The Butcher, The Baker, the Quarterfinals maker?

On Thursday May 29th, Jurgen Klinsmann announced his 23 player roster for the World Cup and rocked the soccer world. The former is a normal duty of all national team coaches — all 32 teams must do likewise no later than Jun 3. Like a good German, Klinsi is prompt. Throughout the world, as soon as the names hit the media, pundits everywhere go to work on two pieces:

  • Who was left out and why this is a mistake
  • Who is in, and what does it mean?

Some huge names fall into the “snubbed” category, like Tévez for Argentina and Nasri for France. But Jurgen’s decision to leave Landon Donovan at home became one of the biggest stories worldwide. I think if you exclude our goalkeepers and asked people

Sponsors go for the big names, the ones who are certain to remain on the team. D'OH!

Sponsors go for the big names, the ones who are certain to remain on the team. D’OH!

around the world to name a pro from the US, they’d say Landon, Bradley, or Dempsey. Landon is a poster child for our team. He has endorsements alongside Hope Solo for Seiko watches. He scored the biggest goal in US history* most people would say.

So why is he out?

There is not one answer. Here are three. Perhaps the truth is among them.

* = I think Caligiuri’s goal to get us into Italy ’90, scored November ’89 was the biggest in our history. (click for the video) We’ve been to every WC since. But that year it hinged on his long-distance bomb on a windswept, bumpy pitch in Port-of-Spain.

One: The Butcher

“Jurgen is not a friend of compromise,” says Bernhard Peters, a German sports executive who has been close with Klinsmann for more than a decade. “He wants to do it his way.” Faithful readers of this blog, both of you, will recall previous posts on Jurgen’s personal style. He completely understands that as the coach, he will be judged on outcomes. At the same time he will be subject to an endless chorus of second-guessing. All coaches, and in fact anyone who has to make decisions for a living must go through this. Try to build consensus by listening to those involved, or put your individual stamp on matters? Continue reading

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Michael Sam

One of the things that impresses me about the Positive Coaching Alliance is their ability to take breaking events in sports news and craft a valuable message that parents and coaches can use to teach youth athletes. I haven’t seen them publish anything about Michael Sam but am sure they will.

I think this weekend’s events, when the openly gay Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals, was history in the making. We know that professional sports desegregated racially with pioneers like Jackie Robinson, but I wasn’t alive to see it. But we were there yesterday when Sam got word that he had a job in the NFL, and through social media and services like YouTube we were able to see him get the news, break into tears, and finally kiss his boyfriend.

It is common knowledge that there are many lesbian athletes in sports. Billie Jean King was among the first pro tennis players. The LPGA has several out golfers. And in our national soccer team, the all-time leading goal scorer, Abby Wambach is open about her orientation, making her announcement shortly after the talented Megan Rapinoe did the same. And their coach Pia Sundhage was openly out as well. It’s different with women athletes.

But with men this process is moving much more slowly. Robbie Rogers broke the ice* in soccer but he did it as he announced his retirement, for fear that no club in England would accept him. Fortunately the LA Galaxy signed him and he’s doing OK there. At the same time, sportswriters point out repeatedly that there were no openly gay players in the “Big Four” of the NFL, baseball, basketball, or hockey. To me that’s what makes yesterday so fascinating.

Rapinoe Wambach

Women athletes can be gay and remain role models. It’s different for men.

Why is this something I write to you about? Well, statistics indicate that 3 – 10% of adults identify themselves as gay. That means on a full soccer roster of 18 players, it is possible that at least one player is gay, assuming that sports doesn’t have a lower incidence than the general population. In other words, as your kid continues to play it is likely he or she will have a gay teammate. (I have two children and one is gay, and she was an outstanding athlete through high school.) In light of this I think the Michael Sam story gives all a great chance to talk about what it would mean to have a gay teammate, how we could support him / her, and what feelings your child might have about it.

I have coached teams where I found out later that my players were gay and I was pleased to hear they were comfortable sharing the news with me. I have coached a Vikings team where I am pretty certain I had a gay player but they have not come out yet, to my knowledge. But when I coached that team I made it a special point to talk about acceptance, diversity, and the importance of keeping an atmosphere free of harassment. All teams are made up of players with flaws and shortcomings. Boys can be extremely cruel to each other, usually face to face. Girls can be even meaner, and in an indirect fashion that is harder to confront. Regardless as a coach I try to make it clear that when we bully a teammate, we weaken our team and help the opponent. We can only play our best when everyone is welcome and supported. If you want to win, you have to accept your teammates. It couldn’t be any simpler. If you and your family believe in accepting all people regardless of their sexual orientation, I invite you to have a conversation with your child and talk about what happened yesterday in the NFL. You could ask things like:

  • How would you feel if you had a gay teammate?
  • Would you make them feel welcome, and if so, how?
  • What if it were you? What if there was something different about you that you were afraid of not being accepted?

It’s historic. Here’s something I found on Twitter that I believe captures the moment:

* Rogers was the second player in England to announce he was gay but the first, Justin Fashanu, had a much tougher life and died by his own hand at 37.

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The Deuce is Loose in Manaus

The draw for our national team in the 2014 World Cup came out last Friday, and people are saying it will be harder to get out of Group G than the Red Wedding.

JUNE 16: United States vs. Ghana in Natal.
JUNE 16: Germany vs. Portugal in Salvador
JUNE 21: Germany vs. Ghana in Fortaleza.
JUNE 22: United States vs. Portugal in Manaus.
JUNE 26: Portugal vs. Ghana in Brasilia.
JUNE 26: United States vs. Germany in Recife.

There’s a lot of fear and awe about the difficulty of the draw, reasonable because Germany is a clear top four team in the world, Portugal has the  best player in the world at the moment, and Ghana is a team that has eliminated us from the cup by beating us twice in a row. But there are a lot of ways to look at this, and when a situation allows multiple interpretations, the competitor must choose the one that gives the best chance of prevailing. Here are a few thoughts to counter the “stinkin’ thinkin'” making the rounds:

We have the most travel of any team, almost 9,000 miles.
This is apparently calculated by taking the distance from our headquarters in São Paulo to each game site. While not convenient I don’t see how the flights are a huge factor. We can Continue reading

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Ernie Feibusch

The Jewish Sports Hall of Fame Northern California is a small social organization with the goal of raising funds to support local Jewish athletes in financial need. One of their methods is the awards banquet where esteemed members of the Jewish athletic community are selected for recognition, “the Golden Bagel,” and takes place on a Sunday EMF dais croppedmorning. This year’s was on November 3rd, at the auspicious Crown Room, atop the Fairmont Hotel. One of the inductees was my high school soccer coach and mentor, Ernie Feibusch. One morning in September at our weekly pickup game he surprised me by asking if I would be one of the two people to speak on his behalf. Which is how I found myself at the hotel that Sunday morning, called on to make a few comments. Afterwards a few people came up to me and complimented me on it. So I thought I’d share it here. This is more or less how it went.

The format of the event required crafting a prompt in the form of a question, and then responding to it. Somehow that seems different from giving a speech to the organizers. Mine was:

“One of the attributes often attributed to Ernie’s success is his consistent focus on one club (Vikings) and one school team (Lowell). How did this shape his reputation, and are there still coaches who do the same today?”

This question reminds me of the words of one of Hollywood’s great actors, a contemporary of Ernie’s, Robert Mitchum. He was interviewed by Barbara Walters who asked him: “You’ve been married 42 years. What makes your marriage work?” Continue reading

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A Messi situation

Messi-foul-El-ClasicoA reader writes (thanks, Mark!) Q: Also, what’s your take on Messi’s injury spate? Not regaining fitness after the off-season? Or too much work-rate and crazy travel over too many competitions for both club and country? Hamstrings are tough, and when they say 6-8 weeks, that’s 6-8 weeks before he’s 80 percent, and if he pushes it too quickly, that’s three more months on the DL. If I were the Argentine coach, I would be really worried about next summer.

A: Some say he’s more interested in the WC than La Liga season. Some gossip that’s he’s messi 3heavier and that’s hurting him. When your nickname is “The Flea” every ounce matters.

Hamstrings, like groin injuries, are tough. You never know if it’s healed until you try and messi 2the indicator that it wasn’t is you hurt it again and restart the clock.

Some players trade on acceleration more than others. I didn’t because I had none. I have noticed that those who do often have no plan “B” when that burst is gone. I’m not saying Messi has no other skill but it is what sets him apart.

How did it happen? Yeah game and training overload. Natural aging. Constant abuse: messi 1kicks, cleats, knock-downs. The question could be “How did he last as long as he did?”

The natural progression: star on your national team, get noticed, sign a mega-contract, go through the tug-o-war between club and country. “Retire” from your national team because your club is pressuring you and it won’t put any more money in your pocket, or you don’t need the money.

Like I’ve said before, I think it’s ridiculous. Clubs use national team games as shop messi 5windows, then discourage the players from continuing. Like a guy who marries a stripper and then wants her get off the pole.

messi 4messi 6

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Keep Your Chin DOWN

I don’t do a lot of “how-to” posts because it can be a lot of work and there’s many other places that do them in a comprehensive manner. So I usually take a more reflective, philosophical approach. But this will be an exception.

The media has made a lot about the controversial decision to leave Hugo Lloris in goal after he was knocked unconscious from a collision with Romelu Lukaku’s knee on November 3rd. Of all the possible injuries a player can sustain in soccer, the concussion must be the most serious. It’s easier to walk with a limp than go through life without the ability to think coherently.

In goalkeeping circles we call the play that resulted in Lloris’ injury a “breakaway save.” An

Lloris slides in high. Lukaku can't get out of his way,

Lloris slides in high. Lukaku can’t get out of his way,

opponent breaks through your back line of defenders and it’s just you, him, and the goal. Since the goal is only 8 feet high but 8 yards wide you have to get yourself horizontal to match the shape of the goal better. One of the keys is to get down quickly so there is no space between you and the ground. The other thing that’s important is to get your head low, lower than the knees of on onrushing players. Lloris got caught before he could get his head down, and that’s why he was knocked unconscious.

A key part of the breakaway save technique is to come in an low as possible. Take the largest last step you can, to get your butt and torso low. Then you’ll get down to ground faster because there’s less distance to cover.

Neuer is low, shoulder on the ground, head well below everyone's knees.

Neuer is low, shoulder on the ground, head well below everyone’s knees.

Next, remember to stay off your elbow. Landing hard on your elbow can cause a separated shoulder, also called an AC joint injury. But landing on your elbow will raise your head too and that’s when you get the knee. If you take a big last step and land on your shoulder and ribs, you have a better chance of coming out unscathed.

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Call it a hunch

I’m going to call a long shot guess here. The 1-2 defeat to Barcelona opens the door for Iker Casillas to return to the team.

I say this not because it makes sense from a soccer perspective but because it will make

Anyone in Spain knows what this is: Lazarillo steals wine from his drunk, blind master. (spoiler: he'll get caught)

Anyone in Spain knows what this is: Lazarillo steals wine from his drunk, blind master. (spoiler: he’ll get caught)

Madrid look ridiculous in the news. And this is how Real Madrid management seem to think. At 1-0 the game was anyone’s. Madrid was pressing Continue reading

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The Numbers Game – Put Your House in Order

Say you bought a house, a fixer-upper. The roof leaks and there are a couple of broken windows. If you thought like football club owners, your first order of business is probably putting in a home theater complete with leather recliners and a wet bar.
You may think that is a foolish way to proceed but how often do you see a new club

What's the first thing you should do?

What’s the first thing you should do?

president announce his “serious” intentions for his club’s future by entering the market for one of the top players in the world? Real Madrid’s relentless pursuit of Gareth Bale this summer is a good example, and Tottenham’s Daniel Levy squeezed every euro possible out of the deal, enough to buy four players.

Besides Bale, the supermodels of professional soccer include these lovelies:

  • Cristiano Ronaldo
  • Messi
  • Ibra
  • Falcão
  • Van Persie
  • Neymar

What these “best players” have in common is that they are goal-scorers. The rationale is a simple as it is flawed: We need to win more. To win, we have to score goals. So if we get the best goal-scorers, we will be successful. What could be simpler?

Now here’s the thing. Thing one: you need to work backwards from the highlights you have been watching, obviously to excess. Continue reading

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The Silence of the Dogs

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…  *

I am continuing a short series of posts on the new book, The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong by Chris Anderson and David Sally.

Last week was about the overrated importance of coaching interventions – praise and criticism – of performances that hit the limits of statistical variation.

This post is about the limits of human perception, especially appreciating the importance of events that do not happen, for example:

  • Tackles
  • Saves
  • Shots against
  • Goals against

Anderson and Sally elaborate on this concept through analysis of defenders and tackling. Sir Alex Ferguson once famously sold a top defender, Jaap Stam, because he felt Stam was in decline. The Manchester United gaffer was well-known for preferring to unload players a season too early rather than a season late. But Stam went on the play seven seasons more and Ferguson referred to his decision as the biggest mistake of his career. “At the time he had just come back from an Achilles injury and we thought he had just lost a little bit. We got the offer from Lazio, £16.5m for a centre-back who was 29. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. But in playing terms it was a mistake. He is still playing for Ajax at a really good level.”

Taking pride in being a good tackler is like a cook who’s  proud about his ability to put out kitchen fires.

But the part not mentioned in this quote is Continue reading

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Regressing to the Mean

This fall for the first time in five years I don’t have a team to coach. Long story. So I thought I should use the time to write, with busy coaches in mind. Write stuff I’d like to read if I were a busy coach. I don’t expect many hits but it will keep me out of the 540 Club for a while.

The topic of the next few posts will be great ideas from the new soccer book The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong by Chris Anderson and David Sally. Originally published in England, it has been available here in the US since August and every coach, fan and literate player should go out right now and read it. But if you can’t . . . I’m blogging.

The Numbers Game is commonly referred to as a sort of Moneyball or Freakonomics of soccer; quantitative analysis that researches common beliefs and either corroborates them or, as the subtitle so lovingly points out, proves you don’t know what you’re on about.
Here is the first thought-provoking idea for youth coaches. When it comes to affecting our team’s performance, what we say may not matter very much. Continue reading

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