Country Last

13 10 2017

“I think there has been this rhetoric that has been spewed out over the last couple of years – players have to go to Europe. If you want to go to Europe that’s fine, but I would guess that come 2018, 80% of our roster will be made up of MLS players. It is not about where you play, it is about what you bring to the team and how much you care.” ~ USMNT Goalkeeper, Tim Howard – January 2017

The U.S. Men’s soccer team will not be participating in the 2018 World Cup Finals. That bad news was finally determined a few days ago, and it has taken me that long to gather my thoughts. While there are many reasons for this elimination and many more problems with U.S. Soccer, the statement above is at the core.

The sad trip ended on Tuesday night, but we started down this road in April 2013 when Clint Dempsey left Fulham FC in English Premier League to play in MLS. He left arguably the most competitive league in the world to come home and play in the U.S. Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard – the core of the USMNT – soon followed, leaving their teams in Europe. That was the beginning of the decline that eventually eliminated our country from participating in the 2018 World Cup,

US Soccer has exhibited a cockiness that is unfathomable to me. Soccer is the most popular sport in almost every civilized country in the world, and it is played the same way everywhere. The rules of the game are the same. Professional league rules are the same. Except in the United States. Player development differs, and one can certainly argue that passion for the sport is key. But for some inexplicable reason, our players and supporters ignore a belief shared around the world – Country First, Club Second.

One of the true principles of development in soccer – or any sport – is that if you play with and against better players, you become a better player. It works consistently at the youth and professional levels.  In a list of the Top 100 Footballers in the World published by The Guardian in 2016, only five of the top twenty-five played professionally in their own country. So Howard’s belief is false to me, but he was close to right about one thing: The roster for Tuesday night’s match against Trinidad and Tobago was 72% MLS players. So we may reach his 80%, but since we won’t be in the World Cup in 2018… who really cares?

The passion for the sport is much less here, but it is growing. MLS is trending up in popularity and succeeding financially, but it will be decades before it rivals top European leagues – if ever. It has been said that part of the success is due to its close relationship with US Soccer, and I agree. But while MLS continues to grow, expected growth in domestic talent and development has not happened. That makes the relationship very one-sided.

I’m keying on one issue, but there are others. Player development must be examined more closely than ever, and many have been crying out for the heads of manager Bruce Arena or Sunil Gulati, president of the United States Soccer Federation. While those steps may be necessary, the core issue will remain. If our players and fans want to compete on the international level, the national team must be the priority.

By the way… the ladies understand that.

The USMNT-less World Cup will go on, and I will watch all of it. But I’ll really miss screaming and yelling and singing for my country with my son and hundreds of others at a local drinking establishment. And that makes me sad.

Our country is experiencing unprecedented conversation about national pride. Our citizens question each other daily… Do you have pride in your country? Are you American? Or more accurately, are you American enough? But looking at the last two years of US Soccer, one can see that being the greatest country in the world must be earned… it isn’t a given.

Advertisements




Hanging It Up

12 06 2016


2005Bickel_152

““No soccer coach ever stops learning. That’s what makes the great coaches great. They strive to learn more every day and they never stop asking questions.” ~ Jürgen Klopp

Image[8]I’m a little sad today, and I hope you will forgive a post that will sometimes seem self-serving. (But please don’t ever forgive that alliteration!)

I coached my last game of youth soccer this morning. I wrestled with this for months, and made the decision to step down a few weeks ago. It was ultimately an easy one as it’s time for me to concentrate on some other things in my life.

A little bit of history and a bunch of appreciation…

With no knowledge of soccer, I was drafted into helping coach my son’s team about twenty years ago. I have been learning and loving this beautiful game ever since, and I am sure that will never cease. Besides my family and friends, there are few things that give me as much joy and I’m so grateful for the opportunities and connections I’ve made because of this great sport.

It’s been my privilege to be part of two fantastic youth sports organizations in Northeast Philadelphia – Academy Sabres and Danubia Soccer Club. I was also honored to coach at the Pennsylvania Keystone Games. And I’ve thoroughly enjoyed placing teams to compete in the Philadelphia Dept of Rec, Philadelphia Area Girls, United Junior and Inter-County soccer leagues.

Danubia U-19

I’ve met and worked with some very special people, and I’d like to thank just a few of them here:

  • At Academy Sabres… Bill Rooney drafted me, Steve Gallagher gave me more responsibility, and Ed Magee and Jenn Dreibelbis dragged me back after a few years away.
  • It was my extreme pleasure to be a small part in the resurgence at Danubia Soccer Club, where my boys had such big success. We did well, but most importantly my players were seen by lots of college coaches – the Danubia name had a lot to do with that. All credit goes to Nick Kramer who led that club back to prominence. Thanks, Nick!
  • And special thanks to my good friend, Sal Calio… who taught me more about the guts of the game than anyone else. I still laugh at how our skill sets and overall philosophy synced… we sometimes finished each others sentences!

Many thanks to all the coaches, administrators and league officials I’ve worked with over the years… and to most of the parents and some of the refs! Just kidding… much respect to all!

I’ve been so lucky to work with great kids… every last one of my players were fantastic. I now feel such happiness connecting with them in person and on social media. I have been extremely proud to see their successes… in school, in business, and serving our country. And some of these young men are getting married and starting families of their own. I hope some of these former players become coaches, and feel that same pride that I enjoy so much.

JL_Soccer_01bLast but certainly not least, I thank my son, John… my all-time favorite player. My love for the game of soccer is because of the talent, desire, and joy that he exuded while playing and practicing. As many know, it can tough on a player when his parent is the coach. I realized that after a few years, and when he entered high school I stopped coaching him… a good move because he excelled and I got to watch. I’m sure he learned a lot from his successes and failures on the field, and I did too. And for the rest of my days, I will continue to let him think he knows more about soccer than I do!

I’ve written my thoughts on coaching in a previous post, and although my philosophy has evolved it has always been simple. The primary job of a coach is to instill two things in the hearts and minds of players… joy and respect for the game and your teammates. That principle alone will help them succeed in sports and, more importantly, in life.

FullSizeRender (12)At the end of the day, and the decades… we won some, and we lost some. There were some great days, and we celebrated. There were some not so great days, and we learned. We learned from each other as well, and we had a lot of fun. I will always be thankful for all the ups and downs!

Cheers to you all!

My Academy Sabres team was good enough to sign my hat after the game this morning… it will have a very prominent spot on my shelf of memories.





Soccer Is Life

23 07 2015

DSC_0299_042410

More than any other sport, soccer is life.

When asked to qualify my love for the sport, I immediately go to the usual reasons – the flow of the game, the constant movement, the consistency of the rules, the athleticism of the players, no stoppages or timeouts, only three subs, blah blah blah…

I also lean very heavily on the supporters culture – being there for the team, and each other, no matter what.

The events of past two days in my little corner of the football world enabled me to hone in on the best reason to love the beautiful game. On any given day, any team can beat any other team… regardless of payroll, professional or amateur, or league level.

Two days ago my Philadelphia Union won a U.S. Open Cup match they had no business winning. Down a man for 75% of the match, conceding a late equalizer, each player dead on his feet… they prevailed against a much more powerful opponent. Eleven buses full of Union fans made the trip to Red Bull Arena to witness what may have been the finest moment in the history of this young franchise. I was there!!

481612286My euphoria was short-lived, as the U.S. National Team (the men) were shocked by Jamaica in the semi-final of the Gold Cup last night. Jamaica… a team that ON PAPER had no business winning a game against the mighty United States of America. That may be debatable… but the result left me shocked and bummed, and sent tournament officials into a tizzy trying the figure out how to promote a USA-less final at the big stadium. A lesson learned.

In soccer and in life, you better be prepared and always at the top of your game. These “upsets” happen all year long, in competitions all over the world. This is the beauty of my game. And because I love it so much, the highs are that much higher and the lows are that much lower.

But there is another match against another team who could show us another lesson. Today the American Outlaws are licking their wounds and figuring out the best way to support their team at the next match, in that little stadium by the river. And the Sons of Ben are getting ready to head to DC to support the Union.

Why? Because it’s what we do. Its part of what makes soccer beautiful, and why I love it so.





Book Covers – Revisited

12 07 2015

It was an interesting weekend.

I had a fantastic time at the soccer game yesterday – tailgating and watching a Philly Union win with family and a bunch of friends. There were fireworks too! Today, I spent the afternoon learning… trying to get an inbound marketing certification.

Inbound marketing deals with leads and selling. It has buzzwords like SEO, analytics and other key concepts that helps your information to be found by Google search.

For a personal blog post like this, I don’t worry about search, or keywords, or anything like that. In my very first post – over two years ago – I stated that “I shall write for myself and let the chips fall where they may.” I keep to that…

But I’ll be honest… recognition makes me feel good. Whether it’s a positive or negative comment, or a social media share, or someone just saying that they like what I am doing. Earlier this year I wrote a post about bullying that, for whatever reason, was viewed close to 50,000 times. It was stunning to me, but it taught me that you can never predict what will strike a chord with people.

My previous most viewed post was entitled “Book Covers“… where I wrote about not judging people by their appearances. More specifically, it was about a young woman named Jessie who lost her life while giving birth to her son.

Yesterday I met Cheryl, that young woman’s mother. She works with my wife, and came to the game with another co-worker. I was happy to arrange for them to come to the supporter’s tailgate, and Cheryl was able to meet some of the people who were such a big part of Jessie’s life. I was so glad to hear that they were able to share a couple of beers and some memories.

But the best part of my day was the few minutes of conversation when we met just before the game. She asked me for a hug, and told me that she had read my story about her Jessie.  I was not aware that she knew of the post, or me.

I asked her how long it had been, and she responded quickly, “Nineteen months.” I replied that more time had passed than I thought. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “Not that long at all.” She teared up a little, and so did I. And that was the last word on the subject. A moment shared.

We all had a great time, and lots of laughs. I think she was glad to be at the stadium for the first time, to finally share in an experience so important to her daughter. I told her she must come back because she is good luck for the team! And because it’s probably one of a multitude of things that can bring her closer to Jessie.

I can’t imagine losing a child. Clearly that pain remains after nineteen months, and I’m sure it won’t lessen in nineteen years, or ever. But I think Cheryl has the right idea… Experiencing some of Jessie’s joys will, in small ways, bring her back. And keep her close.





My World Cup – Recap

14 07 2014

GermanyLast month I wrote about my excitement for the pending World Cup, and I made some predictions. Now that it’s all over, here are some thoughts, observations and realizations about the big event.

Overall, the World Cup competition was fantastic. I’m glad that the matches were completed with minimal controversy, and that everyone in Brazil was safe and peaceful. I was especially pleased by the excellent coverage by ESPN. Their commentary, analysis and special features enhanced what was already a tremendous event.

I made what I thought were a few bold predictions, and some were realized. This World Cup was full of surprises in the group stage, then everything settled down and the best teams went through to the finals. Germany won, and they were the best team… without question. But let’s see how I did on those predictions:

For the USA…

jonesPREDICTION: Jermaine Jones will do something that will cost the team. A red card, or a bad foul resulting in a dangerous free kick. I couldn’t have been more wrong… Jones was consistently the best field player for the USA (Tim Howard was team MVP, no doubt). My worry about Jones was that he had a history of cheap fouls and his temper getting the better of him. But after playing every minute and performing fantastic in every game – he made me a believer. His goal against Portugal was one of the best of the tournament, for any team.

PREDICTION: The USA will score in each match. Almost happened, but because they scored against everyone except the eventual champion Germany… I’ll give myself half credit.

PREDICTION: Julian Green will get in the Ghana match, but not see the field for the rest of the tournament. I had that one backwards. Green didn’t get in until late in the last match, and scored a nice goal.

PREDICTION: Tim Howard will stop a penalty. That didn’t happen because we didn’t concede any. Nevertheless, Howard was incredible… best performance on the USA squad.

PREDICTION: Klinsmann will park the bus against Germany, but try to run with Portugal. I think I got this one right. The situation of the group standings was that the U.S. only needed a tie versus Germany, and they played conservatively for that result. The 1-0 loss got them through. But they outplayed Portugal, and should have won.  

PREDICTION: The United States WILL get out of the group, then upset Belgium in the first knockout round. Argentina will knock us out, but that will be deemed a successful showing for Team Klinsmann. Spot on again, well… mostly. The group stage went exactly how I thought … Beat Ghana, a result against Portugal, and close match against Germany. I had counted on Belgium not being as good a TEAM as the U.S. even though they had so many stars. Still, we fought until the end and almost pulled it out.

The rest of the world…

PREDICTION: Lionel Messi will win the Golden Boot. Correct!! But I do think James Rodriguez of Columbia would have been the better choice.

PREDICTION: Some not so big names that will have a big impact: André Schürrle (Germany) and Hulk (Brazil)… “Puny humans!” Schürrle was fantastic, consistently bringing energy and pace off the bench… plus he scored three goals. Don’t forget the fantastic cross on the final winning goal. Hulk was probably one of the better players for Brazil, but they were such a disappointment that it’s hard to give any of them credit.

PREDICTION: England will not win a game. Spot on with this one too. The Three Lions have no bite (pun), and need to completely retool how they plan to compete internationally. The Premier League is the best in the world, and produced more World Cup players than any other. But there are too many foreign star players there restricting the development of English players. The FA has a problem, and no solution.

PREDICTION: Bosnia-Herzegovina will beat France in the first knockout round. Ouch! Lost the first two group matches, and were never a factor.

PREDICTION: Brazil will be a big disappointment, losing in the semifinals to Germany. Holy shit, I’ll never be so right about something again!! Truthfully, at the time of the prediction I thought that the pressure of winning at home would be too much for them. But I never thought it possible they would be humiliated like that. That match got its own post.

PREDICTION: Germany and Spain in the final. So I was half right!

PREDICTION: Spain will win the World Cup. If it wasn’t for Brazil’s epic collapse, this would have been one of the biggest stories of the World Cup. No one thought that some of the top teams in the world (Spain, Portugal, England, Italy) would be heading home after three matches. Wild results… great World Cup.

*At this point it should be noted that I tied for first place in my World Cup pool… no small feat! Yes, there were only four of us in the pool, and I didn’t predict everything right – but I was better than most. I guess I know some stuff…

photoLast thoughts… I observed a lot of soccer in the past 39 days. I watched at least one full match in the group stage each day, and fast forwarded through each goal in the others (love my DVR!). I saw almost every minute of the knockout stage matches. And I reveled in sharing the USA matches with hundreds of new friends and fellow American Outlaws at a few local watering holes. The crowds who gathered across the nation for these matches were incredible, and I hope that US Soccer keeps the momentum going. I know it’s only sports… but in those communal situations you realize that there is nothing more gleeful than a shared joy, and there is also nothing more soothing than commiseration.

But I think my favorite memory was yesterday. I went to my local bar to watch the final with family and friends. Not a traditional soccer bar, but a great place to watch sports. It was a good crowd, but not as many people for a USA match. I got a prime seat directly in front of the 15 foot screen, and seated to my left was a regular who knew nothing about soccer. Most soccer fans would shudder, but I spent the next two plus hours explaining some of the finer points of my beautiful game to an admitted non-fan.

I’m not sure if I turned him from the dark side, but answering his questions reminded me why I love this game so much. The past six weeks have shown how exciting, raw, unexpected, excruciating, and inspiring the game truly is.

And it’s beautiful.

Thanks for reading so many of my soccer posts. We now resume our regular programming…





Waxing Brazil

9 07 2014

87974_dd88989776b9a29af4f36e15f8582658_b7074e5727d16f90dc8ef2d33f893536This post originally began as a Facebook status. But as I thought about it there was more to say. It’s been close to 24 hours since the Germany/Brazil semifinal “mis”match in the World Cup, and certainly one of the big sports stories of the year.

The result was not a surprise but the margin of victory was a shock. Brazil did not impress in any of their previous games, but no one expected a slaughter. They finished atop what was arguably the weakest group in the tournament, and if it wasn’t for a phantom penalty call late in the first match versus Croatia they would have been on the couch a lot earlier. 

Brazil was the odds on favorite to win the World Cup, with more talent than any other team in the field. Their players are the best in the world, commanding the highest salaries at the top clubs. One would think that they could just show up and win.

That’s exactly what they didn’t do. The reason soccer is called the “beautiful game” is because of how the Brazilians always played it. A World Cup being contested in their own country… should be an easy win. (Ironically, the Croatia players and coaches asserted the same thoughts after their controversial loss… “Just give them the trophy now!”)

So what happened? Not to take anything away from a fantastic German side, it’s clear that Brazil was not ready to play against the best competition. As the host country, they do not have to go through qualifying like everyone else. With that edge lost, complacency took over with a predictable result. What we saw is a precise interpretation of an old axiom, that talent isn’t enough… you have to work hard to succeed.

I’m very interested to see how Brazil plays in the third place match. My thought… if they play neighborhood rival Argentina it will be a hotly contested match. If the play Holland, the Brazilians will roll over and die. Again…

After the match I saw a lot of comments about how the U.S. only lost to Germany by a 1-0 score, so accordingly we are better than Brazil. Sports doesn’t work that way. It’s a ridiculous notion, but can you imagine what a team with Brazil’s talent and America’s heart and determination would look like? Wow…

AR-140709193One last thought… ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup has been tremendous so far, with great pre and post game analysis and first-rate commentary during the match. Ian Darke and Steve McManama were terrific in, what had to be, a tough match to call. So I was disappointed that they spent so much time monitoring the streets of Rio de Janeiro waiting for a riot to start. I know that would be a ratings bonanza, but get a grip! I guess the Brazilians were too shocked to muster up the energy to flip over a car or two.

I’d like to give the fans credit. They stayed and cheered their team until the end, and showed appreciation for the German side that had just humiliated them. Well done… Brazilians!

So hoping the other semifinal is a better game.





Colors

4 07 2014

The colors of the flag of our nation are on my mind today, maybe because of all the World Cup/USA soccer fever over the past three weeks. Here are a few red, white and blue thoughts on the anniversary of our nation’s birth…

photo (2)Speaking of the World Cup – Although it’s still going on, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a sporting event more than this World Cup – and I have no idea who these people are in the photo! With very few exceptions, the games have been edge-of-your-seat fantastic. Even if you are a soccer novice, it’s been the sports story of the year. Our U.S. team performed admirably, and I think soccer has finally reached the level of acceptance it deserves. Who could have pictured hundreds, and in some cities, thousands of people getting together to watch the World Cup? I can’t wait until 2018! There is a lot of work to be done, and many matches to be played before the next World Cup. But it’s a great time to be an American soccer fan!

If I Had A Time Machine – I often wonder what our Founding Fathers would think of our United States today. These brave, brilliant men could never have foreseen this future, as I’m sure none of us could accurately paint a picture of our world 238 years from now.

6a014e8c33f773970d017ee7f226ce970dImagine if we could pluck Thomas Jefferson from the past… I think he would revel in flying back and forth to his beloved Paris in a jet, and look in wonder at the massive cities that have sprung up across the wilderness he knew. (He might wonder how we got all of this done without slaves.) And, I think that he would be in shock to learn that his two century old parchment writings are considered by some to be the letter of the law.

By definition, a patriot is “a person who vigorously supports their country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors”. Today, many describe themselves as “patriots” because they are convinced that their beliefs are the only solution to the ills of our nation… and all non-believers are to be treated as enemies of the state. They cloak themselves in the Constitution or the Bible, and spit upon those who dare to question their ideas. But they forget those very writings were made to be a beautiful framework for a vision of a free state, or a guide for all of us to be a better, kinder people.

We should continually inspire to be just that.

tumblr_l5aly0HcB01qa944oo1_1280Family and Friends – I’m looking forward to a great weekend. It looks like rain today for the actual 4th of July in Philadelphia, with remnants of Hurricane Arthur that making his way up the east coast. But it should be clear, blue skies on Saturday, and I’m heading to my sister’s place for a fun-filled afternoon by the pool with a bunch of family and friends. Sunshine, good conversation and cocktails are the only things on the menu… maybe a burger or two. Be warned, sis… watch out for a great big cannonball, and – to my chagrin – much water displacement.

As a wise man once said, “Family… what it’s all about!”

Quoting Myself – This time last year I wrote this tidbit, and then stole something from a “so-so” author:

Here’s something you’re not used to seeing on my page… great, great writing:

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Happy 4th of July, my friends.

Red-White-Blue-Stars-Stripes-Flag