There’s a lot of talk about how best to grow MLS in this country. A good deal of opinion is that it’s best done through the fan base. So how do you grow the fan base? There are those who say you need star players, better TV deals, bigger stadiums, bigger corporate sponsors.
But there’s another route. Community.
When you build anything through community interaction you invoke powerful forces, the possibilities of people coming together with a common goal, the power of karma – what goes around comes around.
We all love that powerful emotional high we get when our team scores, when our team wins. It’s a powerful connection. But there are other ways players connect with fans outside of the game, connections made off the field that are just as powerful and important.
Quakes striker Chris Wondolowski and goalkeeper Jon Busch are both involved with the Bay Area chapter of Street Soccer USA. Street Soccer USA (SSUSA) is a national organization that teaches job and life skills to the homeless through soccer.
SSUSA has over 20 teams of homeless players across the country. One of the lessons taught in training perfectly illustrates how soccer equates to real life, how skills on the field translate directly to the street. The lesson they teach is called “taking the space.”
On the soccer field, taking the space means keeping your head up, reading the movement of the ball and players on the field, and taking advantage of opportunities as they occur in front of you. SSUSA teaches this in the context of a soccer game and it’s a short through ball to equate this skill to how the players live their lives off the field. It gives them a secure environment where they are encouraged to look for opportunities, to have the confidence to take chances as they arise, to not fear making that first move forward.
Think back to that player who seized an opportunity to come off the San Jose bench in 2010 to score 18 goals in 28 games. Wondo saw the space in front of him and he took it!
SSUSA has been very successful with their model: 75 percent of participants who have been a part of the program for a full year either go back to school, complete a treatment program, or get a job or housing.
Street Soccer director Rob Cann says that it means the world to their players that there are people out there like Wondolowski who want to see them do well. That to have somebody like Wondo come out to practice shows the homeless players that professional athletes want to see them improve their lives.
Homeless participant Carlos Palacio said that it was great playing with Chris Wondolowski, passing with him, and then later scoring a goal against him!
Wondo said, “Seeing our sport make a difference in the lives of the homeless reminds me why I love soccer so much.”
And if you want to see a player forging links with the fans, watch Chris Wondolowski the last man back in the changing rooms after a game. Many a time I’ve come out of postgame press interviews and Wondo is still out there, talking to fans, taking pictures with them, signing autographs. Man of the people, for real.
Players supporting their local Street Soccer USA programs:
Eddie Ababio – Colorado Rapids
Juan Agudelo – New England Revolution
Eric Avila – Chivas USA
Johnny Borrajo – Mjondalen (Norway)
Emmerson Boyce – Wigan (England)
Jeb Brovsky – Montreal Impact
Jon Busch- San Jose Earthquakes
Kenny Cooper – FC Dallas
Stephen Keel – FC Dallas
Roger Levesque- retired Seattle Sounders Forward
Zach Loyd – FC Dallas
Dax McCarty – New York Red Bulls
Lee Nguyen – New England Revolution
Heath Pearce – Chivas USA
Chris Pontius – DC United
Kofi Sarkodie – Houston Dynamo
Brek Shea – FC Dallas
Clyde Simms – New England Revolution
Michael Videira – Chicago Fire
Andrew Wiedeman – FC Dallas
Chris Wondolowski – San Jose Earthquakes
Excerpt from my new novel: NO ONE TO PLAY
DOME 4, Republic of California, 2057
Tanner stood and stared at the ball, he looked up and narrowed his eyes, calculating the distance to the upper right hand corner of the goal: 35 yards 2 and a half feet and maybe an inch or two. The distance was a critical factor, 35 yards was easier than 18, he still needed distance to make the ball do what he wanted. Only the Masters could hit this kind of ball up over a wall of defenders from 18 yards and into the net. It was written that Saint Ronaldo once executed this kick from a distance of just 12 yards but then many of the old writings were passing into the stuff of legend. Stadiums of 100,000 people were unlikely in a hungry world.
Tanner was aiming for a space that was only fractionally wider than the diameter of the ball and the ball would have to dip and swerve before it reached that space traveling the distance at an arrival speed of 85 mph. He looked back down at the ball and in his mind spoke softly to it as he would to a departing loved one. I love you, he thought, you know that, I’ve always respected you, even when you taunted me with your bounce, your unexpected bobbling, your skidding off the side of my foot when I was trying to kiss you with my laces, despite all this I’ve loved you, since I was a child. Now it’s time for you to leave. I hate long goodbyes so … he ran five paces toward the ball, planted his left foot next to it, and swept his right leg down in an arch that terminated its follow-through just as he struck the side of the ball.
His leg whiplashed spin into the ball and the ball leaped away like a scalded cat. It rose, accelerating toward the middle of the cross bar, far from the sighted corner, looking for all the worlds as if it would simply fly directly over and miss the goal. But 4 feet from the goal it dipped sharply and swerved violently to the left, hit the 90 degree angle where the cross bar met the post and bounced in a high, lazy arc to drop and roll to a stop almost halfway the distance between Tanner and the goal. He threw his head back in exasperation and bared his teeth at the stars that laughed at him from the other side of the dome.
I coach Under 8s in a “recreational league”. We play 7-a side, 4 x 15 minutes quarters, no offside, no direct free kicks or penalties. This is USA, after all, where we still cling to making the game different from the rest of the world whenever possible.
Mondays and Wednesdays we practice 1 hour. Saturdays we play games, sometimes back to back double headers. 10 games in with a 9-0-1 winning record I can tell you that for me there is nothing recreational about the experience. The league commissioner tells all the coaches it’s about the kids having fun, not winning, that ideally all games should end in a tie. Okay. Whatever I tell myself, I want my kids to win.
On the freeway I worry about blowing a tire, breaking down, being late, not getting that vital player card to the referee before kick off and so forfeiting the game 1-0.
Once I’m on the field, usually alone, with the team banner set up and my son Vincent sleepily kicking balls at an empty net, I begin the wait. The wait for the other parents to show up with my players. Where are they? Why the hell haven’t they let me know if they can’t make it? I sent them a reminder email, a Google map link to where the field is, even an aerial picture with the ground clearly marked, for Dempsey’s sakes!
I check my text messages. I check my voice messages. One of my star strikers, a young boy of remarkable talent and potential had a fever yesterday. Is he okay now? Even if he is, how much stamina will he have? I tell myself if the minimum 5 players don’t show up I’m fine with forfeiting the game. The heck I am. I tell myself to calm down, they’ll be here any second now.
At the coaching certification seminar I was told to actively engage the help and participation of the childrens’ parents. What, are you kidding? That doing so would forge a special bond between the kids and their parents. What are you, nuts? Which “How To Be A Ranting Parent and Raise A Monster Who Wants To Take Over The World” parenting book did you read that in?
This means that at any given moment I have at least 5 parents and an assistant coach simultaneously yelling instructions at the kids. Luckily I have a louder voice than all of them put together. Plus the kids know that I am, at least nominally, the boss. So what do I yell? Well, encouragement way more than instruction. My main instruction lately is simply “Watch the ball. Always know where the ball is”. I yell praise and never, ever criticism. I have to deal with several parents, almost always guys, who know better than me what their Mini-Messis and Ronaldos need to be doing.
I have to make sure every player plays at least half of each game. I have to deal with the guy who tells me I should play his daughter as a striker when she spends most of the game watching airplanes, dogs, kids on the nearby playground or inspecting her fingernails. But in between occasionally confusing them by mixing up their names, I also have the joy of watching kids figure out for themselves how, when, and where to kick the ball
Seeking feedback, I asked my son what was the one thing he hears me yell most often? He thought for a moment and said, “Nothing. When I’m playing I’m focused on playing, not listening to you guys yelling.”
There, I always knew I was the indispensable central cog in that winning machine.
We live in a world of superheroes. From the gods and heroes of ancient Greece to the comic book heroes Hollywood brings to life we have always lived in a world of superheroes. In times of chaos and despair how easily we turn to the lone figure who can do everything from save the human race from extinction to lifting our team to play decent soccer after a run of bad results.
Last week at Anfield, in a game seen as a vital part of deciding whether Liverpool will finally win their first league championship since 1989, Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard slipped and gifted Chelsea the first goal of what was to be a 2-0 win for the visiting London side.
The press made much of this slip possibly costing Liverpool their first ever win of the EPL as it stands right now, their last championship win being back when it was simply known as Division One.
Here’s the flip side to the hero arriving at the last second to save the day. In a world where success is worshipped as much as any deity, we are sometimes forced to look at the fallibility of the hero.
Players and coaches make much in postgame interviews of putting things behind them and looking to the next game. One of the things that causes so much unhappiness in the world though is that people tend to drag their past mistakes around with them, even going so far as to throw those mistakes into their future, so they can repeat them.
Question is, with so much of England’s World Cup team morale riding on the shoulders of veteran skipper Steven Gerrard what effect will it have on England’s chances in Brazil if the superhero’s slip at Anfield against Chelsea ends up costing Liverpool the EPL title?
MLS and US sports obsession with colleges as the source of supply for its athletes is so 20th century that it’s almost 19th century. In the 21st century it doesn’t work. In a better educated, connected world an education system designed to perpetuate a Western manufacturing society that no longer exists is increasingly an anachronism anyway. Knowledge as a resource no longer guarantees the old status quo. With everyone forced to adapt on the fly to a new, increasingly overcrowded world the emphasis is on creativity not how much you know, or whether you went to college, much less which one. College degrees no longer automatically lead to jobs or careers
Which is one thing wrong with MLS – it still has that old, college mentality. There’s an army of amazing players in the USA who will never get a shot at being a pro player, because they’ll never get a shot at going to college. Who are these guys? They’re mostly Mexican Americans. They’re as American as anyone right? Citizens, it says so in big letters writ large by history and the US Constitution. They should rewrite that to say life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and the ball!
But don’t take my word for it – read Sir Ken Robinson’s book Out Of Our Minds . Creativity is the necessary survival tool, not playing by the rules or singing the same old sad college song.
Carlos Tevez, Luis Suarez and Cristiano Ronaldo did not enter the game via a college system. Much less a college system with different soccer rules to the rest of the world (unlimited substitutions during games). Wayne Rooney didn’t go to college, and he’s far from stupid. No one educated him about the process of visualization that he’s used since he was a kid to prepare for the extraordinary things he achieves on the field. He used his creativity and figured it out for himself. Soccer had its roots, like the NFL and NBA in colleges.
Soccer might have its origins in schools with the sons of the wealthy in the late 19th century. But as soon as the factory owners gave 19th century workers Saturday afternoon off work, it was adopted by the worlds working classes, opening the door for the world’s poor to join the game. Get a clue America, let the other sports rot on the vine of outmoded education. Get out into the streets of LA and NY and Tucson and Houston and anywhere you can find kids with a love of the game and a need to have a ball at their feet. There‘s enough raw material there, and you know what, it’s not a resource that’s likely to run out!
Hola, team USA, hola MLS, hola USA winning The World Cup.
My son’s team has a custom designed crest.
As a registered U8 coach PAL Metro League gave me a ball bag, 5 balls, a soccer field dry erase clipboard. I spent $40 on Amazon tonight on other coaching supplies.
This kid’s team seem to have a biro pen as well as (maybe) a ball. I bet they have passion for the game and skills to make up for all the other “stuff” they don’t have.
But I guess at the end of the day the most important thing is that wherever they are, whatever their circumstances, children all over the world are united in their love of the game.
I wandered lonely as a ref
That books ‘em high and books ‘em hard,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden yellow cards;
Beside the striker, face down in pain,
I reached for red, they cried in vain
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Match of the Day,
They stretched in never-ending line
Be it at home, be it away:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Raising their fingers in sprightly dance.
The Mexican waves beside them danced
In drunken sparkling waves of glee:
The crowd could not help but be cheerful,
Such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the game to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
Replays flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure glows,
And shines just like Sir Alex’s nose.