Keep Your Numbers, I’ll Keep The Beautiful Game

A good friend kept pointing me at fivethirtyeight.com for statistician extraordinaire Nate Silver’s (and team’s) views on the World Cup. In particular, he really thought I should read the following article (Why Isn’t the U.S. Men’s National Team Better at Soccer?) and that it would be interesting on an analytical level. So I did.

The problem was, I came in biased.  And that’s how I left.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Of course, it didn’t help that the silly title was followed by an opening paragraph that concluded with the idea that despite America’s riches and focus on sport it “can’t field a world-class men’s soccer team.”

I knew from there on I was going to struggle to maintain an open mind because I immediately formed a couple serious concerns.

First, this presumptions, misplaced opening premise starts the reader on the easy, but not particularly well-informed path that the USA isn’t good at this “foreign” sport.

Second, the desire to turn soccer into another statisticians dream the way Money Ball changed baseball frightens and dismays me.

Mr. Silver’s website has lots of new World Cup coverage, and I’m sure it’s all quite thorough. There are percentages on what teams will advance, what games will be ties and other statistical discussions that can make newbies to the game sound smart at a cocktail party or at the office water cooler.

I don’t find such soccer statistics a thing of beauty.  And I don’t really want them coloring my view of the beautiful game.

Fivethirtyeight.com knows that there are people who feel like I do, they even address it head-on.  The site even makes the very specific claim that “In soccer, data and aesthetics are not mutually exclusive, just as they aren’t in any other sport.”

I hope they are wrong.

And I love when it the numbers don’t tell the story.  Like today.

The site predicted only 19% change of a Germany/Ghana tie and thought Argentina vs. Iran would turn into a blowout victory for the South Americans.  Very logical.

What happened? A Germany/Ghana tie. And a last second goal by Lionel Messi to save Argentina from an unexpected scoreless tie.

The unpredictability of those results made the day much more fun.

The beauty of the game comes from the decisions that need to be made on the field, by players, in real-time. It’s a game of emotion.  Of momentum. And yes, of luck.

There are few plays to be run from a playbook. Limiting the number of plays where success or failure can be tracked.

Can you predict pulled hamstrings, goals that happen within the first 30 seconds, the humidity or field conditions?

Can you predict players getting broken noses or head-butting one another?

Can you predict a poor decision by a referee?

Maybe in aggregate all of these things can be calculated, predicted and analyzed.

I hope not, because there’s more to a fluid team sport than any of that.  Especially a team sport that leaves so much responsibility on the hands of the players.  Not play calling.

What variable/value is assigned to team spirit, exactly?  Not so easy.

Did the USA outplay Ghana in its first game of this World Cup? No. But did it display an unbelievable commitment to each other on the field?  Absolutely.

And that proved to be enough. On that day. On that field. In this competition.

I don’t think that this game is predictable. And I hope it never is.

Despite all of my internal rejection of the ‘numberization’ of my chosen sport, the article’s premise was just as troubling as the fact that it was searching for something to analyze.

The overly-Americanized and ridiculously presumptive title started me down a path that’s hard to recover from.

It asked: “Why Isn’t the U.S. Men’s National Team Better at Soccer?”

Wow.  What a question. How much better should the USA be exactly?

The game against Ghana was clearly more grit than beauty… and I do not think the USA is the World’s best team, but how much better are we talking about, specifically?

Germany, I presume, is considered way better that the USA. And today, they tied the team we beat a few days back.

One measure of being “better” means getting results in the World Cup, right?

The USA has qualified for every World Cup since 1990. (Yes, in 1994 we did not need to, as hosts.)  This success is disregarded, since people think that our region is easy to qualify from.

Really?

Mexico, of our region, just tied Brazil.  How good are they?  Yeah, we qualified ahead of them.

Costa Rica, of our region, has already qualified for the second round beating both South American and European foes.  Yeah, we qualified ahead of them too.

And for Euro-soccer Snobs that think our region is easy  to qualify from, I suggest they play some competitive matches in San Jose, Costa Rica, Tegucigalpa, Honduras or in Azteca Stadium in Mexico, and see what they think afterward.

Think it’s easy?  Read this.

But the article asks, why aren’t we “better.”  Perhaps that means we need to beat the best teams in competition.

However, in REAL competitions, we’ve beaten Argentina by 3 goals (Copa America), stopped Spain’s ridiculously long winning streak (Confederations Cup), beaten Mexico and Portugal in World Cup play. Is that not enough?

When, exactly, will we qualify as being good enough for the statisticians to go back to baseball.

I get that in some way statistics may help explain soccer.  But having some foundational knowledge and understanding of the game – and its frustrating intricacies – might help form some better hypotheses to begin with.

During World Cup coverage, when players leaving the field, ESPN (who’s coverage has been quite good, actually) shows me how much the player has run.  As if that’s a metric of success.

It’s not.

We now see team possession statistics that aren’t particularly useful either, in my view, since for some teams it is a strategy and for others it is a necessity that happens without any meaningful offensive moves.

We now see percentages of passes completed.  Interesting, but flawed. One beautiful pass can be worth ten simple ones.

And please, don’t ask why the USA “aren’t better” unless you are willing to describe what better looks like.  Because the USA can and should get better, but I don’t think our improvement will be driven by a calculator and an algorithm.

So please, keep your statistics off in a fantasy league corner.  If you haven’t noticed, the USA is developing a passion for the beautiful game.

Let’s not bury it in, largely meaningless, numbers.

I plan to remain with my head firmly in the sand.  Preferring emotion to calculation. And beauty to analysis.

Yes, in my soccer book collection I have (and enjoyed) Soccernomics, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski.

But my favorite will always be “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” by Eduardo Galeano.

Toward the end of this glorious text, he writes “The more the technocrats program it down to the smallest detail, the more the powerful manipulate it, soccer continues to be the art of the unforseeable.”

That’s what computes for me.

 

 

 

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Qualifying Perspective: USA vs. Antigua and Barbuda

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m having trouble finding the right mood after the USA’s 3-1 victory over Antigua and Barbuda. And, I sense I’m not alone.

A two goal victory gives the USA three points in our first qualifying game, I should be ecstatic, no? Then why aren’t I?

For me (and maybe for everyone), however, my discontent did not start with that result. US fans have ridden a roller-coaster of emotions recently following a tremendous victory (5-1 vs. Scotland), a frustrating loss (1-4 vs. Brazil) and a baffling scoreless draw (vs. Canada.)

And, as if those results weren’t enough to stir the restless fan, some out there had extra angst invoked by coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s post-game commentary after the Brazil loss. I am very much in the angst camp on this one.

I won’t delve too deeply into those comments here, since Paul Gardner has it exactly right and well covered in Soccer America, here. However, the idea that a US coach could utter nonsense about hurting the other team publicly, after a “FRIENDLY” and about the not-surprisingly-superior five-time World Champion Brazil without any significant backlash saddens me.

Yes, the USA might need to become (more) difficult to beat and play physically, but if you cannot get the attention of your team in the locker room, don’t leverage ridiculous comments in the press to try to get it done. From our most experienced coach, a most amateurish move.

With that off my chest, I’ll try to reestablish some perspective. In prior World Cup qualifying cycles, I’ve used a glass half full/empty analogy, and this seems like a fitting time to revisit it.

Glass Half Empty View

  • The USA looked listless in stretches of a game against a team of USL Pro players with a couple English league additions from a nation of ~90,000 people. Frankly, any MLS team (well, maybe not Toronto F.C.) would be expected to play better than the US Men’s National team did for large stretches against Antigua and Barbuda.
  • Klinsmann might have an interesting history and great accent, but is certainly not infallible. It’s fair to suggest that no team would carry three left-backs into camp, so he was dealt a tough hand of cards with the injuries to Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo, but the team’s motivation, organization and lineups are all worthy of scrutiny. Torres to left back was a gamble, but an understandable one. Others may have moved Bocanegra out left and trusted the other center backs on the roster against what were manageable forwards by International standards. Klinsmann didn’t. More baffling though is the mid-game insertion of Oguchi Onyewu, a player all US fans would love to have back at his best, but acknowledge that he is now where near that level. Why not use other center backs that haven’t shown such glaring errors recently? (Note to Geoff Cameron and Michael Parkhurst: if there’s anyway to hide MLS in your resume it might be a good idea for this coach.)
  • We have a coach with international pedigree, players that are playing at extremely high levels around the world and all the training and preparation a nation could ask for, yet we cannot solve a simple issue: so frequently playing to the level of our opponents. Maybe it’s time for some voodoo?
  • The injury to Jose Torres might rob of us a good possession-enhancing option for the critical game in Guatemala.  Time will tell what severity he’s dealing with.

Glass Half Full Perspective

  • The USA won its first World Cup qualifier despite horrendously rainy conditions and an opponent who was resolute in defense.  The objective was to win and get the three points, and that is what was done.
  • Jermaine Jones didn’t maim anyone.
  • Herculez Gomez saw his continued hard work and club-success pay off with the US Men’s National team and has clearly added much needed pressure to Jozy Altidore and other forward options to say at their sharpest. The battle for that second (if we play with two) forward position next to Clint Dempsey is clearly on.
  • Mexico, which it pains me to admit is the class of CONCACAF right now, showed they too are imperfect by “only” beating Guyana 3-1 in Mexico.

The challenge today is that the US fan base expects more than results.  There is an understanding that CONCACAF opponents and situations are challenging, but that is no longer enough to excuse lackluster performances.  What the US fans have delivered over the last 180 minutes was certainly lackluster.

Tuesday night in Guatemala will be a difficult game in a difficult venue, so US fans might cut the team some slack.  But with the fan base continuing to hear that the team is a work in progress, learning a new system, with a new first-eleven and new coach, it needs to see just that.  Progress.

After that progress is achieved, please show us something that won’t necessitate most post-game headlines include the idea of “winning ugly.”

We’ve had quite enough of that.

US National Team Changes Point Toward A Revolution

This week US Soccer fans saw something new.  They saw a team in the red, white and blue attempt to possess the ball, pass the ball, and play out of trouble.  They saw players chosen on the hope (if not much prior proof) that they can play a fluid, attack minded game of soccer.

They saw glaring imperfections, certainly.   It was, after all, a loss.

There were weaknesses at certain positions. There was a dullness in the attack – a certain lack of killer instinct – that let down some of the more fluid passing which led up to the final third.  Defensive confusion and giveaways remained.

But these imperfections were forgiven, if not forgotten.

Why?

Because the product put on the field by US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann (recently hired by US Soccer head honcho Sunil Gulati) showed a new, better direction than what fans and critics had been seeing in a flat, seemingly stagnating US team.

Despite the result, this loss was at least a sign of intent that the USA is looking for a better way to play, and that maybe – just maybe – our players are actually capable of it.  Credit to Jurgen Klinsmann for that change of heart and change of style.

It may or may not be fair for this laissez-faire reaction to a loss to a tiny CONCACAF region, certainly Bob Bradley would not have been let off the hook for it.   Nor is this optimism in a new style not meant as an indictment of former USA coach Bob Bradley, a capable tactician and able coach who achieved admirable, and in some cases headline-worthy, results from the USA team during his tenure.  Bob should be respected, thanked and will undoubtedly find (and perhaps has already found in Mexico) other coaching jobs in which he can sure up his legacy if that’s even required.

However, there is a reason that the phrase “change is good” has come to be.  It’s not, it turns out, just a desperate under-breath murmur of someone whose cheese has moved.

The jury is out on Klinsmann’s long-term effectiveness in finding, recruiting and motivating the type of creative, skillful and reliable players the US Men’s National Team seems to lack. But he’s certainly showed he’s going to give a chance to players others might write off.

There were some new players on the field who had not seen much time prior to Mr. Klinsmann’s hiring, but no absolute unknowns. In fact, this improved soccer happened with many of the same faces as we’ve seen before – including quite a few that are favorite targets of the soccer pundits as unable to pass muster.

If the first couple games (at least the middle 90 minutes – second half against Mexico and first half against Costa Rica) have shown, you don’t need wholesale changes in personnel to play attractive soccer at a high level. This is noteworthy, as the only significant difference is the coach.

I also briefly mentioned Sunil Gulati above, as it was his long flirtation with Juergan Klinsmann that ultimately brought the passionate German to lead this US team. Say what you will of Mr. Gulati, but he did (eventually) get his man, and presumptively he wants the style that Mr. Klinsmann appears to espouse.

However, as I scan my home for red, white and blue soccer artifacts, I see not only my US Men’s National Team colors, but those of another property in which Mr. Gulati still has a role. Mr. Gulati is, however behind the scenes, President of the New England Revolution. From RevolutionSoccer.net:

“In addition to his role as President of the U.S. Soccer Federation, Gulati is in his ninth year as President of the New England Revolution (Kraft Soccer, LLC), following a three-year term as Managing Director. He came to the Revolution after serving as Major League Soccer’s Deputy Commissioner from its launch until 1999. In his role with the Revolution, Gulati oversees and advises on every aspect of the soccer organization, including the club’s technical and business affairs.”

There’s more than a passing resemblance between the pre-Klinsmann US National Team and today’s New England Revolution. Results aside, there are (unfortunately) many stylistic similarities that jump out as well. The inability to score from open play with any regularity. Over dependence on defensive midfielders. Constant proclamations of wanting to play possession oriented soccer, without any visible ability to get it done. A fan-base that worries that the current on-field product is the best our talent will allow.

New England fans are yearning for similar changes for their red, white and blues as they are for the US National Team.   And increasingly, glances are being cast at the coaching staff in New England.

Of course, the New England Revolution is coached by the very well respected, traveled, and tenured Steve Nicol. Steve Nicol, as the Revolution’s multiple appearances in MLS Cup can attest to, is a good coach. He’s also the longest-serving coach in MLS history and is managing what appears to be a stagnating club.

Nicol’s supporters, and there are plenty, will claim that he’s done yeoman’s work with the talent provided to him. Perhaps so, but that’s likely true of any MLS coach if people are to honestly assess talent levels across the league, and it rings eerily familiar to the refrain US Soccer fans used in supporting Bob Bradley.

Wholesale changes in MLS are not only unlikely and are often unproductive. One wonders however, what is possible with the players already on the Revolution roster if a breeze of change blows through the coaching ranks.   Isn’t it funny how much better players seem to acclimate or “fit into the system” when that system is totally bought into and producing results?

So as New England fans sit (eerily) quiet, they can only wonder if Mr. Gulati has now finished celebrating his success in reeling in Klinsmann for the National Team, and plans to take the same seriousness in reviewing how to get more out of the talent that is in New England today and perhaps how to get more on board.

Much like Mr. Bradley, Mr. Nicol deserves our gratitude, respect, admiration and thanks. But after 10 years at the helm with the same coach, a team going nowhere fast maybe it is time to test whether “change is good” for New England too.

So President Gulati, we know the “thrill is in the chase.”  Since you’ve landed your last conquest, isn’t it time for a new thrill?

US Soccer Learning That Change Isn’t Easy

Judging by the strident tenor and continuing strength of the ongoing, online, venting session emanating from the US Soccer fan and pundit communities, the 4-2 Gold Cup Final loss to Mexico could be interpreted as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

However, rather than it being simply “one loss too many,” or even the fact that it was a loss to the USA’s most significant rival, there’s something greater going on here.

There is, slowly but surely, a realization that answers we seek are not going to be easy to find. The problems are complex and deeply rooted.

Let’s be honest, if the fix for the USA’s ills was as easy as the very common “Bob must go!” refrain, people would all feel quite a bit better.

Maybe Bob must go. Fine.  He has certainly provided examples of questionable decisions in the 20/20 that is hindsight. (As all coaches will.)

But anyone who’s paying attention also knows that Bob alone isn’t the problem. A chef can only make an exemplary meal with exemplary ingredients. Our player pool is not providing those ingredients.

And that’s not Bob’s fault.

The problem is systemic. And systems are hard to change.

The USA has “grown” a national player pool filled with adequate athletes, that tend to be very limited soccer players. It has prioritized brawn over creativity.  Durability over soccer cunning.   (There are notable execptions, sure.  But we know that exceptions are there to prove the rule, don’t we?)

Frankly, the discussion should be less about who replaces Mr. Bradley, and more about the structure that would lead to long-term success.

Replacing one coach with another is unlikely to change much.

Sure, there would likely be a momentary surge in on field focus and motivation to impress the new guy. There may be some personnel shake-ups on the field. Maybe some new tactical decisions and sophistication might be seen.

But at the end of the day, the new coach will still deal with a mediocre player pool (relative to the world’s best, or even our southern neighbor) that lacks any cohesive system or style.

The bigger issue is that the new coach will assume a position that offers very little influence over changing it.   To foster true change, our youth, professional and National programs would need a discernable style and priority alignment that what exists today.

The question though, is do we have it in us to make the hard changes?

This isn’t new. Let’s not pretend. It’s just hard to deal with.

On August 4, 2009, I went ahead an picked a “style” for the USA to target, and suggested a change:

“If we want a true “style” — and one of possession-oriented, attacking soccer I’d hope — a simple switch of coaches won’t make much of a dent in our current direction. I’d suggest we need to find someone that has a history of building teams with such a style, guarantee them time to experiment and learn the US system (since I suspect this person is not American) and give them greater-than-normal control over the US Soccer development machine. That greater control means they would have a say in both the development and management of quality players.”

If the idea of a newcomer having “greater-than-normal” control sounds familiar, it did to me too. In that post, I said, “Sounds a bit like what almost happened with Jürgen Klinsmann, no?”

But this isn’t about Klinsmann the man. I’m not sure he’s the right person.

However, the right person would be a “name” like Klinsmann I think. Someone who demands respect and can command the attention of our many politicized soccer factions – because a stylistic change needs some level of buy-in from independent sources like MLS, which is becoming the new training/proving ground for US Soccer. One who preferably has a history of building systems, developing players and cultivating a style of play.

And a connection to the ever-expanding Latin player pool in our country via language or experience sure wouldn’t hurt.

There aren’t many of these folks around around.

So what now?

What would be a meaningful move, and thus unlikely, would be a summit somewhere involving Sunil Gulati, the coaches of all Youth and Sr. National Teams (perhaps including the more powerful “new guy”), Don Garber and key MLS leadership, and a smattering of NCAA and Lower Division professional leaders that would discuss some major changes that need to occur for soccer to really move forward.

In fact, nobody should be allowed to leave that summit until some fundamental and strategic changes are identified that all parties can support in that room. Looser NCAA rules for club participation?  Funding changes for Youth Soccer that allow it to better reach the masses (urban or otherwise) and not be confined to the pay-to-play crowd we have today? A plan to increase the level of play in MLS in non traditional ways and by putting money out in the league to support it.

Oh, and they should invite Adidas. Or Nike. Or whoever writes the bigger Qatar… I mean check.  Because, without finding a way to dangle a big check in front of these disparate audiences, many won’t line up.

Because after all, we aren’t trying to fix soccer.

We are trying to fix American soccer, and even in – or especially in – this economy, money still talks.

Panama Loss Provokes Difficult Reality Check

There’s nothing like a USA National Team loss to get the fingers on the keys.

Sure, there are parallels to the New England Revolution’s loss last night, with both teams frustratingly not turning it on until it was too late. However, the emotion surrounding the two, for me at least, isn’t the same. And thus, my frustration isn’t either.

(And to be fair, by the time I made it through the Revolution game on the DVR – hey, the Bruins did deserve some attention – I was too tired to repeat the common refrains we’ve heard this season, though with a slightly brighter attitude based on an energetic second half. There, that about covers it.)

For the USA’s Gold Cup loss however, there are some thoughts that jump out at me and I am awake enough to write about them.

First, the difference between the USA’s ability to beat Canada two to zero, and lose two to one against Panama is, to me, more about playing style than playing ability.

Is Panama that good of a team? They aren’t bad, but no, I don’t think they are terrific.

But they are skillful. They control the ball and play with the skill, quick passing and trickery that the USA so infrequently displays. They play like you’d expect from a good Central or South American side.

For the USA, beating Canada is like beating a slightly worse version of itself. When in doubt, effort replaces skill in order to win.

Playing Panama is an adjustment and a reminder that despite the fact that players on the field for the US represented (theoretically) better pedigree as judged by their club teams, pedigree and professionalism are no replacement for skill and “soccer brains.”

This is simply another piece of evidence that true soccer skills development is something the USA needs to figure out in our youth development program. By the time players get to MLS, or get shipped overseas, it’s too late.

That skill deficit is something we hand to our National Team coach, Bob Bradley, to deal with. And while many USA fans have reasons they believe Bob Bradley is not the right coach for this team. I find many of those reasons farcical or delusional.  However, the the other idea that’s really sticking with me: there may be a different reason to see Mr. Bradley off into a new role.

Bob Bradley understands the game, has tried to bring in fresh/better talent as possible and treats his duties with respect (even if he’s unable to dress that way.) There comes a point where the talent within the USA team will only go so far.

However, the USA has a history of coming out flat and either being outplayed or giving up an early goal in the beginning of matches.  Tonight, it was both.

While the eleven players on the field are who really make a difference  and a coach can only do so much to predict or prevent individual errors, this early-game lethargy is the one argument against Mr. Bradley that I find most compelling.

Of course, it’s true that after an opponent gets comfortable in a lead, the USA looks better because they are allowed to see more of the ball as the opponent tends to bunker and counter-attack. But there’s rarely a killer instinct in this team that can sense and attack another team’s weaknesses during nearly any part of the game.

When there’s a history, a pattern, a near predictability to the USA’s inability to start a game with a fire in its belly, what does that tell you? It makes me start to wonder about the coach’s ability to properly get his team mentally ready for the game.

And that’s a problem that Mr. Bradley needs to answer for.

Switching gears, I think there are a few rapid-fire points worth considering at a player-level:

  1. Anyone that is still insistent that Michael Bradley is only on that field because his father is the coach is watching with their eyes closed. Michael Bradley is clearly an imperfect, if improving, midfielder, but he is a driving force in the USA midfield. If Bob Bradley was fired tomorrow, the next coach would have a similar interest in having Michael in his team.
  2. There’s quite a bit of banter on Twitter (and elsewhere) about Freddy Adu and how he “cannot even make the 18 man lineup” for the US team he’s training with. I’ve commented on Freddy before, and hope that there’s still an exciting future for him. On a more timely note, however, given that first 45 minutes we all suffered through today, it is hard to think that Freddy would have been a step down for many of those players. I haven’t seen much of the Turkish Second Division, but I bet that if you come out that flat you risk bodily harm. If not by the other team, maybe by your own fans.
  3. Lastly, I don’t know what Jermaine Jones was saying or thinking when he came off the field against Panama tonight. However, he’s not done nearly enough in that USA jersey (and certainly not tonight) that he so coarsely removed and threw for him to be given a pass. With that petty display by Jones, Maurice Edu just got his starting role back in my mind.

So as we look forward to the game against Guadeloupe, we look through a fog that worries about a lack of skill, motivation and questions around our lineup.   Hopefully we can muster a solid drubbign of Guadeloupe amd we cam chalk up some of these concerns as a post-loss over-reaction.

Hopefully.

Enough is Enough: Use “Our” Stadiums

It seems generally accepted in the MLS community, if not the US Soccer community, that soccer specific stadiums are key to the growth of soccer in the USA.

The reasons are many, and include everything from the emotionally-relevant display of faith in the sport in this country, to the very practical ownership of parking and other associated revenue streams.

Yet, I sit here watching the second USA National Team match in only a few days taking place in an American football stadium with a temporary grass field laid on top of the normally used artificial turf.

Let’s be clear, these are not good playing surfaces.

With regard to Saturday’s game against Spain in Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA, Boston Herald and MLS writer Kyle McCarthy posted this on Twitter: As one might suspect,the ball dies once it plops down on the temporary grass surface at Gillette. Chunks coming up as well. #usmnt

Tonight’s match in Detroit under a similar surface drew similar commentary.

Sports Illustrated writer and best-selling author Grant Wahl’s views on Twitter didn’t provide a much better view of the situation in Detroit, he said: Know what the fake turf in Seattle is like when it’s wet? This temporary grass field in Detroit is the opposite.

As I just watched tonight’s Gold Cup game, Carlos Bocanegra slipped down while creating a divot in a chunking turf that nearly led to a scoring opportunity for Canada and luckily did not lead to an injury.

Ironically, one reason it might not have led to a goal is it looked like the Canadian player who went around him, Will Johnson of Real Salt Lake I believe, looked to struggle to control the ball, and was staring down at the turf seemingly suggesting it did him no favors either.

While all this is going on, Sporting KC of MLS is about to open its brand new (and quite nice looking) stadium this week, which serves as an immediate reminder that there’s another way.

As the soccer community benefits from some “big bets” that MLS owners and investors are making, isn’t it time we repay the favor? It would be as simple as a declaration that US Soccer matches and key competitions will be held Soccer Specific Stadiums with a natural grass surface.

Period.

Not having such a stadium near me, this certainly isn’t said with any personal goal in mind.   But let the Revolution deal with Gillette, US Soccer has choices.

Sure, there’s an economic argument against it, with the greater capacity still existing in the American football stadiums. Guess what, there were probably economic arguments against building the soccer specific stadiums as well. But it happened.

There are probably concerns relative to location, with some soccer specific stadiums located in areas that would often lead to away-team atmospheres against some opponents. Sure, if we play Mexico in Dallas or Los Angeles, that’s a pretty big challenge.

But first, we don’t only play Mexico (yes, there are other teams that bring this challenge as well), and second, play them in Columbus or Kansas City.   Or, let’s just beat the pants off them and win those fans over.

Without data I cannot be sure of this, but I’m going to guess that there would be US Soccer supporter and MLS season ticket advance sales that could go a long way to ensuring some semblance of a pro-USA crowd.   Or at least minimize any potential disadvantage.

Whatever the concerns, it’s time get the US Men’s National Team and key competitions on grass fields and in soccer stadiums.

US Soccer, lets pay back the investors that have bet on soccer in the USA, provide our team and the teams that come here with a reasonable playing surface, and reward fans with a wonderful atmosphere and a better looking game played on an appropriate surface.

Otherwise, let’s be honest with everyone and just admit that what matters are the gate receipts.   And if that’s all you care about, let me know when Sepp and friends revote on 2022, maybe then we can negotiate a different approach.

Until that point, let’s use “our” stadiums.

Luck, Skill and the Red, White and Blues

This weekend my daughter had a right to be a bit baffled. You see, we are a household of red, white and blue soccer fans.   By this I mean we are supporters of the US Men’s National Team and the New England Revolution.

The poor thing often says “Look Dad, a Revolution flag!” Of course, those flags are typically that of the United States of America. Hey, she’s small, we’ll work on that…

But, add in a weekend like this, with the Revolution’s home opener against D.C. United closely followed but the USA’s match against Argentina, and the poor girl was rightly confused.

For the slightly more attentive fan (or critic, depending on the moment) the games had plenty to offer.

First up, the Revolution. After watching the season opener on a bad web-stream feed in a hotel room across the country, I was ready to pay a bit more attention this time.

Some early goals highlighted a solid, if unspectacular, effort – at least for those hoping for skillful, creative, possession-oriented soccer.

But along with many positives and negatives, a bigger, invisible force seems to be at play here for the Revolution. (On field) luck.

Revolution luck could be questioned when looking at the continual injury bug that visits their locker-room. But on the field? Lady Luck seems to be be a Revolution fan.

In L.A. the Galaxy had a goal called back without there being any obvious foul in the box.  The Revolution tied the Galaxy, each with a single goal.

Against D.C. United, the luck kept coming. Zack Schilawski’s goal? Hand ball?  What hand ball? Pat Phelan getting fouled in the box though a goal scoring opportunity wasn’t obvious? Sure, why not. A phantom red-card to a D.C. United player just as the Revolution were trying to milk the clock. The icing on this luck cake.

It’s too early to be sure if the Revolution are going to be good enough to push for a title this year. But as it is so often said, it’s better to be lucky than good. If New England fans get their wish, this year’s Revolution will be both.

I’ll write more about the Men’s National team after their second game this week, but I was reminded of a few “off the ball” ideas as I watched.

While I may have an irrational interest and love for Major League Soccer, there is still a certain un-replaceable energy reserved for a USA game. No matter how big and successful MLS becomes, I don’t think that will ever change.

The other big reminder I had watching USA v Argentina has been said in many ways by many people – at least in part.  It is the idea that there are no longer easy games in international soccer. As an example, the United States can beat any team it plays, on any given night.  This certainly adds to the excitement.

This, however, is not the same as saying team quality has equalized over the years. The USA Men’s National team is a good team. The Argentine National Team is a great team. Watching the fluidity of the Argentines can and should make a real soccer fan swoon, even if they lacked the killer instinct needed to finish off the USA.

The fact that tactics, fitness and athleticism means good teams can beat great teams adds excitement to International soccer.    It also adds to the lore that soccer is a “cruel” game.

And while I will unabashedly pull for the United States no matter who they play, and this trend might be good for the team I love, I’m not sure that it’s good for the game I love.

Spain’s World Cup victory gives me hope that skill and creativity can make a comeback.  But we need teams like Spain to become the rule, not the exception.