On sportsmanship

A kerfuffle erupted last night after the friendly between Major League Soccer’s all-stars and Bayern Munich. Bayern manager Pep Guardiola was angered by a couple of hard tackles and wagged his finger at and then refused to shake the hand of Portland boss Caleb Porter, who was in charge of the MLS group. Guardiola then disingenuously said he “didn’t see” Porter. I’ll leave commentary on this classless display to others.

I was reminded of two related incidents in my soccer career.

Only once have I ever refused to shake opponents’ hands after a game as a player. A team in our men’s league is consistently the most physical. Depending on the ref – two of the four regular refs never call anything by anybody – they can get away with it. Even with one of the good refs, they dodge persistent infringement cautions by having everyone foul so the ref forgets how many each player has accumulated. I don’t know if this is calculated or if they’re all just naturally goons. Even the female players (this is a mostly male league) are dirty.

One game last winter, it seemed to hack our skill players virtually every time they got the ball. No yellow cards were shown. i’m surprised our skill players could walk off the field on their own. I was so disgusted that I refused to shake hands after the game. I’m not sure why this game was different than all the other times we played these hacks but I’d had enough. One of their players sniffed at me, “What about sportsmanship?” She didn’t like it when I informed her that sportsmanship *during* the game is even better than sportsmanship after the game.

Despite coaching against many overly physical teams, I’ve never refused to shake an opposing coach’s hand. If I’m really upset, I’ll shake hands but won’t say anything (not the typical “nice game”); that way, I can follow protocol without feeling like a fraud.

But one time, I refused to allow my players to shake the hands of the opponents. It was not a decision I took lightly but not one I regret either.

The first time we played this U17 team at home. They showed up, clearly certain that they were going to wipe the floor with us. They were from a good sized city and  they no doubt saw my players as hicks in the sticks. They barely touched the ball. They lost that game 3-0 and it wasn’t that close. Frustrated, they were hacking the crap out of us.

During the post-game handshake, one of their players kidney punched one of my players. When my player (possibly the least aggressive U17 I’ve ever coached) shoved him back, my player was red carded. As their goons walked by our bench, they “invited” my players to meet them in the parking lot. In the parking lot, one of their players peeled out with his car, nearly hitting one of our parents and spraying her with pebbles.

I was so angry at all this that I emailed the league and demanded they send us experienced officials for the rematch away or I’d refuse to play. They did. We again beat the team comfortably by three goals. They again got frustrated and dirty. The officials sent off one of their players and almost did so to another. There was no way I was going to subject my players to the fraud of a “sportsmanship” line and risk another of them getting cheap-shotted and then punished for it.

When I informed the other coach of this, he appeared to understand (he didn’t seem to have much control of his players; he seemed kind of embarrassed by their goonery. He shook my hand and pleaded with me to at least shake his captain’s hand and allow him to do the same to mine. I accepted. So at least that was something.

His players didn’t seem impressed but I didn’t care. I was an hour from home and didn’t feel like spending the rest of the evening accompanying one of my players to the hospital or police station.

World Cup final shows soccer is a team game

Today, Germany beat Argentina by 1-0 in extra time to win their fourth World Cup. Or, if you were to listen to the media, Germany beat Lionel Messi.

Unfairly but expectedly nonetheless, the media is crucifying the world’s best player for the result. But this tournament shows that soccer is a team game.

Had Gonzalo Higuain buried the sitter he was gifted midway through the first half, Messi is the captain who lifts the World Cup rather than Phillip Lahm. It’s Messi’s fault Higuain couldn’t even hit the target?

Messi wasn’t at his best this tournament and didn’t deserve to win the Golden Ball (MVP). But to crucify a guy who scored 4 goals, including 2 match winners (both half of Argentina’s total) for a team where no one else scored more than a single goal… sorry, I won’t do it. At least he contributed, unlike many of his teammates.

On paper, Argentina had the best group of attacking players in the world. Messi, Higuain, Angel Di Maria, Ezquiel Lavezzi, Rodrigo Palacios. This group was so good that Argentina’s coaching staff omitted Juventus’ star Carlos Tevez. But of that group, only Messi and Di Maria bothered to show up.

Contrary to popular myth, Diego Maradona did not win the 1986 World Cup single-handedly (even if he did score a goal with a single hand). He was by far the best player in that tournament but he had other people around him who contributed. 

(And people conveniently forget that Maradona also lost a World Cup final by 1-0 to Germany on a goal a few minutes from the end.)

Messi didn’t have the luxury of much help, certainly not in the last two games. When Di Maria played, Messi had a tiny bit of support. When Di Maria was injured for the semifinal and final, Messi had no real support. Argentina won all the games in which the two played together and did not win either of the games during which Di Maria was absent.

We no longer live in an era where players can win World Cups by themselves. I’m not sure we ever truly did. Today, top players play too many games. Access to video and games from around the world is ubiquitous, making it easier to figure out how to neutralize top players.

As a youth coach, the World Cup was depressing

As a grass roots coach, I found the US national team’s performance utterly depressing.

Yes, I know that goes against the conventional wisdom. US soccer officials and commentators have tried very hard to blow up our collective rear ends and convince us that this was a leap forward for our men’s national team. 

It was not. 

When I saw the performances at this World Cup, I saw a US national team that looked utterly indistinguishable from US teams in recent World Cups. They had the strengths: hard work, never give up attitude, great goalkeeping. They had the same weaknesses: inability to take the initiative (something which, at times, seemed like a conscious tactical decision), poor passing, lack of creativity and, particularly, a complete inability to possess the ball. An inability almost bordering on fear.

Despite all the happy talk of our charismatic, telegenic foreign coach, despite all the kumbayah propaganda of US Soccer suits, I did not see anything that was even marginally better this World Cup as compared to the last few. The performances weren’t worse (well maybe the possession was) but it wasn’t better. It was about the same. We defended most of the time. We were on our heels most of the time. We created very little on the attacking side. Hard working, nothing special. Typical US team. The record was worse than in 2010.

We were sold something different. The charismatic coach with the great playing resume said all the right words leading up to the tournament. He spoke of wanting the US to shed the underdog mentality and not be afraid to go toe to toe with bigger teams. Yet during exam week, the scared underdog is exactly who showed up.

The other big buzz surrounding Coach Jurgen Klinsmann was his emphasis on a side that was very physically fit. This was his justification for dropping the US’ all-time leading international and World Cup scorer Landon Donovan, an omission that proved very costly in the Belgium match. (Most assume that the Donovan snub was more about a conflict between two big egos)

Yet in virtually every game, a starter was injured in the first half with a muscle strain. Were the players overtrained, given the tropical match conditions they ended up facing? Certainly it seems a miscalculation occurred somewhere.

 

I would’ve settled for baby steps. But I didn’t even see baby steps. No American coach would be given the free pass for mediocre* performances that Klinsmann has been given.

(*-The US was very good vs Portugal. Being comprehensively outplayed by a side the caliber of Germany is no shame… keeping it close was not a bad accomplishment, just ask Brazil. But getting completely outclassed by Ghana and Belgium, two teams who are good but not world class, is inexcusable)

I realize that no coach can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. It takes time for a coach to build things to where he wants them. But Klinsmann seems happy with the performances at this World Cup. I saw performances where we were completely outplayed, where we were back on our heels all the time chasing the game. If Klinsmann is satisfied with this, he needs to go. This is more of the same, not a transformation… or even a modest evolution.

I’m a coach who tries to develop plays with technical ability and tactical awareness. If our national program eschews these things in favor of fitness (the one thing US coaches have always been able to develop, then it feels like I’m wasting my time developing soccer players if all the higher ups want is athletes. 

How parents are killing youth sports

How parents are killing youth sports

The Canadian magazine MacLean’s has a disturbing, though not altogether surprising, article about the corrosive influence of parents on youth hockey. Although the article focuses on Canada’s national sport, it’s equally applicable to soccer and other sports in this country. In my experience as a coach, parents completely lacking the tiniest shred of perspective are by far the biggest reason kids quit sports.