Wednesday, November 30, 2011

'Mid-major' not a term when it comes to college soccer

When Creighton hired Elmar Bolowich last February to be its men's soccer coach, this school of 4,000 undergraduates in Omaha, Neb., didn't just manage to land a respectable steward for its program. It basically upended the entire space-time continuum of college sports.

Not only did Bolowich win a 2001 national title, he was also the winningest men's soccer coach in the history of the school he came from. Even more surprisingly, the school he came from wasn't a small fry—it was powerhouse North Carolina.

The idea of a small school nabbing a top coach from a major sports factory would be unthinkable in most other forms of college sports. But in the context of men's soccer, the Bolowich theft was actually a bit of a yawner. "When you look at it deeply," said Charlotte soccer coach Jeremy Gunn, "it makes perfect sense."

Small schools act like big fish in soccer, winning titles, throwing around money and slapping around bigger-name schools on the pitch. More than half of the teams in this season's final top-25 poll were "mid-majors"—schools that are not members of the six major conferences. The list includes Old Dominion, Monmouth and No. 1-ranked New Mexico. The eight teams left in the NCAA tournament, who are vying this weekend for a spot in the College Cup, include Charlotte, St. Mary's and Creighton, the No. 2 seed.

Other college sports have had brushes with little-guy greatness. Boise State comes to mind in football. There's also Rice in baseball and Butler in men's basketball. But soccer is in a lilliputian class all by itself.

The sport's reigning men's champion, Akron, has had the last two winners of the Hermann Trophy—the sport's Heisman Trophy equivalent. Men's soccer was one of five Division-I sports in the 2010-2011 school year that had a champion from a small conference. The others were men's golf, men's ice hockey (which isn't played nationally), and rowing and bowling, two niche sports.

Some of these soccer mid-majors are prospering in front of crowds that would be impressive by basketball standards. In 2010, UC Santa Barbara had the country's highest attendance for the second straight year, averaging 5,873 per game. The crowd of 15,896 that saw the Gauchos beat UCLA in September 2010 was the season's biggest. "You want to be involved with a program where you're taken seriously and given the opportunity to compete at a national level," said New Mexico coach Jeremy Fishbein. "It doesn't really matter whether that's a Big Ten or ACC school—or a Missouri Valley or Big West school."

Never was that more apparent than when Bolowich left North Carolina, where he'd been coach for 22 years. In Chapel Hill, men's soccer takes a backseat in autumn to football and even women's soccer, which has 20 NCAA titles. Last year, according to government data, North Carolina spent about $75,000 in game-day expenses for men's soccer while Creighton allocated about $160,000. Other mid-majors like UCSB, Southern Methodist and the College of Charleston have ranked in the top 20 recently in soccer spending. "Football is an arms race," Bolowich said. "It's not only killing the smaller schools that do have football but it's putting a lot of pressure on the bigger schools with football programs to keep up with the Joneses."

That's not a problem at Creighton. In 2003, the school built a 6,000-seat stadium for soccer, which is the only fall game in town. "Before basketball starts, there is very little going on," Bolowich said. St. Mary's and Charlotte don't have varsity football yet, either.

College soccer still has its bluebloods. Indiana, Virginia and Maryland have dominated the College Cup, the sport's final four, in past years and Connecticut, UCLA and Louisville are in the hunt this year. Even North Carolina hasn't suffered from losing Bolowich. The Tar Heels are the tournament's top seed.

If the bracket holds, they'll face Creighton for the title.

How does MLS stack up?

How does MLS stack up against the other top leagues in the world?

This is a question that is often debated among Major League Soccer supporters and detractors, and Leander Schaerlaeckens of takes a crack at the debate. Where he finds that it doesn't necessarily hold up against the likes of the English Premier League or the German Bundesliga, it's grown steadily to reach that group below the top tier leagues in the world.

It's an oft-asked question. Just how good is Major League Soccer?

With 16 seasons in the books, the league has risen to 10th in the world in attendance for all soccer leagues, with 17,872 fans per game, recently passing the second tier of English football, the Championship (17,388). There is no argument to be had over whether MLS has gotten better. It unequivocally has. The quality of play has improved; high-quality foreign talent has started arriving; serious international prospects are steadily emerging.

But where exactly does the league rank in the hierarchy of the world's biggest leagues? I set out to answer that question.

First, I asked English Premier League veteran and recent Los Angeles Galaxy recruit Robbie Keane. "It's very different to compare this league and especially the Premiership, which is obviously the best league in the world," said the Liverpool and Tottenham veteran. "So it would be silly of me to compare the two."

"You can't compare this," echoed New York Red Bulls goalkeeper and German Bundesliga alumnus Frank Rost, before adding with a grin: "It's not good if I make a comparison."

I asked several other experienced foreign players. The answer was the same.

But if they were dodging the question, it dawned on me, they were nevertheless making a valid point: You really can't compare.

For one, MLS is a total outlier. In most leagues, clubs pay players what they can afford to pay them -- and oftentimes more -- spreading the wealth relatively evenly among the squad. In MLS, because of arrangements like the salary cap and the designated player (three of which are the only players allowed to earn over $335,000 annually on each team, counting only partially toward the salary cap), there is a wild disparity between what the best- and worst-earning players on each team earn. This distorts the talent curve.

Secondly, because there is no free agency, those homegrown players who aren't among the few designated players often earn less than they're worth while the DPs are often wildly overpaid relative to their value, further corrupting the mean. Players aren't paid their market value, because there is no market.

In their seminal book "Soccernomics," Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski prove that there is a very reliable correlation between a team's payroll and how well it places in the standings, that unequivocal measure of quality. They found that among 40 English professional clubs between 1978 and 1997, the salary expenditure explained 92 percent of the variation in league position. From 1998 to 2007, it was 89 percent. What this means is you can more or less tally what a club spends on player salaries and, by comparing it to others, rank where it ought to place in the standings at the end of the season. Logically, the same goes for leagues as a whole, given that players are free to move to the highest bidder in the rest of the soccer world. Salaries are highest in England, Spain, Italy and Germany, and therefore those are the leagues where the level of play is highest.

In MLS, which has an outlandish appetite for big foreign names but no free market, there is no correlation between expenditure and quality -- not until 2011 did a team that employed a designated player, first allowed in 2007, even win the league. This means you can't rank MLS among other leagues around the world based on the salaries paid to its players.

The band of talent is wider in MLS than in any other league that comes to mind. The difference between those making $30,000 and the ones making $6.5 million is enormous. David Beckham can still hang with the best of Europe, as he proved in two loan stints to AC Milan. So can several others. But a late-round draft pick out of a local college is lucky not to be embarrassed in MLS. And in no other league in the world is the disparity between the best and worst players so large. This is partly to blame on the lack of promotion or relegation to a second tier or easy movement of players between different American leagues, preventing the natural selection of talent. Yet at the same time, the talent difference between a player who makes $50,000 and $500,000 is often quite small, much smaller than the difference between one player and another making 10 times as much would be anywhere else in the world.

Houston Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall, who never came off the bench in two seasons at Danish club Esbjerg, exposes this in his following comment: "I think people discredit the league quite a bit," he said. "I think the Dynamo beats my Danish team more times than not." Yet why have American MLS players for years flocked to Scandinavia? Because salaries are high -- even if, according to Hall, the talent level on certain teams is lower.

Is Major League Soccer just another entity whose quirks will have to be filed away under the uniqueness of American sports? Because how do you even begin to objectively measure MLS against any other league if you can't follow the money?

Roy Rees (1937-2011)

Roy Rees coached the USA at four U-17 World Cups, from 1987 through 1993, a tenure during which the young Americans celebrated historic victories over Brazil and Italy. Rees also co-founded the Houston Texans in 1983 and helped create the Dallas Texans in 1993. He died on Saturday at age 74.

Mike Woitalla of Soccer America writes of 'one of the pioneers of the modern period of US Soccer'.

"Roy Rees was one of the pioneers of what might be called the ‘modern’ (post-1984 Olympics) period of U.S. Soccer,” said U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. “He was a terrific leader of our U-17 national team program for many years in taking the team to four FIFA World Cups. He was, at heart, very much a teacher.

“My first trips with U.S. national teams were with Roy in Honduras and I well remember his capable guidance of that team. He had a great sense of humor and I enjoyed working with and learning from him."

Rees, who was born on New Year's Day 1937 in South Wales, coached lower division teams in England, coached Britain’s University Games team, and served as an English FA staff coach for two decades. He came to the USA in the early 1980s to give soccer clinics sponsored by Umbro, and eventually settled in Texas, where he co-founded the Houston Texans, from which spawned the Dallas Texans.

At his second U-17 World Cup with the USA, the Americans beat Brazil for the first time in history.

“The United States deserved to win today,” Brazil’s coach Homero Cavalheiro said after the game. “They were better as a team; they were better individually.”

Rees’ 1989 team included Claudio Reyna, who would go on to represent the USA at four senior World Cups, captaining the 2002 and 2006 teams. Reyna is currently U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Director. Also on the 1989 team was current UCLA coach, Jorge Salcedo.

Rees’ squad at the 1991 U-17 World Cup that defeated host Italy included Albertin Montoya, coach of the 2010 WPS champion Gold Pride and currently coach of the U.S. U-17 girls national team.

Mike Burns and John O'Brien, who played for Rees in the 1987 and 1993 tournaments, went on to star for the full national team.

After his stint as U.S. U-17 coach, Rees continued to serve as a U.S Soccer coaching instructor through 1997 and before his retirement directed youth clubs in Oklahoma (Tulsa Thunder) and Southern California (Southwest SC and Santa Anita). He was a board member of U.S. Club Soccer when it was founded in 2001.

“He was a good soccer man,” said Gulati.

Roy Rees is survived by his wife, Ann, his sons Stephen and Philip, and his daughter Sian.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Can Heading Lead To Brain Damage?

Regularly heading a soccer ball—even just a few times a day—can lead to brain injury, according to a recent study.

Researchers used an advanced MRI-based imaging technique to scan the brains of 38 amateur soccer players then compared the images to the number of times they headed the ball during the past year.

Players who frequently headed the ball showed brain injuries similar to those seen in patients with concussions, with researchers from New York's Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center reporting "significant injury" in those players who exceeded 1,000 to 1,500 headers per year.

"While heading a ball 1,000 or 1,500 times a year may seem high to those who don't participate in the sport, it only amounts to a few times a day for a regular player," lead author Michael Lipton said.

"Heading a soccer ball is not an impact of a magnitude that will lacerate nerve fibers in the brain," he added. "But repetitive heading may set off a cascade of responses that can lead to degeneration of brain cells."

Researchers identified five areas of the brain—responsible for attention, memory and visual functions—that were affected by heading, according to results announced at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, in Chicago.

In a related study, researchers found that players who headed a ball most frequently performed worse on tests of verbal memory and psychomotor speed, a measure of hand-eye coordination.

"These two studies present compelling evidence that brain injury and cognitive impairment can result from heading a soccer ball with high frequency," Lipton said.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Wales aim to build a winning "Manchester United-style" dynasty in rugby

WARREN GATLAND’S Wales are looking to create a Manchester United-type youth dynasty which ensures the Dragons remain at the top of world rugby for years to come.

Gatland’s bold decision to go with young guns at the World Cup reaped rich rewards, with Wales reaching the last four and leading pundits across the globe predicting a golden future for Sam Warburton, George North, Toby Faletau, Rhys Priestland and Lloyd Williams.

The Welsh coach’s gamble with teenagers and early TwentySomethings mirrored what Sir Alex Ferguson did with Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt during the 1990s.

The emergence of those Fergie fledglings, given their chance ahead of more seasoned old hands, has been the bedrock behind Manchester United’s domination of British football for the past two decades.

The Old Trafford youth academy, given a boost by the emergence of superstars such as Beckham and Giggs, continues to throw up a conveyor belt of young talent with Tom Cleverly and Danny Welbeck the most recent to get their first team chance.

And Wales are adamant the WRU National Academy system which has been put in place will guarantee a similar glut of talent pushing through behind the current golden generation being moulded by Gatland.

More than two thirds of Gatland’s World Cup squad in New Zealand came through the Wales youth ranks... including Warburton, North, Faletau, Priestland, Jamie Roberts and Leigh Halfpenny.

Others who have emerged since the 2005-06 season include Alun Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies, Andy Powell, Dan Lydiate, James Hook, Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams.

Gatland’s right-hand man and assistant coach Rob Howley says there is a succession plan being implemented which means the Welsh management should have at least four players at any given time waiting in the wings to take over from those in the starting XV.

It also means that while England and the RFU lurch from one crisis to another, the WRU believe they have put in place a rock-solid foundations which ensure Wales’ future will be bright.

“There is a natural changing of the guard at the moment after the World Cup, but we have always been firm believers in giving talented players opportunities, whatever their age,” said Howley.

RIP - Gary Speed

Gary Speed, the manager of the Welsh international soccer team and an accomplished former player, was found dead in his home on Sunday morning.

The Football Association of Wales first announced the news, with local police in Cheshire - just across the border in England - adding more details later.

"At 7.08 am this morning, Sunday 27 November, police were informed of an incident at Aldford Road, Huntingdon," a police spokesman said. "Officers went to the scene where a 42-year-old man was found dead. There are no suspicious circumstances surrounding the death and next of kin have been informed."

The spokesman also said that Speed had been found hanged.

Speed had taken over the Wales coaching job in December 2010, shortly after retiring as player and beginning a managerial career at his last club side, Sheffield United. In a playing career that spanned over two decades, Speed became Wales' most capped international outfield player, representing his country 85 times. For some time Speed held the record for the most club appearances in England's top flight, the Premiership, competing in a staggering 535 matches in the country's top division.

"We extend our sympathies and condolences to the family," the Football Association of Wales said in a statement. "We ask that everyone respects the family's privacy at this very sad time."

Speed played with five major clubs in his lengthy career, competing in almost 250 matches for Leeds United and over 200 games in the black and white stripes of Newcastle United. He laid his stamp on many corners of the country, and tributes poured in on Sunday.

"The world has lost a great man in Gary Speed. I am devastated. Spoke to him yesterday morning. Why why? I will miss him so much," Speed's former Wales team mate Robbie Savage wrote on Twitter. "He was upbeat on the phone, yesterday we were laughing together, talking football and dancing. He was a great team mate and a great friend. RIP."

"Just cannot believe the news regarding Gary Speed. We waved at each other a couple of days ago dropping our kids off at school. I'm numb," Manchester United forward Michael Owen, also a Cheshire resident, said. "He has died aged 42. So sad. He lived local to me and we knew his family. He leaves behind two sons. Tragic."

The Wales coach and former captain's apparent suicide came barely a week after German Bundesliga referee Babak Rafati sought to take his own life; he was found in his Cologne hotel room and saved. Hamburg and Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke committed suicide in November 2009.

Hours before Speed took his life, retired professional footballer Stan Collymore wrote a series of Tweets and then a blog post exploring his own experiences with depression and the symptoms he faced over the past 10 years. The player turned radio pundit candidly described his own recent, sudden slide into a more depressive state, calling the sudden dip in morale a "thud."

"If you're struggling, please go and see your doctor, KNOW there's support there, know there's many going through what you're going through," Collymore wrote on Friday.

As well as a league title, Speed twice picked up FA Cup runners' up medals while playing for Newcastle, and was named a Member of the British Empire (MBE) by Queen Elizabeth II in 2010 for services to football.

Sunday's fixture between Swansea City - the only Welsh club in England's Premiership - and Aston Villa went ahead as scheduled.

Organizers, who had considered calling off the match, decided to honor one minute's silence before the kick-off, but this silence was broken by rousing chants from the fans, who instead sang: "There's only one Gary Speed."

Monday, November 21, 2011

Standards for professionalism among NFL coaches

NFL coaches have been under the microscope this season, and most of the attention has been drawn to their attitude and demeanor - both with their players, their own coaching staffs, and their peers.

NFL coaches are supposed to be leaders of men. They demand accountability, professionalism and, perhaps most of all, composure from their players. But at an almost comical rate this season, coaches are embarrassing themselves by losing their cool and by being swept up in the moment.

Maybe it is the pressure to succeed in an industry where a coach's shelf life is inextricably linked to his win-loss record. Maybe it is the stress of being the man essentially responsible for, in many cases, a billion-dollar company. Maybe it is the singular focus and the interminable hours, away from family and friends and perspective, searching for the slightest advantage that will expose an opponent's weakness.

Maybe it is the brutality of the sport, or the competition, or the spotlight, or the wealth and fame, or the attention and status.

There can be a thousand reasons, or maybe it is this one: It is just old-fashioned machismo, fueled by an abundance of testosterone and adrenaline.

There is coach-on-coach crime, there is coach-on-player crime, and there is my personal favorite -- coach-on-media crime -- but there is no more walking softly and carrying a big stick. There is very little winning graciously. The new normal, apparently, is coaches screaming loudly and petulantly.

Think about it. In what other industry would the CEO of one company try to chase down and confront the CEO of another company because of an overzealous handshake and slap on the back at the conclusion of a deal? Or the CEO of a company telling another company, in clear earshot of others, to do something derogatory while the other CEO tells a bystander to "go f--- yourself?"

Dick Vermeil used to get choked up in postgame press conferences. Now some coaches pound their chests, scream, vent and act like spoiled prima donnas.

It is absurd that Jim Schwartz couldn't control his emotions better after San Francisco ended his Detroit Lions' perfect season last month, and, for that matter, that Jim Harbaugh couldn't be a better winner. After Schwartz chased down Harbaugh after the game, trying to fight Harbaugh for slapping his back too hard and allegedly uttering an obscenity, Harbaugh essentially laughed at Schwartz, as if Schwartz were some scrawny kid who was pouting after losing a game against his big brother.

Then there was the semiannual dustup that has become commonplace in the Jets-Patriots rivalry. The hostility between Rex Ryan and Bill Belichick reached a crescendo in Week 10, after the Patriots thumped the Jets 37-16. According to the New York Post, on the field after the game Belichick hugged his son, Stephen, and said, "Thirty-seven points on the best defense in the league ... " and then Belichick had a colorful suggestion for what the Jets could do.

"It's something I'll bring up to him after we beat them in the playoffs once again this year," Ryan said Monday.

Not that Ryan handled himself any better. At halftime, he called out his quarterback, Mark Sanchez, to Michele Tafoya on national television no less, for making "the stupidest play in NFL history." Sanchez called a timeout with 17 seconds on the play clock late in the second quarter, essentially giving the Patriots enough time to then drive down the field for a go-ahead touchdown.

Ryan was so bent that, as he walked off the field at halftime, he told a heckling fan to "go f--- yourself." As of late Thursday, one video of Ryan mouthing off had gotten more than 40,000 hits on YouTube.

"You know, this is who I am," Ryan said Monday, according to the Post. "You know, I made a mistake. You know ... I'm about as big a competitor as there is, and at that time, I was in no mood to hear anything. But I also understand that, you know, I have to handle that, you know, better."

Ryan also apologized for what he said about Sanchez, but the damage was done.

On the sideline during a Chiefs game earlier this season, Todd Haley got into a shouting match with his quarterback, Matt Cassel, that became so heated Le'Ron McClain had to separate them. Kansas City won the game, beating Minnesota for its first victory of the season, and Cassel said Haley's outburst motivated him to play better, but the image of Haley screaming at Cassel was indelible.

There is supposed to be the realization, particularly for the men in charge, that an NFL season is a marathon and not a ride on an emotional roller coaster. There is also, as Schwartz noted following his dustup with Harbaugh, supposed to be "a protocol that goes with this league." Coaches shouldn't call out players publicly, or run up the score, or swear at fans or each other.
Players get fined for everything from hitting too hard to wearing the wrong color cleats. The men who lead them should be setting an example about how to be a professional, not being an exception to the rule.

Could Norman Dale coach?

If you are a movies junkie like I am, you'll definitely appreciate this piece in ESPN by Barry Locke, who analyzes the coaching of Norman Dale in "Hoosiers". Enjoy.

It's been 25 years since "Hoosiers" immortalized the legend of Hickory High, the small school that beats long odds to make underdog history by winning the Indiana state basketball championship. Yes, it's been a generation since we were inspired by the story of a coach seeking redemption, a team coming together and a town being transformed in one of the greatest sports films ever made.

But every time I watch the movie -- and who hasn't seen it at least five times -- I come to the same conclusion:

Norman Dale can't coach.

There, I said it. The Wizard of Hickory High, at least as he was shown in the film, manages a game about as well as Shooter manages his booze. Sure, Dale took an undermanned, undersized, undisciplined group of farm boys all the way to the state title. But watch closely. Time and again, they won in spite of their coach.

Don't get me wrong. Norman Dale is a great teacher of fundamentals. Just watch Gene Hackman snap off one perfect chest pass after another, all the while imploring the boys to "pop it, pop it." He's a brilliant psychologist. Having his players measure the height of the basket and the distance to the free-throw line before the state final is genius. You can even say he's a strong leader, if you think running off two players in the first minute of your first practice is the way to establish authority. (I prefer the longer-view approach of Herman Boone in "Remember the Titans," when he quietly asks Gerry Bertier, "You know who your daddy is, doncha?")

But put Coach Dale on the bench, with folks in the stands and pressure in the air, and he crumbles.

Take Hickory's first road game of the season, a tough, physical battle where emotions are running high. Classic Norm. Instead of being the calming influence his team needs, he instigates a brawl by dressing down the referee, taunting the opposing coach and slapping -- yes, slapping -- the hand of a kid on the other team.

Remember, this is a coach with a history of assault, having punched one of his own players at Ithaca College and receiving a lifetime ban for it. Luckily for Dale, the Internet didn't exist in 1951, and only one person in town -- Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey) -- knows how to look up information in a library.

Luckily still, cranky Myra turns out to be a little bit human by not revealing Dale's past, thereby saving the coach his job. (Actually, Jimmy Chitwood saves it with his "I play, Coach stays" edict.) Music up. The Huskers shift into high gear.

Here's the funny thing. The better the team gets, the worse Dale coaches.

Jump ahead to the sectional final against Terhune. Shooter's road to redemption takes a drunken detour into the middle of the court, stopping play. It's OK, Norm tells the referee, he's an assistant coach. Oops. Expecting compassion, Dale instead draws a technical foul. Today, it seems like every coaching staff has one assistant devoted to keeping bench players -- and other assistant coaches -- off the court during play. With no such luxury, Dale still should have known better.

Nevertheless, Hickory advances to the regional final versus Linton, where Everett's shoulder injury -- the result of another on-court fight on Dale's watch -- forces him out of the game. Dale inserts Strap with instructions not to shoot unless he's under the basket all alone. Luckily, Strap doesn't listen and, scoring from all over the court, he has the game of his life and pushes Hickory into a comfortable lead.

Yet there's still work to do, and when Dale is forced to put in team manager/bench warmer Ollie, there's no instructions or strategy to keep the ball out of the little man's hands. Quickly, the lead evaporates. Yet Dale fails to call a timeout in the closing seconds, resulting in Ollie's frantic, falling-out-of-bounds shot with three seconds left.

But it's a charmed life these Huskers are leading, as Ollie is fouled on the shot. Under strict orders from his coach -- Dale prepares his team for no other possibility -- Ollie makes two free throws to win the game and send Hickory to the state final.

If Indianapolis is Dale's final exam, he fails miserably. When Hickory quickly falls behind against South Bend Central, and Dale is left searching for a game plan, it's left to one of the players to deliver. That's right, Merle points out the obvious -- that "Jimmy can take the guy that's guarding him if we set him up." And that's what happens, with Hickory battling back to tie the game and holding the ball for one last shot.

It's also one last shot for Dale to get it right. And what does he do? He tries to revive Shooter's picket fence play for Merle, using Jimmy as a decoy. You're left wanting to reach through the screen and grab Dale by his lapels and scream, "Norm, haven't you been paying attention to this movie? Jimmy is the best shooter in the state. You're going to use him as a decoy? Are you nuts?"

Sanity prevails only after the team is left speechless, and Jimmy calmly tells his coach what everyone already knows: "I'll make it." He does, completing the miraculous march to the state title and perceived redemption for Dale.

After the celebration, we're left reflecting on a championship team photo as Coach Dale's words echo through the Hickory gymnasium and history. He says, simply, "I love you guys."

He ought to. They sure made him look good.

Heart Rate Monitors Fine-Tune Players’ Fitness

Jere Longman writes of how the use of heart rate monitors can enhance a player and team's training to make their fitness as game-like as possible.

As soccer practice began one recent afternoon, each University of Connecticut player grabbed a puck before he kicked a ball. The puck was a small rectangular transmitter that attached to a chest strap and was worn beneath the players’ jerseys.

On the sideline, a wireless receiver sat next to a laptop computer. As the Huskies performed their drills, heart rate data for each player appeared on the computer screen in real time, both in block numerals, as if on a gas pump, and in the wavy, crayon-colored lines of a collective stress test.

For nearly a decade, UConn, a perennial power, has been at the forefront of using heart rate monitors in N.C.A.A. soccer in an increasingly sophisticated attempt to gauge the intensity of training and create optimal conditioning for its players.

Coaches estimate that 10 percent to 30 percent of college soccer teams use similar technology to customize workouts, help plan their lineups and substitution patterns, and rethink the hoary tenet that harder training is always the best training.

The aim is to calculate precisely that players are giving the desired effort during workouts and, just as important, to prevent them from overtraining and to limit their susceptibility to soft-tissue injuries that can arise from fatigue.

“Soccer is a great game, but there is very little science to it,” said Chris Watkins, the soccer coach at Brigham Young University, which has used heart rate monitors for two seasons. “If you can find science, it gives players an advantage. We’re much smarter in our training now. Fitness is not an issue. We know exactly how to address it.”

NCAA puts college soccer under siege

American college soccer is currently under siege, and from it's governing body, the NCAA.

L.E. Eisenmenger goes into depth about the challenges presented to College Soccer, which will impact soccer at all levels in the United States if these potential changes are passed.

The United States college soccer program stands in jeopardy right now as the NCAA moves to eliminate Division 1 non-championship season competition (spring games) and beyond that, reduce overall competition by 10%.

All NCAA Division 1 sports face a 10% reduction in competition, but the sports targeted for major cuts through elimination of spring competition are soccer, volleyball, women’s lacrosse, field hockey, softball and cross country. Division 1 football, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, and men’s lacrosse would not be affected by the elimination of non-championship season competition. Nor would Division 2, Division 3 and NAIA schools be affected.

Non-championship season competition refers to non-countable games, basically springtime development games. All of the extended football, baseball and basketball season is constituted as regular season competition and counts on their record. Soccer already has one of the shortest competitive seasons in the NCAA and by eliminating the developmental games, the NCAA further marginalizes the sport.

Should the NCAA Resource Allocation Work Group recommendation become binding, spring competition in Division 1 soccer could cease as early as spring 2012 and the soccer playing careers of currently enrolled student athletes might suddenly be derailed. College soccer coaches have voiced almost unanimous opposition to the recommendation and of a survey sent to 12,500 Division 1 men’s and women’s soccer players, 10,284 responded with 93% strongly opposing the elimination of the non-championship season. Also, if spring competition is eliminated, top Division 1 soccer coaches might consider their hard work undermined and leave the college game.

Misdirected academic concerns

The initiative for this proposal appears to come from college faculty looking to cut costs and redirect student focus on academics.

“Many faculty think that athletics are over-emphasized, over-funded and it’s at the expense of the concentration being focused on academics,” said Rob Kehoe, Director of College Programs for National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA). “But if it’s about academic performance, why would you be targeting these sports?

There’s nobody on college campuses from the president on down who are complaining about the academic performance of soccer teams, volleyball teams, women’s lacrosse teams, softball teams, cross country runners or field hockey players. In terms of academic performance, statistically, these are some of the top performing students on top performing teams in the country and it’s well known that the students on these teams perform above national average of the student body.

These are not the sports where you’re concerned with graduation rates or grade point averages.”

Spring competition essential to soccer development

Around the world, soccer development is a year-round process and U.S. college coaches have been looking to increase the overall number of games to better prepare college players to compete on a professional level and in international competition. But the elimination of spring competition would likely drive top players out of college and into alternative programs and low-level professional contracts. Where MLS Academies and Homegrown player contracts are excellent options for students not aspiring for a college career, top-level Division 1 programs provide ambitious students with the option of pursuing quality education and a sport and provide MLS with fresh talent via the annual MLS SuperDraft.

If Division 1 soccer development is compromised by the removal of spring competition, young soccer players have to make a critical choice at a younger age. But with professional playing opportunities few and far between, after a few years on the pro track, former student athletes opting out of college might realize first team playing spots are out of reach and also find themselves without a college degree or career path. On the other hand, top soccer talent might choose the college route and be excluded from the professional game due to inferior development.

Division 1 soccer programs are only allowed to award minimal scholarships. For men, there are 9.9 scholarships and for women, 14 scholarships. Typically, many are spread throughout the team via partial scholarships to provide athletic financial aid to more players.

But most soccer players are not on athletic scholarships nor on the first string, so these players depend heavily on spring competition for playing time and a chance to advance in the squad. While under the recommendations practices would be permitted, there would be no more games, which provide those players a way to advance in the squad.

“In the fall a college soccer team plays 14-16 players in the course of a game and with roster sizes between 25-30 players, most of the players play little or no time,” said Kehoe. “The training and competition in the spring gives opportunity for the players who have played little or no time to get some game time, not only for development purposes, but also to have coaches observe them in competitive game situations to provide assessment towards the fall season.

Many players make their mark in the spring and establish a line-up or rotation position for the fall because that is the stage of the season where the formation of the new team for the new season is developed.”

NCAA decision is imminent

Elimination of non-championship season competition has been proposed and defeated in NCAA legislative process in the previous two years, but pressure to pass it has intensified. The 2011 proposal was, in fact, already recommended but after opposition from soccer, softball, volleyball and other impacted athletic organizations, on November 4, the Resource Allocation Work Group agreed to review it in the coming days.

[These work groups, assembled through new NCAA president Mark Emmert, are comprised of representatives from conferences, schools (typically presidents from schools), some athletic directors, some sport association representatives, and some student athletes.]

“Our assumption is they’re preparing recommendations in advance of the NCAA convention on January 11-15,” said Kehoe. “The expectation is that the workgroup recommendation will be discussed and decisions will be made on them by the Board of Directors in conjunction with the NCAA convention.”

Competition alternatives would test NCAA

It’s logical that if Division 1 soccer was compromised in this way and spring competition eliminated, those affected soccer players would be afforded alternative ways to train and compete through relaxation of certain NCAA regulations, but no such provisions were included in the proposal.

“At this point, the NCAA legislation prevents that, but that’s one of the statements we put in our position statement that was sent to the resource allocation work group – a point on demand to play,” said Kehoe. “With aspirations, college players are probably going to demand the opportunity to play. Either from the professional aspiration level or in preparation for the fall season of competition in college, they want to play, they want to compete because they want to be prepared to achieve.

I would assume that would be the next thing, alternative sources for training and competition, which would be opening a whole new avenue of discussion with the NCAA.”

If this recommendation is approved, Kehoe said, “It is likely that there would be movement toward that end.” However, although the recommendation could eliminate 2012 spring competition, it would take till April 2013 to get action on a proposal for alternative training and competition.

“It would have to go through the next legislative process and the next legislative cycle begins the following August,” said Kehoe. “Proposals are submitted in the summer and the proposals are made public in the middle of August. Then they go through a whole decision-making process, discussions and reviews. Then there’s a first vote on legislative proposals at the NCAA convention in January, then there’s a period where people can comment and suggest overriding legislative decisions and then there’s a final vote in April.

So April 2013 would probably be the earliest if there was an alternate opportunity to fill the competition gap.”

US Soccer: two steps forward, one step back

Overall, the recommendation appears a misguided attempt to improve academic performance by targeting the wrong sports, sports with academically high-performing students instead of sports like football and basketball, which have a long history of academic violations. Reduced training will limit Division 1 soccer players’ ability to play the pro game and discourage good players and students from attending college, which allows them to contribute to society after their playing career is over. Beyond that, players with already high grades might find themselves with more free time than they’re accustomed to.

“If you have players that have eight months without competition opportunities, what happens to their discipline?” said Kehoe. “In a campus situation, they’re going to be bored and involved with the scourge of the college campus, which is substance abuse and relationship abuse issues. The sport serves as a deterrent from being involved in things that are irresponsible, illegal activities that are very prevalent on college campuses.

“These kids aren’t going to go to the library more. Why would they? They already have good grades.”

For more about the crisis in college soccer, complete with interviews with the United States’ top Division 1 coaches, read the ultimate analysis, College Soccer at the Crossroads.

Resource Allocation Work Group proposal

Post-Presidential Retreat Updates
November 11, 2011

NOTE: For the working groups other than Resource Allocation, the October 28 update document remains current. We intend to send an update next week as well, following the November 16 meeting of the Collegiate Model: Enforcement Working Group.

Resource Allocation Working Group

Presentation to Board: January 2012
Chair: Michael Adams, President
University of Georgia

Vice Chair: Ann Millner, President
Weber State University


The Resource Allocation Working Group held a teleconference on November 4, 2011. The next teleconference has not been scheduled as of this time.


The Resource Allocation Working Group held a teleconference on November 4 to review draft recommendations regarding the minimum number of sports required for Division I membership and limitations on non-coaching personnel; the group also discussed revisiting recommendations that have been made to date. The working group:

1. Decided to revisit approved proposals to verify that the recommendations correlate with the enduring values that include: academic and athletic student-athlete success; the collegiate model; amateurism; and competitive equity among institutions of similar commitment to collegiate athletics. The approved proposals to be revisited are:

a. Elimination of non-championship segment competition. The sports with non-championship segment competition are cross country, field hockey, soccer, softball, lacrosse and volleyball.

b. A 10 percent reduction in regular-season competition for all sports. Note: if the Division I Board passes the elimination of non-championship segment competition, credit would be given for non-championship reductions.

c. Eliminating all foreign travel.

d. Reduction of:

1.FBS football scholarships from 85 to 80.
2.FCS football scholarships from 63 to 60, with 80 overall counters.
3.Men's basketball scholarships from 13-12.
4.These scholarships would be apportioned to other women's sports.
5.In addition, the working group requests that the Committee on Academic Performance (CAP) consider incentives that would allow institutions above a certain APR score to maintain FBS football scholarships at 85, FCS scholarships at 63 (with 85 overall counters), men's basketball scholarships at 13 and women's basketball scholarships at 15.
2. Reviewed proposals regarding limitations on non-coaching personnel. Five proposals related to limitations on non-coaching personnel were discussed. The working group supported a proposal from the Division I-A Athletic Directors Association, which provided for maximum allowable non-coaching personnel for FBS football and men's basketball. The working group directed NCAA staff to work with the DI-A Athletic Directors Association to refine the proposal and to work with FCS institutions to develop a proposal for non-coaching personnel for FCS football.

3. Proposals for a change to the minimum number of sports required for Division I membership were on the agenda, but were not discussed. This agenda item will carry forward to the next meeting.

MLS Cup 2011: Los Angeles Galaxy take home the Cup

A substitution and tactical shift garnered much of the credit for the breakthrough goal scored by Landon Donovan in the 72nd minute by which Los Angeles downed Houston, 1-0, Sunday night in the MLS championship game.

Ridge Mahoney of Soccer America offers a recap of the 2011 MLS Cup.

Midfielder Chris Birchall replaced forward Adam Cristman in the 57th minute, with Birchall taking over at right mid for Landon Donovan, who moved up top alongside Robbie Keane. Los Angeles broke open the goalless game when Keane collected a ball from David Beckham and evaded a tackle to slip through a pass Donovan knocked home for his league record 20th playoff goal and fourth in an MLS Cup final.

Yet the vital difference on that play, and for much of the game, stemmed from the simple fact the Galaxy impact players did their job, and seldom did their counterparts on the Dynamo match their performance.

GALAXY OVERCOMES MISSES. Cristman, paired up top with Keane, failed to convert three good chances; he drove two headers wide and wasted another opportunity when he tried to trap an inviting cross instead of hitting it first-time, and slipped trying to shoot. But despite his misses and those of others, the Galaxy dominated play for most of the 90 minutes through the interplay of Keane, Beckham and Donovan, supplemented by heady midfield play from Juninho and very solid defending.

The Dynamo fended off numerous attacks and stayed in the game by some dogged tackling and the Galaxy’s poor finishing. Houston’s attack, missing playmaker Brad Davis, worked the flanks to good effect at times yet seldom set up a clear opportunity that forwards Brian Ching and Calen Carr could direct on goal.

Corey Ashe ranged up the left side from his midfield position and right mid Danny Cruz did the same; Ashe’s crosses were expertly handled by right back Sean Franklin or centerback Omar Gonzalez, and aside from one slashing dribble and shot late in the first half, Cruz wasn’t much of a factor.

DYNAMO NEVER THREATENS. In the postgame comments, Galaxy players credited coach Bruce Arena’s move as the deciding factor. A few minutes before Donovan scored, a very close offside decision nullified a goal by Keane, who had early in the second half fired a shot narrowly wide.

Before and after the switch, the Galaxy controlled most of the play, and though a team as dangerous on set plays as Houston can’t be counted out if the score is close, only one team looked likely to score. Eventually, thanks to its major players, it did.

Nov. 20 in Carson, Calif.
Los Angeles 1 Houston 0. Goal: Donovan (Keane, Beckham) 72.
Los Angeles -- Saunders, Franklin, DelaGarza, Gonzalez, Dunivant, Juninho, Beckham, Donovan, Magee, Keane, Cristman (Birchall, 57).
Houston -- Hall, Hainault, Boswell, Cameron, Taylor, Cruz (Clark, 78), Camargo, Moffat, Ashe (Watson, 84), Ching, Carr (Costly, 65).
Referee: Alberto Salazar.
Att.: 30,281.

"David is a champion. I've been around great athletes and competitors in my life, and this guy is as good as it comes. Unbelievable desire to win. He's a great teammate, a great person. He's done it all in every country he's been in. What more can you say about a guy like this and what he's brought to this organization and this league in five years? He gutted it out tonight. He obviously wanted to be there."

-- Los Angeles Galaxy coach Bruce Arena on David Beckham after the Galaxy won the 2011 MLS title with a 1-0 win over the Houston Dynamo.

Masur has built a soccer dynasty at St. John's

Dave Masur has transformed St. John's University soccer into a national powerhouse over the past 20 years, and his Red Storm advanced into the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2011.

When Dave Masur arrived on the St. John’s campus in 1991. Lou Carnesecca was still the school’s basketball coach, the school’s nickname was the Redmen and the soccer program was nothing more than a bad joke.

A successful season, in fact, was defined by how many matches Looie would attend, which weren’t many.

“There was no history,” Masur says. “But I thought St. Johns was a diamond in the rough. For one, you’re in the Big East. I thought that St. John’s had enough going for it that we could do really good things.”

Fast forward 21 seasons and it is the men’s soccer team that has evolved into the gold standard for the Red Storm’s intercollegiate sports teams, while Masur is now the tenured coaching legend on campus.

Masur’s 10th-ranked club plays host to 29th-ranked Brown University in a second-round NCAA Tournament game at 5 p.m. Sunday at Belson Stadium on the Queens campus in Jamaica. It is the Red Storm’s 18th appearance in the tournament under Masur, who has built a national power in Queens.

The numbers are staggering: one College Cup title, four Finals Fours, two national coach of the year awards and 304 wins overall and counting. The program has come a long way since Masur took over as a part-time coach with a shoestring recruiting budget and poor facilities. The best thing the program had going for it was Masurs vision and work ethic.

“St. John’s has been a special place for me and my family for 21 years, said Masur, who holds a doctorate in education administration supervision from the same university he coaches. “This has been a special place for me and my family for 21 years. It’s given me the opportunity to teach, grow as a coach, learn and make an impact in kids’ lives.”

The Red Storm added more silverware last Sunday when Jack Bennett’s golden goal in the first overtime against UConn gave St. John’s its ninth Big East championship and improved its overall record to 14-6-2.

Under Masur, St. Johns is accustomed to playing soccer late into November, but the coach still says the experience is “nervewracking,” adding that “there’s always something to worry about.”

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Barrieu takes post in Middle East

Frenchman Pierre Barrieu, who served as fitness coach on the last three U.S. World Cup teams, has taken a post as head fitness coach and assistant coach with the United Arab Emirates' national team.

Barrieu, who relocated with his family to Dubai in September, was out of a job when Jurgen Klinsmann took over as U.S. national team coach in August, replacing Bob Bradley.

Barrieu originally came to the United States from France when his wife, Florence, a software engineer, was offered a position in the United States. Pierre had been a professional team handball player, soccer coach and university instructor.

The Barrieus moved to Charlottesville, Va., where Pierre hooked up with the University of Virginia soccer coach George Gelnovatch, who played for Bruce Arena, his predecessor as head coach.

Arena was at the time head coach of the national team, and Barrieu soon began helping the team with its fitness work. Barrieu's work was credited with the USA's excellent fitness at the 2002 World Cup, where it reached the quarterfinals.

Barrieu also worked with the 2006 and 2010 World Cup teams. Other assistants from the 2010 team who have moved on include Jesse Marsch and Mike Sorber, who are now the head coach and assistant coach with the MLS expansion team in Montreal.

Porter wears multiple hats for Akron, US Soccer

Akron's Caleb Porter was named head coach of the United States under-23 men's national team, which will try to qualify this spring for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

"It's a challenge, because I've had to shift gears and focus on two teams," he said. "There's a lot that goes into this if you're doing it right. You're thinking about all the little details. There's a method, a plan.

"But it's worked because USA Soccer is letting me focus now on Akron. Once the season's done, I will put both feet in with the U.S. team. I have a really good staff here at Akron; I would not be able to do it without them. And fortunately, I have a wife who understands my obsession. She knew what she was getting herself into. It's not a 9-to-5 thing. It's a live-eat-breathe-sleep-it thing."

Clavijo, Nicol heap praise

The list continues to grow of former coaches and teammates who heap praise on the new coach of the New England Revolution, Jay Heaps.

Frank Dell'Apa of the Boston Globe speaks to former New England coaches Fernando Clavijo and Steve Nicol about their protege turn manager.

“It’s a bold move, isn’t it?’’ Nicol said yesterday. “Obviously, I hope he does well. If attitude and commitment and hard work are involved in doing well, you know he’ll do well.’’

Clavijo brought Heaps to the Revolution by trading Brian Dunseth to the Miami Fusion midway through the 2001 season. Heaps soon earned a starting role and became a driving force as the Revolution advanced to four MLS Cup finals, two US Open Cup finals, and won a SuperLiga title.

“I think he will do well,’’ Clavijo said. “He has no experience, not even as an assistant coach, but he has the profile, he is mature, and, hopefully, they let him get his own people, his own staff. He will need somebody with experience.

“If you look at New England, they have had a lot of good players, but not as many today. He can be a great coach, but if he does not have the resources, they are not going to get better.’’

Both Clavijo and Nicol were impressed with Heaps’s attitude as a player.

“He always liked to study the game and he was not the guy who just followed along,’’ Clavijo said. “He was always ahead of the group, the player rep, he was always there and always wanted more than just, ‘Yes sir.’ ’’

Heaps was among the first pieces in Clavijo’s plan to rejuvenate the Revolution.

“First of all, I saw he was a competitor, I saw how competitive he was in Miami,’’ said Clavijo, now technical director for the NASL’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers. “He could play in different positions. He didn’t have the size for central defender but he had incredible jumping ability. More than anything else, he grows on you as a player.

“We had a lot of older players but we had some draft picks and we made changes and made a quick turnaround the first year, and also regenerated the roster. It’s going to be hard to do that now with how tight the salary cap is.

“I took a chance on Shalrie Joseph, we got Taylor Twellman in the draft, took Steve Ralston when some people wanted me to take Chris Henderson. Where do you get those players now? They are going to need some players who can change a game, and those are going to cost you money.’’

Heaps started as a winger with the Revolution, but Nicol moved him to right back and also used him as a central defender in emergencies.

“His desire to win, that in a defender is huge,’’ Nicol said. “A defender who cares about not getting beaten by his opponent is a huge step in the right direction.

“He played injured. You used to have to tie him to a chair in the dressing room if you wanted to stop him getting on the field.

“He’s a guy who would do anything to win, and that’s certainly what you need to coach. You need that desire and to be able to find a way of making it happen. That desire, it’s huge, and it’s infectious, and everyone feeds off that.

“But we all need somebody beside us who is the mixture of a lot of things - a calming influence, a cool head, and someone who knows the game. It’s important that whoever he gets beside him [as an assistant] is the right person for him, the two of them fit in well.’’

Nicol coached at Notts County before moving to the US as player-coach for the Boston Bulldogs in 1999. He turned down an offer from the Revolution because he was not versed in the rules of Major League Soccer.

“Initially, I didn’t know enough about MLS players and how the system worked,’’ Nicol said. “But [Heaps] knows a good part of it. I’m sure now he’s on the other side of the fence, a lot of things will make sense to him now that didn’t when he was a player.’’

Heaps has been working as the Revolution’s color commentator for the last two years, using the position partly as preparation for a coaching role.

“He has been looking at the game every day, but you get a completely different view of the game as a reporter or as a fan,’’ Clavijo said. “You might know what the problems are but maybe you can’t find a solution. You might want to try to change everything but sometimes you can’t.

“But one thing he has is passion for the game. He is not going to be sitting down on the bench - he was always fighting for 90 minutes and he is going to bring that to the team.’’

Fiery Heaps Leads Revs

Jay Heaps has always been known as a fiery competitor as a player during his professional and collegiate career, and know has the opportunity to translate that as the new coach with the New England Revolution.

"When Michael and I were putting our list together, we knew that Jay was going to be one of the candidates," Revolution president Brian Bilello said. "We were confident that he had the makeup to be a great coach."

Even though Heaps' résumé lacks any MLS coaching experience, Bilello and general manager Michael Burns knew what to expect from him.

As a player, Heaps was known for his tenacity, leadership, and cerebral approach to the game during his 11-year career. But even without the vast coaching experience that so many clubs crave when making a managerial change, Heaps was the one to steer the team in the right direction, the Revolution braintrust believed.

"In our discussions with Jay, it became clear to us that he was ready to step in immediately and take the role," Bilello said. "Not only was he ready, but he was our top choice."

It would have been easy to go with a candidate who had a proven track record. But that's not the path Bilello and Burns wanted to pursue.

Instead, they were looking for someone to challenge the attitude of a club that needed a jolt of fresh energy,

"He is a tremendous leader and motivator," Bilello said. "He has a keen knowledge of what we need to do and what we need to excel at."

That, perhaps more than anything else, is what appealed to the Revolution -- Heaps' ability to diagnose a problem and offer solutions.

One of those problems, in Heaps' view, is that the Revolution suffered from inadequate game-day preparation.

"We're going to implement a game plan (every week)," Heaps said. "To see what advantages we can take from video (analysis) and impose our will on other teams. We will not be outworked and we will not be outsmarted."

From here, Heaps hits the ground running in searching for ways to improve the squad. With the expansion draft and re-entry draft on the horizon, Heaps will have a number of decisions to make about the roster.

"We're not thinking three to four years (into the future)," Heaps said. "We're thinking now. We're thinking how of we add the right players and right chemistry to build this team from day one."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Michael Bradley proves his worth in US victory over Slovenia

Michael Bradley only started once in Jurgen Klinsmann's first five games in charge, but proved in his second that Klinsmann may need him as much as his father had.

Michael Bradley walked slowly, almost deliberately through the thick fog and toward the U.S. bench. His job, on a damp cold November night in Slovenia, was done.

In just his second start since his father Bob Bradley was sacked as head coach, Michael Bradley had contributed an assist and much needed leadership in the United States' 3-2 win over Slovenia on Tuesday. It was only the second win under Jürgen Klinsmann and the team’s first win on European soil in three years. (If Gen. Patton had failed this much aboard Americans would be speaking German today.)

Klinsmann, who had given Bradley the surprise start, shook hands with the young midfielder when Bradley crossed the touch line in injury time. It seemed only fitting that Bradley played such a significant role in Klinsmann's best moment as U.S. coach.

"We know that Michael has tremendous qualities in terms of his commitment," Klinsmann said afterward. "He covers so much ground, stays calm and is very experienced."

Klinsmann used a more conventional 4-4-2 formation against Slovenia which included Bradley playing a holding midfield position. The U.S. erupted for three first half goals and went ahead 2-1 when Clint Dempsey headed home Bradley's corner kick.

"It was a great ball in from Michael," said Dempsey. "I tried to get away from my man and make sure that I put it on frame because I had a chance earlier in the game where I put it a little bit wide."

It was an important result for the United States and a bittersweet moment for Bradley, whose adjustment to a new coach and system is justifiably awkward. It's never easy playing for your father on any level, especially for the national team. It's even harder when your father is fired.

Bob Bradley had a good run with the national team: finalist in the 2009 Confederations Cup followed by winning the group at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. In the group stage, the U.S. was minutes away from losing to Slovenia before Michael rescued the team with a late goal. It wasn't as memorable as Landon Donovan’s injury time goal against Algeria but was just as important.

But within 14 months, Bradley would be gone as coach while his son was back to trying to prove that he belongs on the national team.

"Anytime you have a new club, anytime you're in a new team, everyone is trying to prove themselves," Bradley said. "Guys are trying to get a feel for how the coach wants to do things - the way they want to play, the way they want to train, the way they want to run things off the field. On the flip side, coaches are trying to get a feel for players and guys they want to count on and the group they want to have together as you move to more important games."

Last season was a tumultuous one for the 24-year-old Bradley. In February, Bradley was loaned to Aston Villa from his German club, Borussia Mönchengladbach. He expected to sign permanently with the English Premier League club but a coaching change nixed the move. Meanwhile, Mönchengladbach told Bradley he had lost his spot on the team.

It turned out to be a blessing for Bradley who instead signed with Chievo Verona on Aug. 31. He's become a regular starter for the Italian Serie A club, a move that Klinsmann feels in crucial for Bradley’s development.

"Going to Italy, for him, as a midfielder, in an environment where they are tactic fanatics, the Italians, will teach him a lot," said Klinsmann, who played three years in Italy with Inter. "It will help him a lot to read the game better, to anticipate the game better to know exactly when to go into certain spaces and when not to go in certain spaces. So I was very pleased."

Klinsmann is still experimenting with different lineups and trying out different players. But when World Cup qualifiers begin next summer there's a good chance Bradley will be on the squad. Klinsmann will need him just as much as Bob Bradley did.

Being a leader is in Heaps' blood

Jay Heaps is only just starting out on his young coaching career with the New England Revolution, but he has plenty of supporters in his former coaches.

Brian Ainscough was right in his assessments about newly named New England Revolution head coach Jay Heaps as a player in the past. Now fans of the Revs will be hoping the Northeastern Huskies men’s soccer coach’s good judgment continues in his beliefs about Heaps as a coach.

Ainscough coached Heaps at the club level when the Massachusetts native played for the FC Greater Boston Bolts. The former Irish youth international knew Heaps had what it takes to be a successful professional player and wasn’t the least bit surprised by the career Heaps had.

“He was special,” said Ainscough. “His competitiveness back then was unbelievable. His competitive spirit and his will to win were just amazing.”

Heaps took that competitiveness to his 11-year career in Major League Soccer that included an MLS Rookie of the Year award in 1999 and four appearances of the U.S. National Team in 2009. He became etched in the history books as the longest ever tenured player on the Revolution with nine seasons that included four MLS Cup appearances, a U.S. Open Cup Championship and a SuperLiga Championship.

None of that surprised Ainscough.

In 2005, Heaps joined Ainscough’s staff at Northeastern as a volunteer assistant coach. It was a role he would serve for two seasons.

“He passed along his experiences to the players who had respect for him because he was such a quality player,” said Ainscough.

The same qualities Ainscough admired in Heaps as a player came through in his coaching.

“The qualities that served him as a player and as a coach here were his passion and his competitive nature,” said Ainscough. “They’re unmatched when I coached him years ago and when he was here coaching.”

Ainscough has coached no shortage of players from the U.S. Soccer Olympic Development Program, Providence College, Bowdoin College, Northeastern and the Bolts, but Heaps competitiveness stood out above the rest.

“It’s unmatched by most players and I think that will serve him as well as a coach as it did as a player,” said Ainscough.

And just like Ainscough knew Heaps had what it takes to make it at the professional level, he believes Heaps has the qualities to succeed as a head coach. Heaps stint as a volunteer assistant with the Huskies made Ainscough realize the former Revs defender was destined to coach one day.

“I knew coaching was in his blood,” he said. “He sidetracked himself for business, but I think that was always his passion and it’s hard to stay away when that’s in your blood.”

Now that Heaps has his chance Ainscough will undoubtedly be among his coaching influences along with former Revs head coach Steve Nicol and others.

Of course Heaps can also draw on his experiences with legendary Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who recently became the winningest coach in NCAA Division I Basketball history. In addition to playing soccer at Duke under John Rennie, the Blue Devils’ former soccer coach who has quite the impressive resume himself, Heaps also was on the basketball team with Coach K.

Like Ainscough, Krzyzewski also sees a successful future for Heaps as a coach.

“I’m really excited about Jay becoming the head coach,” Krzyzewski said. “There’s nobody who has the combination of spirit, energy, charisma and talent like he does. I loved coaching him. He was a walk-on for our basketball team because he was an All-American soccer player, but everyone on our team always followed what he had to say.

“I see him spreading that same type of energy, spirit, and using his charisma to build back a storied program,” he added. “I wish him the best. He’s an outstanding leader, and for management to have the confidence in such a young guy – that they saw a special guy – I think it’ll pay off greatly.”

Heaps certainly has a monumental task ahead of him to turn around a Revolution side that’s missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons, but it’s not just the Revs front office that believes he’ll succeed.

Bradley era begins in Egypt

Egypt ushered in the Bob Bradley era this week with their friendly versus Brazil.

John Duerden of Sports Illustrated writes of the task ahead of Bradley in his tenure with the Pharaohs.

Even two hours before kickoff, the Egyptian fans were in full voice, chanting a soccer version of a refrain familiar to anyone who had been in Tahir Square earlier this year as the Arab Spring reached its zenith. Instead of singing Asha'ab yureed isqat annizam (the people want the downfall of the regime), Asha'ab yureed isqat albrazeel rolled down the sides of the Al Rayyan Stadium in Qatar giving Bob Bradley the task of toppling the Brazilians, the long-reigning kings of world soccer, in his first game in charge of the Pharaohs.

In June 2009, Bradley watched as his U.S. team took a 2-0 lead against the South Americans in the final of the Confederations Cup on a chilly evening in the concrete jungle of downtown Johannesburg only to end up losing 3-2. On a warm November night in the desert on the outskirts of Doha, it was Brazil that established a two-goal advantage. This time though, despite the backing of the vast majority of the vociferous 25,112 crowd at the Al Rayyan Stadium, Egypt never really looked like getting back in the game. It finished 2-0.

There is nothing to worry about yet. "Egyptians forgive easily" smiled an Algerian journalist, using the example of the pre-match entertainment, Tamer Hosny. The king of the Cairo pop scene, booed and punched during an appearance in Tahir Square in April as he tried to apologize after earlier dismissive comments about the protesters, brought the house down with a series of hits.

If his countrymen are still coming to terms with the new regime at home after the ouster of former dictator Hosni Mubarak, having an American in charge of the national team after eight years of Hassan Shehata is also going to take some getting used. "We can't judge from one game but I think the old coach was better," said one fan Mohammed Hassan, a Cairo-born Petroleum engineer now working in Qatar. "Everyone knows that the old coach made up champion of Africa three times. Bradley has inherited a heck of a team but he needs to prove himself. I think we will give him two or three more games. We don't know too much about him and don't know what to expect."

In the press box a large contingent of Cairo-based journalists expect and hope that Bradley will bring better discipline, organization and fitness to a talented but inconsistent group of players. What they didn't expect was Sunderland star Ahmed Elmohamady on the left of midfield, placed there by Bradley to nullify the attacking threat of Dani Alves. It worked for a while as the Egyptians started well but Alves and his colleagues saw more of the ball as the half progressed. It was felt that Elmohamady was uncomfortable, the team unbalanced and Mohamed Zidan isolated in attack. It came as no surprise when the impressive Hulk broke free down the North African left to square into the six-yard box for Jonas Oliveira to score the simplest of tap-ins.

If there was a lack of balance, fans had their own ideas on what was necessary and called for Mohamed Aboutrika. The midfielder has long been regarded as one of the best in Africa with a list of awards and accolades to prove it but was left out of the roster by Bradley. If the same decision is repeated, it is sure to become a question that the American grows accustomed to fielding especially if results are less than satisfactory..

"Aboutrika has been a great player for Egypt," said Bradley. "He is also a favorite player of the fans and we will continue to watch him in the league and then make a decision to help us become successful." The philosophy major could have made a difference to an Egyptian team that struggled to retain possession and ran out of ideas long before the end of the game in the face of a controlled display from a Brazil missing such stars such as Kaka, Pato and Neymar. The second goal killed the game coming on the hour with another close-range strike from Jonas after El Shanawi had dropped a free kick. The goalkeeper subsequently redeemed himself and made a series of good saves to prevent Brazil from extending its lead.

There were words of encouragement from Brazilian coach Mano Menezes who could afford to be gracious with a sixth victory in seven games helping to erase memories of a disappointing Copa America. "I have a lot of respect for Bob Bradley," said Menezes. "It is difficult to take on a new job and you need time to adapt to new ideas. This is what we did a while ago and we are improving now."

Bradley has some time before the hard work and qualification for the World Cup begins. With the last of Egypt's two appearances on the global stage coming in 1990, the American will automatically become one of the country's most celebrated coaches if he can lead the team to Brazil in 2014.

It would be some celebration and Monday was just a small taste of the atmosphere that he can expect on a regular basis. "The fans tonight were tremendous," said Bradley. "They like football and the national team is very important to them. That is one of the big reasons why this opportunity is so special because of the passion of the fans. Football culture in the U.S. continues to grow. In Egypt it is not growing because it is already incredibly big and has been that way for a long time. You feel it every day and people come up to you in the street and talk about selections."

You feel he wouldn't shy from such debates and it was noticeable how well he reeled off the names of players both in and out of the team, as well as different members of his coaching staff -- a small detail but one often overlooked by English-speaking coaches in Africa and Asia. To avoid too many impromptu sidewalk conversations however, Bradley will have to negotiate the first stage of 2014 qualification that starts in June. In truth, the seven-time continental champion should have little trouble finishing top of a group containing Zimbabwe, Guinea and, assuming, as all do, it defeats Comoros, Mozambique. Then comes the real test: a home and away all-or-nothing playoff late in 2013.

Bradley knows he has to have everything in place before then. "When you watch players in the league, it is normal that if you test them against Brazil, they will learn a lot. It is a big step and every time we play against a good team, we get more information and this will help us. I saw things tonight that I think were good things and I saw things that we worked on in training starting to show. I also saw things that we need to improve. This is a first step and we have a lot of hard work ahead of us."

United States 3-2 Slovenia

The United States were able to gain a victory on European soil in their final friendly of 2011, defeating Slovenia, 3-2, in a rematch from the FIFA 2010 World Cup.

It's what we've been waiting for since Jurgen Klinsmann took the helm in July: An entertaining, attack-minded performance from the USA. Here's why we're much more optimistic about Klinsmann's rebuilding process after the 3-2 win at Slovenia on Tuesday. ...

GOALS, THANK GOODNESS. The Americans, who had scored only twice in Klinsmann’s first six games, entered the game with a 234-minute scoreless streak. Edson Buddle broke the drought in the 9th minute against Slovenia when he hammered home from 25 yards after delivery from Clint Dempsey, who had stripped Darijan Matic of the ball. After Slovenia equalized, Dempsey headed in Michael Bradley’s corner kick in the 41st minute and Jozy Altidore converted a 43rd minute penalty kick after Fabian Johnson was fouled. Hitting the net -- and finishing a frustrating year with a win -- injects a crucial boost of confidence into a team that’s supposed to be rebuilt and well-tuned when World Cup qualifying starts next summer.

TWO STRIKERS A MUST. Such is the sad state of modern soccer that it’s news when a team fields two true strikers. After a catenaccio look in last Friday’s 1-0 loss to France, Klinsmann simply had to field a more attack-minded formation. Pairing Buddle and Altidore on the frontline, and giving Dempsey a free role behind them, resulted not only in goals, but enabled the Americans to play more of the game in the opponents’ half. A lone forward lineup should never again be considered for a U.S. national team.

BRADLEY IMPROVES MIDFIELD. Kyle Beckerman returned as a deep-lying defensive central midfielder at the bottom of a diamond that had Dempsey on top, Johnson on the left, and Bradley on the right. Returning the veteran Bradley to the starting lineup paid off because he combined well with Dempsey and often steered the U.S. attacks through the middle. With Bradley and Johnson, who looks the most promising of the German products, the USA played less predictably than in the previous games when storming down the wings seemed to be the main strategy.

FUN TO WATCH. Seconds after kickoff, Johnson, with a 20-yard volley, forced a save from keeper Samir Handanovic and the Slovenians responded with a chance shortly after that keeper Tim Howard handled – and from there the game lived up to its promising start. We had plenty of end-to-end action and scoring chances, such as Dempsey’s diving header that went just wide in the 36th minute. The Slovenians hit the woodwork twice and had a ball cleared off the line before Tim Matavz scored his second goal to make it 3-2 in the 61st minute, but the USA held on for its first win on European soil since March 2008, a 3-0 victory at Poland.

A good performance and a good result is the best of both worlds -- and especially satisfying is that Klinsmann’s team finally entertained.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

4-4-2 formation the preferred tactical choice in MLS

Tacticians stress a lack of true '#9' central strikers in the modern game, and the evolution of a 'false 9' like Messi or Rooney who are drawn up on the board as a 9, but really drop back much deeper like a '#10'.

Where alignments like 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1 are becoming more en vogue to counter some of the changes to the modern game, it seems like the 4-4-2 formation still appears to be the system of choice in Major League Soccer.

Kyle McCarthy of writes of how there is some diversity in team tactics in MLS, the teams that have mastered the 4-4-2 have had the most success.

In a league filled with a somewhat diverse set of tactical approaches, one common tactical thread always seems to emerge at the end of the biggest match of the MLS season.

The winning team usually starts out in a 4-4-2 formation.

There are, of course, other influences to determine the outcome of a match, but the recent patterns indicate teams that start out in that setup – or one of the various derivatives employed by coaches around the league – gain an advantage in the tussle for silverware. Seven consecutive MLS Cup winners – including the victor of Sunday's MLS Cup battle between Houston and Los Angeles – have preferred a version of the 4-4-2. Los Angeles has already made it four straight Supporters' Shield winners deployed in a similar manner.

It is somewhat of a coincidence that one base formation has consistently dispatched the others. Two of the league's top five sides chose another way to play during this campaign and fared well during the regular season. One of those two clubs, FC Dallas, lost in the final last year with its 4-1-4-1 approach. Other teams like D.C. United (the last MLS Cup winner to eschew a 4-4-2 back in 2004) and New England used a 3-5-2 setup during the last decade. One kick here or one slice of luck there would have broken the pattern.

Although the sequence of results does not establish omnipotence for one tactical setup over another preferred arrangement, it does reinforce the dominance of the 4-4-2 formation as a governing principle within league circles.

One look at the generally selected base formations – the primary setup chosen without regard for the tweaks that turn a 4-4-2 into a diamond 4-4-2, a so-called “empty bucket” 4-4-2, the en vogue 4-1-3-2 or whatever other variation is devised to create an advantage for a particular personnel group – shows how deeply MLS coaches prefer that particular formation.

Most common base formations selected by MLS teams in 2011

4-3-3: Sporting Kansas City, Toronto FC

4-4-2: Chicago, Chivas USA, Colorado, Columbus, D.C. United, Houston, Los Angeles, New England, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Real Salt Lake, San Jose, Seattle, Vancouver

4-1-4-1: FC Dallas

(Note: Breaking down the tactical differences between the 15 teams employing some form of a 4-4-2 represents another column or series of columns. Suffice it to say that MLS isn't as tactically bland as the breakdown of base formations suggests.)

The general absence of one-forward formations and the persistence of the 4-4-2 setup as an influential formation contradicts the current operating practices at the highest levels of the game. The intermittent quality of tactical and technical education provided at the youth and university levels explains some of the reluctance to shift in a different direction. Those foundational issues, however, do not mask some of the personnel constraints that play a significant role in the debate.

Many of the practical problems sprout from the absence of true number nines. MLS clubs acquire and deploy plenty of forwards who can hit the back of the net at this level, but few of those strikers possess all of the traits required to operate alone up front. In an ideal world, a lone forward possesses the following attributes: (1) the finishing touch to polish off buildup play, (2) the physique to occupy two central defenders and win aerial battles, (3) the technical ability to facilitate play in the middle third and (4) the turn of pace to present some threat to get in behind defense.

Most of the players who tick many, if not all, of those boxes ply their trade in a league with higher wages. Occasionally, the right player can make such a system work – Toronto FC's Danny Koevermans offers a decent example without the pace as the central figure in Aron Winter's 4-3-3 setup – under the right circumstances in MLS, but those players are hard to locate. Complementing those suitable choices with the right mix of creativity and service from midfield creates another series of issues and underscores the difficulty of implementing a different approach.

(Note: The pervasiveness of the 4-4-2 at the domestic level could also explain a portion of the consternation encountered by Jurgen Klinsmann as he installs his 4-1-4-1 formation with the U.S. national team. Previous managers Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley leaned on a 4-4-2 setup for much of their tenures. Their reliance on the familiar formation drew howls from Americans craving a bit more tactical diversity, but it also made use of the common and shared experience of that formation within a player pool primarily cultivated in MLS and subsequently shipped off to Europe. As the performances during Klinsmann's tenure indicate, he faces more pressing and significant issues in terms of the suitability of his approach to this player pool and his overall team selection. But do not discount the dearth of collective knowledge within the group about this tactical shift and its impact on the situation.)

FC Dallas' struggles to find a competent operator for its lone forward role provide a recent example to illustrate why MLS coaches often prefer to play with two or more forwards up top.

FCD coach Schellas Hyndman tried several different potential choices up front without finding the right person for the job. Maykel Galindo never found his fitness and never looked comfortable operating alone when he did. Ruben Luna needed more experience before he could attempt to carry that burden on a regular basis.

Milton Rodriguez couldn't compete physically at this level any more. Maicon Santos fared well enough in FCD's generally tight build up play, but he didn't offer enough sharpness in front of goal. The situation deteriorated to the point where Hyndman chose the versatile Jackson to fill the breach during the waning stages of the season and hoped that the Brazilian's physical gifts and work rate would overcome his lack of polish as a forward.

Instead of wrangling with these personnel and selection quandaries like Hyndman did (in an effort to protect influential club captain Daniel Hernandez's deep-lying role in midfield), most MLS coaches dismiss them and opt for a variation on the tried and true 4-4-2 setup. Given the formation's track record of success in recent years and the problems presented by the alternatives, it is hard to quibble with their adherence to the status quo.

Heaps to be named as New England Head Coach

Congratulations to Jay Heaps, who appears to be the new Head Coach of the New England Revolution.

The former Duke University and New England Revolution standout would succeeds Steve Nicol, as reported in the Boston Globe.

Last Wednesday, Revs president Brian Bilello revealed to how the board had lined up 12 potential candidates and that they would be announcing a new manager sometime this week.

Bilello was insistent that New England would not rush into appointing someone, and that a thorough interview procedure would ensue.

“Throughout the head coaching search that I've been doing with Michael [Burns], we're not just looking at a guy and saying who is going to be the best coach,” Bilello said. “We're also understanding what we want to be as an organization and then applying it to the interview process.”

Continuing with a new trend in hiring ex-MLS players to coach their former teams—think Jason Kreis at Real Salt Lake and Ben Olsen at D.C. United—the Revolution ownership has chosen retired defender Jay Heaps to be the organization’s new head coach heading into the 2012 season.

Some fans may worry that Heaps doesn’t have any previous coaching experience. What he lacks in soccer coaching experience he makes up for in other areas.

For starters, Heaps who enjoyed a fine 10-year playing career (eight with New England), is one of the most popular and productive players in Revolution history. He’s first in the team’s record books in games played (243) and minutes played (21,619). He was the 1999 MLS Rookie of the Year with the Miami Fusion and he has been capped by the United States Men’s National team four times. He was a successful player at every level and knows what the players are going through.

He also has championship experience. He was a member of the U.S Open Cup champion team in 2007 and the SuperLiga champions in 2008. He was on the USMNT that finished second in the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup and played for the Revs all four times the team made it to the MLS Cup final. He knows what it takes to be a champion, especially in the MLS, and that can go a long way in guys buying into what he has to tell them.

While he played for Nicol, who was a fine coach, he’s also been exposed to legendary coaching. While at Duke, Heaps was spotted by basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski—who tied an NCAA Division I record with 902 career wins on Saturday—and was given a spot on the team’s roster.

In four years he only played in 30 basketball games and scored eight points (compare that to 45 goals for the soccer team), but Heaps picked up a few valuable lessons from his time with the team.

Heaps acknowledged in an interview in 2008 that being one of the bottom guys on the bench helped him fully understand the true concept of what a team is.

“On the soccer field at Duke, I was the guy that played every minute of every game and was a player looked at to lead the team from a playing standpoint,” Heaps said. “Then I went to basketball, where I was probably the smallest guy on the team, one of the last guys off the bench, and I saw how you can still impact the greater good of the team no matter what your role might be.”

His time as a bench warmer makes him not only relatable to his lower-end players, but he knows how to get the most out of every player and keep everyone engaged in practice.

Heaps’ relationship with Coach K can also help guide him as he begins his own coaching career. During some of his offseasons, Heaps returned to Durham to spend time with Krzyzewski and his staff, observing the legend at work. While Krzyzewski coaches basketball and not soccer, and won’t be able to help Heaps with tactics, you don’t win 902 games (and counting) without having great leadership skills that transcend your sport.

It also should be mentioned that, for the past couple of seasons, Heaps has been the color commentator for Revolution games on television and radio. He has observed every game, seen not only the talent and flaws of the Revolution players but also witnessed first-hand the same qualities in every team in the league. He has stayed familiar with MLS and the Revolution and that should keep him sharp as well as allowing him to figure out what would be good player-acquisitions for his team.

Don’t take the notion that he’s a Revolution-lifer for nothing, either. The fact that he has played and worked for the organization shows a dedication to the team. He’s going to want this team to perform well for beyond just personal ones.

Some fans worry that hiring such a popular figure with little actual experience is just to make the fans forget about bigger issues inside the organization’s framework, but that isn’t Heaps fault. As far as being a leader and a coach, he should be up for the opportunity.

The Revolution team is a shell of its former self and Heaps doesn’t have a whole lot to work with, currently. It may be a rocky road to begin with, but there’s plenty of potential to turn this franchise around, and fans could very well be pleased with the results.