Due to the amount of content and content creators that are out there, it’s crucial that American soccer coaches, parents, and fans know that there are levels to interpreting and talking about the game.
So, if you want to properly interpret what’s happening in the soccer landscape, whatever that means to you, you need to be able to discern what’s accurate and good information and what isn’t, and why. Because reading or witnessing something, and properly interpreting what you read or witnessed, are two entirely different things.
The way someone interprets and talks about the game can be influenced by a number of things, including education or type of involvement, but culture is oftentimes a leading factor. This is where American soccer media struggles and, by proxy, so does the general soccer public that consumes their media.
So, we’re going to offer you examples by what we mean by levels. We’ll also offer you some solutions for how you yourself can level up in discerning what’s what, who’s who, and how everything ties into the advancement, or detriment, of American soccer.
First things first, you need to know that there are levels.
So we’ll start with an example from a 2010 New York Times Article. This began to circulate throughout the American soccer community because it highlighted the process of player development at Ajax, Holland’s most successful club.
As written by reporter Michael Sokolove, the following is a short excerpt from the article:
“The director of the Ajax youth academy is Jan Olde Riekerink, […] who spends much of his day walking from field to field, observing. […] “He is always watching, like a spy,” …
One Sunday in March, I was on the sideline of a game — Ajax’s 15-year-olds matched up against the youth academy of another Dutch professional club — when I noticed Riekerink behind me. He was by himself, bundled into his parka and writing in a small notebook. With the Ajax boys up two goals and dominating the action, I told him I was impressed by their skill. (I was always impressed by the quality of play at De Toekomst.) “Really?” he responded. “To me this is a disaster.”
And while everyone stateside was saying how amazing the article was, it seemed as though they missed the single most revealing insight of the whole thing – contained in that excerpt.
The journalist being “impressed”, and the academy director thinking “it’s a disaster”.
It’s an example of just how important context, and a capacity for it, is.
It’s an example of the levels involved.
Levels of expertise within the profession, and levels of discernment by people outside of the profession to be able to deduce who is amazing, who is mediocre, and who is straight-up shit.
Like all professions, there is a bell curve. To better illustrate this, we can go outside of sport for a moment. We’ll use doctors as an example.
On one end of the curve, you have absolutely amazing doctors. Doctors that just make you say, “Wow!”
In the middle, there are mediocre doctors. They aren’t bad, but they aren’t amazing.
And on the other end of the curve, there are the doctors that make you say, “Holy shit! How did you even become a doctor?”
So, when it’s time for you to find a good doctor, you certainly know that just because someone has a degree does not make them a good doctor. There are levels.
The same can be said about every profession.
Soccer, and the coverage the sport receives in America, is no exception.
But the reasons why might not be as obvious as you would think.
The Taxi Driver
In 2016, I traveled to Barcelona to watch the Clasico.
Real Madrid beat Barcelona that night, 2-1.
The day after the game, I got in a cab with a driver that spoke almost no English. I speak barely any Spanish. But I was able to communicate I had traveled from the United States just for the match. He was able to communicate that he was a die-hard Real Madrid fan and that he was so happy that Real Madrid won.
It ended up being a 10-minute ride full of enthusiastic conversation. There were a lot of hand gestures, which had me worried about his hands not being on the wheel some points. The ride ended with a farewell and a sense of, “We’ll see who’s better next time.”
The conversation with my taxi driver reminded me of something I had heard before.
It was a message that 3four3’s founder Gary Kleiban has echoed for many years.
Get in a cab in Buenos Aires, Barcelona, or Munich and you’ll get a more authentic football education in 20-minutes than you will in a 20-day course in Kansas City.
Why is this?
Well, for starters, these “soccer rich” cultures around the world just casually, and naturally, speak about the game at a higher level compared to American soccer fans, coaches, and media. Primarily because it is indeed ingrained in their culture.
A portion of people’s very identity and self-esteem is hinged on their clubs and national teams.
Clubs and national teams across the world represent people at a social, political, economic, and cultural level. It is their flag.
You might be familiar with FC Barcelona’s crest and the small yellow and red design that is incorporated in it. What you might not know is that represents the region of Catalonia and Barcelona’s beautiful football is actually a vehicle for political advancement.
Around the globe, every nook and cranny has something like this that represents them, whether it’s a small country like Iceland or a big club like Barcelona.
So, of course, people there are deeply invested and in tune with the sport because of the impact it may have on their cities, countries, and to a greater extent, their very own livelihoods.
In America, however, we do not have those same opportunities or deeply rooted connections to the sport across every inch of the country. Therefore, the conversation about soccer is typically dull.
That’s not to say we don’t have a hardcore soccer demographic in this country. Because we do.
We have nearly 60 million Hispanics in this country, resulting in millions of soccer-first households. One need not go much further than the viewership numbers of Liga MX, the Mexican professional league, for verification.
A 2014 article highlighted that “LIGA MX is the Most-Watched Club Soccer League Across All Networks Regardless of Language.”
Spanish networks also continue to compete with or beat English language networks when it comes to MLS viewership. Univision and its affiliates averaged nearly 50,000 more viewers than the ESPN family of networks in 2018.
And that’s just Hispanic soccer-first families tuning in. That’s not even counting the millions of other immigrant families in this country that are soccer-first. Like myself for example, who grew up with a Croatian father that had soccer pumping through his veins.
But our country’s soccer-rich households are not welcomed to participate in the mainstream of the sport here. My dad, and his decades of soccer experience, certainly wasn’t welcomed in our community the same way as other recreational parents with little to absolutely no knowledge of the sport.
Instead, the hardcore soccer-first cultures are forced to operate on the fringes, playing in Sunday leagues and other unaffiliated organizations. Those who have a level of understanding are ostracized, and the ones that are leftover are the ones without the culture.
Here is where we begin to see the crux of the issue.
If the soccer-first culture isn’t welcomed, and consequently isn’t participating in American soccer, who is?
Well, historically, it’s been the non-soccer first demographic that everything is catered to. And that is who fills the ranks – from the board room to the locker room, and all the way to the press room.
Which brings us back to perhaps the largest source of your content consumption. Specifically, content that is created by the mainstream American soccer media.
And this is where you need to be careful. Because those are the ones that you might be reading and listening to.
Being aware of this is only part of the solution. Another part of the solution is finding more culturally adept and independent outlets.
Don’t worry, I feel your pain.
I used to listen to the typical ESPN and FOX Soccer broadcasts, but at some point, I really shifted to tuning into foreign-based media and interviews from overseas. And I reached a certain point of tuning out the media altogether and just watching the coaches during their press conferences before and after games.
I never learned more than watching Pep, Mourinho, and Klopp speak for themselves instead of reading or listening to some reporter’s interpretation of their words.
If you’re not already watching press conferences, I highly recommend that you start.
I will warn you though, that since I’ve started watching press conferences I’ve also learned that coaches can be quite deceiving. Especially here in America where is a league and countrywide agenda that is being pushed.
So, What’s Wrong With American Soccer Media?
Yes, I’m aware that it’s a loaded question.
But you don’t have to dig too deep to find the cracks.
For starters, a significant portion of the Incumbent American soccer media is owned or controlled directly or indirectly by MLS, USSF, or their affiliates. Therefore, the soccer media is practically curated by the establishment. And American soccer is an establishment that naturally doesn’t want to be critically examined, particularly not at the foundational level. Hence, it neuters its media.
How does it accomplish this?
Well, it holds a monopoly over the ecosystem.
Anyone who doesn’t align with its foundational narrative, its founding culture, is in danger of losing access.
This keeps the media in check.
This monopoly thing, it’s a big deal. A really big deal. We’re going to talk more about that in future episodes.
There are additional harmful problems that American soccer media suffers from.
One, in particular, is that media members typically don’t have strong soccer backgrounds. The bulk of their experience, personal and professional, is not in soccer. Therefore, when it comes to providing opinions or analysis, they don’t really know the difference between what’s good and what’s not.
This isn’t meant to be a dig at them. It’s just reality.
The same reality that was brought to light in the New York Times article that most people seemed to miss.
The journalist was impressed by what he saw. The practitioner was disgusted.
I’m not doubting that the journalist was knowledgeable when it came to soccer. But knowledge is one thing – expertise is another level.
Knowledge is something anyone can get. It doesn’t require expertise. Knowledge is far more accessible. Knowledge can be googled, expertise can not.
For example, what is the population of Atlanta?
Easy. Google it, and you’ve acquired that knowledge.
How do you make the dishes served at a restaurant?
Google for the recipes, or interview the staff, and you’ve got the knowledge.
But actually making those dishes to the degree they do or training someone to do so, that’s totally different. That’s expertise. And there are levels to that expertise. From the staff cook to the chef, to Gordon Ramsey.
Further, if you aspire to become a cook, chef, or Gordon, or train someone to become those things. Who would you like to learn from?
For more than a decade, a very knowledgable guy became the self-proclaimed “leading soccer journalist” in America. But this guy had aspirations of covering basketball and only covered soccer in his spare time. He became enamored by the spectacle of soccer later in his life and was able to obtain enough knowledge about the sport in order to write about it. But again, knowledge and expertise are two completely different things.
Sure, these non-soccer people might become knowledgeable enough to watch a game and write some opinions, but do they really know enough to provide proper player or team analysis?
The answer is most certainly no.
Think about what it was like for the MMA community when Stephen A. Smith was paired with Joe Rogan to cover UFC. The gap between the two wasn’t just noticeable, it was cringeworthy.
This hit a boiling point following the match between Conor McGregor and Donald Cerrone when Stephen A. Smith tried to lean on his entertainment gimmicks. Joe Rogan, a practitioner in the sport of martial arts, had a different point of view.
The point here is that even when someone dedicates years to watching and covering the game, it cannot come close to those actually executing ideas on a soccer field (in other words, an actual practitioner instead of a reporter). And with that said, there are still levels to that and a practitioner may never come close to reaching a significant degree of expertise, let alone deep expertise.
So, given what the media here is allowed to cover, coupled with what they know, what we typically see in the American soccer news cycle are simple, non-impactful things like player transfer rumors, MLS homegrown player hype, or just straight-up reporting of the scores.
We do get things like post-game player ratings or tactical analysis, but those must be taken with a grain of salt. Because who knows what they know? Remember our reporter from the NY Times article above?
And when we do see analysis, it is often posthoc analysis that is a concoction of talking points designed to impress the viewer or reader or to fit an agenda, but not necessarily is accurate.
I mean, how the hell could it be accurate?
As a coach with more than fifteen years of experience, and dozens of courses under my belt, I can tell you unequivocally that it is extremely difficult to watch a 90-minute game, in person, and then provide authentic and thorough tactical analysis within minutes, or even hours, of the final whistleblowing.
Watching a game once on TV? Forget about it. But after a 10 pm EST kickoff, we usually have a few thousand words from analysts by next daylight.
Proper analysis takes even the best experts a ton of time.
It’s well known now that Marcelo Bielsa and his staff spend hundreds of hours analyzing their opponents. Hundreds of hours. And these are practitioners at the top of the game, not reporters meeting content deadlines and media-centered objectives.
Yep. There are levels to this, folks.
What we get are videos or pictures containing circles and arrows, coupled with “analysis” that describes what is happening and passed off as the coach’s tactics, when in fact, it’s just a natural part of the play.
For example, the ball gets played across the backline from left to right, and players begin to gravitate towards the area of the field that the ball is in. The defensive mid shifts over. The opposite outside back starts to tuck in. The opposite winger slides.
This is nothing special.
The language I used made it sound pretty snazzy though, huh?
This is how most American soccer is covered. Fancy words and abstract theories to explain simple situations.
But when it comes to the analysis of the U.S. Men’s National Team from the incumbent media, this is “Gregg Berhalter’s positional play being deployed.” Or something of the sort.
The breakdowns themselves are usually nothing spectacular either. What we typically see are isolated moments that are used to extrapolate something more grand.
Tactics are not about one moment, though. Tactics are about patterns being consistently executed over time. That’s why it takes someone like Bielsa hundreds of hours to do analysis.
It takes time, and expertise, to see that something is:
- Clearly not improvisation.
- Clearly what the players were instructed and trained to do.
Like I’ve said multiple times now, there are levels to seeing and understanding this stuff.
Just watching live games can only help you reach a certain level of understanding. Only watching games on TV also limits you. And consuming only American soccer, and it’s media? Well, that limits you even further.
One Last Thing to Consider…
When it comes to levels we must understand that there are levels associated with all the different roles in football – club executives, coaches, players, administrators, fans, advisors, and the one we focused on the most today – the media.
Without having the requisite experience in the sport that is necessary, it can be hard to tell where one might fall on the spectrum.
So, is your favorite source of American soccer information more like the New York Times reporter? Or the Ajax youth director? Or is it more like somewhere in between?
I suppose that’s up to you to decide.
Investing time in this thought experiment could potentially help you level up.
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Scott Sjoquist says