The Bradenton Effect

Since the late 1990’s, US Soccer has been grooming the best American teenagers they can find in a full time residency program in Bradenton, Florida.  Each cycle would culminate with a FIFA U17 World Cup, for which the United States has always qualified… except for the 2013 mess presided over by Richie Williams.

Bradenton was an interesting experiment, especially for a country like ours that was well behind the major soccer powers when it came to player development.  I really think it was a good idea at the time.  But as the program has lurched along in recent cycles, the question is not “Does the program still work”, but “Did it ever work?”

To answer that question, I think it’s fair to judge the program on these following three outcomes:

  • Has the program enhanced our country’s production of players for the Senior World Cup team?
  • Has the program enhanced our country’s production of solid professional and National team caliber players?
  • Has the program enhanced our country’s results at the U17 Fifa World Championships?

Players have come and gone through the U17 Residency Program over the years, staying for different lengths of time and not always starting or finishing a full cycle.  There also are some players who have gone on to play for the US National Team but never appeared in a U17 World Cup, such as Bob Bradley and Aaron Johansson, and also players who played in the U17 World Cup without being part of the Bradenton system.  Since I cannot find a complete record of all the players who have ever participated in the U17 Residency Program, I have chosen to focus on players who were selected for the rosters of the  U17 World Cup teams (or, in the case of the 2013 class, the  CONCACAF tournament roster) when tracking the program’s efficacy in developing players.  This seemed fairer to me than just cherry picking data to support a conclusion.

Has the program enhanced our country’s production of players for the Senior World Cup team?

The U17 Residency Program got off to an explosive and promising start.  The first group to “graduate” to a U17 World Cup from Bradenton was the Class of 1999.  Alumni Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey, Oguchi Onyewu, and Kyle Beckerman would go on to win more than 400 caps between them, and all would appear in at least one FIFA World Cup. Add in a 4th place tournament finish in New Zealand, and it looked like we were on to something.

Any country in the world, even the established superpowers like Germany and Brazil, would be hard pressed to emulate the performance of that group on a relative scale.

Unfortunately that result seems to have been more the result of a serendipitous “Golden Generation” (on a relative scale, of course) as opposed to a foundation for future success. In the subsequent 8 two-year cycles Bradenton has produced only three other players who have managed to play in both a U17 and Senior World Cup. (see chart below)

 

Screenshot (81)

Has the program enhanced our country’s production of solid professional and National team caliber players?

There are more internationals and professional players coming out of The U17 program now than in the pre-Bradenton era, but there has to be, doesn’t there? In 1999 MLS was only in its third season.  Prior to 1996, professional opportunities for American players were extremely limited.  The very best could venture overseas (with limited success).  Others could join the few existing A League teams or play indoor soccer.  Today, going overseas is still a difficult proposition, but with MLS continually expanding and with increasing opportunities in the USL and NASL, there are more opportunities for professional American players than there have ever been.

But while the pure volume of MLS and other professional players coming out of our U17 program seems more than acceptable when compared to other countries that have a professional domestic league, there seems to be an issue of quantity over quality.  The threshold for making my list is one single league appearance in MLS or a professional league.  Yes, there are definitely some solid and even good players that have come through Bradenton, but the vast majority of those players are reserves who will have to settle for a handful of appearances in the top flight before moving on to sell insurance,  or journeymen role players. Bradenton graduates who can impact a professional level game on either side of the ball, even in MLS, are few and far between.  Yes, of course development is a fickle and inefficient process. Even countries like Germany and Argentina have loads of U17 National Team players who fade into oblivion. But these Bradenton kids are supposed to be the best players we could find, who were given the best training we could offer in a federation funded program. Given those circumstances, the “wow” factor is conspicuously absent from our U17 residency graduates. Sure, in many cases the hype never matched reality, but look at all the players who came into the program touted as “something special” who are either out of the game or mired in pro careers that are anything but special.  Meanwhile, MLS and the USMNT are full of players who took much different developmental paths and are having much greater success.

Here is an in depth record of players from our U17 World Cup rosters and how they have fared professionally and internationally

I compiled the data myself from information gathered from the websites of FIFA, US Soccer, and MLS, with Wikipedia filling in the gaps.  It is accurate to the best of my knowledge as of December 2015.  Players recognized as having played in MLS (defined as having made at least one league appearance, not just signing a contract) are noted.  Players who have appeared in notable foreign leagues abroad and USL/NASL are noted as well, but I’m sure I’ve missed a few (or you may disagree either way as to what constitutes “notable”)

Active Players are in bold, whether they are currently in the National Team picture or not

1985 U16 World Cup Squad

Full Internationals (caps)

  • Brian Benedict (4)
  • Neil Covone (5)
  • Henry Guttierez (1)

MLS: Lyle Yorks, Chris Kelderman,

Other Pros: Joey Valenti, Larry McPhail

In addition, Curtis Pride played 11 years of Major League Baseball

1987 U16 World Cup Squad

Full Internationals (caps)

  • Troy Dayak (9)
  • Mike Burns (75)
  • Erik Imler (1)
  • Chad Deering (18)
  • Steve Snow (2)

Other Pros: Ben Crawley, Marco Ferruzzi

1989 U16 World Cup Squad

Full Internationals (caps)

  • Jorge Salcedo (3)
  • Claudio Reyna (118)
  • Imad Baba (1)

MLS: Nidal Baba, AJ Wood, Brian Bates

Other Pros: Rivers Guthrie, Bill Baumhoff,

1991 U17 World Cup Squad

Full Internationals (caps)

  • Nelson Vargas (4)
  • Mark Jonas (1)
  • Matt McKeon (1)

MLS: Temoc Suarez, Mike SIlvinski, Albertin Montoya, Brian Kelly, Will Kohler

1993 U17 World Cup Squad

Full Internationals (caps)

  • John O’Brien (32)
  • Jorge Flores (1)
  • Jon Busch (1)

MLS: Carey Talley, Judah Cooks, Steve Armas, Jason Moore, Tony Soto, Andy Kirk

1995 U17 World Cup Squad

Full Internationals (caps)

  • Nick Garcia (6)
  • Nick Rimando (21)
  • Tim Howard (106)

MLS: Carl Bussey, Francisco Gomez

Other Pros: Grover Gibson, Caleb Norkus, Ryan Trout

1997 U17 World Cup Squad

Full Internationals (caps)

  • Danny Califf (23)
  • Taylor Twellman (30)

MLS Players: Gus Kartes, Marshall Leonard. Nick Downing, Kyle Seger

Other Pros: Bryheem Hancock

1999 U17 World Cup Squad  FIRST BRADENTON CLASS

Full Internationals (caps)

  • DaMarcus Beasley (123)
  • Landon Donovan (156)
  • Bobby Convey (46)
  • Oguchi Onyewu (69)
  • Kyle Beckerman (51)

MLS:  DJ Countess, Nelson Akwari, Alex Yi,  Adolfo Gregorio, Abe Thompson, Jordan Cila, Seth Trembley, Steve Cronin

2001 U17 World Cup Squad

Full Internationals (caps)

  • Eddie Johnson (63)
  • Santino Quaranta (15)
  • Chad Marshall (11)
  • Justin Mapp (8)

MLS: Mike Magee, Jordan Harvey, Tyson Wahl, Chris Lancos, Jordan Stone, Craig Capano

2003 U17 World Cup Squad

Full Internationals (caps)

  • Jonathan Spector (36)
  • Freddy Adu (17)
  • Eddie Gaven (8)
  • Danny Szetela (3)

MLS: Corey Ashe, John DiRaimondo, Guillermo Gonzalez, Michael Harrington, Jamie Watson, Julian Valentin, Jacob Peterson

Other Pro: Kyle Helton, Steve Curfman, Quentin Westerberg

2005 U17 World Cup Squad

Full Internationals (caps)

  • Jozy Altidore (89)
  • Omar Gonzalez (30)
  • Neven Subotic (36 caps for Serbia)

MLS: Amaechi Igwe, Kevin Alston, Quavas Kirk, Kyle Nakazawa, Gabriel Farfan, Michael Farfan, Blake Wagner, Nik Besagno, Brian Perk, Jeremy Hall

Other Pro: Preston Zimmerman, Diego Restrepo, David Arvizu

2007 U17 World Cup Squad

Full Internationals (caps)

  • Brek Shea (34)
  • Fuad Ibrahim (10 caps for Ethiopia)
  • Greg Garza (9)

MLS: Zac MacMath, Sheanon Williams, Tommy Meyer, Chris Klute, Jarred Jeffrey, Kofi Sarkodie, Ellis McLoughlin, Kirk Urso, Billy Schuler, Danny Cruz

Other Pro:   Josh Lambo, Bryan Dominguez, Alex Nimo,

2009  U17 World Cup Squad

Full Internationals (caps)

  • Juan Agudelo (20)
  • Luis Gil (2)
  • Perry Kitchen (2)

MLS: Jack McInerney, Jared Watts, Tyler Polak, Eriq Zavaleta, Andy Craven, Boyd Okwunyu

Other Pro: Will Packwood, Carlos Martinez, Stefan Jerome, Marlon Duran, Stefan Jerome, Spencer Richey, Carlos Martinez, Keith Cardona

 

2011  U17 World Cup Squad

Full Internationals (caps)

  • None

MLS: Matt Dunn, Dillon Serna, Jack McBean, Kellyn Acosta, Marc Pelosi

Other Pro: Esteban Rodriguez, Alejandro Guido, Paul Arriola,

2013  U17 World Cup Squad

Full Internationals (caps)

  • Rubio Rubin (3)

MLS: Conor Donovan, Justen Glad, Tom Redding, Tyler Turner

Other Pro: Shaquell Moore, Junior Flores, Elijah Martin,

2015  U17 World Cup Squad

Full Internationals (caps)

  • None

MLS: Alex Zendejas

Other Pro: Haji Wright, Tyler Adams

The chart below is another way to compare Bradenton’s record of developing top class players.  Once again, the Class of 1999 is the exception, not the rule

Screenshot (80)

Has the program enhanced our country’s results at the U17 Fifa World Championships?

Last, and least importantly, let’s look at results in U17 World Cup play. Of course, these results in and of themselves are not super important in the Grand Scheme of player development.  But because of the frequency of these tournaments, I think that our tournament results can give us insight into how the program is trending.  We are constantly being told by USSF that American Soccer is getting better and better all the time.  Logically, if we are improving as soccer country, our results and performances at all levels should be trending upwards as well.

Take a look at our collated results from every U16 and U17 FIFA World Championship. Do you see improvement or stagnation?

Screenshot (77)

Again, we have the outlier class of 1999.  Congratulations to Landon, DaMarcus, and the other members of our Golden Generation. This group accounts for USMNT’s solitary win in a knockout round of the U17 World Cup.  Like our solitary knockout win in a Senior World Cup, the victim was CONCACAF rival Mexico.

All told, the USA is a staggeringly consistent 1-9 in post group stage games, falling at the same second round stumbling block over and over again.  Granted, there have been occasional good results against traditional soccer powers in the group stages over the years, but when it comes down to win or go home, we go home.

So back to the three questions:

  • Has the program enhanced our country’s production of players for the Senior World Cup team?
  • Has the program enhanced our country’s production of solid professional and National team caliber players?
  • Has the program enhanced our country’s results at the U17 Fifa World Championships?

I believe the answer to each of these questions is an unqualified “No”, especially once you take the outlier class of 1999 out of the equation.  As to the reasons, those are very much open to debate.  Are we picking the wrong players? Are we picking the wrong coaches? Are we teaching them the wrong things? Does the lack of “meaningful” competition during residency impede development? Some or all of the above?

When all is said and done, does it really matter?  We have been putting a lot of our eggs into the same basket for a long time now, without making any measurable progress.  I say it’s time to shut Bradenton down and invest the resources elsewhere.  What do you think?

The Strange World of 6th Grade Girls Soccer

This is an article I wrote back in 2009, during my first every foray into coaching School Soccer. 

On Monday we played Hunt Middle School. 6th grade school soccer in Tacoma is strictly “no cut-everyone plays”. I was planning for 28 eligible players, but a bunch of kids apparently forgot that there was a game since they are normally on Tuesdays & Thursdays. It may have helped that I had “forgotten” to tell them on Friday.  So only 21 made the trip. Darn 🙂 Most of the ones I need are actually on the bus, so I’m good with it. On the ride I scrap my elaborate Three-people-for every-position substitution plan for a simpler 2 for 1 schematic. (ed note: The 3-for-1 plan did eventually go into action later in the season, and I actually made “corrals” out of cones to keep my two extra team’s worth of players organized on the sidelines)

Hunt only has nine players. Five of them have soccer shoes. If they have fewer than 11, we have to play with an equal number, per league rules. I start doing the math for a new substitution plan. Luckily, two more Hunt players return from the bathroom in time for kickoff.

Our varsity coach, has had problems with kids trash talking his teams on some of his away visits. I had the opposite issue. There is a group of rough looking boys sitting on some bleachers nearby. They are yelling at the Hunt players.
“You suck, Hunt!”
“Meeker is gonna stuff you!”
“You don’t have a prayer, Hunt, you’re goin’ DOWN!”

I ask my girls if they know any of those kids.  They don’t

“Hey guys! What school do you go to? Hunt? Oh. Carry on…”

I used to play on this field back when I was in college. On Saturday mornings all the best players in Tacoma used to turn up here. If you made a bad pass it was a long time before you saw a ball again, unless you won it yourself. Those days are over. The field is in a horrible state; bare in some spots, ragged and overgrown in others. At least it’s a beautiful day. The last time I was here the field looked and played like a rice paddy and the game was held in monsoon conditions.

We take the kickoff, make three passes, and score. 1-0 after about 8 seconds. The first time a Hunt player touches the ball is to pick it out of the net. It’s like Germany-Holland 74 without the penalty kick.  The second time a Hunt player touches the ball is to propel the kick off directly to one of our players. We march down the field and score again. 2-0 after about 190 seconds. Now if this was a club soccer game I would be delighted, but this is Middle School Soccer, where the District AD will give a school’s AD an earful if a coach runs up the score too high. I need to put on the brakes because at the current pace we’re on course for a 40-0 result.

I had a carefully crafted substitution plan to make sure I always had strong players down the spine of the team. I scrap this plan and sub out all ten field players at one time. It doesn’t matter, and the second platoon makes it 4-0 before they all come off again. Hunt has crossed midfield exactly once.

When the score gets to 6-0, I tell the first wave of girls that we are going to limit scoring to eight goals, and that before we can score another goal, we have to string TEN consecutive passes together. Yes, if you lose the ball, you have to start counting over. I’ll count and let you know when you can go to goal, you guys worry about the passes. But before I can pull off the crew that’s on the field and tell them the new rules, the 7th goal goes in.

So in the second half the girls are really working to string ten passes together. Seven seems to be the stumbling block, then they manage ten passes twice but in their excitement they find themselves offside on both occasions. I haven’t told the parents, but they have figured it out. I can here them whispering on the sidelines. “Six…seeeeven… yes, yes,…AAgh!”

Late in the game, I get the opportunity to say something that I have never said in 14 years of coaching.

As a player runs onto the field, I actually hear these words come out of my mouth: “Hey wait! You can’t take your cell phone onto the field with you!”

Middle School Soccer. Like nothing else

 

Surge International Bolivia 2016

As 2015 comes to a close, planning is already underway for Surge International to return to Bolivia in 2016

This Christian mission focuses on the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra (the fastest growing metropolitan area in South America) and several smaller communities in the nearby Montanas de la Valle.  Bolivia is an amazing, soccer-crazed country full of warm, friendly people; many of whom have tremendous spiritual and physical needs.  Our job is to support local people who are already doing good work in these communities in any way we can, using futbol as a way to build and foster relationships and deliver a message of hope and salvation through Jesus Christ

Current projects:

Santa Cruz de La Sierra

U.E.B. Escuela de Futbol: What started out several years ago with one coach and one soccer ball has now grown into a full fledged soccer academy that uses “Divine Principles” to teach both soccer and life skills to mostly lower income boys and girls in Santa Cruz.  There is no shortage of soccer schools in this futbol obsessed city, but the U.E.B. is unique in it’s approach due to it’s affordability and Christian message.

Surge International provides staff for special week long camps, new and used gear and equipment, and technical support to the local coaching staff

Fulbito Street Ministry: Fulbito is what the locals call their outdoor version of futsal, played on concrete courts that are ubiquitous to the city.  What started out as a way for Surge team members to let off steam and play some pickup soccer for fun is now developing into a opportunity to build relationships and positively impact the lives of young men and women who live in the area near the Stansberry Children’s Home where our team is based.

(Stansberry Children’s Home, by the way, is an amazing organization for Bolivian orphans that could also really use your support)

Montanes de la Valle:

A bus trek through jungle passes takes us up into the desert at the foot of the Andes.  Working with local communities, Surge’s three pronged programming includes

Soccer Camps– free games, instruction, and activities for local kids of all ages

Coaching Education– Sharing tactical, technical, and teaching methodology with local coaches and teachers who do not have much exposure to modern coaching education and ideas

Futsal Competion– In each community we visited,  Surge fielded a mens and a womens team for friendly games against local competition.  Our womens team won every game in 2015.  Our mens team, featuring mostly multi sport high school kids, could use some reinforcements for 2016

We are not looking to be a traveling road show.  Our goal is to grow and build all of these relationships long term. As this ministry grows, we will be adding other projects as well.  If you have gifts or skills that could strengthen our group, and if God is putting it on your heart to help these wonderful Bolivian people, please contact us via our website http://www.surgesoccer.org

 

 

 

Want to Play in Serie A? All roads lead to Rome, but the highway goes through Montevideo

Last year I looked at which countries are best at producing players for Serie A, and this fact may or may not surprise you: Italy only comes second on the list. Yes, in terms of sheer numbers Italy comes out on top. But in terms of players produced per capita your chances of turning out for Juve, Inter, AC MIlan, et al are actually better if you were born in Uruguay.

I based this conclusion on league appearances in the 2014-2015 season.  In order to be counted, a player had to have appeared in at least one league game during that season.  Yes, I did check where each player was born, but that was as meticulous as the research got.  I’m not beyond relying on Wikipedia for other data. (I do have a job)

Twelve Uruguayan born players took the pitch in Serie A during the 2014-2015 season. Based on a current Uruguayan population estimate of 3.324 Million people, and assuming half of those Uruguayans are male, that means there was one Uruguayan who appeared in Serie A for every 138,500 Uruguayan males.  Granted, the statistical advantage for Uruguayans is slight… the ratio is 1:140,082 for Italians.  But it is still pretty amazing accomplishment for Uruguayan football development, particularly when compared to their Argentinian rivals.  Despite being the most common nationality for foreign born players in Serie A, the Argentine ratio is a surprisingly weak 1:547,044. On a per capita basis, Uruguayans are more than three times as likely to play in Serie A than their bitter rivals.

Okay, so when dealing with a country the size of Uruguay, the sample size is always going to prove problematic and the data can be taken with a grain of salt. But when you look at the historical numbers, Uruguay’s contribution to Serie A is even more impressive.  According to stats gleaned from Wikipedia, the country that boasted a population of just over a million people when in won the first World Cup in 1930 has sent a grand total of 154 players to Serie A, including those Oriundi who would become naturalized Italian citizens.  The Argentines, by contrast, have sent 314 players to Serie A. Twice as many, but again they have always had more than ten times the population Uruguay has.

 

 

  Italian born Uruguayan born Argentine born
Players with at least one league appearance in Serie A during the 2014/2015 season  

217

 

12

 

39

 

  Italy Uruguay Argentina
Estimated 2014

Population

 

 

60,796,000

 

3,324,000

 

42,670,000

 

  Italy Uruguay Argentina
Ratio of Serie A players to total male population

 

1:140,083 1:138,500  

1:547,051

 

Uruguay’s success at developing players for Italian soccer did not surprise me, in fact the data was collected in order to settle a bet with an Anorak who… as it turns out…. doesn’t quite know-it-all.

But the scale at which such a small country can continually punch above it’s weight is staggering to me, Especially in comparison to the USA, which has sent a grand total of three players to Serie A in my lifetime… and one of those was Alexi Lalas.  At least now with Guiseppe Rossi back this year, we actually have a ratio: 1 in 155 million.

 

VIDEO of the month: Chicago Sting @ New York Cosmos 1984

I remember watching this game on Sportsvision in my rec room as a 19 year old.  I was so excited to see my beloved Sting put the Bully Beatdown on the Cosmos in Giants Stadium.  Even Robert Meschbach scored!!!! What I didn’t quite grasp at the time was how clearly this game signaled that the Cosmos and the NASL were very much on their last fumes.  I started following soccer in 1982, the year after the Sting won their first Soccer Bowl, so I had never known anything other than contraction, franchise relocation, and dispersal drafts.

The Sting had always enjoyed a good rivalry with the Cosmos.  I’m pretty sure that Chicago had a better win-loss percentage against the Cosmos than any other team that had ever been in the league.  But this was too easy.  With a heat wave baking the Giants Stadium carpet to 130 degrees (literally breaking the on-field thermometer) the idea of a Cosmos team going down 5-0 at home in front of an empty stadium pretty much says it all.   Dancing on my coach as the fifth goal went in, I might as well have been dancing on the league’s grave. The Cosmos were going out not with a bang, but a whimper.  And the remaining eight teams would follow them out the door a few months later.

But hey… 31 years later.  We’ve all moved on, so let’s take a look back

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Chicago Sting @ Cosmos 1984 First Half 

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Chicago Sting @ Cosmos 1984 Second Half

Throwback Thursday: Beckham-It all Makes Sense Now

From July 14, 2009

Vainman_v1

Just 48 hours before Goldenballs prepares for his on-field return to the LA Galaxy from his self-orchestrated loan to AC MIlan, Beckham is still being featured in the press preposterously contradicting himself in the same breath by professing

1) His unbridled commitment to “the” MLS and the Los Angeles Galaxy
and
2) His desire to return to AC MIlan (or, as he recently hinted, any team in the EPL that might fancy him)

Arrogant? Stupid? Out of touch? Condescending? Hardly!

It’s just that since arriving in LA, David has been channelling one of the greatest American movie characters of our time, Rain Man’s Raymond Babbitt. The parallels are uncanny.

Savant-like genius ability in a specific field: check!
Lives in his own world protected by “handlers”: check!
Difficulty relating to “regular” people: check!
Frequent use of the word “yeah”: check!
Spends too much time with Tom Cruise: double check!

So when David talks about his near term football plans, he is simply playing out his own version of the scene near the end of the movie when the doctors can’t get Dustin Hoffman’s character to understand that going back to the institution and staying with his brother Charlie are two different choices. I can see the scene being played out now, with Galaxy coach Bruce Arena and MLS Commissioner Don Garber playing the roles of the exasperated doctors, as David continually contradicts himself:
“I definitely want to go back to Milan. Yeah…. I’m definitely commited to the MLS. Yeah…. Of course I’m an excellent d(r)iver…..”

David, are YOU taking any perscription medication?

This being Hollywood, I sense an opportunity for a remake her, with Tom Cruise reprising his role and David Beckham supplanting Dustin Hoffman. We can call the movie “Vain Man”

Heading for Disaster? A Tale of Four Concussions

US Soccer just settled a lawsuit regarding concussions and heading the ball 

The epidemic of concussions in American Youth Soccer is a real issue.  But is heading the chief culprit? Taylor Twellman certainly thinks so

Here is the concussion advocate and former USMNT player talking with Bob Ley on ESPN’s Outside The Lines

Bob Ley:  “There’s a lot… going on in the game. There’s contact.  There’s elbows.  There’s a clash of heads just going up for the ball. There’s falling down to the ground….  What percentage do you guess as a very educated layman on this, of trauma might be occurring just because simply of heading? Because there’s a lot of other stuff going on.”

Taylor Twellman: “I don’t think we have enough data that says heading a soccer ball causes concussions. The act of heading a soccer ball… that is where the majority, if not all concussions in the sport of soccer occur.”

Well, since a prominent concussion advocate sees no reason to back up his argument with data or statistics, neither do I. Instead, I will draw on 35+ years of experience as a player, coach, and (reluctant) administrator in the game.  And what my experience tells me is that the concussion problem with Youth Soccer has much less to do with heading the ball and much more with the overall culture of soccer in this country, and how the game is subsequently played, coached, and refereed.

I’ve seen plenty of concussions and head injuries. I would put heading and attempts to head the ball down to at least number five on the risk chart, especially at the younger ages and lower levels where there is a natural aversion to heading the ball anyway
I currently coach a mid level GU14 team that I took over in the summer of 2014. There have been four diagnosed concussions among my players in the past year.  Interestingly enough, our pattern of concussions fits very neatly with the overall pattern of concussions I have observed in American soccer over the years.

My team’s first concussion occurred when a girl lost her balance in a collision and hit her head on the ground while falling backwards.  I’ve seen this over and over, and had seen a carbon copy event while working at a soccer camp a month earlier.  American kids don’t learn how to fall.  Most don’t get specific agility training and most don’t get the same formative experiences that we did as kids from playing unsupervised on our own.  Unbeknownst to my parents, when I was a kid we played “train tag” on an abandoned rail spur near our neighborhood.  Slipping off a caboose on to fist sized gravel and steel rails teaches you how to fall well.  A less extreme example: in about 50 hours of playing and observing players of all ages engaged in very physical games of futsal on cement courts in Bolivia over the past two summers, I never saw one head injury, or even a serious hard fall.  It seems tht for American kids, playing Xbox is not an effective substitute for the experiences of physical play.

We can significantly reduce concussions in American soccer by teaching kids how to fall.

The second concussion occurred when a player fell to the ground after a series of two handed shoves in the back from an opponent.  She rode the first two but the third sent her tumbling to the turf.  The referee saw nothing wrong with the challenge(s) and did not award a foul. Again, I see this over and over.  Whatever a ref permits, a ref promotes. So because most referees let a lot of illegal contact and sloppy fouls go in the interest of “letting them play” and “keeping the game flowing”, I see plenty of illegal contact and sloppy fouls at all levels of the game. Many of these fouls lead to injury, including ample concussions

If referees strictly and uniformly enforce the laws of the game, there will be fewer concussions in American soccer

The third concussion occurred when one of my forwards closed down a defender in possession of the ball.  With plenty of space to dribble and passing options to both sides, the defender aimlessly smacked the ball as hard as she could, striking my player in the side of the head. Again, nothing new here. I received my own concussion this way in an Over-40 game a few years ago.  We don’t teach our kids how to play properly.  “Not across the goal”, “Send it”, and “Get rid of it” are part of the American soccer fabric.  If you condition your players to be afraid of the ball, then they are going to treat the ball like a hand grenade that has been chucked out of the foxhole as soon as possible.  The results are predictable. In American soccer, from little kids all the way to college and MLS, the ball is in the air way more than in most other countries.  Not only do you risk a smack in the head for your pressing efforts, but it also creates an environment where aerial challenges and the potential for clashes of the head become commonplace.

If coaches eschew the boot ball style of play and teach players how to play with more skill, control, and intelligence, there will be fewer concussions in American soccer
The fourth concussion occurred when an attacker recklessly charged my goalkeeper who had just smothered the ball.  With the chance to win the ball long gone, the attacker slid in anyway, kneeing the keeper in the side of the head.  In my experiences this typifies the majority of concussions I have seen at the youth level…. Simple bad, reckless, and careless challenges all over the pitch.  Bad technique, bad decision making, no attempt to control one’s body, and no regard for opponents. Coaching is the same as refereeing.  What you permit you promote.  So regardless of whether you are not teaching proper technique, are teaching violent play, or simply turning a blind eye to your player’s bad tackles and swinging elbows, the result is going to be the same… Lots of injuries.

Teaching your players to properly and legally challenge for the ball will significantly reduce concussions in American soccer.

So what about heading? Let’s address high school first.  I did my hard time.   I spent five years working in an inner city high school as head coach.  I loved working with the kids, and if the state of the High School game in my state wasn’t such a violent hack fest, I might still be there now.  During that time I observed plenty of players removed from games due to our state’s very sensible concussion protocol.  Of these, only one case that I can remember was the result of a clash during a header.  As it turns out, there was no concussion in that incident.  The athletic trainer pulled the player from the game because “he was confused and could not answer simple questions.”  He was fine.  The problem was that the boy spoke very limited English.  Are some of those 50,000 high school soccer concussions per year the result of aerial challenges for the ball? I have absolutely no doubt.  Are the majority, or as Twellman suggests “almost all of them” the result of attempted headers?  I doubt that very much.  Again, most of the concussion scares I have seen in high school ball were the same that are typical to US youth soccer: bad falls, bad refereeing, bad coaching, bad challenges, bad style of play.  Bad soccer culture.

Do not get me wrong: challenging for headers is a serious concussion risk. But for those concussions that DO involve heading the ball it’s the same story; bad technique, bad coaching, and poor enforcement of the laws of the game play a major role.  I don’t really understand how avoiding the issue of heading during the “golden age of learning” is going to provide a knock-on benefit once kids get older.  Yes, it’s cringe-inducing to see a punted ball smack off of the top of an untrained u10 player’s skull as adults cheer.  And I agree that kids don’t need to be heading the ball much at the younger ages.  But if they are going to do it, and if they are going to need to learn how to do it, wouldn’t it be safer to teach them the proper technique and decision making instead of avoiding the issue altogether?  Shouldn’t we be working in ways to systematically and methodically train young players to be ready for that day when they are allowed to head the ball?

Proper training of the techniques and decision making of heading the ball will reduce concussions in American soccer

The problem of concussions in soccer is real.  But for me, heading is being regarded as a convenient scapegoat instead of a portion of the overall issue.  The real root of the problem is deeply embedded in our current American Soccer Culture.

Unfortunately, this lawsuit resolution is also unique to our American way of problem solving.  We have 50,000 concussions per year in high school soccer, so we ban heading for little kids who are in grade school and middle school. Now they will get little or no training until they are 14.   It seems to me that if heading is the major statistical cause of concussions at the high school level, then the problem could be more effectively addressed directly at the high school level, which is known for a preponderance of rough play, inexperienced players, inexperienced coaches, and lax refereeing.

Or is that thinking too far Outside The Lines?

Can’t be on Twitter if you don’t have a blog…

So now I have a blog. I plan to write about random soccer topics that interest me, including Youth Soccer Critique & Parody, Coaching and Player Development, American Soccer Culture, Inclusion and Soccer Outreach, Bolivian Soccer Adventures with Surge International, thoughts and ideas that cross my mind, and thoughts and ideas that crossed my mind back when there was no outlet for me to express them

Occasionally original artwork and photographs too