Lucas Melano

Gluck – Making the Most of a Much Maligned Melano

For most, the hot topic/question for the Timbers is… What to do about Luca?  

For me, it’s certainly a short-term concern, but I’d submit there’s a longer term question that still needs to be answered that far outweighs what to do about Luca.

To explain, if you will.

The Timbers have seen the trees through the weeds and first asked themselves this offseason:  Was the poor performance – for the whole team – a cause or effect of something more pear-shaped?

  • To be sure we’ve seen a multitude of players come and go from the Timbers organization and only ten (I think) have shown themselves to provide consistency of purpose on the pitch; Jack Jewsbury, Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Fenando Adi, Donovan Ricketts, Adam Kwarasey, Will Johnson, Nat Borchers, and Jorge Villafana.

Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara play the double pivot in a singular way

  • Yes, that leaves out a few players many rate as high quality; Liam Ridgewell, Rodney Wallace, Jake Gleeson, and Alvas Powell most probably.

Whitecaps v Portland-5160

  • But it also leaves out Gbenga Arokoyo, Jack Barmby, Marco Farfan, Ben Zemanski, Darren Mattocks, Steve Zakuani, Michael Harrington, Steven Smith, Jermaine Taylor, Stephen Taylor, Steve Zakuani, Mike Fucito, Bright Dike, Jose Valencia, Kenny Cooper, Jorge Perlaza, Kris Boyd, Rauwshan McKenzie, Futty Danso, Eric Brunner, David Horst, Mikael Silverstre, Ryan Miller, Chris Klute, Zarek Valentin, Kalif Alhassan, Steven Evans, Bryan Gallego, Pah Madou Kah, Danny O’Rourke, Schillo Tshuma, Andy Thoma, Christian Volesky, Anthony Manning, Seth Casiple Nick Besler, George Fochive, Dairon Asprilla, Gaston Fernandez, Max Urruti, Norberto Paparatto, Sal Zizzo, Taylor Peay, Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo, Michael Nanchoff,  Andrew Weber, Ishmael Yartey, Jeanderson,  Aaron Long, Frederic Piquionne, Brent Richards, Dylan Tucker-Gangnes, Andrew Jean-Baptsiste, Sebastian Rincon, Ryan Johnson, Milos Kosic, Nikita Kotlov, Victor Chavez, Freddie Braun, Charles Renken, Ian Hogg, Kosuke Kimura, Lovel Palmer, Steve Purdy, Joe Bendik, Eric Alexander, Franck Songo’o, Chris Taylor, Danny Mwanga, Hanyer Mosquera, Ryan Kawulok, Mobi Fehr,  Troy Perkins, Mike Chabala, Ryan Pore, Peter Lowry, Rodrigo Lopez, and Adin Brown.  Did I miss any?
  • All, at one time or another, were advocated, by the front office, as players who would help strengthen the Timbers organization.
  • So far this year the Timbers have added David Guzman, Jeff Attinella, and Roy Miller.

In summary, give or take, the Timbers have had roughly 90 player acquisitions with just ten showing great consistency of purpose and what I’d offer is a willingness to bleed Timber-Green.

Statistically speaking, that’s just over 10% success in previous player scouting and recruitment activities over the last four years.

Meaning, for me, the most pressing question is:  Have the Timbers made a good decision by hiring Ned Grabavoy as the Director of Scouting and Recruitment?

  • Ned has certainly made the most of his talents on the pitch, he’s not blessed with great speed but his on-pitch mentality, hard work, solid first touch, and his ‘give it all for the team’ saw him have a solid playing career.
  • But can his on-pitch playing skills and leadership translate to off-pitch management skills in the office?
  • Running a player scouting and recruitment effort isn’t about on-pitch mentality.
  • Myself, and others might suggest it’s about having organizational skills, leadership, (short and long term) tactical and strategic planning, gaining the trust of Merritt, Gavin, and Caleb, and an understanding of how on-pitch statistics, and mentality of players, are interpreted, to translate how well the target player may fit into the system and tactics Caleb Porter wants to employ.  By far not a money-ball type situation – more a blending of art and science than science alone.

That offered…  Back to square one:  Making the most of the much maligned Melano and looking to answer the question – should the Timbers retain the services of Lucas Melano?

Team results – the bottom line on how success or failure is measured:

  • Soccer is a multi-dimensional game and even with an increase in goal outputs of eight (2015 to 2016) the Timbers failed to make the playoffs.  Indeed, they gave up 53 goals this year, a record for the Timbers and  20 more goals allowed than their first season under Caleb Porter.
  • So while Lucas may have added value in helping the Timbers increase goal productivity he certainly had some role in seeing the Timbers yield 53 goals against.
  • Of course that burden doesn’t rest solely with Luca – nor does the increase in goals either – but the Timbers struggled in a huge way to replace Jorge Villafana and Rodney Wallace and Lucas was supposed to be an answer to Rodney…

Individual statistical assessment – a supporting tool, when weighted properly, in player scouting and recruitment:

  • Individual statistics have no surface value here (passing accuracy, shots taken, tackles, recoveries, etc…) other than providing a record of events.
  • What’s more critical is what didn’t happen versus what happened.
  • What didn’t happen is Lucas hasn’t scored as many goals as Kris Boyd, and while he’s had more assists, he’s also played with far superior talent (on the pitch) than Boyd.

Individual Observation – a critical assessment tool in player scouting and recruitment:

  • Luca hasn’t continuously shown great skill with his first touch and myself, as well as others seem to agree, he lacked the ability to create space for himself and others…
  • And without the ball he appeared disengaged – even more so when the ball was on the opposite side of the pitch.
  • The phrase ball-watcher comes to mind…
  • I’d offer more but I think it’s best offered from a Caleb Porter interview with FourFourTwo on Nov. 21.

Porter indicated the club is in the market for wingers that “help us execute our style of play. We want to press and if the wingers don’t press then it doesn’t work.” In the same interview with Paul Tenorio, Porter indicates the club is still evaluating whether F Lucas Melano is a long-term fit.

Caleb Porter

Hmmm…

So what’s the skinny on how Lucas Melano will “help us execute our style of play…”?

Lucas Melano needs to improve his first touch.  Porter likes to see his team move the ball quickly, especially during a counter-attack.  And if precision in ball movement is needed so to is a great first touch.  Until he improves his first touch I don’t see Melano helping his team execute Porter’s style of play.

Furthermore, Lucas needs to up his mentality on the pitch.  The idea that someone can be observed, and labeled, as a ball-watcher (who appears disengaged) usually means that player doesn’t have the right mentality to succeed.  When looking at that first list of players I offered earlier – all of them have a great mentality… in the words of a friend of mine – they look to bleed for the organization; Lucas doesn’t.

So what about a tactical shift to try and use Lucas a different way on the pitch?  Perhaps move him up above Diego Valeri – a false 10 if you will?

A shift in tactical team alignment might work but is the juice worth the squeeze?

Tactically the Timbers could shift and play a more narrow formation – say a Diamond 4-4-2.  They certainly have the players for a formation like that.  There’d be Adi up top – with Lucas playing off Adi.

At the head of the diamond you’d have Diego Valeri while David Guzman would play the base of the diamond.  To the left – playing narrow – would be Darlington Nagbe, and to the right, also playing narrow, would be Diego Chara.

With a formation like this your width comes from the fullbacks while Melano’s main tactics would include running lateral to the back-four, dropping deeper into the midfield as a connector, while purposefully trying to make and create space for himself and others across the width of the pitch.

The challenge here, however, remains the same.  To play a false 10 a player needs to have a great first touch – and – they also need to be 100% engaged (both on and off the ball) in order to maximize team opportunities.

If Lucas Melano isn’t in a position to improve his first touch, nor does he show a capacity for a stronger mentality on the pitch, then all Porter has done is shifted his problem from the wings to the middle.

Is the writing already on the wall?

In an article on Dec. 27, Goal.com’s Ives Galarcep reported that the Timbers are in the market for a Designated Player winger to replace Lucas Melano, who is drawing the interest of clubs in his native Argentina.

One source tells Goal USA that the Timbers are in the process of trying to sign a designated player to play as a wing midfielder, an addition that would help offset the expected departure of Argentine midfielder Lucas Melano, who the Timbers are preparing to unload after a disappointing two seasons in Portland. Multiple Argentinean clubs in the market for Melano’s services.

In that same article, news was offered that Rodney Wallace may be returning to the Timbers.  Here’s a direct quote on that topic as well:

Another player who could make his way to the Timbers is former longtime Portland midfielder Rodney Wallace. A key figure on the Timbers’ MLS Cup-winning team in 2015, Wallace is currently playing for Brazilian side Sport Club do Recife. The Costa Rican international told Goal USA last month that he would be open to a return to the Timbers, though he remains under contract in Brazil and would have to resolve that in order to pave the way for a return to the Timbers.

In conclusion:

The Portland Timbers need players and a system to compliment Diego Valeri, not Lucas Melano.

Diego Valeri

And while the speed Lucas offers, adds value, I’d submit there’s too many to-do’s for Lucas to continue playing in Portland.  The bigger question, however, still remains.  Can the Portland Timbers improve their overall player scouting and recruitment enough to where they don’t find themselves in a position like this next year?

What are your thoughts?

Best, Chris

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pwp-logo-clearances

Gluck – Clearances – Clearing the Air or Clear as Mud?

My after season team performance analysis continues.

This week I’m taking a look at Clearances.  A much used individual statistic that many rely on to rate the value of central defenders.  But does it add real value?  Are defenders with more clearances better than those with fewer clearances?

My research looks at clearances from two different perspectives:

  1. What is the relationship of clearances by the opponents’ relative to a team earning points, and
  2. What is the relationship of defensive clearances by your own team relative to your team earning points.

For Major League Soccer, 2016, the number of clearances each team had, and their opponents’ had, was counted per game.

I then did a simple correlation on the number of clearances (per game) relative to the points earned (per game).  Pictured below is a summary of the two perspectives relative to their correlation to points earned.

clearances

Diagram 1

Initial observations:

  • Diagram 1:  The average number of opponent clearances (per game – right part of the diagram) has a (-.30) correlation to points earned.
  • Diagram 1:  The average number of defensive clearances (per game – left side of the diagram) has a (+.30) correlation to points earned.
  • Diagram 1:  It’s pretty clear that the correlations vary (considerably) from team to team.

Average of opponent’s clearances per game versus points earned:

  • Sporting KC gained the most benefit from lack of opponent clearances throughout the season; their correlation was (-.48).  In other words Sporting KC were more inclined to earn points when the opponent had fewer clearances.  This seems reasonable, especially since Sporting KC offered up the second most crosses (19 per game) this year.  The less likely the opponent was in clearing those crosses the more likely Sporting KC had in converting those crosses to goals scored.
  • DC United got the least benefit from lack of opponent clearances; their correlation was (-.08).  In other words the number of clearances by their opponent’s, throughout the season, had little to no overall impact in DC United earning points.  This also seems reasonable since DC United offered up the third fewest crosses (14 per game) this year.  With not many crosses offered it seems reasonable that this mode of creating scoring chances was less likely to occur.

What’s that mean?

  • For me, I would offer it means the number of defensive clearances an opponent has, per game, isn’t really a strong team indicator.

Average of defensive clearances per game versus points earned:

  • San Jose gained the most benefit from defensive clearances (.57); meaning San Jose were more inclined to earn points when having more defensive clearances per game.  This seems reasonable as San Jose faced an average of 20.5 crosses and over six corners per game; tied for 8th most in each category across the league.  A higher volume faced should result in a higher volume of clearances.
  • New York Red Bulls gained the least benefit from defensive clearances (-.01); meaning the Red Bulls were just slightly more inclined to earn points when they had fewer defensive clearances (per game).  What is unusual with New York is they averaged a greater number of defensive clearances (21 per game) but faced fewer crosses and corners than San Jose.

What’s that mean?

  • For me, I would offer it means (again) the number of defensive clearances a team has, per game, doesn’t greatly determine the outcome of a game.

In conclusion:

  • If neither opponent defensive clearances per game, nor your own teams’ defensive clearances per game, don’t have a strong correlation to points earned then the individual player statistics – that make up those clearances’ statistics won’t have much value either.
  • If anything – given the wide variation in clearances’ value, relative to points earned, a players’ individual clearances (per game) should be weighted relative to that game – and that game only.  Recognizing that the ‘weight’ of those clearances is subject to change every single game.
  • Perhaps what’s really missing here is the volume of “clearances not made” instead of “clearances”?
  • Finally, as a ‘giggle check’ if-you-will, I did take a look to see if the correlation of clearances was over .50 relative to the number of opponent crosses and corners offered – it was.  The average correlation across the league was .71 – quite strong…  see Diagram 2 below.

    clearances-vs-opponent-crosses-and-corners

    Diagram 2

  • So our own common sense is supported by data analysis.
  • Said differently; “common data sense” shows the volume of clearances are related to the volume of crosses and corners.
  • Therefore… (in my view)
    • If “the common data sense” (shown in Diagram 1) does not show the volume of clearances having a strong relationship to earning points then our own common sense should follow that view.
  • Again reinforcing that individual defensive clearances, as an effective individual statistic, does not add real value at all.

Best, Chris

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pwp-logo-predictability

Gluck – Predicting Team Standings in Professional Soccer

CAN IT BE DONE?

Over the last four years I’ve conducted research on various professional soccer leagues and competitions.  To include Major League Soccer, the English, German, and Spanish Premier Leagues, as well as the UEFA Champions League and the Men’s World Cup of 2014.

Here’s my latest analyses on how the Possession with Purpose Index can be used to predict which teams will make the playoffs, qualify for the UEFA Champions League, or make the semi-finals of the World Cup..

Before beginning here’s a rerun on a few important items of interest about Possession with Purpose:

Intent:  Develop a simplified, strategic set of performance indicators to better understand the outcome of a game based upon primary inputs.

End State:

  • A documented method for measuring team performance from those indicators.
  • An index that ranks teams for their performance based on this method.
  • The index, while excluding points, comes close to matching results in the MLS league table.
  • Bonus – unexpected outcome – a tool to predict teams making the MLS Playoffs.

Key events to date:

  • Objective index developed in 2013
  • Results presented at the World Conference on Science and Soccer 2014
  • Approach published in the book – International Research Science and Soccer II – Routledge, Taylor, and Francis 2016
  • Leagues/Competitions evaluated
  • MLS 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016
    • English Premier League 2014
    • Bundesliga 2014
    • La Liga 2014
    • European Championship League 2014
    • Men’s World Cup 2014

Major League Soccer 2013 – The Maiden Year for PWP:

mls-2013

  • Nine of the top ten teams in the CPWP Index made the MLS Playoffs in 2013
  • Internal outputs from team performances showed that teams who cede possession (have lower than 50% possession) can be ranked within the top ten so the index is not biased towards teams that possess the ball greater than 50%
  • This doesn’t even include all the internal evidence on the various tactical styles of play each coach advocated.
  • Three of the bottom four teams replaced their head coaches as well.
  • It’s the initial results here that provided me compelling information to investigate deeper into what the outputs of the index might offer.
  • Each subsequent index shows a gold and red star – indicating which team finished first and last in the league table.

English Premier League 2014:

epl-2014

  • Winner of the League, Chelsea, finished 2nd in the index.
  • All four of the top four teams in the index advanced to the UEFA Champions League; those teams with green bars.
  • –By week 16, of 38 weeks, the four teams who advanced to 2015 UEFA Champions League were the top four teams in the Index; and they didn’t move out of the top four the rest of the season!
  • Three of the bottom four teams in the index were relegated in 2014; those teams with red bars.

Germany Premier League 2014:

bl-2014

  • Winner of the League, Bayern Munich, finished 1st in the index.
  • All four of the top four teams in the index advanced to the UEFA Champions League; green bars.
  • –By week 21 the four teams who advanced to 2015 UEFA Champions League were the top four teams in the Index; and they didn’t move out of the top four the rest of the season!
  • Augsburg and FC Schalke, who advanced to Europa League, finished 6th and 8th, respectively, in the index (light green bars).
  • For those teams relegated (red bars), SC Paderborn, finished worst in the league table and index, while Freiburg was 7th worst in the index and Hamburger SV was 3rd worst in the index.

Spanish Premier League 2014:

spl-2014

  • Winner of the League, Barcelona, finished 1st in the index.
  • All four of the top four teams in the index advanced to the UEFA Champions League; green bars.
  • By week 14 the four teams who advanced to 2015 UEFA Champions League were the top four teams in the Index; and they didn’t move out of the top four the rest of the season!
  • Sevilla and Villarreal, the two teams advancing to Europa League finished 5th and 6th, respectively, in the index; light green bars.
  • The three teams relegated in 2014 were Cordoba, Almeria, and Eibar.  They finished 2nd worst, 3rd worst, and 4th worst (respectively) in the index; red bars.
  • Of note; Levante, who finished worst in the 2014 CPWP Index finished last in the 2015 La Liga Standings.

UEFA Champions League 2014:

uefa-cl-2014

  • Winner and top team in the Index – Barcelona
  • Four of the seven top teams in the index advanced to the semi-finals
  • –Barcelona 1st, Real Madrid 3rd, FC Bayern Munich 5th, and Juventus 7th; green bars.
  • By the end of round one the top four teams to make the semi-finals were all in the top 10 for the index; with Barcelona 1st, Bayern Munich 3rd, Real Madrid 4th, and Juventus 9th.
  • Poor performers, APOEL Nicosia and Galatasaray finished 2nd and 4th worst (respectively) in the index; red bars.

Men’s World Cup 2014:

mwc-2014

  • Winner of the World Cup. Germany, finished 1st in the index, with 2nd place finisher, Argentina 5th best in the index.
  • Four of the top seven teams to reach the semi-finals finished 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 7th in the index; green bars.
  • By the end of round one, the four teams to make it so the semi-finals were all in the top six of the CPWP Index; with eventual winners, Germany 1st, Argentina 3rd, Netherlands 5th, and Brazil 6th.
  • With Brazil giving up seven goals to Germany in the semi-finals they dropped from 7th to 18th in the index.
  • France, Colombia, Belgium, and Costa Rica are the teams who made it to the quarter finals; light green bars.
  • All three teams that failed to earn a point in the World Cup finished worst (Australia), 2nd worst (Honduras), and 4th worst (Cameroon); red bars.

Side note about the Men’s World Cup:

  • USA finished 5th worst in the index (blue bar).
  • At that time I called for Jurgen Klinsmann to be sacked.  Why?
  • My two most compelling reasons were:
    • –Omitting Landon Donovan from the squad (huge reduction in squad mentality/leadership without his presence – plus he was simply the best striker/forward in the USA).
    • Replacing Graham Zusi with Omar Gonzalez late on in the game against Portugal – that replacement (a huge tactical error) created a vacancy in the area where Graham Zusi was defending; the exact same area where Ronaldo delivered his killer cross from.
  • Two years later, after numerous tactical and mental leadership errors, Jurgen Klinsmann was finally sacked.
  • I wonder where our team would be (NOW) if Sunil Gulati would have had the backbone to sack Jurgen Klinsmann back then?
  • I’m not afraid to say I told you so Sunil Gulati…

Major League Soccer 2014:

mls-2014

  • Four of the top ten teams, after week 1 CPWP Index, made the playoffs; with SSFC, eventual Supporter Shield winners in third.  After week 13 Seattle never fell further than 3rd in the Index.
  • Eventual Cup winners, LA Galaxy, were 11th after week one.  By week 8 they were 1st in the Index and did not fall out of the top two after week nine.
  •  Slow starter award goes to DC United, who were bottom of the Index until the end of week 5; when they finally breached the top ten.
  • It was here, along with seeing FC Dallas, at the top of the Index, that reinforced the Index was not overly influenced by teams who have high amounts of possession.
  • In other words, the Index would, and does, rank teams in the top ten even when they cede possession and play more direct/counter attacking football.
  • Although the first four weeks of the Index didn’t predict more than four of the top ten teams making the playoffs by week eight the Index showed nine of the top ten teams making the playoffs.
  • The level of accuracy, from week eight, going forwards never dropped below 70% and reached (and sustained 90% accuracy) by week 25 for the remainder of the year.
  • Accuracy in predicting the top ten teams making the playoffs was no worse than 40% (the first four weeks) and no less than 70% throughout the remainder of the year with 90% accuracy first attained by week eight – and sustained by week 25.

Major League Soccer 2015:

mls-2015

  • Seven of the top ten teams, after week 1 CPWP Index, made the playoffs; with NYRB, eventual Supporter Shield winners in ninth.
  • Eventual Cup winners, Portland, were 8th after week one.
  • Slow starter award goes to New England, who started at bottom after week one, but had breached the top ten by week seven.
  • At no time did the CPWP Index have less than seven eventual playoff teams in the top ten.  And by week seven nine of the top ten teams in the Index were bound for the playoffs.
  • Accuracy in predicting the top ten teams making the playoffs was no worse than 70% at any given time – and as high as 90% accurate by week seven.

Major League Soccer 2016:

mls-2016

  • Seven of the top ten teams, after week 1 CPWP Index, made the playoffs; with FCD, eventual Supporter Shield winners in first.
  • For those who were surprised by the Colorado Rapids this year – you shouldn’t be.  By week four, the CPWP Index had Colorado Rapids as third best in MLS; and they didn’t move out of the top four, in the Index, the rest of the year.
  • Slow starter award goes to New York Red Bulls; it wasn’t until week 12 that the Red Bulls breached the top four, but by week 14 they found their place at the top of the Index.
  • At no time did the CPWP Index have fewer than six of the eventual playoff teams out of the top ten.  And by week 25 nine of the top ten teams in the Index were bound for the playoffs.
  • Accuracy in predicting the top ten teams making the playoffs was no worse than 60% at any given time – and as high as 90% accurate by week 25.

Closing Thoughts:

  • The CPWP Index, and the sub-indices for team attacking and defending, show great value in looking to understand where failure/success may be occurring relative to team results.
  • It’s evidence – one piece of evidence – that shareholders should pay attention to when looking to make changes – it is not a substitute for what the eye sees or the gut feels.
  • I know more can be offered in drilling down into individual statistics relative to these team statistics.

Best, Chris

You can follow me on twitter @Chrisgluckpwp.

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Alvas Powell

Defense First? Timbers to Ride the Rapids?

Portland Timbers travel to Colorado for the first time this year and the challenge for both teams is finding the right balance between attacking and defending.

In their last league home game the Timbers struggled in the first half – not unlike their US Open Cup match as well.

If not for an untimely hand-ball by David Horst and a really terrible PK call against the Dynamo goal keeper it’s likely the Timbers come away with a single point… to be sure they were fortunate as the two goals against in the first half were pretty much to standard given their entire defensive unit this year.

So when getting ready for Colorado it’s quite hard to figure who starts and who doesn’t.  

Does Taylor Peay start at right back?

He probably should given his higher passing accuracy and what appears to be better, heads-up, defensive positioning but in all likelihood Caleb Porter goes with Alvis Powell.

If you’re a Rapids supporter that’s probably a good thing – nearly 60% of all Dynamo attacking pressure came down Powell’s wing.  And when looking at this diagram below we see Colorado is balanced in penetration (touches) but weighs more towards the left side when taking (shots).

CRFC Team Stats

In my pre-match scouting report on Houston they weren’t balanced in penetration – nearly 40% of their penetration was down the right side – yet against Portland – Wade Barrett had his team push left… big time!  It’s likely Colorado will do the same.  MLS teams are pretty good at pressing the weak points an opponent has in defending as those players are more likely to make mistakes.

So if you’re a Timbers supporter hopefully the midfielders will add support for Powell.  I figure Diego Chara and Ben Zemanski in a double pivot as the first recourse should be for Portland to get at least one point.

In thinking about the left fullback.

I’m hopeful Zarek Valentin gets the call but Porter has gone with Jermaine Taylor before.  It was Taylor and Powell who paired up during that two-goal outburst by Houston last weekend…  And given the stingy defense of Colorado it’d be a nightmare for Portland to go a goal down in the first ten minutes.

However viewed the fullbacks do not man the wings alone – it’s likely both Chara and Zemanski start in a double pivot as Porter is going to want to give his team a chance to get at least one point.

And with the double pivot that doesn’t mean Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, and Lucas Melano won’t have defensive responsibilities – they will and Melano cannot afford to ball-watch this game.

Here’s the same diagram offering up information on the Timbers attack:

PTFC Team Stats

Probably a tad more balanced in attacking touches than Colorado – but the same lean towards taking shots from the left sides appears for Portland as well.

Of note – while Portland has played somewhat more direct this year there average number of long passes (per game) is about 10-15 fewer than Colorado – from a tactical viewpoint that probably translates to slightly more MF play between Valeri, Nagbe, (Chara and Zemanski).

It doesn’t mean both teams won’t try to stretch the defensive back-four with long balls – but given Powell’s tendency to push higher up the pitch Nat Borchers might be really busy this game.

A key indicator on the attacking scheme will be to watch how deep and how quickly the fullbacks for Portland push forward – the less tendency to push forward the more likely Porter is thinking defense first.

So how do the fullbacks work in Colorado?  I asked Chris Brown, to share his thoughts with me on Friday:

Colorado’s fullbacks have been key in shutting down attacking threats, getting narrow when they need to crowd the box but also making smart decisions to step out when they have adequate cover from midfielders Michael Azira and Sam Cronin.

Marc Burch is the first choice left back for the Rapids and Mekeil Williams usually plays at right back. When the cover is there they step out and close down attackers, preventing crosses from coming into the box but also positioning themselves to try and limit the danger from the other teams fullbacks overlapping.

Colorado plays defense first, so the midfield is always there in support, clogging channels and disrupting the attack.

Time and time again Colorado’s opponents have been able to get to the top of the 18 yard box but met with Cronin and Azira, ahead of a narrow back four, have to slow down their attack and pass sideways. If given time to set the defense up in its proper shape, Colorado extremely difficult to break down.

In closing:
Colorado team defensive performance this year as been first class – they are second best across MLS in limiting quality attacking by their opponent.  On the other hand – Portland is the highest quality attacking team in MLS this year.  Below is a diagram intended to show three things:
  1. Dark red bar – Colorado opponent’s average percentages in six categories,
  2. Dark green bar – Portland’s average percentages in six categories, and
  3. What gaps exist between each of those six categories.

CRFC DPWP vs PTFC APWP

In other words:

CRFC opponents average possession percentage is 51% while PTFC, in attack, averages 49% possession.

  • Likely meaning Portland and Colorado will be pretty near even when it comes to possession – the major ‘tell’ on that will be a couple of early goals for one team – most likely driving their possession numbers down as a wayh to protect their lead.

CRFC opponents average 75% passing accuracy while PTFC average 78% passing accuracy.

  • For me this means the best (normal starting) passers on Portland {Nagbe, Zemanski, and Borchers} need to be tuned in and see lots of touches… or the Rapids are paying so much attention to Nagbe that his gravitational pull is making space that others ‘are’ using.

CRFC opponents and PTFC penetration averages are the same.

  • In other words, I wouldn’t expect the defensive tactics for Colorado to be any different this game then any other game this year…

CRFC opponents and PTFC shots taken per completed penetrating pass averages are near the same.

  • As in the previous one – this is likely to mean the percentage of activity offered by Portland, in attack, really isn’t that much different compared to other Rapids opponents…  Meaning – if the Timbers fail to create space atop the 18 yard box it’s likely it’ll be a long day.

CRFC opponents are far less successful in converting shots taken to shots on goal – and shots on goal to goals scored.

  • For me this represents a major concern for Colorado – the quality of finishing (who’da thought that’d be said about Portland this year) by the Timbers is superb – so even if Colorado stays pretty tight at the back – that ‘pretty tight’ might not be tight enough!

It should be a classic battle of a potent attacking team against a potent defending team.

Best, Chris

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Copa-America

COPA America 2016 – To Possess or Not to Possess?

A true tactical battle awaits soccer enthusiasts this week as two traditional possession-based teams are set to square up against two traditional counter-attacking teams.

Could the script have been written better than this?

In the World Cup we saw Spain and Brazil lose considerable face while the likes of Colombia and Costa Rica pushed forward.  Brazil didn’t improve while Spain seems to have shown better in Europe.

In the end, both Germany and Argentina faced off in the finals – will we see Chile and Argentina hold up the possession-based gang of teams or can the cede-possession-based teams squeak in?

Here’s a look at how the four teams line up when viewing their composite possession with purpose:

COPA AMERICA 2016 SEMIFINALS

A slight up-tick for the USMNT from the end of group-stages while Chile kicked arse and pushed way forward.

In reflecting on the betting odds are with Bovada (see below) the possession-based teams are odds-on favorites:

  1. Argentina at -175
  2. Chile at +325
  3. Colombia at +500, and
  4. USA at +800

In peeling back the two parts of Possession with Purpose here’s how the four teams stack up against each other in attacking:

COPA AMERICA 2016 QUALITY IN ATTACKINGIn terms of overall passing accuracy not much separates the four teams and only when creating shots, and scoring goals do the differences take shape.

What’s interesting is that the possession-based teams show greater accuracy in putting shots on goal, per shots taken, but – surprisingly – the USA shows greater consistency in scoring goals, per shots taken, even with Chile absolutely decimating Mexico 7-nil.

What isn’t in this data is who’s missing from upcoming games and trying to balance out how those personnel losses impact team performance.  Who starts for the USMNT against Argentina?

  • Is it Beckerman, Zusi, and Wondolowski?
  • Is it Beckerman, Zusi, and Nagbe?
  • Is it Nagbe, Zusi, and Pulisic?
  • Is it Beckerman, Nagbe, and Pulisic?
  • Or some other option?

Lots of options and the one I’m hopeful of is Nagbe, Zusi, and Wondolowski.  I would submit the USMNT needs to stay on the front foot as much as possible (without a high press) against the passing and visionary wizardry of Argentina.

If you bunker in you’re only asking for facing 700-800 passes with nearly 25-30%% of those in your defending final third.  That much volume is surely going to see plenty of Argentina goal scoring opportunities.

Here’s how the teams stack up in defending possession with purpose – how successful their opponents are in attacking against them:

COPA AMERICA 2016 QUALITY IN DEFENDING

There’s no intent to be deceptive here – clearly Chile are wicked in attack.

But when looking at when the opponent does penetrate, and does put a shot on goal, they are likely to score against Chile!  Albeit, the actual volumes of shots on goal are small – but with clinical finishing and a disciplined defensive performance it does appear Chile could get beat.

If there’s any team that has defensive nous plus clinical finishing skills it’s Colombia.

In looking at the USA – the big weakness here is ceding just as much possession as Colombia – but a lack of speed and mentality in defending could be a downfall; especially with Jermaine Jones’ suspension.

Darlington Nagbe has paired with Diego Chara in a Timbers midfield diamond – perhaps we see that here?

Granted, Darlington Nagbe isn’t as defensive minded as Beckerman, but he possesses wicked good ball handling skills.  And if you want to try and win the midfield, and minimize an overwhelming amount of Argentina penetration. I reckon Nagbe needs to start.

As for Argentina?

Well… possession-based teams have a tendency to defend with the ball – it’s pretty clear Argentina are very good at that. So America needs to be extremely efficient in penetrating and creating; with a mix of Zusi on the wings (crossing) and Nagbe in the middle (dribble penetration) you get flexibility in addition to having both midfielders being pretty strong playing behind the ball too.

Id’ say the key for America, in defending, is two solid banks of four and plenty of midfielder pressure (in the midfield) to create turnovers.

For me, starting Pulisic is too attacking minded – and starting Beckerman is too defensive minded – hence Wondolowski, Zusi, and Nagbe.

This leaves Beckerman as a second half defensive sub and Pulisic as a second half attacking sub.

In summary:

If you’re banking on the attacking side of the equation, the early favorite is Argentina and a hedged bet on America.

If you’re banking on the defending side of the equation I’d still stick with Argentina to win it all and a hedged bet on Colombia.

Best, Chris

Caleb Porter

Timbers Shake the Quakes – Again

In perhaps their best team performance all year the Portland Timbers defeated the San Jose Earthquakes, in the fourth round of the US Open Cup, at Providence Park last night 2 – nil.

I don’t offer that lightly – the Timbers have struggled on both sides of the ball this year – not only in finishing chances but in denying chances.  As evidence – their lack of clean sheets on the back-end and a rather low number of goals scored per shots taken on the front end.

If this game shows the tenor of things to come for Portland this year the rest of Major League Soccer needs to take notice!

In particular – many times we hear that a player is a great defender because they have higher than average numbers of tackles – this couldn’t be further from the truth.

A solid defender is a person who shuts down penetration and forces the opponent to move the ball elsewhere.  Jorge Villafana was superb in doing that last year and Zarek Valentin stepped in last night and did the same.

Rarely did you see him have to tackle or leave his feet –  if memory serves I don’t recall him doing that once last night.  And I can only recall Taylor Peay doing it once himself.

When you want to give yourself a solid chance at a clean sheet you need your fullbacks to shut down the wings and force the opponent to play in low-percentage crosses.  A good indicator to support that theory is the high level of clearances last night with a high level of crosses.

Depth:

Amobi Okugo:  With the acquisition of Amobi Okugo the Timbers have shored up what I thought was a waning center-back weakness with the departure of Norberto Paparatto.  Okugo impressed me when I saw him play for Philadelphia Union, a few years ago, and that positive impression remains.  A solid defender who knows his positional role and how to support others around him.  A great awareness to be sure.

Taylor Peay:  As referenced earlier Taylor, like last year, continues to progress.  He’s shown well against the likes of Graham Zusi and others last year and apart from one instance against Shea Salinas – one of the quicker players on San Jose – he showed well again last night.

Jack Barmby:  Jack Barmby has shown good pace and quick feet since joining the Timbers – others, like Lucas Melano, have shown the same.  The difference, in my view, is that Barmby actually understood and understands how his positional play impacts and influences the play and space generated for others.  In addition, his first touch is far better.

Many may view my opinion about Lucas Melano as a personal affront – it’s not.

The youthful Lucas shows great strength in spreading the defenders wider with  his speed.  But with his considerably higher salary, and slow development of a good first touch (at least on turf), his continued role is tenable as a starter.  So the sooner Barmby matures on the pitch the better.

Others may disagree, but in my view, there is no room in MLS for highly paid players who don’t provide specific, attributable, results relative to team success on a consistent basis.

Bottom line is Lucas Melano hasn’t shown consistent value given his salary.  Perhaps a return to South America does suit Lucas better?

Tenor of tactics:

In thinking about gravitational pull – this is all about playing without the ball as much as playing with the ball.  Nearly 95% of the game a player plays without the ball.  Last night, for me, was a great example on how effective the entire team was in playing without the ball.

I think much of that has to do with what Caleb Porter touched on in his post game presser – the tenor of the Timbers attack has moved on this year.

With always trying to play a 4-3-3 Timbers players movement without the ball became predictable – if you don’t know what I mean just watch Columbus Crew.  Meaning, as advocated very early this year – the Timbers needed to move on and develop more flexible ways to attack.

Note the increased level of passing these last few games and the interaction/rotation of players within the attacking half.  All of this is to the good and should be fair warning to scouts tracking the Timbers that their penetration schemes are diverse and more dangerous – less predictable!

Improvement on the pitch:

Jack McInerney:  When I first watched Jack McInerney I didn’t think he showed a lot of grist in applying pressure or shifting about to create openings elsewhere on the pitch.  I won’t say that now – in the last few games his rotational play and finishing has been superb.  His improvement on the pitch simply makes other players more effective.  I wonder how well he’d work with Fenando Adi in a two-striker format for 75+ minutes?

The basic/bucket 4-4-2 can be quite boring at times but when it comes down to it – it’s probably one of the most fundamentally sound formations in soccer.  The greater your team is in executing the 4-4-2 (with all its nuances) the more effective other formations become.

Dairon Asprilla:   As for Dairon Asprilla – from day one he’s impressed me with his first touch and ability to play all sides of the pitch while also understanding his positional role relative to his teammates.  My concern has been his chippy mentality – like we witnessed two weeks ago.  But I don’t think it’s that chippy-ness, on the pitch, that got in his way of minutes earlier this year.

I think it’s his chippy-ness in seeing a teammate, like Lucas Melano, getting more minutes when Dairon has strong feelings/emotions that his performance on the pitch was just as good – if not better – than Melano’s.  That (might?) sound a bit dubious but players can be quite sensitive at times – especially when you need an ego to play.

A Head coach never wants a player who doesn’t show passion – the challenge for the players and team leadership is moderating that passion when not selected… his performance last night was strong – very strong – it’s good to see Dairon do well – I think he will have a key role in this team being successful this year.

And if Lucas Melano can keep things more simple and just rely on his instincts, and a better first touch, I’m sure he can add greater value too.  But if you’re going to maximize flexibility in attack it’s likely we won’t see Dairon Asprilla and Lucas Melano on the pitch at the same time… especially if Jack Barmby and Darren Mattocks improve.

Moving forward:

Nineteen games remain – max points equals 57 – an unlikely target but I’d bet every game the Timbers play will begin with the intent to get three points.

Flexibility and shifting players (in-game) to maximize different ways and means to penetrate, create, and score goals is critical – but not as critical as holding the opponent scoreless.  The defensive side of this team has not been good so far – it NEEDS to improve.

One game is not a trend, but this latest litmus test shows that fullbacks on the Timbers are getting better at locking down the wing penetration – can they sustain that lock down?

The weekend game against Real Salt Lake is the next test – can they continue?

Best, Chris

 

Houston Dynamo Logo

Houston Dynamo Scouting Report

With Wade Barrett as the interim Head Coach I thought I’d offer a scouting report on this team for your consideration. 

As a caveat – I have not viewed any team video nor have a I seen Houston play this year.  A report like this would be used, in my view, prior to reviewing team video.  There are two ways to read this – read the details to begin with and then read the underlined summaries – or simply read the underlined summaries.

That said, here’s what the tea-leaves offer to me in reviewing team performance statistics publicly available for all to view.

ATTACKING:

Passing:

  • My information indicates an average possession percentage of 45.42% with no real variation between home and away games.
  • Passing accuracy, unlike possession, varies from home or away games (72% versus 69% respectively).
  • In terms of overall penetration percentage – both home and away games see them averaging just under 30% of total possession in the attacking third.
  • And of those completed passes within the attacking final third 18.32% of them end up creating shots taken in home games and just over 16% of them end up with shots taken in away games.
  • Overall that sees Houston with the 2nd lowest total possession percentage, 2nd lowest passing accuracy percentage, 3rd highest percentage of overall passes completed in the attacking final third compared to the entire pitch, and 9th worst shots taken per completed pass in the attacking final third.

In other words – low possession percentages, low passing accuracy percentages, higher than normal volumes of penetration resulting in lower volumes of shots taken per completed pass.

  • Two years ago, under Dom Kinnear, they were 9th overall in possession, 11th overall in passing accuracy, 5ht highest in percentage of overall passes completed in the attacking final third compared to the entire pitch, and 6th highest in shots taken per completed pass within the attacking final third.
  • Last year, under Owen Coyle, they were 7th lowest in overall possession, 6th worst in overall passing accuracy, 8th best in percentage of overall passes completed in the attacking final third compared to the entire pitch, and 9th worst in shots taken per completed pass within the attacking final third.

Bottom line here is, under Owen Coyle, the Houston Dynamo had worse team attacking performance indicators than they did under Dom Kinnear. And it would appear the majority of their attacking scheme relied on quick ball movement – front to back – and that hurried pace appears to have negatively impacted their volume of shots. Said differently, it would appear they had a higher than average volume of wasted penetration.

Other team attacking statistics:

  • Aerials won = near top of the league (15.8 per game)
  • Crosses per game = near top of the league (20 per game)
  • Long Balls = mid-table in the league (71 per game)
  • Short passes = bottom of the league (283 per game)
  • Average length of pass = near top of the league (21 meters per pass)
  • Total volume of passes this year = near bottom of the league (3,900 in total compared to Kansas City (top in the league at 6,012)
  • Dribbling = second worst in the league in dribbles per game (4.5 per game)
  • Key passes = 5th worst in the league (90 in total)

Passing Conclusion:

  • With just 4.5 dribbles per game the playing style seems more about first touch, second touch, and pass, than taking time to turn, dribble and create/make space.
  • Given the higher volume of longer passes, more crossing, less dribbling, lower passing accuracy, fewer key passes, and less possession I would offer Houston are a second-chance (direct) ball attacking team with very little possession-based penetration.
  • Predictability is a word that comes to mind and the only manufactured un-predictability is generated through second-chance ball rebounds.
  • When viewing video it’d be interesting to see which players are more comfortable on the ball.
  • I’d also offer it appears the majority of players are not very good at creating individual space for themselves or for teammates.
  • A weakness of many teams in this league I’d offer.
  • Another potential takeaway is that the lower passing accuracy is also a resultant of the back-four having to relieve pressure through clearances or simply putting the ball out of play instead of gaining higher volumes of passes by starting out of the back.

Shooting:

  • My information indicates Houston have the highest percentage of shots on goal per shots taken (56.85%).
  • At the same time that highest average in accuracy results in having the 7th worst goals scored per shots on goal.
  • 41% of all shots taken come from the left wing, while 36% come from the right wing and only 23% come from the middle of the pitch.

In other words they are extremely strong at putting the shot on target but very ineffective in scoring and very predictable in where they will attack from.

  • Two years ago, under Dom Kinnear, they were 2nd worst in putting shots on goal from shots taken and worst in scoring goals per shots on goal.
  • Last year, under Owen Coyle, they were 5th worst in shots on goal per shots taken Shots Taken and 7th worst in goals scored per shots on goal.

Said differently, Houston has done a better job of creating chances under Owen Coyle but been far worse in converting those chances to goals scored – does that equate to ‘lacking a goal scorer?

Shooting Conclusion:

  • I’d offer they probably have a reasonable striker on their team but they don’t have the same ability, as they did under Kinnear, to create more time and better space to score the goal. I do not track individual striker statistics – never have – too many unknowns to see value in drawing conclusions.  I’d welcome thoughts from those closer to Houston – and no – I don’t rely on Expected Goals – it’s over-valued in my view; great idea but not reliable.

In Closing the book on Attacking:

  • I’d offer their attacking support provided by the fullbacks and midfielders is a concern.
  • Whether that comes from Owen Coyle 1) employing the wrong tactics, given the skills of his players, 2) his players not executing their roles or 3) the players don’t have the skills to execute more possession-based penetration in attacking is unclear.
  • In viewing activities from other MLS teams, over the last 3 years, I’d offer Houston probably needs 2 to 3 more midfielders and perhaps another fullback or two.
  • Two other questions come to mind:
  1. Has Owen Coyle ever run this team with inverted wingers?
  2. Do the training sessions focus on 1/2/3 touch football or perhaps as much as 5 touch football?
  • I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a team practice extended touch-turn-dribble-turn-touch/pass training; a lost art in my view.
  • Too much quick ball movement training – in my view – leads to minimizing thinking and decision making on the pitch – with or without the ball… and 95% of the game is mental…

DEFENDING:

Passing:

  • My information indicates an average opponent possession percentage of 54.5% with no real variation between home and away games.
  • Opponent passing accuracy percentages are 75.92%; above the league average.
  • In terms of overall opponent penetration percentage – both home and away games see them averaging 23.87% of total possession in the Houston defending third.
  • And of those completed passes, by the opponent, within their defending final third 20.75% of them end up creating shots taken; that is 3rd highest in the league.
  • Overall that sees opponents for Houston with the 2nd best possession percentage, 11th best passing accuracy percentage, 11th highest percentage of overall passes completed in the Houston defending final third compared to the entire pitch, and 3rd highest percentage of shots taken per completed pass in their defending final third.

In other words the opponents are not only having possession, they are successful in penetrating, and creating shots taken given that penetration.

  • Two years ago, under Dom Kinnear, Houston opponent’s were mid-table in possession, 4th most accurate in passing, 12th best in percentage of overall penetration per completed pass, and 4th highest in yielding shots taken given that penetration.
  • Last year, under Owen Coyle, Houston opponent’s were 7th best in possession, 5th worst in passing accuracy, 12th best in percentage of overall penetration per completed pass, and 8th lowest in yielding shots taken given that penetration.

Passing Conclusion:

  • I’d submit the defending unit, this year, has regressed from last year. Said differently, it doesn’t appear they are very successful in limiting the opponent’s time and space to create shots taken given any type of penetration.

Shooting:

  • Houston opponent’s have the 3rd best shots on goal per shots taken ratio (41.32%) but the 6th worst goals scored per shots on goal.

Said differently, the overall volume of possession and penetration is resulting in higher accuracy of shots on goal – that translates to more goals scored even though the percentage of goals scored per shots on goal is not high.

Or… it may appear that their goal keeper is actually keeping them in the game when, otherwise, their defensive unit is faltering or… the inability of the opponent to finish their chances could play a part too; Houston opponent’s have the 6th highest average number of missed chances, per game against Houston, of any team in MLS.

  • Two years ago, under Dom Kinnear, Houston opponents only saw ~35% of their shots taken result in being on goal but their conversion rate of goals scored to shots on goal was 8th best at ~33%
  • Last year, under Owen Coyle, Houston opponents were 4th best in shots on goal per shots taken and 3rd best in goals scored per shots on goal.

In other words it also appears their defensive ability in stopping shots, under Owen Coyle, has regressed in the last two years.

Shooting Conclusion:

  • I’d offer either 1) the defensive tactical approach is inadequate against the majority of MLS teams 2) the defensive capabilities of the players didn’t meet the tactical roles Coyle offered, 3) team scouting reports were not effective enough in identifying opponent attacking characteristics/trends, or 4) the defensive skills of the players simply isn’t good enough compared to the attacking skills of the opponents.

In Closing the book on Defending:

  • I’d submit the defending unit has regressed – i.e. not kept up with the opponent’s progressions in attacking.

OVERALL ASSESSMENT:

  • Are there organizational weaknesses in scouting, training, tactical preparation, or skilled players? Not sure – but it appears systemic.
  • It’s unclear (without watching video) what the issues are in defending – they don’t make defensive mistakes (as measured) like many other teams in MLS – intuiting that it’s the tactics that are pear-shaped.
  • Playing direct all the time is like riding a dead horse. When riding a head horse do you:
  • Buy a stronger whip?
  • Develop a training session to improve that horse?
  • Remind ourselves that other clubs ride this same horse?
  • Name the dead horse “paradigm shift” and keep riding it?
  • Remember all the good times you had while riding that horse?
  • Take a positive outlook – pronounce that the dead horse doesn’t have to be fed – it is less costly, carries lower overhead and therefore contributes substantially more to the bottom line of the team’s budget than do some other horses?
  • I’d offer you get a new, more flexible horse that can be rode many different ways.

I can offer this type of scouting report on any team in Major League Soccer – in some cases I can provide even more detail – especially for teams I regularly watch on TV.

Best, Chris

COPYRIGHT, All Rights Reserved.  PWP – Trademark

COPA America 2016 – Who wins it?

I don’t have the answer to that question but here’s what my early tea-leaves look like when viewing Possession with Purpose.  

COPA America 2016

Unlike Major League Soccer – parity isn’t present when it comes to this competition.

If you’re a betting person it’s likely one of those top three teams (Brazil, Mexico, or Argentina) are going to win this tournament… provided higher levels of possession and penetration result in more goals scored.

On the other hand – if you’re thinking a team who cedes possession has a chance – then teams like Peru, Colombia, or the United States might finish up top.

The other two odd ones are Venezuela and Chile…

In looking at the overall statistics note that Composite TSR has a lower correlation to points earned than PWP – the point here is that shots, alone, do not tell the story… 

Like the European Champions League, Men’s World Cup 2014, Women’s Cup 2015, English Premier League, Bundesliga, and La Liga, total shots do not tell the appropriate story.

The same cannot be said for Major League Soccer – at least not this year…

Best, Chris

COPYRIGHT, All Rights Reserved.  PWP – Trademark

 

 

 

us-soccer-crest-2016

Hypothetical Interview as a Head Coach of the #USMNT

My motivation for offering this article stems from reading this interview session  Matthew Futterman had with Jurgen Klinsmann through the Wall Street Journal. Great article – recommend you read it!

Coaching soccer in America is not like coaching soccer in Europe.

 

Here’s my hypothetical interview as if I were still a Head Coach using the same questions in the interview session Jurgen Klinsmann had with the Wall Street Journal. 

As a caveat – there is no way I can answer questions specifically about some individual talent as I don’t see the players train – where questions like that appear I will offer what I think are the critical things any player needs to work on to play at the national level.

WSJ: How important is this tournament to you?

Very important.  It’s the pen-ultimate tournament leading to the World Cup.  This is a great place to test the skills and mentality of the players we’ve been developing the last two years.  Critical here is learning while recognizing the intent to win.  We enter this tournament expecting to win – every team does.  Our next step, after this tournament, is to deal with the successes/failures we’ve had and how we can get better from them as we prepare for the World Cup – the ultimate measure of success for soccer.

WSJ: How does this tournament fit in with the transition process from 2014 to the 2018 World Cup? Is it a place to test young players or will you rely on players who have experienced big moments before?

Yes.  This is the pen-ultimate type of competition you want your best skilled players (with development in mind) to get time playing against the other best players across the America’s – team development is just as critical as individual development.  I don’t expect miracles like we saw in 1980 – but – in as much as ice-hockey is an individualized team sport – so is soccer.  If you create the right motivational environment – give your players room to fail; accept and build from that failure they will then learn to succeed.

If failure in this tournament leads to success in the World Cup I have done my job.  Bottom line here – I don’t care how well these players play for their club – they are not playing for their club they are playing for the United States.  If that means each of these guys shows a different level of mentality playing for me than their club Head Coach – great – then I sense I’m being successful as their leader.  If their skills and mentality are not coming to bear, on the pitch, when they play for me, then it’s my fault.  It’s my job to set the right conditions for their success – when that success doesn’t occur – AND no learning for both parties doesn’t occur – then it’s time for me to be replaced.

WSJ: How are the younger players in your program coming along?

I don’t think they are coming along very well – and that’s my fault.  I’ve have failed to give them the opportunity to learn from failure.  As their Head Coach I need to stretch and pull their mentality every which way possible.  This doesn’t just include physical training – it includes mental training.  At this level what separates good from great players is their mentality…

If the players don’t have the right mentality then I’ve failed to put them in the appropriate environment to get better in that area.   Does that mean every player can attain the right level of mentality?  No…  We have a saying in the military – if you’re a rock going in it’s likely you’ll be a rock going out (but everyone gets a chance).  The key to a successful squad is throwing out the rocks and keeping the soil that can feed the plants of success that bear the fruit of victory.

WSJ: Does the learning curve need to start earlier, at 13 or 14 the way it does in Europe instead of 18?

Yes.  I’ve read the training program we have for youth (that starts at the U-12 level).  The word “mentality” does not appear anywhere in the primary headings of our training plans.  In addition, perhaps the single most important skill, “first touch” is also not mentioned anywhere in the primary headings of our training plans.  For me this needs to change.

It represents, in my view, a complete lack of understanding on how we can influence are youth development to better enable adult mentality needed in a tournament like this.  In other words, it’s psychological changes in repeatedly stressing the right verbiage to drive home/reinforce critical skills and behavior I expect players to have when they report to USMNT training sessions.

The earlier in the power curve of their development the better.  We mustn’t forget we were all once children – I think children are smarter than we give them credit for and the earlier we test those smarts, even if it means initial failure, the better.  Most everyone I’ve ever met in my life who has been successful – has failed…  entitlement is not a word that works for soccer in this country and getting the right mentality that no player ‘deserves’ to be selected needs to start as early as possible.

WSJ: Does fighting for a spot in MLS count or does it have to be internationally?

No – once my staff and I have reviewed their initial skills and how they execute those skills in their club environment – how much time they garner in playing for their club no longer matters to me.  I take on players who I think have the right skills to be successful representing the United States, not those that do great for their club but don’t fit into this country’s team.  Just because a player scores or gets an assist for their club has ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with whether or not they can do the same for the United States.

In my view this is where many-many people completely misunderstand individual statistics stemming from domestic soccer.  The fact that Johnny scores for his club means nothing to me – why – because the team he plays for with me is a different team, in a completely different environment.  I assess individual behavior that includes mentality (nous) and execution on the pitch relative to specific tactics we think will help the team be successful against our opponent.

The greater the flexibility a player has in playing under different tactical situations the better.  But I do ask for and want specialists – it never hurts to have a set-piece specialist – at the same time I’d also expect that specialist to have very strong abilities to play multiple roles if injuries occur.

I’ll put it this way – if I have 24 players to choose from I’d expect at least one of them to have a throw-in that exceeds 20-30 meters and I’d also expect at least one of them to have a wicked free kick.  The challenge is finding multiple players who have individual skills like these while also having the talent and understanding to play a full 90 + minutes.  We should never forget set-pieces win games!

WSJ: Two years ago, you said Gedion Zelalem was talented enough to play for the national team. What happened to him?

I have spoken with one of the top statistics people at Arsenal FC.  They know Gedion has the right skills to play, I trust what they offer.  I would bring him in every single time we train and help him develop the mentality to play for the United States; I don’t care if he gets minutes in Europe or not.  He’s here to play for me and the United States not his club.  At the end of the day if he needs nurturing – so be it…  If he finds playing time it’s because he’s a part of the soil that helps our country bear the fruit of success.

WSJ: How do you balance the need to give young players a chance and winning games you need to win?

In between the World Cups all competitions, for this country, are about developing for the next World Cup.  Some players might have great skills but if there is a point where those skills are likely to wane in the very near future then it’s time for them to take up their responsibility to train their replacement just like I need to train their replacement.  Our country is our team – if you want to play for the United States you need to learn/understand that training your replacement is part of replenishing the nutrients in the soil of our players.

WSJ: Did you expect to be still relying on Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones and other players already over 30?

At this stage, no.  As a Head Coach I would offer it’s my fault that we don’t have at least two to three #9’s in the wings who can step in and play, fail, and get better…  this same mistake has been made with respect to our midfielders.

Even now Michael Bradley shouldn’t be starting – I have should have at least two #6’s in the queue ahead of Michael if I’ve been successful these last five years.  I don’t – that is my fault.  Saying that – we have a special player in our team now – Darlington Nagbe – he has perhaps the best foot skills of any player in MLS.

Can he bring that to the USMNT? I think so.  He should be given every chance (90 minutes at a time) to fail so that we can assess his future success.  I know Michael Bradley can play – what I don’t know is how well the others can.  This tournament is a learning experience first that always includes the intent to win.  I must balance that winning with development and the end-state – winning the World Cup…

WSJ: Younger players say you give little in the way of instruction, that you say things like “let your personality show,” or “make a statement.” Why do you speak in such generalities?

That is wrong for me to say that.  I am a teacher/coach.  I should be asking them questions not telling them to ‘let their personality show’.  As Head Coach my job it to enhance their skills and improve their mentality – put them in settings to help them learn to make decisions on the pitch.  Some players respond differently – so I need to adjust my approach for every player because every player is different.

We have another saying in the military – don’t treat everyone the same – treat everyone differently.  Why?  Because we are not all the same – we are all different – therefore my leadership skills with all those players needs to adjust to maximize their learning capacity and capability.  But let’s not forget – if you’re a rock going in it’s likely you’re a rock going out.

WSJ: The former West Germany star Paul Breitner made a similar comment recently. Is this a European way of thinking?

I did not make a  comment, I think, that would warrant this follow-up question.  If I had here’s what I would offer.

Europe is completely different to America – what works in Europe works in Europe.  It’s important to find out what approaches work best in America given the different environment in which we live.  As a leader I should know, given my past experience, what styles of leadership work best  – whether they learned the game in Europe or America doesn’t matter once they make my squad.  If I can’t adjust my leadership style to different players shame on me…

WSJ: Do you feel like the U.S. will get where fans want it to get?

I am hopeful, yes…  I am always critical of myself and perhaps too critical of others – at least it may come across that way.  But really, I am a very tolerant person who just has an excessive amount of passion on what right looks like – so therefore my views – perhaps delivered somewhat harshly – are not intended to be critical of others – they are intended to offer what I think right looks like.

I’ll put it this way – I’m not a yes-man… never have been,  I believe passion is needed to create a better learning environment – but of that passion may mean conflicts are generated.  If those conflicts remain constructive then I sense everyone gets better.  Whether it’s my idea or someone else’s is okay with me.

Bottom line – as always – there is failure – hopefully I too learn from my failure.  If I don’t do that very well my missus will help me with that.  🙂

WSJ: Do you like what you see from players like Matt Miazga, of Chelsea, and Christian Pulisic, of Borussia Dortmund?

From what I’ve seen – yes.  They should be on our country’s team – they aren’t here because I’ve not been good enough as a Head Coach to help them get here.  Mistakes are made – and in soccer that’s a good thing – except in the World Cup…  The more playing time and training I give them now the less likely they are to make mistakes in the World Cup.

WSJ: What does Seattle’s Jordan Morris need to do?

Get better at his first touch, second touch, striking, passing, turning, dribbling, and fitness – but most important he needs to get better at playing when he doesn’t have the ball…  i.e. improve his mentality and understanding his roles when not on the ball.  This is the mantra for all those who would play for the United States.  This is not a specific critique of Jordan – it’s an expectation that every player works on those things all the time.  For me, there are no exceptions to that rule.  Indeed – as a learning point perhaps for others — 90% of all training with the USMNT should be mental training without the ball.  Ninety percent of the game a player plays is without the ball – therefore nearly 90% of their training should be ‘off the ball’.

In closing:

I am not in a position to Head Coach the United States of America – but I think I understand football…  and the leadership requirements behind leading a team.

In reading what Jurgen Klinsmann offered I would say he’s not got the same views that I do…

Is it worthy for me to offer criticism – I think so – I am a citizen of the United States of America – that is a right we all have… for better or worse.

And for what it is worth – I think my approach would work better than his; others may view that differently; as long as I’ve been around football it’s rude not to expect there will be differing opinions.

However viewed, like any American, I want the United States to win this tournament – the game with Colombia kicks off in about an hour or so…

Here’s hoping we win, and if not, we learn from losing…

Best, Chris