Eric Wynalda was not the most controversial speaker I saw at the NSCAA Convention this week. That honor goes to AYSO’s Scott Snyder.
Snyder criticized the U.S. Soccer E and D license programs, saying they’re geared toward coaches on a professional track and don’t address the needs of parent coaches, who make up the majority of coaches that work with kids in their formative years under age 12. He pointed fingers at “superclubs” who have tryouts and cut 6-year-olds to fuel big business. He said the Philadelphia Union Academy has hula hoops and other gear to teach kids physical literacy — lessons they should have received around age 5-8 but didn’t because we were too busy coaching them win a bleeping U7 game.
The hammer, which would have echoed through Twitter if Snyder were a Hall of Fame player like Wynalda: Elite players will make it despite our involvement. In other words, players make players. Coaches don’t.
And while we’re trying to make prodigies out of our U7s, we’re driving a lot of them away from the game. Fewer players. And therefore, down the line, fewer elite players.
Add to that the elephant in the Baltimore Convention Center — the change to birth-year age groups. Communication on that topic has been abysmal. U.S. youth leaders simply don’t know what they’re allowed to do. Plenty of clubs’ coaches and technical directors think the change might make sense for the oldest and most competitive levels of youth soccer, but they don’t understand why they have to do it with their U-Littles. (They don’t, but the USSF simply hasn’t broadcast that fact.)
Bottom line: “Elite” coaches have declared war on recreational play. Both sides are guaranteed to lose.
But I covered some of these issues at SoccerWire and will add to that in the next week, and you all want to read more about Wynalda’s session. That’s fine. The point I wanted to make first was that the most pressing issues are not what Wynalda talked about. I’m making you eat your vegetables (youth issues) before getting your dessert (the Wynalda talk).
Before Wynalda started, he and I talked a bit about getting older (we’re close to the same age) and how we care a lot less about what other people think. He also says he’s impatient. He wants to see the USA win a World Cup in his lifetime.
And yet, Wynalda seems more conciliatory and more generous than he came across in the past. He may throw a little bit of red meat to the MLS-bashing fringe on Twitter, but he doesn’t hate the league or those in it. He wants it to be better.
The issue isn’t talent or coaching, he insists. It’s whether players are challenged.
He tells a fun story from his Bundesliga days. After a loss, he made what seemed to be an innocuous joke about his sock. A teammate threw a shoe at him, opening a cut on his face that required stitches. The trainer suggested he go apologize for joking.
So how do we replicate that mentality in MLS? (We’ll assume for sake of argument that we want to — maybe we’d rather see swashbuckling teams that attack all the time and shrug off the occasional 4-3 loss as the season’s going OK.) He says promotion and relegation would help bring that about.
That said, he has a pragmatic streak. He’s not expecting pro/rel to happen tomorrow.
Still, I’d disagree with some of his depictions of pro finances and ambitions in this country. He harped on MLS’s alleged $100 million annual losses (not as frightening as it seems in a 19-team league, and also said in the context of a CBA negotiation, so take it with a grain of salt) and posited that they need to feed the beast with expansion fees. The counterargument: MLS isn’t “losing” money — it’s reinvesting. If they weren’t building facilities, expanding staffs and raising salaries, they’d surely be making money. But they’re doing all those things because they want to keep progressing.
Wynalda also said the lack of promotion crushed the dreams of hundreds of clubs across the country. But most lower-division clubs are there by choice. A couple of clubs have stars in their eyes about how their NPSL membership should grant them the chance to move up the pyramid strictly by merit, ignoring both the difficulties of establishing such a pyramid merely 20 years after top-level pro soccer was dead in this country and the fact that European teams don’t climb to the top without megarich owners in search of a new plaything. (I love the Bournemouth story, too, but does it happen without a Russian petrochemical bigwig? No.)
He has convinced me (and he got the room to applaud my conversion) that MLS should play a fall-to-spring schedule, with the caveat that it should take a long winter break. It could be awkward — the midseason break might end up longer than the break between seasons — but I now think the pros outweigh the cons. Play MLS Cup in June, away from football (which Wynalda, again showing his pragmatic streak, knows will be TV’s big dog for the foreseeable future). Align the transfer windows with Europe.
Now, to be honest, I haven’t really changed. I floated an Apertura/Clausura model with late-spring playoffs back in 2010.
So Wynalda’s session was full of fun discussion threads. I enjoyed it, and I enjoy my Twitter banter with him.
But these are, for the most part, idle discussions. Pro/rel isn’t happening soon.
I do wonder if we can change the culture in MLS to make it more challenging. I don’t think that change has to come from a systemic overhaul. My guess is German teams threw shoes in the locker room generations ago, before the big money rolled in.
And I’m not sure that’s an accurate depiction of MLS locker rooms these days, anyway. When I regularly went to MLS locker rooms in the mid- to late 00s, the losing team’s locker room usually had a dank pall seeping in. Taylor Twellman was not a pleasant person when the Revs lost.
Here’s a story to counter Wynalda’s story: Brian Straus and I were once part of a small group of journalists stuck in the RFK corridor while the Houston Dynamo broke league rules and kept the locker room door shut for about 30 minutes after the game. When we finally got in, Dom Kinnear was pleasantly professional. But a whiteboard behind him had a fresh fist-sized hole in it.
Change comes slowly in MLS, at least after Garber’s first couple of years, when he ditched the shootout, started SUM, etc. The single-entity structure has evolved, but it’s hard to see why it still necessary at all. The last CBA could’ve given players a bit more.
(Incidentally, if you think the NPSL is the answer to your anti-MLS dreams when it comes to league business practices, take a look at this sheet from the NPSL’s booth …)
So MLS needs watchdogs to prod it along. That’s good. But we have other needs that are more pressing.
Wynalda closed with a comment that drew a rousing ovation, though I’m sure some of the “Klinsmann good, MLS bad” folks on Twitter will be appalled. It’s horrible, he said, to deny kids the opportunity to play high school soccer.
That’s something we can change without asking people to risk even more money than they already have. Maybe we start there?