexist, Paul Kennedy of Soccer America writes of what's left of D2 soccer in the United States.

Once the only pro game in town, second division soccer appears to be on its way out in the United States. And it's too bad. D2 leagues propped up U.S. pro soccer in the lean years after the North American Soccer League folded in 1985 and before MLS launched in 1996. Without D2 soccer, MLS wouldn't have teams in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver. But while the eight-team NASL has released its 2011 schedule, it has -- to no one's surprise -- lost its provisional sanctioning from U.S. Soccer.

From a high of 30 A-League teams in 1999, D2 soccer dropped to 11 teams in 2009, but the USL First Division collapsed in a dispute between club owners and USL's new ownership group.

U.S. Soccer stepped in to keep D2 soccer alive when it organized the D-2 Pro League in 2010. It was a one-year deal after which the 12 teams went their separate ways.

Portland and Vancouver joined MLS. AC Saint Louis, whose sister club, Saint Louis Athletica, ceased operations in the middle of the 2010 WPS season, and Crystal Palace Baltimore are gone.

That left eight teams. Six (Miami FC, Carolina, Minnesota, Montreal, Tampa Bay and Puerto Rico) joined the NASL and two (Rochester and Austin-Orlando) moved to the new USL PRO, the nucleus of which consists of D3 teams from the old USL Second Division.

With the NASL added teams in Atlanta and Edmonton to give it eight -- the minimum for D2 sanctioning -- U.S. Soccer's provision sanctioning was withdrawn because more than one team didn't meet its D2 financial requirements.

The NASL recently took control of the NSC Minnesota Stars, and the Carolina RailHawks' ownership group is in the process of being dissolved.

Without the support of Traffic Sports USA -- the subsidiary of South American soccer company Traffic USA -- the NASL would have three teams -- Montreal, Puerto Rico and Tampa Bay -- and Montreal will be gone next year when it joins MLS. (A ninth NASL team is supposed to open in 2012 in San Antonio, where USL hopes to also set up shop.)

More than 100 D2 and D3 teams have operated since the 1990s, but minor-league soccer has never succeeded as a business proposition. Unlike minor-league baseball or hockey, there aren't enough home dates in a season to bring in the revenues to make minor-league soccer go. And MLS has stayed out of the minor-league soccer business, meaning the farm-team concept that works in minor-league baseball or hockey -- with subsidies of player expenses -- has never taken off in American pro soccer.

While CEO Aaron Davidson -- Traffic Sports USA's president -- remains optimistic that the NASL will go forward in 2011, D2 soccer is certainly a concept that has lost its shine.

The courtship of Michael Bradley

Amid reports that Sunderland, Galatasaray and Palermo are courting Borussia Moenchengladbach's Michael Bradley, Mike Woitalla of Soccer America reports why Gladbach coach Michael Frontzeck benched the American after 17 straight starts.

The 23-year-old Bradley, midway through his third season at Gladbach, had been a regular starter since arriving from Dutch club Heerenveen.

He played all but 13 minutes of this season's first 17 games and scored three goals before being relegated to the bench in the last two games.

Shortly before the winter break, Frontzeck, according to
Express, changed the team’s formation and told Bradley, “I want to try something else because I don’t want people to say that I haven’t tried everything.”

Gladbach, with a 3-12-4 win-loss-tie record, is rock bottom in Germany's Bundesliga and six points deep in the relegation zone.

Bradley played only 19 minutes in a 1-0 win over FC Nuremberg and four minutes in a 3-1 loss to Bayer Leverkusen.

Express reported that Gladbach, if it secures a replacement – such as Michael Fink, a 28-year-old who played 131 Bundesliga games (12 goals) before moving to Turkey’s Besiktas -- will accept a $6.8 million offer for Bradley. Gladbach acquired Bradley from Dutch club Heerenven for about half that amount in the summer of 2008.

Galatasaray and Palermo reportedly offered $4 million for Bradley, whose contract with Gladbach expires after the 2011-12 season.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What players should know

Paul Gardner of Soccer America wrote an interesting article about the US National team's training camp leading up to their recent exhibition against Chile, and about what players should know prior to arriving to play with the national team.

Among the more curious revelations to surface during the lead up to the USA's recent game with Chile were those attributed to defender Omar Gonzalez. Talking of Bob Bradley's training sessions during the pre-game camp, Gonzalez had this to say:

“The sessions are very high-paced, and [Bradley] has been sending home messages -- movement off the ball, once you give it, you keep moving to find new angles," Gonzalez said. "And he relates a lot back to Barcelona, just watching them play, how their midfield is always moving around and they always find ways out of pressure. I think that’s been one of the main things.”

There is really nothing to disagree with in that -- after all, High pace? Movement off the ball? Using Barcelona as a model? -- it all sounds great. But at the same time it is, all of it, utterly wrong.

This is a national team camp we’re talking about. It ought to be safe to assume that the players called in by Bradley know a thing or two about playing soccer. Yet here is Gonzalez describing two things that ought already to be second-nature to these players.

Are Bradley’s sessions faster-paced than the ones that Gonzalez undergoes with Bruce Arena at the Galaxy, then? If so, why would that be? And who is getting it right? I suppose it might be argued that Bradley needs to give a quick crash course to players who probably haven’t played competitively for two or three months. But there seems to be another side to that approach -- I have heard more than one complaint from MLS coaches that their players who get called into the January camps return either injured or injury-prone.

As for that movement off the ball ... again, are these players not encouraged to do that with their clubs -- have they not been doing it for years? If they haven’t, if Bradley is really having to teach them such a fundamental, then I’d say there must be huge doubts whether they can ever be good enough to play at the international level.

A lot of what I’m querying is, of course, the standard coaching voodoo. The coach’s role is quite similar to that of the witch doctor -- in particular, the necessity that he be seen to be doing something. Anything. We now know a great deal about the witch doctor’s activities and whether they are helpful or, more likely, harmful. We know much less about the effects of a coach’s activities.

We can only base our judgments on what we see from the coach’s team in action. So, with Bradley having had the highly original idea of holding up Barcelona as a role model, what did his team look like against Chile? Did it look like Barcelona?

Not quite. (Let me make it clear -- I’m not criticizing Bradley for using Barcelona as the paradigm -- this does appear to be a massive advance from the formulaic dreariness of the Dutch, that he has so often favored in the past). That movement off the ball stuff could hardly have better demonstrators than Iniesta, Xavi, Messi & Co. -- but you can be sure that Bradley never expected instant Barca.

Bradley may have seen it otherwise, but I did not see anything particularly brilliant or alarmingly bad about his players’ off-the-ball movement during the Chile game.

There is a problem here that no amount of coaching will ever solve. In fact, it is really coaching that creates the problem in the first place. If off-the-ball movement is to work the sort of wonders that it does for Barcelona, it needs two elements.

Firstly: it needs to be intelligent movement. If it is merely movement for the sake of movement, it is not likely to accomplish too much. Intelligent movement involves timing and subtlety -- both things that coaching has never been good at eliciting from players. Because these are instinctive qualities that come into play as though a magic lantern knows just when to produce them -- they are unlikely to be summoned up by the hopelessly ponderous mental processes imparted by coaching.

Can those instincts be learned? Oh, I think so. Learned, not taught (there is a world of difference) -- but not at a national team camp. If you start at age 9 or 10 -- as the Barcelona kids do -- with the sort of thing described by Omar Gonzalez, maybe by age 12 or 13 you have what you want. Either no more learning is necessary, or you know that the learning capability just isn’t there.

Secondly: the movement has to be made meaningful by sharp, quick, super-accurate passing. Without that lovely spider’s web of passing to tie it all together, the movement means nothing. In other words, surprise, surprise, it is ultimately ball skills that matter most.

Teaching players the subtleties of accurate passing cannot be done in five minutes at a national team camp. If the players don’t have that skill when they arrive, they’re not going to have it when they leave.

As for off-the-ball movement ... if Bradley is right in his feeling that he has to be teaching something as basic as that -- which really means teaching his players how to play -- that is pretty clear evidence that he is either selecting the wrong players, or -- if he is selecting the best -- then our best are nowhere near good enough.