Creatures of light and darkness

No, this won’t be a Zelazny thing (although I highly recommend him if you’ve never read his work.) This is about two very different approaches to similar situations in the footballing/soccering world; one of them a story of marked success, and the other an ongoing story of haphazardness, if that were actually a word (WordPress thinks it is!)

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The light. The first story, of course, is about Liverpool. In 2010, the club, a giant of English and European soccer, was weeks away from administration, which is the English term for “bankruptcy.” George Gillett and Tom Hicks, having used a leveraged buyout in typically American corporate style to buy the club, were about to lose control of it to its creditors, including the Royal Bank of Scotland. Administration would have meant a points penalty for the season, potentially putting Liverpool in danger of relegation; a problem not suffered since 1954. Responding to an email from an employee of FSG (then NESV) entitled “Save my club!”, John Henry and his partners did their research and decided that Liverpool FC could, indeed, be saved. Nine years later, the club is European champions for the sixth time, has one of the best managers in Europe, just finished with the third-highest points total in the history of the English top division, has remodeled half of Anfield with more updates to come, has a squad valued in the top 10 of all clubs in Europe, and just recorded the greatest profit of any club in Europe. Even more importantly, it’s done all this while playing one of the more attractive styles in the game. Consequently, the fan base has grown in leaps and bounds across Africa, Asia, and the Americas and the club is on a firmer footing- competitively and financially -than it has been in a generation.

FSG brought the heralded “moneyball” approach from American baseball to English football. Their concept was that, from statistical analysis, they could find the players that were undervalued and shape them into something greater, like what Billy Beane had done at the Oakland As and what FSG had been able to implement for the Boston Red Sox. However, bargain hunting while the club was in disarray led to mixed results in the first few years. Faced with the awesome spending power of the two Manchesters and Chelsea, LFC would run into a similar problem as Oakland did: you can find all the great deals in the world, but when it comes down to a seven-game series against the guys that can outspend you, you’ll still often lose. Baseball analysis is also decades ahead of football analysis and is shaped for a very different game. Soccer is the most random and dynamic of all the major sports, so getting solid information about trends and tendencies is more difficult and can regularly be belied by what actually happens on the pitch. What Liverpool needed was some of that analysis that allowed them to identify the worth of players like Mo Salah and Virgil Van Dijk, along with the raw financial muscle to bring those players to Anfield, which is also what Boston did. After initial setbacks, FSG ponied up and the results are plain to see.

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But, in addition to that, they also knew that Liverpool’s greatest results have often come from having a manager that drives the whole project forward; not a passenger, but a driver. Shankly, Paisley; these are the names written into lore at the club because they recognized the power of the connection between the team and its fans, but also because they knew that players can be pushed to greater heights if they also believe in the vision of what the club and the squad can be. John Henry has said that the first manager they had in mind after buying the club was Jürgen Klopp, who was then leading a revival at Dortmund in similar circumstances (near-bankruptcy, far from past glories, etc.) With Klopp unavailable, they called whom they could get to try to drive the dream forward. When Klopp arrived, the picture was complete. Like all good projects, it took a couple years for the effort to come together. But LFC has returned to the top and looks ready to stay there for years to come, with bigger sponsorships on the way, improvements to the club’s infrastructure proceeding, and having become a destination club for players around the world, with a chance at no less than seven trophies next season. It’s also nice to have an owner who, despite all the success, says that winning the CL doesn’t mean they’re any less interested in wresting the EPL title from City. Everyone is on the same page.

The darkness. In contrast, we have the USMNT. The situations are obviously different, with no real past glories to aspire to on the part of US Soccer. Those glories bring greater focus and resources from ownership/national orgs, but they also bring greater scrutiny. The US, unfortunately, by dint of its national identity, has the greater scrutiny, even without the bedrock of fan support or “having been there before.” Unlike most teams in CONCACAF, the expectations are that the US will succeed, all the time, simply based on population size and available money. However, unlike club soccer, the USMNT can’t simply turn to its fortuitously wealthy owners and ask them to turn the money faucet on so that the team can load up the best players. Those players have to be developed and they have to be American. The woeful tales of the US system of “development” (aka “pay for play” and the NCAA (“don’t get paid to play and only 20 hours/week”)) are readily accessible around the Web, so the US is already lagging behind much of Europe and South America and even local nations like Mexico, with less than half the American population and much less cash. But tales of success are much easier to tell when you don’t throw additional hurdles in front of yourself. That’s usually called “digging your own hole.”

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Fresh off the worst debacle in the modern history of US soccer, the loss to Trinidad which left the US out of the 2018 World Cup, US Soccer got right to work… waiting. Similarly to FSG, they had goals in mind in the immediate aftermath and one of those goals was to hire a new coach. Unfortunately, the goal was to hire one, particular new coach, the required characteristics of whom eliminated the vast majority of possible candidates. First off, the coach had to be fluent in English. Secondly, the coach had to be related to someone in US Soccer’s hierarchy. That pretty much narrows it down to one person: current USMNT head coach, Gregg Berhalter.

Now, you can say I’m being pretty cavalier about accusing US Soccer of nepotism and the associated corruption. And I am, because all reports about the so-called “search” for the new coach have pointed in those directions from the moment it started. In true, ‘Merican, xenophobic style, US Soccer wanted “one of their own” to be the top guy. This could be perceived as a direct response to the failure of Jurgen Klinsmann who, incidentally, never held back from criticism of not only the US development system (which he tried, somewhat successfully, to move forward), but also of MLS as a part of that system. Given that US Soccer is rather intertwined with the local professional league, it seems obvious that pressure would be applied to get one of “their” coaches assigned to the job. Great!, you think. We have a coach right here who not only led an MLS team to the title with one of the more exciting styles the league had ever seen, but also has international experience with Paraguay and Argentina: Gerardo Martino.

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But- heh. No. See, Tata doesn’t fulfill the first two requirements: He’s not fluent in English and he’s not Jay Berhalter’s brother. So, he couldn’t even get a phone call. Based on most reports, no one could get a phone call because the decision had already been made as soon as Bruce Arena stepped down. So, let’s look at those requirements. First off, this is international soccer. The majority of players and managers outside the US are multilingual. They often have to be because of the varying origins of their own and their players. Unless you plan to stay in your own national league or organization for your entire career, you’re going to need to be able to communicate. Unai Emery, current manager at Arsenal, didn’t speak English well when he arrived in London, but he’s been learning by watching TV because, you know, people are capable of doing this. Tata speaking Spanish didn’t prevent him from, again, crushing his way to the MLS title with a club that had started playing the year before. But, more importantly, he wasn’t Jay Berhalter’s brother, since Jay is the chief marketing officer of US Soccer. Confronted with the appearance of a non-search and the uncomfortable appearance of nepotism being the cause of it, US Soccer has never responded with anything but silence.

So, OK. The coach was picked in a poor fashion. Fine. Let’s get moving. But… no. Since said coach was already the head man at the very average Columbus Crew in the third-tier Major League Soccer (meaning most MLS sides would probably compete at about the level of League One in England), US Soccer waited for almost a year before putting Berhalter in charge. As we’ve mentioned, one of the biggest problems of soccer in the US is the lack of development. There were no tourneys last summer (except, you know, the World Cup…) that the US had to worry about. So, instead of giving Berhalter a year to get to know his players, to adjust them to his strategy and approach to the game, the team sat under a nanny coach, Dave Sarachan, for a year. Berhalter has been on the job for six months. His first competitive game as US coach was this week, June 18, 2019. The US lost to Trinidad on October 9, 2017.

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Berhalter has mentioned that he’s intent on playing a fairly complex system, incorporating a couple of his own innovations of positioning and motion. Given that his players are club players 90% of the time, wouldn’t it have been wise to get him on the job as soon as possible so that everyone could begin adjusting to the new style of play? Now, when I’ve watched what he’s trying to do, I’ve seen two things: First, it looks like the 3-6-1, a formation abandoned decades ago and, when pressed, ends up as a 5-4-1, a highly defensive formation in direct contrast to Berhalter’s preference for “attacking soccer.” The 1-0 loss to Jamaica (first home loss to a Caribbean team since the 60s) highlighted that, as the US had trouble moving the ball out of their own zone against the team from an island nation with a smaller population than 10 different US cities. Second, the players are clearly so confused about what they’re trying to do and where they’re supposed to be that they end up getting shellacked by teams like Venezuela.

But- poor development! Way behind! Talent problems! Other sources around the Web have spoken about the genetic roulette that the US has lost, with no star players emerging from the mid-90s that would be the ones replacing the fading stars of previous squads. Sure, or we could also be reinforcing our problems by playing regulars from MLS (again: third-tier league.) Josh Sargent, a talented young player currently on the squad at Werder Bremen, was left off the U20 World Cup squad ostensibly because he was slated to be part of the current Gold Cup team, which started yesterday. But Berhalter decided that Sargent wasn’t up to speed, so now he’s sitting at home, with no soccer at all this summer until Bremen’s preseason preparations begin. Instead, the US team is being led by veteran Jozy Altidore and MLS star, Gyasi Zardes, who it just so happens is a regular for Berhalter’s former squad, the Columbus Crew… At least he’ll know what to expect when Berhalter’s master strategy gets implemented? Well, yeah, except that Berhalter ditched the 3-6-1 for a more conventional formation last night because I think the collective mind at US Soccer/MLS has decided that it might be better to wash away all of this bad juju with a win of some kind, even if said tournament, the Gold Cup, has zero relevance in world football any longer, with the cancellation of the Confederations Cup. But, hey, a trophy.

At this point, the USMNT is a team that has been adrift for a year-and-a-half, with corrupt practices and disorganization oozing from every orifice. But it’s a helluva marketing tool for MLS! You can’t get much darker than that, if you’re a fan of the US and not its subpar national league. To that point, I’ve heard from more than one fan that they’re just not interested anymore in the national team, so one is quite sure what page we’re on. Thus ends our tale of revival and descent.

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