DISCARDING THE SECOND BALL MENTALITY

DISCARDING THE SECOND BALL MENTALITY

The Sharknados (Shark-Tornados) play in an Under-8s AYSO League just outside of Chicago. They have lost every game, results that are quickly forgotten in the chaos of who brought the post-game snack. As the ‘official’ US Soccer trainer, I instruct the players before and during the game and make sure they are learning basic skills and rules. A few kids pick them up quickly, while others seem content to play in the grass. By and large, most are just happy to run around for an hour. At the end of the season, every player gets a trophy. Most will come back to play next year. Some won’t.

Do the Sharknados represent some sort of losing mentality? No

Are they soft or not challenged because they all receive trophies? No

Should their zero-win season set off an alarm about the future of the United States and its soccer program? Certainly Not

The Sharknados lost because their players simply were not as technically gifted as the Orange Tigers, Narwhals, or Mighty Hurricanes. There was no lack of desire, but rather a lack of ability. 

 So why do we make up concepts and ideas to mask this deficiency in talent?

Because it is easier to rally around buzz words and notions than to accept that there are real problems that need to be addressed. 

Today, Donald Trump is the American president. He is a ‘winner,’ as he constantly reminds us, waging his entire premise on an amorphous characteristic in order to mask the fact that he still has no idea what he is doing. He is ‘bringing back a sense of pride’, labelling the opposition, ‘losers, ‘weak’, and ‘coddled’ because they expose the inherent flaws his campaign and country were built on. And much of the population still embraces him with open arms. After all, why admit the United States has very real problems when we can just blame phantom enemies?     
    
It is incredibly lazy rhetoric. The idea of ‘winning mentality’ does not exist in reality. A tidal wave of participation trophies hasn’t suddenly flooded the country with a generation of ‘losers.’ And as we can see by Trump’s first few weeks in office, unless you count probable treason, xenophobic hysteria, and national embarrassment as ‘winning,’ a campaign based on indefinable terminology doesn’t offer much in terms of success. 

Yet, even while many Americans deny the idea of Donald Trump, we still tacitly accept this kind of obscure rhetoric as something tangible in sport. 

As a veteran of the American soccer top-flight club and collegiate system, everything was about this concept of ‘winning’. Our practices were battlefields. It was a competition to show the most ‘pride’ in the jersey. There was little semblance of any sort of technical work because it got in the way of a ‘high-intensity’ environment. Tackles were brutal, punches were thrown, and my former coaches loved every second of it. Before every match, our captains would scream rousing pregame speeches, “No one comes to our field and takes a point,” or “we don’t lose second balls.” Much like our political process, louder became the new better.

And no better symbolised by the American glorification of the second ball.
    
In the United States, it is fetishized to an unreal degree, coming to serve as the ultimate indicator of intensity, passion, and heart, our own version of a ‘winning mentality.’ But behind this indeterminable barometer of character, there is a better, alternative name for the second ball.

A turnover. 

At its heart, the second ball is the definition of a reactionary concept. For it to occur, something has to go first go wrong. And that happens in the game. But as a country, we tend to hold those players that have no fear on the ball to a different standard than those that love to win it back. Why? Because flying into a tackle gives off the impression that a player, “really wants it.” Those were the players trusted on the field. But as any creative player will tell you, it takes mettle to shoot from thirty yards and get moaned at. It takes courage to try a risky pass. It even takes courage to accept responsibility in possession. But before the game, it was never, “let's get out there and really express ourselves today.” 

Every season, we would steamroll through the weaker sides in our University division only to face a playoff team of former South American academy players. No matter how hard we worked and fought, they always won. Without fail, after the game, our coach would give the same speech. “It was a tough game today boys. We battled hard, but they ended up winning the 50-50 balls. Remember this feeling of losing, and take it with you.” As if success was only an idea. 

There was never any semblance of taking responsibility for our own actions. There was no luck involved. We didn’t work enough on individual development as players. We worked on fighting. So we lost every year to a team that was technically superior to us across the board. They passed the ball more efficiently. They were more confident in creating chances. Instead of working harder to win back the ball, they worked smarter to keep it. 

There is no magical formula to winning. When the process of learning how to play (or run a country) is done right, more often than not, the result will take care of itself. 

The recent example of Jürgen Klinsmann is the perfect illustration of this concept at the highest level in US Soccer. As Phillip Lahm can attest, Klinsmann lead entirely with his heart. In his five-year tenure as US manager, he consistently ignored the most talented Americans in favour of the athletes he trusted. Workingmen MLS players Graham Zusi, Alejandro Bedoya, and Kyle Beckerman were the perfect examples. They were all technically average players. But they bought into what he sold, valuing an honest shift over any real initiative or imagination on the field. And they played under Klinsmann, showing the country you did not have to be the most skilled player to start for the USMNT. Klinsmann was the ultimate example of that American underdog idea better suited to locker room walls than reality. 

It’s us against the world.

Nothing will work unless you do. 

Hard work will always beat talent that doesn’t work hard. 

For a long time, the country embraced the charismatic German and this industrious attitude. When he called upon these traits in the recent World Cup, I started to believe in the mythic energy he inspired. Even if his call-ups made less sense than his lineups, Jürgen Klinsmann simply got results. In a sporting world moving towards stats, figures, and experts of all kinds, the German became a sort of romantic outsider. Reality and logic be damned. He wanted players that would run through a wall for him, and for a long time they did.

Underneath this earnest facade, there were warning signs that Klinsmann’s winning persona might not have any real substance. His refusal to play his best technical players led to thoroughly embarrassing performances against Columbia and Argentina in the Copa America. In the semi-final, Klinsmann-lifer Chris Wondolowski rugby tackled Lionel Messi in an attempt to atone for his misplaced touch. With the gifted Christian Pulisic watching on from the bench, Messi placed the free-kick in the top corner, putting the match to bed.

After the game, Klinsmann accused his side of ‘being too nice.’ In the post-match interview, he stated, “After the first goal, we were trying to scream onto the field, ‘“Go at them, become physical, step on their toes, anything.’” There was no semblance of irony that it was this exact mindset that gave the game away in the first place. More infuriatingly, there was no acknowledgement of defeat or desire to improve. Just the overarching belief that next time, the US would fight harder.  

In the next match against Mexico, Klinsmann chose his usual starters. Prior to the game, all the tired pre-match expressions dominated the American media. Summed up by the former striker Brian McBride, the now-commentator said, “The winner will be the team that wants it more.” Looking back, it is not fair to criticise the old Fulham man for that sort of indeterminate opinion, it seemed to be Klinsmann’s game plan as well. The German deployed the 35-year old Jermaine Jones next to Michael Bradley in a two-man midfield. Jones had not played a full game since July, and it seemed like a leap of faith to believe he could compete for a with the athletic Mexican side. 

It was.

After to the match, I heard the same speech given after every University defeat. Instead of taking responsibility for his own decisions, Klinsmann questioned the intensity of his own side for “losing the midfield battle.” There was no accountability for his decisions, just another indefinable string of clichés. Following the Costa Rican collapse, it was the end for the manager. 

Although Klinsmann made a lot of positive structural changes within the US youth system, the senior team remained a far cry from what he first promised. When he originally arrived, the German pledged to elevate the American side to a group that could do more than defending and counter. In six years, Klinsmann didn’t get very far. Admittedly, he did not have individual control over his players’ development. But with each lineup he made, Klinsmann sent out a message to every coach across the country of what an American player was supposed to look like. It wasn’t Darlington Nagbe and his beautiful footwork and weight of pass. It wasn’t Benny Feilhaber, with his rare vision and creativity. It was the glue guy, the role player that would do a job for the team.
    
The job is done. US Soccer is currently stuck at the bottom of the Hex table, the victim of our own lack of imagination.  

Instead of bringing in a new coach that wants to change the system from the ground up, US Soccer hired Bruce Arena. He is our version of Sam Allardyce, a gruff trainer with a reputation for results. The best-case scenario is that he will revert back to the same Klinsmann-esque values to reassert CONCACAAF control en route to Russia. Minus the addition of MLS stars in favour of Klinsmann’s peripheral European players, Arena’s team will probably look and play similarly to the same side that got steamrolled by Argentina. Like Big Sam, he’s the ultimate definition of a reactionary hiring. 

If the United States wants to move forward as a national team, this reliance on ‘no nonsense’ players and coaches needs to be the first thing to go. Instead of blaming immeasurable factors like ‘fighting’, ‘intensity’, or ‘a losing mentality,’ focus on an issue that actually exists. One that glaringly stands out every performance. 
    
The United States does not produce enough technically gifted players. 

On the rare occasion we do, we don’t value their contributions. While Christian Pulisic and John Brooks have been a gift, statistically, the future of United States soccer is in the United States. Yet, Klinsmann consistently belittled the few technically gifted players he had for coming home. Right now, there are over 2,400,000 male soccer players in the US youth system. Without a doubt, somewhere in the country, a homegrown star is in the making. Together with 22 other talented players, there is a side that could compete against Argentina in 5-10 years. 
    
The question remains, will we let them or continue to fight them?

If the US wants to bring in new generations of success on the field, we need to continually focus on technical development on all levels, with the senior team leading by example. It will take time. We might lose to Mexico again. We might even miss a World Cup. But lose on our terms. Lose because we support attackers that want to score goals more than defending. Inspire wingers that dribble and excite. Encourage midfielders that care less about recovering the second ball than giving it away in the first place. 

In the long run, technically skilled players win games, and knowing how to succeed will always remain more important than simply wanting to. 
 

By Ryan Huettel. Image credit goes fully to David Wilson

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