Monday, December 20, 2010

The Damned Rovers?

Cindy and I watched the movie "The Damned United" this weekend and I couldn't help but draw an analogy between the topic of the movie -- Brian Clough's brief, unsuccessful reign as manager of Leeds United in 1974 -- and the current situation that my Blackburn Rovers find themselves in.

To make a long story short, Clough was a young, brash, self-confident manger in England who led lowly Derby (that's pronounced "Darby" for all you American readers) County from the depths of the second division to the championship of Division One in England (what is now called the Premier League) in two short years. Along the way he first admired and then came to loathe the manager of Leeds United, Don Revie, who was an "old school" manger (read: his players played hard, arguably dirty, soccer).

Clough had a habit of buying the rights to players without the approval of the Chairman of Derby and, at least according the to admittedly fictionalized movie account depicted in The Damned United, became more arrogant in his dealings with the Chairman after his initial success. Ultimately, he submitted his resignation to the Board in an attempted power play to leverage his running of the club without the Chairman's involvement. Unfortunately for him, the resignation was accepted.

After a brief stint at a lower division club in Brighton, Clough was offered the manager's position at Leeds. Revie had accepted the job as England's manager and the club targeted Clough as his replacement.
Clough's reign at Leeds lasted exactly 44 days, but during that time he managed to alienate its board, the media, Revie, and most importantly his players. Whether Clough was right or not (and the movie suggests that he was) it was hardly the way to start a relationship when he supposedly told his players (who had won the first division championship in 1973-74, the year before Clough led Derby to the title, and the FA Cup the year before that) that they could "all throw [their] medals in the bin because they were not fairly won."

Brian Clough leading Leeds onto the pitch before the 1974 FA Charity Shield match. 

Predictably, the players did not play hard for Clough and he was ousted after less than a month and a half in charge.

The comparison to Blackburn is that this week its new owners sacked their manager, Sam Allardyce. While many Rovers fans were not admirers of Allardyce, they were almost unanimously surprised by his firing since Rovers were mid-table at the time -- a standing about as good as most fans expect given the club's limited resources. There was talk of a protest by fans before the match this past Saturday against West Ham and many have speculated that the firing, the reasons given for it (essentially, lack of ambition and an unattractive style of play), and the expectations that the club's new owners have all demonstrate that they are naive at best and will endanger the club's Premier League life at worst.

I suspect that just as Clough failed to appreciate how his words and attitude would affects his new players at Leeds and their desire to play well for him, so too Allardyce may have overestimated the weight his belief in his own managerial style and abilities would have with Rovers' new owners when compared to how his message was delivered.

Sam Allardyce, cutting a somewhat less dashing figure than Clough.

Allardyce, although admittedly somewhat successful in a previous managerial stint at Bolton and in keeping Rovers afloat, seems (inordinately) impressed with his own managerial ability, which to the casual observer is exclusively comprised of one-note football built around long balls and set pieces. To his credit, his players did seem to genuinely like playing for him. But the players weren't footing the bill.

This is pure, unsupported conjecture on my part, but one can easily imagine Allardyce communicating with his new bosses in a manner that was both self-congratulatory and condescending in informing them of his previous work, what their priorities should be (almost exclusively Premier League survival), and how they should go about achieving them (leaving him alone and letting him manage the club the way he wanted to).

Like Clough, Allardyce entered a new situation in his job and probably thought that the way he had handled such a relationship in the past would be good enough -- particularly since it was his way. You should always consider before speaking to any audience not only the message but how it ought to be conveyed. Particularly if your job is on the line. And if you're a manager, it always is, isn't it?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I Guess It's Unavoidable

I've been avoiding my impulse to comment on the whole South Charleston-Hurricane-Brooke-SSAC-Judge Webster-Supreme Court brouhaha for a number of reasons. I serve on the SSAC's Soccer Committee (possible conflict). I know South Charleston's defensive coordinator (possible conflict). My wife Cindy is an employee of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia (you get the idea). I have met and like Judge Webster and the players' counsel, Ben Salango. One of the counsel for Brooke County is my former law school roommate. The conflicts abound.

And yet, I have to weigh in on the issue of whether the SSAC and the Supreme Court got it right, don't I? Isn't this blog supposed to be about coaching and the law? When the two intersect, as they so clearly did here, I would be remiss if I didn't throw in my two cents' worth.

So here it is. The Supreme Court got it right. And South Charleston High has only its coaches and administration to blame if it doesn't like the result.

Like it or not, the SSAC has to have the ability and the right to serve as the ultimate arbiter of decisions regarding eligibility and suspensions. The Supreme Court made it very clear in the O.J. Mayo case just three years ago that it was going to give the SSAC wide latitude in its governance of high school sports. Whether you agree with all, most, or none of its decisions, the SSAC can't run high school sports (and, by extension, its referees can't govern and control contests) if it is subject to being second-guessed by a litigant or a court whenever it makes a decision.

As for the SSAC's swift action in declaring the semi-final between Brooke and South Charleston forfeited, you had to see that coming.  I'm sure South Charleston understood that if it played the suspended players and the court's decision ultimately went against them, the SSAC would make them forfeit the game.

I can't for the life of me understand the South Charleston head coach's comments blaming the SSAC and particularly the Brooke County Board of Education for the decision. He must have known that playing the four suspended players could (and likely would) result in the forfeiture of the game. How can you blame Brooke County for making sure that the correct decision was made before the Championship game took place?

South Charleston's coach and administration had three clear choices: (1) discipline the players for their part in the brawl (which was never denied in any of the court proceedings); (2) impose no discipline but hold them out of the Brooke game pending a final resolution of the court case; (3) put the players in the game despite the suspensions and take their chances that the players would prevail before the Supreme Court.

That they chose option three speaks volumes for what they thought was important (winning, at any cost) and what they thought the chances of winning were without the players (zilch).

The Eagles made their nest, no one else. Now they can lie in it all winter long.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Blah, blah, blah

So for some reason last Saturday night I continually subjected myself to the inane musings of three different commentators on three different college football games. And since misery loves company I feel the need to inflict some of the pain on my readers as well.

Brent Musburger, Matt Millen, and Bob Davie were the guilty parties this weekend, but by no means are they the only sinners when it comes to filling our ears with useless trivia, incorrect information, statements of the obvious, or the repeated utterance of all three. Instead of the old adage "those who can do, do, those that can't, teach" (with which I do not agree, by the way) I firmly believe that these days "those that can do, do, and those that can't talk about it endlessly and for some inexplicable reason are paid to do it."

Each of the three guilty parties, though, is a poster boy for his own particular brand of inanity. Musburger is a know-it-all-who-is-mostly-wrong whose status as a semi-iconic broadcaster is a constant source of befuddlement for me. He always tries to "capture the moment" through some over-the-top description rather than allowing the viewer (or listener in his case) to reach his or her own conclusion, or even enjoy the moment in some way other than that which Brent tells you to. Brent's babbling is so predictable, there's even a hilarious drinking game in his honor.

Davie insists on saying the same thing over and over and over. During the South Florida v. UConn game I must have heard him say on at least five different occasions (and keep in mind I was switching between that game and the Florida State-Virginia Tech and Oklahoma-Nebraska games too) about how "similar" UConn and South Florida were and then supposedly backing it up with meaningless statistics ("see!  told you! they both have 163 total yards through three quarters!!!"). We got the point the first time Bob.  And the second. And the third . . .

The winner in the race for my opprobrium award, however is Millen. I admit it stems at least in part from his miserable tenure as the General Manager of the Detroit Lions, something from which they still have not recovered two seasons after his much belated departure. Really, how much of an expert can a guy be who drafts a wide receiver two consecutive years when his team's defense is the worst in the League?

Millen's forte in the booth is, not surprisingly, stating the obvious. "They could really use a first down here" on third and long.  Or short. "They need a touchdown here" when a team is down by 21 with five minutes to go. Thanks for that, Matt. We never would have figured it out without you.

There are some good broadcasters doing football games (Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth are very good on Sunday Night Football, and as much as it pains me to say it, Kirk Herbstreit is funny and insightful), but with the bowl season upon us, I plan to keep a finger on the mute button or else my television set may not last until January 11.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


What Will FIFA Do?

If you're a fan of international soccer, you know that this week FIFA will announce the nations to which it will grant the expensive privilege of hosting the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The 2018 bid is guaranteed to go to a European nation or combination of nations among England, Russia, Spain/Portugal, or Holland/Belgium. Meanwhile, the finalists for the 2022 host are the U.S., South Korea, Japan, Australia, and Qatar.

Yes, Qatar.

Handicapping the races is about as easy as counting on there being only one minute of stoppage time when the visitors are leading at Old Trafford. All of what one would think would be the considerations that go into the decision (which country/ies have the best infrastructure, the most people, the most diverse population, the most to gain for soccer as a sport by creating or solidifying a fan base?) take a back seat when FIFA is at the helm.

Instead graft, collusion, and megalomaniacal kingdom making rule the day. Two federations have already been caught trying to take bribes for their votes (by an English newspaper reporter posing as an individual trying to buy support for the USA's bid -- why didn't he pose as a Brit?). FIFA's current head honcho Sepp Blatter has made it clear that he sees himself as soccer's missionary (or Messianic) version of St. Paul or St. Patrick, hellbent (there's an oxymoron for you) on bringing the world's game to the great unwashed in the Asian and Arab worlds.

Blatter also apparently believes that he/FIFA can do what 50 years of diplomacy haven't done and bring peace to the Korean Peninsula if South Korea were to host the World Cup. Never mind that it didn't make a whit of difference when South Korea co-hosted the Cup with Japan just eight years ago (North Korea turned down an offer to host some games) and that North Korea may be one of the few institutions in the world more corruptly and dictatorially run than FIFA. Finally, Qatar and Spain/Portugal have allegedly cut a deal to support each others' bids and all of South America's representatives have already announced that they will support the Iberians.

Any or all of which are reasons why Qatar, home to 1.7 million citizens and 120F temperatures when the matches will be played in the summer of 2022 (but lots and lots of oil money) has a chance.

England was the early favorite for the 2018 bid, but first Russia and then Spain/Portugal have made strong runs.  Never mind that the Iberian Peninsula is widely regarded as the EU's next likely bailout target, scuttling along behind Greece and Ireland -- I guess FIFA figures if they have to be bailed out, what's another few billion that the costs of hosting the World Cup will add? Handicapping is impossible, but if recent trends are any indication, the 2018 WC may have a Latin flair.

Which may actually help the American bid, since it's widely suspected that FIFA will not give the hosting honor to two Anglo countries in a row. Still, the U.S. seems to lack support from anyone one particular region other than its own, which holds only three of the twelve votes needed to win the rights to host.

Japan is viewed as having no chance and Australia seems to be too remote and even more disinterested than the U.S. in soccer as a nation to be a contender, although it is trying to get its federation vice president voting rights at the meeting (the Oceania president was one of those caught with his hand in the cookie jar). One would think South Korea has hosted too recently to have a shot, but there's that whole Team America thing Blatter has working that lends its bid an air of legitimacy (another oxymoron in this process). Qatar would be the first Arab nation to host -- and did I mention that it allegedly has some oil money?

The U.S. makes the most sense for a lot of reasons (in particular those in parentheses in the fourth paragraph of this post) but rarely does sense rule the day with FIFA. That's why I won't be surprised if the 2022 World Cup is played in the desert, in air conditioned outdoor stadiums with lots and lots of empty seats.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Arte et Labore

So, we've just won our third straight State championship by a score of 3-0, finished a season undefeated, and virtually guaranteed a National ranking at the end of the year. And most of the quotes in a newspaper article about the Final game are me moaning about how we didn't play particularly well.

No mention of the fact that we just went through a season in which we played and beat all four AAA state semi-finalists as well as an Ohio state finalist. No nod to our undefeated season, to the fact that the last time we lost a game was in August 2009, to our 46-game unbeaten streak. No reference to the first "three-peat" in West Virginia soccer in a decade.

I've been wondering the last few days if I can defend my comments based on some argument that aesthetics are important to me and I care not only about whether we win but how we look while we're doing it, or we really didn't play that well and I wanted us to go out on a high note. Or maybe that I wanted to impress on our returning players that there was still unfinished business that needs to be taken care of next season.

Or maybe I'm just a grouch.

I don't think I'm usually an over-demanding coach. Not a lot of yelling. I generally try to be positive, before, during, and after games (although admittedly once this year the whole team was mad at me because of my obvious, and repeatedly expressed, disappointment at their play). So what's up with the Steve Spurrier imitation?

I think I just wanted to be our last game together to be perfect and I was disappointed when it wasn't. We had played so well all season and set such high standards for ourselves that I wanted that final to be a celebration of what we were capable of -- attractive, maybe even beautiful, attacking soccer. But I should have recognized it as a celebration of a different sort. Not of art, but of the value of plain old hard work and determination.

The crest of my favorite professional soccer team, Blackburn Rovers, has the Latin phrase "Arte et Labore" -- by skill and hard work -- on it.

I recognize now (too late for the reporters) that our Finals win was a testament not to the "Arte" of our team but rather to the "Labore" -- the hours of practice, of long distance running and sprints and drills and scrimmaging that 20 players and two coaches endured since the first week of August. It was that work that put us in a position to withstand the elements, as well as overcome the emotions that went with the realization that it was our final weekend as this team, to finish the deal. And that's exactly what we did.

We played in difficult conditions both days -- cold and rain and snow and sleet and sloppy goal boxes and bumpy fields. While it's true that the conditions were the same for both teams, let's face it: weather and field conditions can be an equalizer for the less-skilled team. Add in the fact that we played the second half of the Final with three players sitting on the bench with injuries, including arguably the best player (and in my opinion certainly the best forward) in the state who was sidelined with a hamstring pull, one could certainly believe that we overcame some significant obstacles to win and win convincingly at that.

If I had it to do over again, I would make sure to mention that good teams can win in different ways, that we had discovered all of those different ways in the course of the season, and that "winning ugly" can have its own value. But I'd still probably say that I wouldn't have minded seeing a few more passes to the players with the same colored shirts. Hard work only gets you so far when you're an aesthetic person. Or a grouch.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Tom Brady and Me

Every year at during the first week of practice our team talks about our goals for the upcoming season. I sit down with each of the players individually to discuss what they hope to accomplish, personally and as a team, during the year, and then at the end of that week we set our goals as a team for the season.

I don't like to reveal what our goals are to the outside, mostly because each of the last two season we've set some pretty lofty standards for ourselves that would either make us appear overconfident or provide bulletin-board material for other teams. Sometimes a player will reveal one or more of the goals during an interview (Rachel!) but I don't think it sounds as presumptuous coming from the players as it would from me.

About two years into my "career" as head coach, I set a goal for myself, which I never revealed to anyone until last week -- win 100 games as a head coach. At the time, I figured it would take at least seven years to reach the mark -- an average of 15 wins a season. My first two seasons we had won 14 and 15 games, and so that seemed a reasonable length of time.

Then we won 17 in 2007, and, with the advent of the AA-A playoffs, 19 in 2008.  Suddenly it seemed possible that I might reach the goal in six seasons -- except for the fact that I was toughening our schedule every year as fewer of the AA-A teams we had traditionally played wanted any part of us and I sought more skilled competition to improve and test our team.

After we won 20 games last season, which put my career total at 85, I thought my chances of getting to 100 this season were pretty good. Still, we were scheduled to play all four of last season's AAA semi-finalists in West Virginia, plus last year's Ohio small school champ, plus 10 other West Virginia AAA schools.

Once we went 14-0-1 through our first 15 games, I knew that 100 would be reached, I just wasn't sure when. Our first chance came last Monday night against Parkersburg High School, one of the biggest schools in the state as far as student population goes, and also a successful girls' soccer program, which won the state AAA championship in 2006 and was runner-up in 2007. On paper, we looked to be the better team, but as the cliche goes, they don't play the game on paper.

Fortunately, we scored two goals in the first ten minutes and cruised to a 5-0 win. I enjoyed the achievement, and enjoyed even more my players' genuine excitement in their helping me reach that milestone. For good measure, a Parkersburg television station was there to capture our first two goals, both on lovely passes (one with feet, one with a head) that set them up.

When I got home late that evening, I turned on Monday Night Football only to be told that I was sharing my accomplishment with Tom Brady, who won his 100th game as a starting quarterback that same night against the Dolphins. While admittedly there were a few more cameras around to record Brady's feat than there were mine, given my devotion to Michigan football (which was sorely tested last Saturday I might add) I thought maybe there was a little kismet at work that evening.

Just as Brady owes much of his achievement to the dozens if not hundreds of teammates he's had over his career that helped him reach his goal, so too I was and am mindful of the players, parents, assistant coaches, school administration, and coaching mentors who helped me reach mine. While athletes often say (whether just lip service or not) that they owe their accomplishments to their teammates, there is no doubt that a coach only wins when he is fortunate enough to have players at his or her disposal who are willing to "buy in" to whatever it is you're trying to sell.

And on that count, I have been greatly blessed. It is a milestone that I share with and owe to every one of the young women I have been fortunate enough to coach, something which I will never forget.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

We are, after all, a Catholic school

And it came to pass, when the Philistine arose, and came and drew nigh to meet David, that David hasted, and ran toward the army to meet the Philistine.

And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth.

So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him; but there was no sword in the hand of David.

David 1 Goliath Nil.

1 Samuel 17

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Something Special

All season, two teams have been on a collision course. Assuming they take care of business this week, Saturday morning's match in Morgantown will be the most anticipated (and may be the most watched, inside the state and out) girls' high school soccer game of this and perhaps any season in West Virginia.

University High School is the defending Class AAA Champion in the State. The Hawks return most of their starters from a team that went through the 2009 season without a loss. Their coach is undoubtedly the most accomplished high school soccer coach currently leading a team in West Virginia, having won two boys' state championships at Morgantown High before moving across both town and the gender line to coach at University. The school has 1250 students and the city has a strong youth and travel soccer pool from which to draw players.

Charleston Catholic High School is the defending Class AA-A Champion. The Irish return nine starters from a team that lost one game in 2009 and won its second straight state championship. Their coach is a part-timer who never played the game and started coaching at the high school level largely by chance. The school has 250 students and benefits from having seven seniors who comprise the best single class of soccer players in the history of the institution.

Both teams are undefeated so far this season, with the only blemish on either side being Catholic's tie against the Morgantown girls' team. They are ranked first and second in the state according to the state's mathematical rankings, The National Soccer Coaches Association of America (a name which calls to mind the American Dodgeball Association of America) poll, and ESPN's RISE poll.

Obviously, the ultimate goal in this or any season is to win a state championship. But this game is a little different -- in some ways it's for the championship of the whole state, not just a class. And it's an opportunity for at least one school to gain recognition outside of the state, something that's hard to come by, for girls' high school soccer particularly.

This is what you play for.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Delicate Balance

I didn't play team sports in high school. I went to a big public school and, frankly, was to small to be able to play football or baseball (and too old to play soccer, at least in Michigan).

Swimming and golf, though were two sports that weren't particularly discriminatory with regard to size (although admittedly you won't find many 5' 9 1/2" Olympic swimmers). I didn't learn much from my high school golf coach that I've been able to translate to my soccer team (unless it's simply to not be a confrontational, crotchety old SOB like he was), but swimming is a different story.

There were some conventional wisdoms in swimming 30 years ago that, while regarded as gospel at the time, haven't proven to be much more than voodoo or old wives' tales. We used to stretch a lot before meets (as opposed to currently, where static stretching is viewed as inhibiting muscle performance when done immediately prior to an event). We used to "carbo load" the night before big meets (not immediately before, like Michael Scott) which is of questionable value these days. And before and during meets we would eat plain sugar or jello mix because we thought the glucose would give us additional energy.

The one training tool that we practiced in swimming that I believe still has a great deal of validity, and is equally applicable to soccer, is "peaking." The idea was that there were only so many times during the swim season when an athlete could be at his or her best. So, while no one tanked any meets, it was understood that you wouldn't prepare for all meets in the same way (training hard, then tapering your training a few days before). Only the really important meets merited that type of training. Your performance in the run-of-the-mill meet or race may not have been optimal as a result, but that was okay because you had the big picture -- the county or state meet -- in mind.

As an athlete, peaking and tapering made a lot of sense -- maybe just because it meant I didn't have to work as hard at practice during the days leading up to a big meet.  As a coach, however, I find I have to constantly remind myself that I can't expect great things out of my team every game.

The high school soccer season lasts for 20 regular season matches in West Virginia. Add to that the possibility of up to five post-season games (if you make it all the way to the State Finals), and you have a situation where, realistically, your players cannot be as physically and emotionally sharp as you'd like them to be for every single contest.

It's a difficult concession for me to make, that we can't or even shouldn't be expected to play our best every single match. I'm competitive by nature and at any game want our team and its players to perform as well as possible. I find I'm more disappointed with a "bad win" than a "good loss" almost all the time.

But, as the cliche goes, a bad win really is better than a good loss.  After all, the ultimate goal for a game is to win, and for the season is to win a championship, not to look good losing or to win a relatively unimportant game 5-0 instead of 3-0.

Although I'm in my ninth season as a high school coach, I'm still learning better ways of doing things. There's a lot of introspection in coaching, as in legal work -- especially litigation. I find myself often examining the way I approach issues for an audience, whether it's my players, the press, a judge, or a jury. This year, I'm consciously making an effort to be satisfied with an occasional adequate performance, with the understanding that it would be too demanding to expect the team to play at a peak for 25 straight games.

There's still room for improvement in our team, just as there is in me as a coach. As a wise man once said, "when you stop getting better, you stop being good."

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Other Football

As I alluded to in a recent post, the rest of the world views American collegiate sport as an oddity. The training grounds for professional athletes anywhere but the U.S. are, oddly enough, professional teams. 

Overseas, promising soccer and basketball players are nurtured by professional clubs, beginning at a young age. The advantage: athletes who are interested in pursuing sport as a vocation don't have to pretend that they are students. The disadvantage: athletes who are interested in, but not good enough to, be professional athletes end up without any marketable skills.

Of course, there are other downsides to college athletics besides the fact that they are not supposed to be equipped to do what they do -- train amateur athletes to be professionals. Especially in football, agents, the bowl system, and the exploitation of unpaid athletes for the generation of millions of dollars of revenue for some "institutions of higher learning" understandably makes many an educator or administrator queasy.

But all of those doubts disappear, for me anyway, come Saturday afternoons in the fall (well, it should be Saturday afternoons, and only Saturday afternoons, as far as I'm concerned). There is something very unique and special about college football that, for me, no other sport can match. 

Maybe it's the fact that there are only 12 (or 13, or 14 nowadays) games in a season. Part of it is the pageantry. Part is the history of whatever team(s) you root for and a link, somewhere, to a glorious past. And part is that college football has the unique ability in the U.S. to join uncommon people in a common bond, at least for a few hours. In much of the rest of the world, soccer is the sport that does this. But in the U.S., I believe that it's college football, more so even than the NFL.

This coming weekend is one of the two biggest of the college football season for me. And, no, not because it's WVU v. Marshall on Friday night. Remember, when it comes to being a fan, I never take the easy route. For while I generally root for both WVU and Marshall, I am first and foremost a fan of my alma mater, Wake Forest (which has the tradition of being one of the worst major college football programs), and of the University of Michigan. And Saturday Michigan plays Notre Dame.

I grew up going to The Big House with my Dad and brother, watching Michigan play the best teams in the nation. It was just us and 110,000 of our closest friends. I saw a surprising number of great offensive players over the years -- surprising because Michigan had the reputation of being a "three yards and a cloud of dust" team. Tom Brady, Brian Griese, Chad Henne, and Elvis Grbac are all quarterbacks I saw play in person, and Anthony Carter, Charles Woodson, and Desmond Howard were among the wide receivers.

Just as important as the team or the players, though, was the atmosphere: bright orange and yellow and red maples on the drive to the stadium on a crisp fall morning; parking on the U of M golf course (!) or in some five-times-a-year entrepreneur's yard; walking to the stadium with and past thousands of fans decked out in Maize and Blue; the smell of the food simmering on their tailgate grills. 

Then, there was the stadium itself. There is nowhere like Michigan Stadium on a Saturday afternoon. From the street it looks singularly unimpressive -- perhaps twenty rows of stands. But when you walk in, you realize that it was sunk into the ground and the sheer enormity of the place is overwhelming.

U of M Stadium from the air -- golf course/parking lot to your right.
And that's before the band takes the field. I have never played an instrument and am about as far from a "band geek" as you can get. But every time I hear the cadence of the Michigan band entering the field, the hair on the back of my neck still stands on end. And when they play the best fight song in the land, well, how can you not get a little amped after that?

Being a Michigan fan was never a big deal in West Virginia until the U of M stole WVU's basketball and football coaches in successive years. The hiring of John Beilein as basketball coach was not a big deal as he was an outsider who had lead the Mountaineers well, but for whom the state had no real allegiance or love. When Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez, however, it was a different matter entirely. Rodriguez was West Virginia born, WVU educated, and led a dynamic, successful program after the retirement of Don Nehlen. His departure was seen by WVU fans as an affront to the school and the state, and made an enemy of both the coach and the institution that hired him to all things Blue and Gold (as opposed to Maize and Blue).

After Rodriguez's first two unsuccessful years in Ann Arbor, I've had to put up with a lot of ribbing from my WVU friends. All along, though, I've said the third year of the Rodriguez era in Michigan, and the Bill Stewart era in Morgantown, will tell the tale.  Rodriguez runs a unique offense that requires a certain kind of player, certainly not those that Lloyd Carr recruited before him; Stewart's coaching and recruiting abilities are at best unproven.

Last Saturday was the start of the third season, and it began very well for Michigan. Much better, I thought, than WVU's performance against its I-AA opponent. The games this weekend, however, will give a little better idea of how good Michigan might be, and how ordinary WVU could be. And while usually I remain neutral regarding WVU v. Marshall games, I have to admit that a little bit of me wouldn't be disappointed to see The Thundering Herd give me the first chance to say I told you so.

Friday, August 27, 2010

High Expectations

I've been struggling for the past nine months with how to deal with the expectations for our team for this season.

I prefer being the underdog. But it would be close to impossible to cast our team in that light this season and maintain any degree of credibility. It's always easier to lead when you can create an "us against them" mentality with your team. But this season, realistically, it's "them against us."

Our team has won two straight class AA-A state championships. We have nine starters returning, seven of whom are seniors, and seven of whom made one all-state team or the other. We've begun to receive notice outside of the state -- we will play the team that won the Ohio state "small school" championship game (they were later stripped of the title, under questionable circumstances in my opinion) in a game on Labor Day and our upcoming game against University High (last year's West Virginia AAA state champion) has already begun generating some buzz.

I think many coaches tend to ignore the psychological preparation for themselves and their team for a season. To me, that is the most important aspect of pre-season work for an accomplished and skilled team like ours. If you have a bunch of new or young players, then you need to get a ball on their feet as often as possible. But for our team, figuring out how to deal with the expectations and pressures of seeking a three-peat(c) was paramount.

Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to be in the position of having to deal with this kind of "problem." But it's easy for people to overlook the time spent off the field that goes into deciding how you will work your way through it, and that how you will handle and train a skilled team is just as taxing, just different, than doing the same for a younger or less talented team.

In the end, my choice was to simply admit that our prospects for the season should be promising and let the team know that it was up to them to decide whether we would achieve them or not. Fortunately, our players are very competitive and have even higher goals than most people would think. Planning how you will communicate with your team can be more important than planning what you will (and won't) tell people outside the team about what you're doing and why.

Although it's still early, so far we've embraced the expectations that we and others have placed on us. We spent a great weekend in Morgantown scrimmaging against some of the best teams in the state, I witnessed the best, most intense scrimmage I've ever seen when we battled University High on a lovely August evening, and we have already avenged our only loss from last season.

The view from University High's field the evening of our scrimmage.

There will no doubt be some bumps along the way (in fact, there were some in a scrimmage the morning after the University scrimmage), but the moments we've already experienced this season lead me to believe that sometimes expecting the most from your team, and telling them that, is the best option. Maybe even when it's not the only one.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Whose Future?

I recently finished reading an excellent story in The New York Times Magazine that ran right before the World Cup and it started me thinking about my post last month about my summer camp experiences and how "growing up" has changed in the past generation.

The article "How a Soccer Star Is Made" by Michael Sokolove is about the youth academy of the famous Dutch club Ajax.  Ajax is historically the most successful club in the Dutch Eredivisie (Premier League) and was in the past a force in European competitions, particularly in the 1970's when it won the UEFA Champions League three straight years. As free agency and well-heeled investors crept into the game in the 1980's and '90's, Ajax found difficulty competing with the best in Europe, continuing to rely on home-grown talent for the most part.  

Ajax now seems content to do well in its domestic league and provide a pipeline for talented Dutch players to the richest clubs and owners in England, Italy, Spain, and Germany. It does so at a considerable financial benefit. Player transactions in professional soccer almost never occur via a "trade" as is the norm in American football, baseball, and basketball. Rather, players switch clubs almost exclusively via a "transfer"in which one club pays another for the rights to a player. Instead of chasing trophies Ajax is now, as Sokolove puts it, a "talent factory."

And a successful factory it is. Ajax signed and developed Wesley Sneijder, the midfield general for The Netherlands in the recent World Cup. After five season with the club he was sold to Real Madrid for a reported 27 million Euros. At least two other starters on Holland's team started out as Ajax youth players and were sold on to "bigger" clubs. One club official estimated in the article that Ajax earned 80 million Euros from five players currently playing for other clubs in Europe.

The industrial analogy seems particularly apt after reading about the academy and how it works. Every year the players go through rigorous testing and analysis, starting at age 7. Some players are "sent away" because of a lack of skill, motivation, or discipline. And while concessions are made for family and studies, particularly at younger ages, there is no doubt what the sole focus of De Toekomst "(The Future") is -- developing elite soccer players. When Sokolove asked one 15-year-old member of the academy if he was learning lessons -- focus, perseverance, poise under pressure -- that he could apply regardless of what vocation he undertakes in life the answer was simple: "No, we're training for football, not for anything else."

The article makes the point, as many have done in the past, that if America ever hopes to be a truly elite soccer nation, it needs to train players, if not quite as obsessively as Ajax, at least a lot more like it than the current system of youth teams (which focus on winning rather than developing elite talent) and college soccer (which is entirely unique to the States as far as the quality of play and its use as a training grounds for the pros).

This is a legitimate point, and one that needs to be a continual part of the debate regarding the youth soccer system in the United States. As a parent, though, I couldn't help but reflect on the comparison between the Ajax system and my recent bemoaning of sending our son and daughter to soccer camps during summers past rather than to regular "summer camps" (although my daughter did point out that they went to church camp for a few summers and got to shoot archery there).

While I may regret that our kids missed out on some experiences growing up, one of my regrets is not that they weren't in the youth system of a soccer club. Admittedly, they probably weren't talented enough to be considered in the first place.  But as successful as Ajax program is, for every player that makes it to the first team there are scores that return home at some point and are forced to try to use the lessons learned solely for football and apply them to some other vocation.

I understand chasing the dream of the ridiculous wealth that a contract with an elite club in Europe can bring. But the odds certainly aren't with you, and you have to wonder how many kids have grown up thinking only about being a professional soccer player when they should have been concentrating instead on a professional or vocational career because they just lacked that one step.

American soccer would likely benefit if we put players into youth systems at a younger age.  Certainly, we have started to figure out how to offer the opportunity to players (starting perhaps at 15 or 16) to train primarily for a career in soccer (some if not all MLS clubs have youth programs now and "Generation adidas" is supposed to provide income and opportunity to players who either don't want to attend college or want to leave early) and need to continue along that path.

As a parent though I would be very reluctant to want my child to be pulled away from a college education for the chance of a professional career unless I was dead certain that he or she was going to have a successful pro career. It seems an awfully big risk to take.

Maybe sending our kids to soccer camp when they were growing up wasn't such a bad decision after all . . . 

Monday, August 2, 2010

An Inexplicable Obsession

I am a Blackburn Rovers fan.

Whenever I meet someone from England who is not a Blackburn fan, I usually get the same reaction when I tell them that I support the Rovers: "Blackburn? Why?"

The Rovers are not a fashionable club to follow, at least not these days. Admittedly, I started rooting for the Blue and White in their second heyday, following their first (and, truth be told, likely only) Premier League championship in 1995. But I wasn't a bandwagon jumper, actually not throwing my support behind the club until it was on the decline, in 1997. Only two years later they were relegated and I stuck with them, proof of my stubbornness or stupidity.

It was not a decision that was made lightly. I began following the Premier League around 1996, a time coinciding with my beginning to coach my son's rec soccer team and with ESPN2's broadcasts of some Premier League games. I decided to follow one team, and set a few rules in choosing which one it would be. I wanted to root for a team that had enjoyed some success but was not one of the mega-teams. And I wanted to feel a connection with not just the team but its supporters.

Options for viewing soccer, and following foreign leagues, were much more antiquated 15 years ago than they are now, so the tools at my disposal to help figure out what team I would call my own were limited. I relied on the occasional match on ESPN2 and message boards and email lists on the Internet to help make my choice. For a time, I joined email lists of fans of Newcastle, Liverpool, and Blackburn.

All three were moderately successful in the '90's and had some promise of future success. Liverpool had enjoyed a long spell as the best club in England in the '70's and '80's and Newcastle had a strong fan base and fanatical following. Rovers had been the best team in England in the late 1800's and had enjoyed a revival under steel magnate and local boy made good Jack Walker, who had purchased the club in the early '90's and quickly steered it (or bought its way, depending on how you looked at it) from the Second Division to the Premier League and then champions in a remarkably short period of time.

I quickly struck Newcastle off of the list, finding their fans to be boorish and unintelligent. The Liverpool supporters were smarter but had an air of entitlement that I found off-putting. The Rovers fans, however, were smart, funny, and had a certain "us against the world" attitude that fit with my predisposition to root for the underdog (a trait I believe I share with many West Virginians).

My support for Rovers was cemented by two other factors: their fantastic blue and white halves, a kit that I think is the best looking soccer shirt in the world, and a 7-2 thrashing of Sheffield Wednesday on a Monday afternoon that still may be the most dazzling soccer game I've ever watched.

That was 13 years ago and it is still the most goals I've ever seen the Rovers score in a match. There have been some very low points along the way, including relegation in 1999 and two seasons in what was then called the First Division. As hard as it was to follow a club in the Premier League then, it was nothing compared to the wasteland that was news, let alone match highlights or live games, regarding First Division teams.

Rovers tried a number of miserably unsuitable managers while stumbling into and then through the wilderness before a savior arrived: Graham Souness. Although his departure from the club, inevitable for almost any professional team, was unpleasant, there is no doubt in my mind that Souness was the right man at the right time to lead Blackburn back to the Premier League, which he did in a season and a half.

During the first year back, Rovers reached their high point since I've followed them, winning the  2002 League Cup final 2-1 over Tottenham Hotspur at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. I still have the video tape (yes, video tape) of that win, and pull it out and watch every so often.

Since then, Rovers have mostly struggled in the Premier League, although they did enjoy a spell in the top half of the league for a time under manager Mark Hughes, one of the heroes of the League Cup win. Hughes, however, bolted for the filthy lucre offered by Manchester City (he's since been fired there and was recently hired by Fulham, which employs Americans Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson) and were very nearly demoted again after a disastrous start to the next season under Paul Ince.

The past two years have been marked by mediocrity and dull play, due in part to the current manager, Sam Allardyce, a coach whose tactics and demeanor would be difficult for the most ardent supporter to warm to, and in part to the financial cost of "facing the drop" to the First Division (now called the "Championship") which makes survival in the Premiership the main goal for all but a handful of clubs.

Things are better from the standpoint of getting to watch Rovers live on FSC and ESPN2 these days when they play one of the "big clubs". But I can't say that I often enjoy the experience. That's part of being a true fan, particularly a fan of a perpetual underdog. And, unlike in baseball (I'm a lifelong Tigers and Cubs fan) or football (ahem, Lions?) at least professional soccer offers several different avenues, through cup competitions, for a team to shine even when the season isn't going all that well (Portsmouth were in the FA Cup final last year while slogging through a miserable league campaign that saw them practically relegated by Christmas).

The preseason hasn't gone well at all for Rovers this year, and I fear that survival may be an accomplishment rather than just a goal in 2010-11. But I'll be watching. Through thick and (mostly) thin, I'm a Rovers fan.

Friday, July 23, 2010

We Haven't Had That Spirit Here Since 1969

Or thereabouts.

I got to take a trip back in time, or relive personal history, or just feel pretty damn old this week. Work took me to Wausau, Wisconsin for depositions. And, yes, I got several "oh lucky you" comments when I told folks where I was going. But it really was lucky for me.

Growing up in Michigan, my parents had the foresight to send my brother and me to Camp Mikquano in the town of Nelsonville (no kidding) Wisconsin. Nelsonville is about 15 miles east of Stevens Point, which in turn is about 35 miles south of . . . Wausau.

I didn't make it all the way back to Nelsonville, but did travel down to Stevens Point, where we spent some time as campers, and even more as counselors after the kids had gone to sleep.

The memories started even before getting to Stevens Point though. The initial jolt of nostalgia: Central Wisconsin Airport. After carting us around Lake Michigan from Southern Michigan to Nelsonville for two years, our Mom and Dad decided that Jeff and I could handle a plane trip on our own.

So for the next four years we boarded a plane at Reynolds Municipal Airport in Jackson, Michigan, and ended up eventually at CWA in the town of Mosinee, about halfway between Wausau and Stevens Point.

I flew into CWA this week and, no knock against the fine folks in Mosinee, it looks exactly the same as it did in the 1970's. This is the picture I took on my arrival Tuesday, not one from 1973.

Since I'd been so productive preparing for my depositions on the planes in, I decided to indulge my curiosity and take the 20 mile trip down to Stevens Point.

The last time I had been in the town was 1979, I think, after Jeff and I had ended our careers as counselors and went back to catch up with folks still at the camp and to show our hometown friends Michael and Brian the place they'd heard so much about. The details of the trip are best left to more discrete conversations, but suffice to say we jammed six weeks worth of central Wisconsin entertainment into one weekend. The highlight was a trip into Stevens Point, where we partook of the favorite local beer, Point.

Point Brewery was and is an anachronism -- small time, small town brewery that survived the onslaught of megabreweries like Miller, Old Style (still quite popular in Wisconsin, evidently), and of course Bud. It seems to have done a good job of repositioning itself as a craft brewer, offering up products like its "Whole Hog" high alcohol, six hop IPA which is very good. And, much like the airport, the brewery still looks like it did in the mid-70's, albeit with a fresh coat of paint.

After visiting the brewery again this week, followed by a quick trip to downtown Stevens Point, I hauled my rental car up to Wausau where I spent the next three days stuck in a conference room taking a deposition or stuck in my hotel room preparing for the next one. While Wausau is a pleasant town, the time for misty-eyed reminiscences was over.

So where is all of this headed, you may ask? I have no idea.

Nothing here about soccer, that's for sure. Not much about management, leadership, or decision-making either. But maybe a little something about the choices we make in an ever-changing world.

One of my biggest regrets as a parent is that our children never experienced the joy of attending a traditional summer camp. They've only been on a horse once in their lives, as far as I know. They've never shot a bow and arrow, and neither is a particularly good swimmer. They've never hunted for crayfish under rocks in a stream, pulled a bullhead or perch or sunfish off of a line, or spent a rainy day in a hot cabin trying to find some way to amuse themselves, having to rely on a board game, a card game, or a sing-along with a badly tuned piano.

They did not lack for educational or recreational opportunities, but everything is so regimented these days. It's a shame we can't give a little more space, let children and young adults figure out what to do and who they want to be by perhaps giving them a little more time to make the decision and a few more options to choose from. I think of the basketball and soccer camps that our son went to, and the French camp that our daughter is a staff member at now, and I think that's great, but can those kids tie a slip knot, bait a hook, or barrel race a horse? I bet not many have ever had the chance and I think a lot of them would have liked to have tried.

I don't think camp made me who I am, as much as it allowed me to believe that I could be whoever I wanted to be. Having the ability to make the choice, to find out what I liked and what I didn't, what I was good at and what I wasn't (I rarely darkened the door of the Arts and Crafts cabin), instead of running the next drill or reciting the next line was an awesome, powerful tool for an 11 year-old. And the chance as a counselor to help the next group of kids figure out what they liked and didn't was inspiring as well.

I've lost track of the kids that I went to camp with and the young men that I served as counselor with. But the fun we had together and the things we learned to do at Camp Mikquano will never be forgotten. It helped make me who I still want to be.

The Camp Mikquano counselors' softball team, 1977 (I think). I am kneeling on the left, my brother Jeff is on the right. Our friend Jeff Schmatz, the son of the camp owners (two of the most wonderful people that I have had the pleasure of being nurtured and mentored by in my life, Bob and Ruth Schmatz) is in the orange baseball hat over my shoulder. Note that at least four of us are wearing the team's official ball cap, a Point Beer hat.

Thanks to my brother Jeff and our friend Michael, who together indirectly suggested the title of this post in emails we shared about my trip.

Monday, July 12, 2010

"Now Let's Go Out There and Play Like We Want to Finish Third!"

It's so predictable it's a cliche: the third place games in World Cup tournaments are exciting, open matches; the title games are conservative, chippy, and at times downright dirty.

The supposed justification for the interesting "consolation" matches is that there's nothing to play for. Both teams are disappointed to to have lost in the semi-finals, don't really care all that much whether they finish third or fourth, and as a result play open, attacking soccer.

The Final, on the other hand, is usually a tight, low scoring, hard-tackling affair as teams draw back and defend rather than risk making the one mistake that can cost them the World title.

That's exactly how it played out in the 2010 World Cup. Germany and Uruguay engaged in an entertaining third-place match that Germany won 3-2, scoring the winning goal with just eight minutes remaining. The next day in the Final, Spain slogged to a 1-0 win over ill-tempered Holland.

The lack of scoring in the Final was disappointing, but not surprising. Spain dominated possession in all of its matches, even the opening loss to Switzerland. But it scored only eight goals total in its seven matches and won all of its knock-out matches by the same 1-0 margin.

Instead of attempting to match Spain's possession, the Netherlands seemed content to try to knock Xavi, Iniesta, et al. out of their socks and hope for a counter attack goal or a penalty shootout. While the Dutch had not exactly reflected the great "Total Football" teams of the 1970's up to the Finals (surprisingly, the usually dour Germans were likely heirs to the throne of "most exciting team not to win" this World Cup), they had not previously displayed the cynical slash-and-burn style with which they approached the Final.

While the reputation of the Dutch teams of the '70's as being obsessed with style over substance may have contributed to the decision to play negatively in the 2010 Final, one has to wonder if they would have shed the title of "best country never to have won a World Cup" before Spain if they had played truer to their abilities and reputation as an innovative, attacking soccer nation.

Conventional wisdom has its price. It's easier, or at least safer, if you're the coach or manager or boss, to take the approach that's tried and true. It certainly leaves you a cushion for any criticism you may receive. But sometimes true greatness comes when we throw caution to the wind. Occasionally playing like you're playing for third is the right, or at least the brave, thing to do.

And as for third place not being important? Ask Diego Forlan what he thinks.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Pittsburgh or Cape Town?

So much for the magic of Maradona. At least the Argentineans were fairly gracious in defeat.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Crazy Like a Fox

I admit it. I've been waiting for Diego Armando Maradona, and, by extension, Argentina to implode at some point in this World Cup. It seemed inevitable, didn't it? It still might happen, but even if it does Maradona has proven many of us wrong. And in his success may be some lessons from which all of us can learn.

For the uninitiated, Maradona (one of those one-name players that are indigenous to soccer) is one of the greatest players of all-time, mentioned in the same breath with Pele, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, and very few others. He almost single-handedly (pun intended) led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup, beating West Germany 3-2 in the Final. His most memorable performance of that tournament was in the quarterfinals, where Argentina avenged the indignities inflicted on it in the Falklands and defeated England 2-1. Maradona scored both goals in that match which are two of the most memorable goals in history -- the first the infamous Hand of God goal, and the second which was (sixteen years later) recognized as the "Goal of the Century".

Off the field, however, Maradona was a mess. Addictions to cocaine and alcohol stunned his abilities and bloated his body. After his playing career ended he became nearly unrecognizable because he gained so much weight. He went to Cuba twice for drug and alcohol rehab, and nearly died in 2004 after he suffered a heart attack due to a cocaine overdose. His family at one point tried to have him declared legally incompetent. Two brief forays into coaching at the club level in the mid-90's resulted in a dismal combined record of three wins, eight ties, and twelve losses.

Despite his personal life, Maradona remained an icon in Argentina. When Argentina struggled in the qualifying tournament for the 2010 World Cup Maradona offered himself as a candidate to replace the resigned coach and was astonishingly chosen. He managed to eke Argentina into the Finals and chose to celebrate the occasion by berating the press.

Argentina did not enter this tournament as a favorite, partly because of its mediocre qualifying campaign, and partly because Maradona was regarded as a tactically naive coach and a manager who was more concerned with his own success than that of his players.

Maradona and his team, however, have proven the pundits wrong. Not only are they one of two teams to win every game up to this point (Germany being the other), but they've done it with style and flair, scoring the most goals of any national in the Finals. Maradona struts the sidelines during every match, pleading, cajoling, complaining, and, whenever he can, showing off his still-considerable ball skills.

And therein lies Maradona's genius. It is very clear that the man cares. He passionately wants to win and he passionately supports his players. His players want to play for him. And, as the French proved already in this tournament, that is a very important ingredient to a winning team.

Great players do not often make great coaches. They become frustrated when their players can't play as well, work as hard, or be as imaginative as they were. This may explain why Maradona was a failure at the club level. At the international level, however, he's surrounded by players that, while perhaps not as great as he once was, are very, very good.

He's also managed to deflect the glare of the media spotlight from his players (including the Best Player in the World, Lionel Messi) and their performances by making himself the story of his team, and probably the whole tournament. Only Maradona could trash-talk Pele and the head of UEFA (Michel Platini, who is also occasionally mentioned in the same company as an all-time great player) and receive not vitriol but chuckles in return.

Very few of us (and, I dare say, no one who would be inclined to read this blog) have the cache that Maradona has that would allow us to be hand picked, without any previous success, for the high profile position that received. But he has made the most of his opportunity and has in the process rewritten the latest chapter in his life. Most importantly, he has inspired his team to perform at great heights and, either because of or in spite of his tactical decisions, it has managed to be both successful and entertaining while doing so.

If you believe in yourself, believe in your team, and let the world know that you do, marvelous things can happen. And you may not even need the Hand of God to help.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Importance of Being Honest

This is the tale of two confessions, the one that I'm about to make and the one that Bob Bradley didn't.

Mine is that I was wrong in my last post. One of the good things about soccer is not that there's no instant replay. Officials have managed to repeatedly demonstrate at this World Cup that they make mistakes. Horrible, blatant, game-changing mistakes.

While it would disrupt the rhythm of a match to stop play for a video review for every close call, there isn't any reason why the fourth official couldn't have reviewed either the goal that should have been but wasn't (Frank Lampard's strike against Germany) or the one that was but shouldn't have been (Carlos Tevez's goal from a clear offside position against Mexico).

On Tevez's goal there were no logistics to work through. Play was stopped anyway because a supposed goal had been scored. And clearly the goal would have been disallowed if it had been reviewed (I can maybe understand missing the call if one defender had been goal-side of him but none? Seriously?).

A review of Lampard's non-goal, which had to land at least a yard into the goal but was missed by the Assistant Referee, would have been a little trickier but could still be easily accomplished. Since his shot was inexplicably not ruled a goal, play continued so there was no stoppage in play as occurred after Tevez's goal.

It would be simple enough, however, to equip the fourth official (who stands at the touchline and acts as nothing more than a traffic cop for players entering and leaving the field 99% of the time) with video replay technology to allow him to review controversial calls or no calls while play continues. If he decides it should have been a goal, play stops, time is added for the duration of the review, and play restarts with a kickoff.

I would only allow replay in those two instances (that I can think of at the moment) -- offside rulings that lead directly to goals and determinations of whether or not a ball completely crossed the line and therefore was a goal. And I wouldn't allow any NFL-style challenges. Every close play in those two categories would be reviewed while play continues, or before play is restarted.

With the technology available and many other sports using it to get the call right (Wimbledon still makes players dress all in white but has electronic line calls!) there's no reason FIFA shouldn't use it in connection with the biggest, most lucrative sporting event on the planet.

Okay, I fessed up. Bob Bradley, on the other hand . . .

I don't like second-guessing coaches. I know as a coach I don't like it, and understand that there are many considerations that no one else, not even an assistant, is privy to when decisions are ultimately made regarding formations, personnel, etc.

That said, I was very surprised when it was announced that Ricardo Clark would start the match against Ghana instead of Maurice Edu, who had been very solid against Algeria. I figured Bradley knew something we all didn't, but was less sure when Clark gave away the ball early in the game to allow Ghana to score yet another early goal against the U.S. in this World Cup.

When Bradley substituted Edu for Clark in the first half (after Clark had been awarded -- that's an odd term, isn't it? -- a yellow card for a frustration foul shortly after allowing the goal) I thought that Bradley had admitted as much as well. According to, however, Bradley had a different explanation after the match:
[I] [t]ook him [Clark] off in the first half which is something that we almost never do, but I was concerned about the card. When we're already down 1-0 and now you're trying to push the game in that part of the field, when you play that role playing with a card is incredibly dangerous. I told him that the decision is solely based on the card.
This is a little too much for me to swallow. I understand Bradley's desire to not throw Clark under the bus, which is admirable. But clearly the substitution was an admission, albeit too late, that Bradley had gotten it wrong this time and should have started Edu. It's hard to see how Bradley's post-match explanation helps his credibility with the his players, the media, or, most importantly for him, his bosses at the U.S. Soccer Federation.

The decision to start Clark may well cost Bradley his job, which would be unfortunate. But you can't help but wonder if he had simply said "I got this one wrong, Clark is a useful player and important to our squad, but Edu was the right guy for the job in this match" it might have made a decision to bring in a new coach a little more difficult to make.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

C'mon In Boys, the Water's Fine

One and one-half hours and 45 seconds of nerve-rattling theater.

That's how long it took for Landon Donovan's goal, probably the most important goal in the history of U.S. men's soccer. What happened in those 90 plus minutes defines both what is right about soccer and why the provincialists among American sportswriters, fans, and talk show hosts (Sean Hannity doesn't like soccer? Oh, the horror) are so wrong.

It was crazy, it was choreography, it was froth-at-the mouth exasperating, it was exhilarating, it was schizophrenic, it was sublime.

Not unlike a normal day, when you have a good day at work, but the drive home is stymied by some idiot driver (probably with an Ohio license plate on his vehicle), or are trying to finish the perfect project or paper only to be annoyed by a co-worker, or are making a brilliant argument in court only to be stopped dead in your tracks by an inane observation or simplistic question.

Unlike American football (which, by the way, I enjoy watching very much), so much of soccer is ungoverned and ungovernable. No instant replay, please. No excessive celebration penalties, we beg (okay, you get a yellow for taking off your shirt, but how many 15 yard penalties would the Saints get if they celebrated a touchdown the way the Slovenians celebrated a goal?).

Go ahead, keep the NBA, with its 100+ field goal attempts, 200 points, 50 personal fouls, and five dives/flops (yes, they do that in the NBA too) per game. Keep Major League Baseball, with its juiced up balls, juiced up bodies, and bandbox ballparks all introduced to score more runs and thereby make it more modern American.

Give me a game filled with uncertainties and foibles, where the most talented team doesn't always win and maybe a bad call does change the outcome. But where the players run for miles every game, play offense and defense (ask Tim Howard about that one) every game, and trade shirts with the opposition when it's over.

And, every once in a while, a game filled with 90 nerve-wracking minutes that ends in a single, exhilarating, jump off the couch, high-five, I-remember-when moment of complete joy.

America loves winners and loves winning underdogs even more. That's why it will be watching Saturday as we take on Ghana. But maybe, just maybe, during that match it will get a whiff of the ether that makes the game magical. As Delmar says in Oh Brother Where Art Thou shortly after he's been saved "C'mon in boys, the water's fine."

Friday, June 18, 2010

Well, that was good timing

Since I had already tipped my hand regarding what this post would be about, Michael Bradley certainly helped make it a little more newsworthy with his late equalizer in the U.S. men's World Cup match against Slovenia. Bradley played much more positively than against England, probably because that's what his Dad asked him to do. His Dad, of course also happens to be the U.S. coach, Bob Bradley. And that's where it gets interesting, at least from my perspective as both a coach who has coached his children and as an employment lawyer.

Many employers have anti-nepotism policies that forbid, or at least limit, the hiring of relatives and significant others. The reason is understandable -- prohibiting the co-employment of spouses or children of supervising spouses or parents certainly avoids potential claims of favoritism. Having hard and fast rules prohibiting nepotism in the workplace avoids having to justify decisions regarding relatives of management employees, either to other employees or, worse, in court.

If U.S. Soccer had an anti-nepotism policy, however, the team would likely not be as good as it is (and how good it is can be argued as well). Michael Bradley earned his first cap for the men's national team in 2006; a few months later, after a disappointing showing in Germany, his father was named the interim coach, and later confirmed as the permanent choice. Although Michael was "there first" in terms of tenure on the team, under most anti-nepotism policies he would have to leave the team once his dad became the coach.

While some may assert that Bob Bradley's value to the team is questionable, very few doubt that Michael has become an essential member of the squad, doing the grinding work required of defensive center midfielders in today's game. His goal Wednesday was sparkling, but the work he does in front of the defense or in back of the offense, depending on what is needed at the time, is the stuff that goes largely unnoticed.

Employers with hard and fast anti-nepotism policies may end up like the National Team would be without Michael Bradley -- losing out on essential team members and potential stars merely because of familial relationships. Those that are willing to acknowledge both the value that relatives can add to a business -- in terms of talent and investment in the success of the business, however, by allowing the hiring of relatives may be better off in the long run.

Michael Bradley's teammates clearly think so. Landon Donovan was recently quoted as saying that Michael was a crucial cog in the team. Through communication and, most importantly, hard work, relatives can convince co-workers that nepotism, on the field or at work, can be a positive dynamic.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

U.S. v. England Player and Coach Ratings and Observations

Well, let's see. I did pretty well in naming the players who I thought were superior to the other side's (Gerrard, Rooney, Terry -- who I semi-hedged on but shouldn't have -- and Tim Howard). Gerrard was terrific throughout, Rooney came into the game late (and set up England's goal early). And John Terry -- I guess with all the hubbub about his less-than-admirable personal life (think Ben Roethlisberger without the bodyguard pimps) I'd forgotten how good he is. Howard's superiority to Green (but it could have just as easily been James) was obviously what earned the U.S. the tie. England did have better players, but Green's gaff yielded what I thought was a fair draw.

My player ratings (only for those players I care to rate -- scale of 1-10):


GK - Green 2. In addition to the obvious, his distribution of the ball was poor.

CD - Terry 7. Has amazing touch and vision for a central defender when he gets forward.

CD - Carragher 3. Was shockingly slow and lucky to not be sent off with a second yellow when he dragged Findley down with about 20 minutes left. If England have to play him the rest of the way, it's hard to see how they make the semi-finals, let alone hoist the Cup.

RB - Johnson 7. He often looked like the best player on the pitch, at least in part because Dempsey didn't deal with him very well.

CM - Gerrard 6. Nice move on the goal, took to the job of captain well.

F - Rooney 5. Pulled the USA's central defense apart when he would track back for the ball and looked likely to score sometime in the last 15 minutes. But disappeared for long portions of the game, especially in the first half.


GK - Howard 7. Anything he touched was smothered, with only one exception that I can think of when he parried Lampard's shot over the bar.

RB - Cherundolo 7. Howard won Man of the Match, but my vote would have been for Cherundolo. Absolutely tortured Milner and Wright-Phillips going forward, made several crucial pokes and clearances. Outstanding.

CD - Onyewu 5. Was neither fish nor foul on Gerrard's goal as he half-heartedly followed Rooney out of the area but really didn't stay with him or take a position to help Clark mark Gerrard. Other than that he was strong and essential.

CM - M. Bradley 4. I'm not a Bradley hater, but I don't think he played particularly well. Was often in the right place at the right time, but maybe a pass or two to the guys with the Blue shirts would have been helpful.

LW - Dempsey 4. Scored the luckiest big goal he will ever have, but it got to the point where Bradley had to switch Donovan to the left to try to deal with Johnson's raids from the back.

F - Altidore 4. One great run, worked hard, but didn't often threaten.


Capello 5. Hard to blame him for starting Green -- James isn't nicknamed "Calamity" for nothing and he's seen both in practice for three weeks now. Hands were tied when it came to substitutions because of the departures of Milner and King.

B. Bradley 4. Bold move to start Findley, who did what everyone expected -- stretched the England defense but never looked likely to score. Still, I was yelling at the t.v. from 70 minutes on for BB to sub him out, which he finally did seven minutes later. Thought the last two substitutions were very curious as he brought in two more offensive players in Buddle and Gomez (well, Gomez didn't actually make it in before the match ended, but the intent was there). I thought Edu for Clark or Bradley would have been a more useful substitution sometime in the last 15 minutes.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Still Us Against the World (or at least the Brits and Guus Hiddink)

There's an interesting contrast in at least two analyses of the USA v. Turkey friendly last Saturday. Some folks, myself included as well as bloggers like Steven Goff of the Washington Post's Soccer Insider, were encouraged by the Americans' second half comeback and the energy and flair that Jose Torres and Robbie Findley brought to the side after a woeful first 45 minutes.

The performances of Torres, Findley, and Steve Cherundolo in the second half, particularly when contrasted with the indifferent to outright dismal displays by Ricardo Clark, Benny Feilhaber, and Jonathon Spector in the first, give some hope that Bob Bradley, viewed by many as conservative when it comes to his personnel decisions, had his hand forced by the marked improvement of play when those three were introduced and that they will play a prominent role when the U.S. begins its World Cup campaign against England in a week.

Turkey's coach-in-waiting, Guus Hiddink, however, had quite a different take, at least according to an article in England's Daily Telegraph. Hiddink is quoted in the article as concluding, after watching the US-Turkey match from the stands, that England's team is at a "higher level" than the Americans.

This analysis is "supported" by the Telegraph author's repeated assertion that the Turks mailed in their second half effort, an observation that I haven't seen shared anywhere else and is inconsistent with their performance in the U.S. in games against the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland earlier in the week. After coming all that way, playing well against two other teams, and going up 1-0 after 45 minutes against the Americans, why they would decide to tank the last half to get out of town faster escapes me.

One wonders if Hiddink was merely telling an English reporter what he thought he wanted to hear and whether the reporter actually watched the U.S. match. From the Hugh Grant interview on The Daily Show forward, the Brits have made it clear that, despite some lip service paid to improvements in the level of play in the U.S., they still have a healthy disdain for the American team as a whole.

While I'm far from thinking the England match a lock for the Americans, I don't believe that they're teams on different levels at this point. Clearly there are a few England players (Rooney, Gerrard, maybe Terry) who are better than any U.S. player at their positions. But the Americans have at least one of those (Howard), and maybe two or three depending on where Dempsey and Landon Donovan start.

Does the U.S. back four still scare me? You bet. But if Bradley gambles and plays Torres and Findley, early in the match if not as starters, then I think the Americans have a chance. Which is more than the British media and Hiddink are willing to give them.

Friday, May 14, 2010

As Long As We're Keeping Score

This blog was my idea but its name was not. I was casting about for some title that might link the two main subjects that I anticipate will be discussed here (soccer and "the law"), and failing in a rather pathetic and uninspired manner, when Thomas McChesney, our marketing director, suggested Keeping Score.

It was perfect. The book I'm reading now, "Inverting The Pyramid" is a history of soccer tactics and of the game itself. A recurring theme in the early chapters of the book is the struggle between early purists of the game, who maintained that the way it was played, not the final result, should be paramount, and innovators who changed the game first by introducing the application of tactics and then altered their team's approach through their vision and competitiveness.

This debate played out at several different points during the development of the tactics and strategy of soccer, after it had evolved from village-wide melees to the more organized competition that grew out of the Laws of The Game adopted in England in 1863. The visionaries, whether steering their clubs away from the strict dribbling game that first evolved, the short passing game that followed, or the iron-clad 2-3-5 formation that was long the only way that squads lined up until the institution of the "WM", were decried for ruining the game.

Eventually, however, the new way became the established way as teams adopted the successful tactics of the leading managers of the day. The reason in every instance: Keeping Score. It is possible, although not likely, that soccer could have evolved into some form of intricate synchronized swimming on turf. But it did not. Ultimately, the competition was determined not by how pretty a player or team looked according to the aesthetics of the day, but whether they scored more goals than the other team.

But was some of the art of the game lost in the process? No doubt. I've been extremely fortunate as a high school soccer coach to have talented players who have always been able to play an elegant, attacking game that pleases at least me to watch. I suspect that, if push ever comes to shove, I will adopt a more defensive approach for my team if their abilities dictate it, if I believe that gives us the best chance of winning. I hope not.

So it is in the practice of law as well. We are bound by, and should willingly adhere to, principles that have been established, whether in the rules of professional conduct, the rules of civil procedure, or legislative laws or judicial rulings, that dictate what we can and cannot do. Questioning, examining, or even testing those limits can be fruitful, challenging, and rewarding. But if we conduct those exercises while simply attempting to stay on the correct side of those pronouncements without considering the reasons for the rules (the "soul" of the law, if you will) we may be successful lawyers but we will lose touch with who we are and (hopefully) why we became lawyers in the first place.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not a Luddite and find excitement in change and new ideas. But not just for innovation's sake, nor at any cost. I understand that, whether on the field, in the courtroom, advising a client, or participating any other job, game, or endeavor, our success is largely measured by Keeping Score. I hope through this blog, however, to not just recount successes or failures, but to lend some observations regarding how I think coaches, players, litigants, lawyers, and employers ought to travel the path to that end result as well.