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.