MLS: Follow Arsene Wenger…or Don Garber?

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.

What about the Wenger way?

“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?

Lalas takes on Valenciano sporting a hall of fame ugly kit!

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.

Revs man Steve Nicol...

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.

Messi, a true product of the right system?

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>

62 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Noah on 2011/01/19 at 1:37 AM

    I’ll agree that youth development needs to start younger, and that Americans need a more solid technical foundation.

    I think it’s a mistake to say MLS should get rid of the draft and focus on player development though. They are already on the path towards this. They realize everything you’re saying. It’s just the youth system in the US is so entrenched and it’ll take a long time to change it.

    Also much of the nation doesn’t have an MLS team, so many players aren’t going to have MLS academies to groom them. Those players should be allocated through the draft – youth free agency would just be chaotic.

    And as for “style of play”…Americans need to be more technically skilled before they develop a style of play. Right now our style of play is try to string together a few passes without losing the ball, defend aggressively and counter-attack.


  2. Posted by dikranovich on 2011/01/19 at 6:20 AM

    it is pretty ironic that cryuff has a hand in the barcalona academy that produced all these players that ended up beating his home country and the academy where he started. actually, im not sure if cryuff started at ajax, but he did play for the dips, that was a treat.

    i dont think anyone would argue, but dc united has done a nice job of setting up a particular system, regardless of the coach, dc united do have pretty distinct style of play and trophies to back it up. its ironic also that it was coach arena who initially set this up.

    people say the usa doesnt have a style of play, but really it does and maybe us soccer itself has a hard time defining the style, but it is there for sure, it migt not, it is definatly not the same style of play as barcalona, but it is still style of play.

    something is going on when a team, akron can produce as many top picks as they have. the coach has the majic touch


    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/01/19 at 7:20 AM

      Rinus Michel is ‘generally credited’ with Total Football.


      • Very true George. However, Rinus was the manager, Johan was the player. They both deserve credit. Xavi could not play to his fullest if he were not under Pep’s tactical nous, while Pep would not be able to play this brand of Total Football without Xavi.


        • Posted by dikranovich on 2011/01/19 at 8:47 AM

          eric, isnt that just the point, that barcalona plays with the same core style, regardless of the coach, or the players? what i see from barcalona is a bunch of triangles on the field and the players ping pong it around like they are playing a captain fantastic pinball machine, and the triangles never lose their shape, they just sort of slither like an amoeba around the field.


        • Precisely, I’m not sure about Matthew’s policy on this, but the good lads at In Bed With Maradona wrote an excellent piece on Barça’s La Masia and two players in particular that are being groomed specifically to replace Xavi and Iniesta ( Marti Riverola Bataller & Thiago Alcantara.

          Obviously ‘triangles’ don’t do justice to Barça’s fluid system because if it were that simple then it wouldn’t work. There’s an amazing composure amongst them that creates a perfect balance between individual and team. Anyway, I have to credit Xavi for this ‘captain fantastic pinball machine’ because his class allows his teammates to have time to rest with possession so they can play full press defense.

          I guess my original point is that Xavi & Pep are both responsible for a continuous, progressive evolution of Total Football. (

          The Dutch were never this good. Cryuff probably was individually, but compared to Barcelona as a unit? No way. (Sorry for dropping some links Matt!)


        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/01/19 at 9:58 AM

          Eric, it is easy to say that ‘every manager needs a soldier on the field’. But what you have to remember is that this was nearly 40 years ago, and to have a player like Cruyff buy into his revolutionary philosophy was unbelievable. Remember, the pitches back them were a mud-bath, you commit a Schumacher-like challenge and not even get a booking, the ball was a brick, there was hardly any sport science, nutrition etc etc.

          Question for debate: can it be total football if there are so many specialised positions in today’s game? Surely, by definition, the answer is ‘no’.


        • My response to the soldier argument is that Pep and Johan were once soldiers. They are geniuses as well and Xavi is of a similar genius. As for the era reference, great point. You’ll love Barney Ronay’s criticism of “frictionless” “Coldplay Football” Spain:


  3. Posted by dikranovich on 2011/01/19 at 6:51 AM

    when i read the comments from arsene wenger i cant help but wonder about a player like michael jordan who was cut from his freshman high school team. in the wenger setup, does a player like jordan go on to such great success? probably, because he after all is michael jordan.

    and isnt it funny that lalas had been in the arsenal setup, before he went to italy, yet it was in italy where he saw how the fine details were worked on so much.


    • Posted by Tux on 2011/01/19 at 7:45 AM

      Not to pick nits…but Jordan’s situation was a little less dire than people make it out to be. As a freshman, he didn’t make varsity – hardly an uncommon occurrence in high school. He was still in the system and started on the JV team – it’s not like he wasn’t able to play for that year.


  4. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/01/19 at 7:29 AM

    I have mentioned this before, but I think the prior step to what you’re suggesting is getting coaches in the classroom to actually be ‘qualified’ to coach a specific age group. Otherwise it’s sort of a case of ‘the blind leading the blind’.

    I will dig it up when I have more time, but Sir Trevor Brooking is always talking about some UEFA Technical Report talking about how many hours of specialised coaching the kids on The Continent get compared with X, and how many more qualified coaches they have on The Continent compared with X. He has specifically talked about it over the last five years as European countries have dominated the World Cup. Is it any coincidence that Spain, Netherlands and Germany have excelled in the international youth tourneys and they head the list when it comes to coaches who hold A & B Licences and their 10-16 year olds spend more time training? [The exception is this years Euro U21s…]


    • Having spent a few years as a USSF Grade 7 referee I can tell you that the US Soccer education techniques are in some respects decades behind. Or it seems that way anyway. I know the road to becoming a coach is similar to being a referee, though obviously more intensive. The US has the luxury of being a wonderful place to live, however, and a few years ago I also hosted an English kid from Bolton who was an “MLS Camp” coach. Essentially, I think this idea of “bringing in football minds” is incredibly effective. It’s rather Aristotelian.

      Not saying that that English lad was brilliant, but by bringing in minds like Nicol, Cantona, Mariner you certainly learn their techniques (at least through imitation at first).


      • Posted by Andy_4Lakes on 2011/01/19 at 9:29 AM

        My son’s club hired an English coaching company starting this season. The company sends over an English coach who acts as the head trainer/coach for the various teams. The instruction has been quite good. It is unfortunate that the kids have not been exposed to this level of instruction until they are 9 and 10.


      • Posted by Soccer Soap Box on 2011/01/21 at 9:22 PM

        I enjoyed the article – and many of the comments, though I think the premise that the draft is Don Garber’s preference rather than a reality of where our league and country is right now a bit of a fabricated suggestion. However, it proved the essential point, that academies and early access to talent is important.

        As a Revs follower, and thus Nicol apologist (when not frustrated by the Revs form, at least)… I note you both saw him as a mentor (“learn their techniques”) in this response, as well as thought “Nicol’s mindset exemplifies” what is wrong with dependence the draft. I’d suggest that Nicol has been good at maximizing what he was handed. He’s built decent teams with solid drafting.

        Until recently, what more did he have? He’s clearly not been given a DP green light in past years. And the Revs were reasonably slow in getting its youth programs up and running. Hopefully that will start to change, as the recent signing of Diego Fagundez (15 years old) of the Revs youth system to a contract.


  5. Posted by Russ on 2011/01/19 at 9:46 AM

    Assuming they do become the 20th MLS team (and that’s where it looks like it’s going), the Cosmos will be an interesting case study as they’ll be coming into the league with TWO academies AND a club philosophy (attacking, stylish 4-3-3). Basically the complete opposite of the circa ’96 MLS club with no history/has to draft.

    The homegrown player rule is probably the most under the radar game changer in American soccer history. I can’t wait to see how this changes the league/football culture here in 5-10 years. Really exciting times.


  6. Posted by Andy on 2011/01/19 at 10:05 AM

    Pretty stupid premise.

    The MLS “system” isn’t

    1) Don Garber’s
    2) What the article phrases it as being

    This is the classic strawman argument that doesn’t actually deal in realities.

    Anyone paying even cursory attention to MLS is well aware that teams (all of them – by league mandate) developing youth systems. Every team has U-16 and U-18 teams, with many working with younger players. The homegrown player designation is going to drastically change the way that most players are developed by and join MLS clubs.

    That said, the SuperDraft will never completely go away. For one thing, it gets MLS on TV and in newspapers in January. For marketing purposes alone, there will always be a call for a draft.

    A little less surface treatment using false black/white facts, and a bit more work into the gray (or grey, if you prefer) world of reality would be recommended for future articles.


    • Come on…

      You say the whole premise is stupid and your only rebuttal is that the draft won’t go away because of marketing purposes. You can do better than that, can’t you?


      • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/01/19 at 10:26 AM

        For everyone, directed at no one. I’m away from my commodore 64. Let’s keep the commentary impersonal and not call people stupide etc.

        Not sure if that occurred just saying.

        Oh if you must know I’m learning all about European event ticketing exchange. Exciting…


  7. Great post. I believe the root problem starts before MLS. Is this not an issue that should be handled with the USSF? It seems that the pay to play system is forcing the power divide between what is best for US soccer and what is most profitable.

    It would be great to see more involvement with the middle to lower income kids. Find a way to get these kids into the academy system to develop talent.

    Good luck with the match tonight!


    • Posted by dth on 2011/01/19 at 11:46 AM

      No. It is MLS’s problem–only MLS teams have the incentive to require no payment because there’s an end goal (pro players trained your way). Club teams’s pay-to-play system has only short-term incentives. The USSF couldn’t end pay-to-play except on a limited basis because otherwise they’d have to pay for a large percentage of youth players across the country, something they surely cannot afford.


  8. Posted by Freegle on 2011/01/19 at 10:36 AM

    I think that, as usual with discussions like this, the best solution requires a combination of both…

    Acadamies are vital in bringing quality coaching, scouting, and development but they cannot possibly do what the acadamies in Europe can for a number of reasons. The first is geography. Just using the top league teams in a country such as England or Spain for an example, you will have 20 acadamies scouring 50 thousand square miles (England) or 200 thousand square miles (Spain). The USA has 20 MLS acadamies to search 3.8 million square miles. I realize that this is a little bit of hyperbole because many of those american square miles are not producing soccer talent. But, the point remains that acadamies can’t cover all that ground.

    A second reason acadamies are not the absolute solution for development is resources, or lack thereof. This is related somewhat to geography because it means that for the most part, MLS teams are limited to their own geographical region for recruiting talent. MLS teams simply do not have the budget to board youth teams for the purposes of development. So, we have an entire southeast region with no MLS team despite ample soccer talent. Unfortunately, there are no resources to bring them to acadamies in New York or San Jose, etc. Where do those players go to develop if we only use acadamies?

    There are other reasons as well, including lack of club/league history, cultural differences, etc. Regardless, the bottom line is that the college-to-draft route of development is just as necessary for development of soccer talent in the USA because of the nature of the current landscape. It gives late bloomers, talent that has “slipped through the cracks” and players that can’t afford the “pay for play” model a chance to develop despite the factors working against them. For every Landond Donovan-type, who would come through the acadamy ranks, there is a Clint Dempsey-type who could benefit from college and the draft.


    • Posted by Noah on 2011/01/19 at 11:09 AM



    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/01/19 at 11:28 AM

      Very good post Freegle. Sensible and balanced.

      I think the important point was that you highlighted was “current landscape”. Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s going to be a gradual process. I mean if other sports can scour the country for top talent, one has to think that one day, it will be a reality for MLS teams when they have the resources (before the big European clubs get their grubby little mitts on them).


    • Posted by dth on 2011/01/19 at 11:50 AM

      Well, it’ll be great to have 16 pro teams in the U.S. doing development (remember there are three Canadian MLS teams), but that still puts us behind the eight ball, even without taking density into account. The EPL has 20 teams; La Liga 20; the Bundesliga 18. So there’s that.

      Then there’s the lower league problem–in other leagues, second divisions do quite a bit of development for their national teams, or for ours. For the US u20s there’s Bobby Wood in 1860 Munich, but other countries see similar things–your Theo Walcotts, your Conor Wickhams, your Gareth Bales, your Alex Oxlade-Chamberlains (or, for a German example: your Kevin Vollands), all of whom got their start in second or even third-division teams who were or will be sold for big cash.


      • Posted by Bode on 2011/01/19 at 12:26 PM

        I could envision the college game filling part of the void left by the lack of lower divisions. At the very least, the college game can provide an extra outlet for the near future and while US soccer continues to transition and develop. There are certainly colleges that can provide outlets for soccer talent missed by the academies (who may potentially, in the future, get the “Bale-like” US talent from a large area).


        • Posted by Hunter on 2011/01/23 at 10:46 PM

          Unfortunately college soccer is some of the worst stuff played anywhere. It’s physical with very little tactical or technical emphasis. Until that changes college soccer is not going to help anything. Between college soccer and the ODP system our young players have little chance of being successful. The whole thing needs to be revamped.


      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/01/19 at 12:28 PM

        Stop being so negative! Remember, you only need a 23 man squad… that’s 2 players for every outfield position and 3 GKs!

        BTW, [unfortunately] Bale is Welsh.


        • Posted by dth on 2011/01/19 at 12:37 PM

          @GeorgeCross Oh, I know Bale is Welsh. I’m just saying that lower division teams can produce sterling talents irrespective of nationality, and the lack of such lower division teams producing talent in the U.S. is a significant obstacle for the U.S.

          @Bede yeah, colleges do fill some of that void. The problem is that the teaching quality is extremely variable and there’s little incentive to improve–soccer isn’t a moneymaker for schools and it’s not as if they can sell players for profits.


        • Posted by John Henry on 2011/01/19 at 2:14 PM

          Out of curiosity, what do you think a Great Britain World Cup team would look like?


        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/01/19 at 2:52 PM

          Would never happen – just need to look at next year’s Olympics. Sepp cannot be trusted. I think even if there was a “one-off”, FIFA would try and screw FA, SFA and FAW as independent FAs. I wouldn’t want it either – I get far too much pleasure knowing that Wales, Scotland, NI and perhaps ROI probably won’t qualify for another tournament. It’s great watching them get worked up at the beginning of every ECQ and WCQ!

          But to go along with your hypothetical question, I’d say the following players would definitely be in for a shout for the squad:

          Gareth Bale
          Aaron Ramsey
          Adam Matthews (future)

          Craig Gordon
          Darren Fletcher
          Danny Wilson (future)

          Might as well include NI as they’re part of the UK


          And ROI – they were part of the Union only a few years ago. Plus, they don’t really have their own culture!

          Shay Given
          Richard Dunne


        • Posted by dikranovich on 2011/01/19 at 5:34 PM

          george, what the heck do you think you are doing trying to add irish players to this team. that is just wrong. ireland is not part of great britan. you are just trying to be funny arent you?


        • Posted by John Henry on 2011/01/19 at 6:45 PM

          thanks for humoring me. I thought there might be a few more than that, but surely Bale would be enough of an addition.


        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/01/20 at 8:09 AM

          I know dikranovich. That’s why I qualified my inclusion! My tongue was firmly in my cheek…

          John, given Bale’s current form, which national team wouldn’t want him?!


    • Posted by Craig on 2011/01/19 at 12:14 PM

      Although there aren’t teams in the southeast, what prevents clubs from putting an academy there anyways? Keeps the kids local, cutting costs on the club, plus the kids get exposure to a club academy. Seems like a win win. Furthermore, isn’t it good business practice to invest your money for tomorrow’s yield, not today’s? If it costs 2-3 million over the next 5 years, but in years 6-10 the players you develop come to fruition and are transfer $ worthy (or better yet perform a niche role in your club improving the team), wouldn’t it be possible to earn it all back on one talented player?


      • Posted by Russ on 2011/01/19 at 12:43 PM

        Chicago Fire has a Mississippi based youth team/academy.


        • Posted by nelson on 2011/01/19 at 10:47 PM

          yeah, that’s the jackson select team. just like Gulf Coast United is now attached to the Houston Dynamo. Give it some time. I know GCU has some awesome South African and Trinidadian coaches. so if that’s like the rest of the country it’s only a few years maybe a decade till we really start to see effects.


  9. George – Following up on the question you posed up above:

    Question for debate: can it be total football if there are so many specialised positions in today’s game? Surely, by definition, the answer is ‘no’.

    I disagree that the answer is definitively ‘No.’ The way Barca play is reminscent of how Brilliant Orange describes Total Football. The forward line has the ability to cover for their mids, and the mids have the ability to cover both forwards and backwards, while the defenders have the technical skill to play any role on the field. That sounds an awful lot like this quote from the book (not direct quote, but generalization) “XYZ would make a run from the back, and the mid would drop into his positiion to cover, and I (Cryuff) would drop back into the midfield so the defender wouldn’t have to sprint 70 yards backwards immediately.”

    Technically speaking Barca’s defined positions are nominal and they are playing a type of Total Football, in my opinion.


    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/01/20 at 8:06 AM

      I know what Total Football *is*, just asking whether the it’s possible or even desirable. Surely, if it’s so fluid, why would there be a need for a ‘specialist’ DM or No.10 or any other out field player?


      • I would say that it’s desireable for your players to be able to play it because it gives you more weapons and more opportunity. Would Onyewu, Hangeland, or even Rio Ferdinand (who’s technically very good with his feet for a defender) be able to score some of the goals or work the ball in the offensive third the way Pique does? I don’t believe so, and therein lies their limitations.

        As for specialist roles/players/positions, I believe that those only come about due to players being limited in their overall abilities but excellent at the skillset that’s necessary for that specialized position/role. Take Makelele as an example, excellent at shielding the back four and breaking up plays. However, he could barely score on a PK in one of his last seasons at Stamford Bridge. Compare that to Barca’s holding midfielder(s): Keita, Busquets, and Mascherano. Mascherano and Keita are less offensively inclined, but Busquets has shown the ability to shield the back four as well as join Xavi in the attack.

        Pipo Inzaghi is another example. His technique was terrible, so much so that most of his national teammates wondered why he’d even be called into a camp. But, he could finish. So his specialized role became the finisher and nothing more.

        To answer your question directly, Total Football is still possible, see Barcelona on most days. Is it desireable? In most cases I would say yes it’s desireable because the interchangeability of players will open up space for others to exploit. There are probably teams or coaches that you’d want to dial the fluidity back against, such as The Special One…Barca destroyed Madrid earlier this season, but there was not as much interchangeability between the front line midfield and defense as you’d see against a mid-table La Liga team.


        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/01/20 at 8:43 AM

          For what it’s worth I tend to agree with you. But I also appreciate that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and was playing a sort of devil’s advocate in this scenario. Nick, always a pleasure my friend!


      • I agree that there’s more than one way; look at the successes of teams not blessed with Barca’s depth and skill set: Atletico Madrid and Fulham made it to the Europa League final with less than half the talent that Barca posseses. Real Madrid has the talent but it’s players are more specialized and they’re successful.


  10. Side note. I know it’s still mid-afternoon for you West Coast people, but it’s midnight here in Barcelona. I was invited back to train with the team and will probably join the squad formally in another week or two. Hooray!


  11. Posted by BW on 2011/01/19 at 5:27 PM

    i think another huge element of this discussion is academics and the US educational system. an academy structure must get kids(parents) to commit more to sports than education which is asking a lot for most families. it’s a cultural shift that is a huge speed bump that must be overcome if the US is to move towards a more european football development structure.


    • Posted by Freegle on 2011/01/19 at 7:43 PM

      I agree and that is one of the “cultural differences” I referenced in my post above. But, I think it goes deeper than academics vs athletics. I believe that the cultural shift needs to go from traditional american sports toward soccer for an exclusive academy system to work. I have no doubt that there are many, many parents in the USA who would embrace an academy system in basketball or football. In fact, I think a lot of them would be falling over one another to get their kids into academies for those sports. But despite a lot of recent growth, soccer is still a few generations away from baing anything more than a “second teir” sport on the American landscape. One of the many advantages that the European and South American countries will always have over us is that cultural bias toward soccer. Not only do their children have fewer choices to begin with, but their first choice is almost always soccer. Hence, the players, the resources, the money, etc. does not get split amongst several “major” sports and acadamies get soccer clubs (and there acadamies) get everything.


    • Posted by Dave on 2011/01/19 at 7:45 PM

      Your comment addresses a question I wanted to ask, namely, to what extent is a youngster’s education sacrificed to soccer in the European academy systems?
      (The only vague notion I have of what an academy system might be is from some posts on “This Is American Soccer” about dual nationality kids going through Mexican clubs’ systems; I suspect academics might be sacrificed some there, but then access to education in Mexico is a more complicated prospect for many youngsters.)
      I realize that a fair number of athletes aren’t necessarily interested in education, and concentrating on sports can be highly profitable for some of those individuals. On the other hand, a parent might have a right to be worried that their child would, for example, appear to be a good prospect because he matured faster than others, but then flame out as others catch up at a later age. Even if he is no honor student making his education a lower priority could have life consequences.


      • This is a great point by Dave, BW, and Freegle. Just to stir the conversation further, the New York Cosmos had a teleconference when Cobi Jones was appointed associate director of soccer. I called in and asked if he thought the draft would become irrelevant if all MLS clubs starting taking the “build from the ground up approach”.

        He said it would never become irrelevant, though he admitted he would like it to be as he was an advocate of preaching intensive, focused football culture from a young age. The main “cultural problem” he recognized that other countries don’t have (as much) is the lure of a quality American education

        Even if USA does produce someone that is a genius like Cantona, under most American households he would probably always opt for Harvard before a career in MLS. Cobi said he doesn’t want to close doors, which is why the draft should stay around, even if it does prevent a player from reaching his or her potential. It’s just another talent pool, though it may be one that becomes increasingly depleted.


        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/01/20 at 8:01 AM

          In England, sport is still very much class based. Why do you think England cannot produce a world class tennis players or golfers in numbers? The barrier to entry (money)remains too high.

          Malcolm Gladwell talks about the “10,000 hour” rule in Outliers. Which socio-economic class do you think would allow their children to practice like that rather than do their homework? What background do the US’s current sports stars / athletes hail from? Is this the same demographic that plays soccer up and down the country?

          Very interesting discussion, chaps.


  12. Posted by scweeb on 2011/01/19 at 8:38 PM

    I think a quick fix would be to make a MLS Coaching site. Were they go over what fundamentals kids should learn at what age and what drills they should be doing with the kids.(not saying they have to do them but so more coaches have and idea) I think this would help out allot with the developed youth leagues in America.


    • Posted by DC Josh on 2011/01/20 at 8:53 AM

      Isn’t that what they do at the US soccer license classes? I don’t have the slightest clue on what the A, B, etc. levels include. Someone who has been there will hopefully give more insight.


      • Posted by Hunter on 2011/01/24 at 7:20 PM

        Those classes are a total joke and now US Soccer has paired up with this garbage called iSoccer. How many times you can toe tap and juggle doesn’t do anything for kids. They are learning nothing about the game at all and until that changes it makes no difference about the rest of it. Like Arsene says, you need a foundation. Learning things like juggling and toe taps and tracking how fast kids can do them is nothing more than a new way to suck more money from parents.


  13. Posted by CoconutMonkey on 2011/01/19 at 10:46 PM

    Speaking of culture, I would say that one of the defining aspects of US sporting culture is that most of our young athletes (and fans especially) aren’t necessarily married to one specific sport. Usually, a player won’t choose to focus on a specific sport until their late teens.


  14. Posted by Jay on 2011/01/20 at 7:59 AM

    Some wonderful points made here so I thought I’d chime in. While I agree with Wenger’s assessment of player development needs, I see no reason to abolish the SuperDraft. Essentially, the more paths lead to MLS, the stronger the league is as a whole; the academy system holds so much promise but even when it is established, some players will slip through the cracks. A late bloomer like Jimmy Conrad, who was a walk-on at UCLA before eventually becoming a key defender for the USMNT, is a perfect example of the type of player who may not get recognized at an early age but still has the talent and determination to succeed.

    In addition, the writer’s goals of creating a uniform American approach to player development, but I think we’re not far enough along the growth curve to start eliminating novel methods in favor of defining a mainstream approach. Over the next couple decades, if current demographic trends continue, we’ll be seeing notable changes to our society; we will begin, for example, to look much more like a Latino nation. I’m looking forward to seeing how those population changes are reflected in our country’s style of play, coaching methodologies, etc., and I think consolidation of American youth development techniques should only be enforced by some sort of governing body once we see how these changes play out on a grassroots level.


  15. Posted by Gazza on 2011/01/20 at 8:28 AM

    I agree with those who say that the draft will always be a part of MLS. Although the academies will grow I can see college soccer becoming much bigger than it is today. All it would take is a Caleb Porter type to build a program at Florida, Texas, USC etc.
    Parents will want their kids to seek higher learning and a good portion of players will want to as well because going to university (especially on scholarship) is fun.


    • Posted by DC Josh on 2011/01/20 at 8:50 AM

      True. Instead of MLS looking at other soccer leagues in Europe to develop our youth, we need to also look at how other sports develop their youth in the US.


  16. Posted by DC Josh on 2011/01/20 at 8:48 AM

    This article brings up a lot of good points about the pros and cons of the current youth development system. However, comparing the US system to that of other countries is wrong. First, our country has only had a legit, sustainable, professional soccer league for 15 years. Compare that to 100 years in South America and Europe. Second, our country is very big, while other countries are very small. The exception would be Brazil, but a large percentage of it is rain forest. Since our country is so large, we would need at least 30 professional soccer teams with youth academies to pluck the best youngsters from select teams. Since we will probably never get there, the college and high school system is there to do it for us. In the future, I would like to see MLS scouts attending more high school games, getting players into their academies before they attend college. Obviously, this means boys will be 12/13 at the very youngest. So there is still the problem of getting them in at the U-12 level. But US soccer eventually could create a system where every select team is affiliated with a club team. For example, VA/DC/MD clubs: DC United. Delaware/PA: Philly Union. I don’t think there is a black or white answer. We will never be able to go the Wenger route or the Garber route. Instead, it will be a combination.


  17. Posted by Erik the Orange on 2011/01/20 at 9:11 AM

    Great article, thanks Matt. Unless I missed a post that someone mentioned already, IMO having an Arsene or Barcelona based system is ideal. For me however, there’s a caveat to the argument of having a *style* of play in the mold of Barcelona, United, etc. What if you define a style, you hone it, have it fluid throughout your entire youth to senior team squads…but it turns out to be no good?

    Granted, a club or country would not pursue a style of play that doesn’t win games, however IMO you’d have to have the style permeate the entire system before really knowing if the style was one that could adapt to changes in the game and would allow for a winning mentality, etc. There may be dozens of other *styles* of play out there that we don’t know about because they’re just not good. Having said all of the above, I do believe that it’s better to have some style rather than no style at all.

    Good luck with the club, Eric.


  18. Posted by Maureen on 2011/01/20 at 9:34 AM

    I’ll stick with Don Garber thank you very much. Wenger doesnt have to worry about whether the premeir league or Arsenal will be around five years from now. The question should be, who do you want running MLS and insuring its survival, Garber or Wenger? One is a soccer coach and the other a businessman experienced in pro sports leagues. Are you really that stupid?


    • Posted by John Henry on 2011/01/20 at 9:56 AM

      Hey Maureen, if you’re new to TSG, (and if the editors don’t mind me chiming in on their behalf): while people can enjoy a good debate here, the tone stays polite and friendly.


      • Posted by Erik the Orange on 2011/01/20 at 10:05 AM

        Maureen, to reply, I read the article as asking which way was best to grow and develop talent into a club or country team and how to best build a system into a given pool of players…not how to develop and sustain an entire league. And I would disagree that Arsene doesn’t care if Arsenal is around in 5 years. While he may or may not be employed by the club in 5 years, he will most definitely care about his legacy and the club…just as Don G. would care about his legacy after he is no longer employed by the MLS. My opinion.


      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/01/20 at 10:08 AM

        Wenger is not a silly man. He’s very financially savvy off the field as well. The one thing that nobody has mentioned is that Wenger’s way was born out of necessity, because Arsenal cannot compete with the financial big boys of world football. Remember Leeds United were in the CL SFs only 10 seasons ago, and went into administration. Wenger has taken Arsenal to the CL every season with a very even net spend. He must be stupid to manage that!

        Personally, I find it hard to argue with his philosophy. It might not fit 100% into the USA’s future plan, but I also think to call it stupid is very harsh.


  19. […] This piece by Eric Beard which acknowledges Alexi’s time at Padova and the focus in training. And this piece, Eric Giardini, which discusses the challenges for Americans playing in Serie A. […]


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