Kyle Martino: Controlling The Urge To Surge

Kyle Martino is a top broadcast analyst for Fox Soccer, a former MLS Rookie of the Year and has been capped multiple times for the US of A.

Juan Agudelo for the United States............ (Photo: Credit: Matt Mathai)

Coming off the Chile-USA friendly, with national teams trialing fresh-faced youngsters for upcoming tournaments, it seems that now is a good time to talk about the crucial metamorphosis of a young talent becoming a professional success.

There isn’t a current professional soccer player who, if asked, couldn’t immediately produce at least a handful of examples of players who were “The Man” when they were younger but currently reside in the “Where Are They Now” category.

I’m not talking about the youth ranks, when that freak kid who was bigger and faster dominated the game because he was born at the beginning of the year and had sick athletes for parents. I’m talking about those teenagers on the cusp of breaking starting lineups in the pros, or landing themselves on National Team rosters.

These are the players who made their pond grow in to an ocean as they climbed the ladder from High School, to College to Pros, but still were able to maintain their “Big Fish” status.

When I was growing up, young talented soccer players in America had a metric called the Olympic Development Program to help them improve as players and measure their progress along the way. Although considered very political–mostly by players that never made the teams–this was a very good way for coaches to identify talent, as well as light the path to the ultimate goal: Putting on a U.S. jersey and representing their country.

Putting yourself on the proverbial map....

The first stage of the program was at the State level, continuing through to a Regional level (dividing the country in to 4 regions), and culminating at the National level, with a Youth U.S. team.

Since we don’t have storied youth academies as they do overseas, like Ajax and Barcelona who pump out world-class players year after year, “ODP” was America’s answer to how we would identify and develop our next stars.

To compare, Ajax gave Holland players like Wesley Sneijder, Bergkamp, and Van Basten, and Region IV gave the U.S. Landon Donovan, Eddie Lewis and Carlos Bocanegra.

This multi-tiered system was the filtration process that would take millions of youth players in at the State level, and eventually end up with 20 or so standing at the end. I could write a War And Peace-sized novel on how desperately fanatical I was about playing for my country; the hours of practice and obsession with the game that actually lead me to force my parents to send me to Bollitieri (now IMG) in high school so I could continue to get better.

But the point of this article is to talk about what separates these players once they have made it, once they have become Pros–that is the moment when you can watch boys become men.

The funny thing about kids when they turn Pro, is that they had always been “the best”.

For the majority of their playing careers so far, things came easily to them and they were always head of their classes. But for the first time, these kids have found themselves in a class filled with guys that were also considered the best. It was Project 40 in my time, now it’s called Generation Adidas, and it is the first real wake-up call for them all. We all had skill. We were all athletic, but each year you would only see a handful of these players make this transition quickly.

The biggest hurdle for any talented player getting their first professional experience is ridding themselves of the bad habits reinforced by years of being “the best”.

These players could get away with any number of poor decisions or behaviors when their superior skill level or athletic abilities bailed them out. I know this to be true better than anyone. When I stepped on to the preseason camp field in Bradenton, Florida with The Columbus Crew, after being selected by them in the 2000 MLS draft, I was not the quickest, most skillful, or most creative for the first time in my soccer career.

I immediately fell victim to the two biggest reasons a young soccer player fails to make it at the next level: too many touches and not knowing the next play before you get the ball.

My highlight reel of tearing up ACC teams with elaborate dribbling exhibitions was going to be the very reason I was going to fail at the next level. I counted on my moves and speed to save me from not playing the game the “right” way. I had to quickly adapt or else I would be passed by and forgotten.

Through the help of veterans like Brian McBride and John Harkes, who worked tirelessly with me after training, I began to understand how I was going to use my skill and speed to be an asset. The moral of their teachings was “know the right time”, a lesson I worked my entire career to master and never truly did.

Most young players, as I did, think every time is the right time to show off their wealth of skill, and subsequently fail to make an impact at the next level. I’m not saying that young players can’t or shouldn’t try to be entertaining game changers; I believe in embracing skill and talent and encouraging it to flourish on the field. My point is that they have to know when. The reason that the majority of athletes, in any sport, hit their peak as they get older is because they stop depending on their athletic ability or skill to bail them out. As their bodies slow down their minds speed up.

Messi & Ronaldo: Knowing when to say when...

This is one of the hardest things to teach a young professional; how to control the urge to surge. To not always hit top speed or pull out the bag of tricks until the game or situation calls for it. The reason we see so few young phenoms, such as Messi and Lebron James, in sport is because the hardest lesson to teach any talented young athlete is that, most of the time, less is more.

We just watched a camp full of young US National Team prospects play against Chile, attempting to get in the good graces of Bob Bradley as he begins making his selections for games leading up to the World Cup in Brazil.

The reality is that only a two or three players in the entire group showed that they have learned these valuable lessons. Most, as happens to the majority of young players in these high pressure situations, fell in to that deadly spiral: failing to assimilate to the International pace in their first few touches and then trying to do more and more to recoup their loss. Like bad gamblers they lost a few hands but continued to increase their bets, causing them to inevitably bust.

Some of the best players in the world have struggled with this lesson. Take former Fifa Player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo.

He is gifted with incredible pace and uncanny ball control, yet his struggles at Manchester United and with the Portugal National team were well documented. When he first hit the scene after a dominant U-17 World Cup performance for Portugal, he was constantly criticized for lacking the “final product.” After all the flash and flare, the final result was not helping him or his team. Any astute soccer viewer could see his transformation over the years leading up to his historic Man United season that won him World Player of the Year honors. He had finally learned how to use his gifts to change the game.

As we all watch the new crop of players coming in to the fray with the U.S. National Team, and the Generation Adidas kids getting their first MLS action, the reality is that only a handful will truly make it at that next level. After surviving all the soccer checkpoints that left millions of players behind, these young players are only one step away from the great honor of putting on their country’s jersey. The ones that learn and adapt quickly to the mental and physical demands of the game, a game that has suddenly increased in speed, quality and competition, will find themselves standing on that sacred ground only a select few are lucky enough to reach. As someone who has briefly stood on that ground, I can tell you that there was no better feeling of accomplishment in my career than putting on my United States uniform.

As someone who has been there, and loves this beautiful game, I truly look forward to seeing who separate themselves from the pack, walking the path to one day stand proud on that next level.

More from Kyle at The Shin Guardian:

» “Can You Play?” Don’t Leave It Up To Us!

» Kyle Martino: TSG’s Favorite Color Guy

32 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by matthewsf on 2011/02/16 at 2:46 AM

    Well told Kyle.

    In ultimate frisbee, there is the notion of something called “conservation of greatness.” That is when you make a phenomenal play….don’t try to make a similar phenomenal next.

    There are so many tangents to this piece that I’m glad you started the thread on TSG.

    There is the notion of variance of player speed. Some players are just “surviving” for example in the EPL, for example, where there top speed matches the average or “resting” speed” of a superstar. Similar to your principle above.

    There’s also the notion of involving teammates–and Michael Jordan is the most commonly sited here (or Kobe)–that is that you turn it on…when it’s necessary.

    All components of being a superstar and integrating into a team environment.

    Great piece again.


    • Posted by Hensley on 2011/02/16 at 12:09 PM


      I love reading the articles here and love that you mention ultimate every now and then as I fell in love with the sport 8 years ago. Thanks for that. And now I’m an educated soccer fan thanks to this site.


    • Posted by sfshwebb on 2011/02/17 at 12:07 AM

      Let it be known that Matt embodied the “conservation of greatness” notion😉


  2. Great piece Kyle. Just finished watching clips from last year’s World Cup. Really hope our squad can take the next step.


  3. Posted by Fuzzy Dunlop on 2011/02/16 at 5:24 AM

    Spectacular article. Look forward to more.

    PS — Someone needs to insert a “no” here in the penultimate sentence: “As someone who has briefly stood on that ground, I can tell you that there was *NO* better feeling of accomplishment in my career than putting on my United States uniform.”


  4. Another well-written piece, Kyle. Thanks for your contributions to TSG. So many cool “voices” on this site now.

    BTW – the Grant Wahl linked to this story!


  5. Posted by Crow on 2011/02/16 at 7:14 AM

    Can Kyle Martino please take over for John Harkes on ESPN?


  6. Posted by Sam on 2011/02/16 at 7:31 AM

    But what about Fat Ronaldo? He came on like a rocket as a youngster and never really burned out until his caloric intake surpassed his work rate, and even then he was still more or less “awesome.”

    Would you say there’s any room for the odd anomaly or exception in this kind of philosophy? Or is this just the way that American’s ought to think about the game/development?


  7. Posted by EFG on 2011/02/16 at 7:37 AM

    Great piece, from one Wahoo to another.


  8. Posted by chad on 2011/02/16 at 8:24 AM

    Really loved this piece b/c I think it makes a very good case for KM’s point. But I still disagree. Certain players in all sports seem to leverage their smarts to become phenomenal players. But, on balance, I’ll take the athletic freak most of the time. The critical difference is athleticism and skill, not sports I.Q. I have to admit that Ronaldo is a great example supporting Kyle’s point, but there are some powerful examples from soccer and other sports that run the other way. Take Larry Bird, for example. Guy was a very smart player right? But it was more important that he was about 6’10” and could shoot lights out. The reason we see so few young phenoms is that there are so few truly exceptional athletes.


    • Posted by John on 2011/02/16 at 8:37 AM

      Braylon Edwards or Larry Fitzgerald

      Robbie Findley or Landon Donovan

      Vince Carter or Kobe Bryant.

      IQ wins every time.

      It isn’t enough to be an athletic freak, you have to have the game smarts to back it up. Basketball (especially) is a perfect example of athletic freaks who can’t take the next step. Look at Kenyon Martin, the guy is electric, but isn’t a #1.

      I totally agree that there are only a few exceptional atheletes, but there have been plenty of American football, International football, basketball/other athletic freaks who couldn’t hack it at the upper levels.

      In Boxing and MMA this is true, Royce Gracie was a small man in a big sport who had the Jiu Jitsu IQ to dismantle guys who were twice his size.


      • Posted by dth on 2011/02/16 at 11:01 AM

        I wouldn’t say the difference between Carter and Bryant is basketball IQ. I’d say it’s heart.

        Similarly, I wouldn’t say the difference between Braylon Edwards and Fitzgerald is football IQ. I’d say it’s a functioning pair of hands.

        Too often “[sport] IQ” is just shorthand for “I think Player X is better than Player Y but can’t be bothered to explain why.”


        • Posted by John on 2011/02/16 at 11:22 AM

          While I would always take Fitzgerald over Edwards regardless of a working pair of hands, I dramatically fumbled this comment.


          Anyhoo, how about Older Jordan v Young Jordan….


  9. Posted by dikranovich on 2011/02/16 at 9:02 AM

    do you play for the love of the game, or do you love the idea of playing for your nation? it all sounds a little contrived to me.


    • Posted by Sam on 2011/02/16 at 10:06 AM

      I would think that they are in no way mutually exclusive.


    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/02/16 at 10:51 AM

      I think we all play XYZ because we love it, and we all play (or played) XYZ to the highest level our ability allowed.

      I really loved the article, Kyle. Nice to hear that elite sportsmen have the same fears that the rest of us had, albeit, much higher up the food chain!

      How many times have you heard ex-pros talk about a young player not having a ‘footballing brain’ when they make the wrong decision, or you play with your brain first, feet second [especially for defenders]?


  10. Posted by Russ on 2011/02/16 at 11:21 AM

    Contrived? How does that word even fit in this context?

    You’re saying his desire to play for his country is “contrived”???


    • Posted by dikranovich on 2011/02/16 at 3:41 PM

      russ, i dont know what im saying really. but you know, do you remember when freddy adu came on with dc united. it all seemed a little contrived to me. didnt it to you as well? ok, im sorry, it was a great article.


      • Posted by Steve on 2011/02/16 at 9:20 PM

        dikranovich – how exactly was Freddy Adu coming on with DC United “contrived”? It may have been many things, but contrived isn’t an adjective that comes to mind in the slightest.


        • Posted by dikranovich on 2011/02/16 at 10:45 PM

          steve, contrived as an adjective means artificial, or forced, as in behavior. yes, i think freddy adus behavior was most definately contrived and you know what, he is paying for it now.


  11. Posted by SamT on 2011/02/16 at 12:08 PM

    Would love to know who the “two or three players” are who distinguished themselves in your eyes in the friendly, Kyle, but I suspect you are too much of a gentleman to name names.


  12. Posted by Ian on 2011/02/16 at 2:40 PM

    Excellent article from one of the most talented young players who ever graced the field in the USA. Well done Kyle.


  13. Posted by Jake C. on 2011/02/16 at 3:49 PM

    Great piece, Kyle. I’d like to hear some more of your thoughts on ODP in the future; the parallel of Eddie Lewis to van Basten–well, there’s not much parallel there to me.


  14. Posted by AJNY on 2011/02/17 at 10:35 AM

    “Although considered very political–mostly by players that never made the teams–this was a very good way for coaches to identify talent, as well as light the path to the ultimate goal: Putting on a U.S. jersey and representing their country.”

    Just one minor quibble, and one major reason why I’m glad we’re moving away from the ODP system…

    In my region (One) about 15 of the 18 kids at the U-18 ODP level were players who had been in the system since U-10. Now while some of those players were consistently great and deserved their spot on the team, more than a few had failed to live up to their 12 year old promise. Still, they would never get cut due to the “politics” of ODP. As a system, ODP was terrible at identifying talented players who may have slipped under the radar-instead it was composed of the “big names” of youth soccer in the region, all from the same couple clubs. To say that claims that ODP was politicized is sour grapes from kids who got cut disregards just how bad ODP was at identifying and developing talent. Just because Landon Donovan and a few other cant-miss prospects came out of the system doesn’t vindicate it’s effectiveness.


  15. Posted by wixson on 2011/02/17 at 6:23 PM

    Solid article, thx. Good to hear humility and self-awareness from professional athletes. I keep going back to that chile game and how FRANTIC it was. The guys have the talent, just not the nerves. Amazing how the mind messes up the body.


  16. Posted by Larry on 2011/02/18 at 12:38 PM

    nice article! I enjoyed the read.


  17. […] Kyle Martino: Controlling the Urge to Surge – Shin Guardian […]


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