Editor’s note: Our next piece is by Eric Beard of a A Football Report…one of my favorite cerebral soccer reads. I choose not to run it late last week because I thought it would get lost in the draft “horserace” media coverage.
Eric, a member of the Emory University team is currently on location in Barcelona…studying the game as well as slithering his way into a club situation. Good luck Eric. Read more about Eric below the piece.
“You build the player like a house. The basis is the technique that happens before 12. If the player can play, the next floor is the physique at 14-15. Then it the tactical ability – how to use your technique and physique in the game. The last part, the roof, is the mental side. If you have no roof, it rains in your house. How competitive are you? How motivated to do well every day? That is the final step. I believe that hunger is something you get at 18 and remains relatively stable during your life. That is decided between 18 and 20. And that decides careers.”- Arsene Wenger
Careers in Major League Soccer tend to begin at around 21 or 22 years old thanks to the brilliantly American-sounding “SuperDraft”, which took place last Thursday in Baltimore.
Instead of the European and South American philosophy that spends years grooming talents under a certain skill set from a young age to create a cohesive unit that thinks as one, in MLS the best talents available to the clubs are picked off one at a time and after one day a team is reborn.
So who’s right: Mr. Wenger or MLS Commissioner Don Garber?
Alexi Lalas and Cobi Jones were both born in 1970 and their playing days began far before Major League Soccer came to fruition. Both players went through the college set-up before their respective careers kicked off after the 1994 World Cup, but one similarity remains: they both began their professional club careers abroad.
In 1992, when Lalas finished his time at Rutgers and had just competed in the summer Olympics, the defender with flowing ginger locks was able to get a trial with Arsenal and eventually played for the Reserve team. In 1994, Cobi Jones also went to the Premier League to ply his trade with Coventry City, featuring mostly as a substitute. Lalas never made the first team with Arsenal, but his experience gained with the Gooners helped make him a better player and perform to his potential in the World Cup. This showing led to a move to then-Serie A side Padova. Let’s not forget that in the early 90’s Serie A was the best league in the world with the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Juan Sorin, Didier Deschamps, Dennis Bergkamp, Jean-Pierre Papin, and the list goes on. Lalas is the first to admit that the focus the Italians placed on the defined details in the game during training was something he had never been exposed to before.
Of course, in 1996 Major League Soccer began and a plethora of American talent abroad, including Alexi and Cobi, returned home for its inaugural season.
The teams in the league had no history aside from the experience of their players in other competitions.
In 1996, with no real structure compared with the vast reserve leagues and youth academies clubs with century-long histories in other continents, a draft made sense in MLS. There were no academies in place, so what was more logical than equally distributing the best young talent as it comes?
But now, 15 years later, nearly every single MLS team has an academy, though they are of little use thanks to the ease of picking up the best established talent at the university level. Does this method make sense for individual clubs? Certainly.
It’s so easy! Steve Nicol, Liverpool legend and manager of the New England Revolution, has been notorious for picking players from the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference), especially Wake Forest. And he’s done well in the league creating solid MLS-caliber players year-in, year-out.
The precise problem, which Nicol’s mindset exemplifies, is that clubs like the Revolution are doing enough to get by rather in comparison to the other teams rather than developing a true style of play and consistent club philosophy.
When Nicol chose a player like (now MLS Cup-winning) Jeff Larentowicz in the 4th Round of the draft, he did so to fill a specific role rather than to set the league on fire. Andy Dorman and Clint Dempsey had been speculating moves abroad for quite some time, so Steve needed a reliable player to fill in when they left.
This mentality of using a draft as the primary means to recreate the squad kills the very purpose of an academy.
And this translates to the good ole USMNT….
One of US Soccer’s greatest weaknesses is that it does not have a style of play.
Some have chosen to blame this on Bruce Arena or Bob Bradley or whoever is next in the pecking order, but the reality is that as time passes individual MLS clubs have an ever-increasing responsibility to produce players that can compete with the best in the world.
The club-to-country connection between this “Total Football” culture was perfectly exemplified in the World Cup final this past year. We saw Spain take down the Netherlands, but we were truly witnessing the Ajax academy products being defeated by Barcelona’s La Masia legends. Stekelenburg, Heitinga, Ooijer (left at 20 and never made a first team appearance), Van der Wiel, De Jong, Sneijder, Van der Vaart, and Babel all started at Ajax, whereas Valdes, Pique, Puyol, Busquets, Xavi, Fabregas (left at age of 16 for Arsenal), Iniesta, and Pedro represented the Blaugrana since they were as young as 9 or 10.
Beyond nations let’s look at Lionel Messi, the world’s best player of the year. He was born Argentinean, but he was very much bred Catalan. He joined the Barcelona cantera at the age of 11, as did Xavi. (Barca so believed that Messi was a major thread in the Camp Nou fabric that they helped diagnose and manage a hormone deficiency.)
Andrés Iniesta joined at the grand old age of 12.
The point is that Messi is now 23 and he has already spent the majority of his life under Barcelona’s philosophy. The effective, attacking system of football established with the help of Johan Cryuff produces the world’s best players, but years of familiarity with this intricate system is essential, as even some of football’s greatest talents, such as Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, failed to adjust to intricate “tiki-taka” football later in their careers.
Though I could simply spend the next twelve paragraphs praising Barcelona’s system, the truth is that how Barcelona play is irrelevant.
Barcelona can be mesmerizing to you or Barça can play, as Barney Ronay put it, mainstream “Coldplay football.”
What is actually important is that Barcelona, like Ajax, Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Lyon, Benfica, Santos, Boca Juniors, and every other side with history, has a set of beliefs and a style of play that permeates within itself and within its players. I’ve heard it a thousand times from my “Child Development major” friends, the younger you are the easier it is to learn and adapt and, more importantly, develop an identity around what you learn.
Imagine if Alexi Lalas was in the Arsenal set-up from the age of 11 or if Cobi Jones was at Vasco de Gama when he was just starting to discover cornrows. Organizations have already taken to the this “build from the ground up” mindset, with Toronto FC bringing in brilliant minds of the game like Dutchman Aron Winter, former Arsenal player Paul Mariner, and German maestro Jurgen Klinsmann. It’s no coincidence. It’s time for MLS to realize that the time has come to stop taking the easy road with the SuperDraft and to place their resources where it matters sustainably for the league and for US Soccer.
Eric’s club gambit in Barcelona:
I have a tryout tonight with a local club team. Manchester La Flanna. They need a center mid…
<Here’s how it came about>
Twitter is magical. Paul Giblin of Madrid was following AFR, who put me in contact with FourFourTwo/GQ/más journo Andy Mitten who lives here. Andy founded Manchester La Flanna 5 years ago, but no longer plays (or is involved with the operations) due to his family (I’m sure you understand).
So he then put me in touch with Stephen Anthony Love, the gaffer, who is meeting me at the nearby metro stop at 9 pm tonight. It’s somewhere in between semipro and rec, they practice on Wednesdays and play on Sundays. Although I went to see a match and I’d say it was more or less DIII College level, so what I’m used to. Apparently a few of the best players in the league each year get picked up by pro squads, but that’s not really a (tangible) aspiration of mine.
<Matt, TSG: Love stories like this>