#BuckFiftyADay Since March, 2014

#BuckFiftyADay Since March, 2014

Friday, March 13, 2015

#BuckFiftyADay: Soccer In America (Extended Club Mix)

I'll break format today and go longer than a buck fifty.

Who knows, I might go on forever. I've got plenty of time on my hands. I'm just going to let this post come off my fingertips, straight from my brain to you...pretty much unfiltered.

I'm going to write about Soccer in America. I will begin with a confession.

I am confused. It's my own fault, but I am confused. I think I'm confused because, even at my advanced age, when I should be smarter, I've gotten distracted by the noise.

The noise, as I call it, comes from all directions. Most call it "social media." The noise, in my opinion, can - if we allow it - give us a really distorted picture of reality. The noise has, at different times, made me feel universally beloved, and universally loathed. 

Neither is the truth.

So, apply that line of thinking to Soccer in America. It sucks. It's great.

It's neither.

The U.S. is mediocre. The U.S. has made no improvements since 1990. The U.S. system needs to be overhauled. The U.S. system is a joke. Major League Soccer is crap. American coaches are a joke. American players are...

You get the idea. Blanket statements that cause arguments, create debate, whatever. If you allow yourself to get sucked in, the noise will take you to places that are illogical.

I guess you can have fun taking part in these debates, but if you begin to think that the noise is even half as loud as it seems, you begin to take yourself way too seriously. You become the guy with all the answers. And we all know, no one has all the answers.

It's been a struggle for me, embarrassingly. I see a guy, maybe two or three guys, who take a hard line stance on something about the American game, and I get really angry.

How silly.

Here's what I know. I've been involved in the game of soccer, in one way or another, for as far back as I can remember. I grew up in a town that had a lot of kids playing soccer in the early 70s and went to a high school that won a lot of state championships in the 70s. A bunch of us went on a bus to Randall's Island one summer day to watch Pele play his first game for the Cosmos and, for a few years following that event, we'd pile into station wagons to go to Yankee Stadium and Giants Stadium to watch the Cosmos. 

I remember during our summer practice sessions, we'd actually have a radio so we could listen to Cosmos games and keep up with the scores. It was a big deal. Then it  was gone.

But the game wasn't gone.

When the NASL died, we focused more on college soccer. When I went to college at UNC, I went to practically every home game. I saw some really good players on Fetzer Field. 

At least to my eye, they were really good.

But there was something that was really far-fetched back then, and that was the notion that the United States would ever play in a World Cup. It was a pipe dream. Seriously.

So, as all people over 50 will tell you, the years start to fly by. And a lot of stuff happened really quickly. Quickly, in my opinion, because...did I just say I'm over 50? Holy crap.

My brother, who loved soccer more than any person I'd ever met, became a college coach. But I'd soon learn he was doing more than preparing Princeton for a three-month season. On weekends, he and other coaches, were trying to push players, any players they could find who took the game seriously. Any players they could find who had some blend of skill and athleticism and competitive drive...and push them to become better.

I'm not talking about pay for play.

Truth be told, I think my brother and his contemporaries were paying to coach. God knows they were giving up time, driving all over creation, to work with players and teams.

Meantime, things changed. Quickly.

I was working as a reporter at Sports Illustrated when Paul Caligiuri scored that goal, which we read on the AP wire on a computer the size of a Smart Car. Later, we watched some sort of replay on a little TV in someone's office. And the U.S. was going to a World Cup.

Really? I'd been watching college soccer. Watching Virginia with John Harkes and Tony Meola. Watching N.C. State with Tab Ramos. Watching Rutgers with Peter Vermes.

And, damn, these guys were good. So I remember thinking, maybe they'll hold their own in the World Cup. Maybe...maybe...we're good at this game, but no one's noticed?

We didn't have noise-making mechanisms back then. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, the U.S. was awarded the 1994 World Cup, which many predicted would be a colossal failure.

But I digress.

So the 1990 World Cup came and went and the U.S. had this one moment, when Vermes had a chance to tie Italy in Rome, and Italy's goalkeeper Walter Zenga stopped the shot with his ass. And then it was over. But we'd had a taste. Then it was back to college soccer and a little bit of amazement that Harkes was playing in England for Sheffield Wednesday.

But it wasn't very noisy. You know why. Onward.

I remember watching Alexi Lalas...one day playing in front of a thousand or so folks in a Princeton-Rutgers game. Rutgers had some players that, to my eye, were really amazing. Lino DiCuollo. Jeff Zaun. Steve Rammel. There was no soccer on TV, so it wasn't until the Final Four came to Rutgers that I got to see Meola and this left-footed guy with long hair named Jeff Agoos. But Santa Clara had these guys, Paul Bravo and Jeff Baicher.

I was pretty excited...but looking back, it was quiet. Really quiet. Probably a good thing.

So, the World Cup came along and it wasn't a flop. Fans flocked to stadiums, paid top dollar for tickets. And the U.S. competed in every game it played, advancing to the knockout stage before losing to Brazil on the Fourth of July.

This is when I started to hear some rumblings. Remember, this is 1994. It wasn't really noisy, yet. But I started to hear the critics coming out. 

DISCLAIIMER: I don't think I had an email address until around 1996, so I was not privy to some of those North American Soccer Lists. Plus, I was a baseball beat writer for the New York Daily News and I was much more a soccer observer than a junkie.

But I started to hear some things. What? Well, the U.S. was ignoring the Latino player (Paul Gardner wrote and re-wrote this column a thousand times in the following years and continues to write it to this day). We have better players in the parks than we have on our national team. Our coaching is substandard. We only look for athletes, not skill. Kids are playing on teams at too young an age. Kids need to play small-sided games. The reason the U.S. is no good is because soccer is a rich kid's game. We don't have street soccer.

And then in 1996, I went to work for the MetroStars in Major League Soccer, a league that, in 1996, was Major in name only. But, it was hard to be totally down on it because, well, from 1984 (when the NASL folded) until 1996, we had no pro soccer. 

Well, at least, we had no pro soccer that the general public knew anything about, Now, at the very least, we had some teams to follow and some games to watch. We started to get acquainted with the American player on a much higher level as we got to see players like Eddie Pope and Chris Armas. We began to wonder if, for example, Jason Kreis could score goals for the national team. Love it or hate it, MLS 1.0 was a game-changer.

But the league as a business struggled and I really thought it might just fold in and around 2003, when it seemed Phil Anschutz had to hold the whole thing together for a spell.

To me, what's happened to the game in the U.S. since 2000...a decade and a half...has been remarkable. The number of teams. The number of stadiums. The fact that I can watch games...pretty much any game I want...at any time...seriously? Amazing.

But, the noise.

The noise is both amazing and annoying. The noise can educate and it can misinform. More than anything, the noise, if you let it, will distract you and keep you from thinking clearly.

Not everything is a crisis. And not everything is an inspiration. Things happen. And then something else happens. Get caught up in the noise at your own peril. Things aren't as bad as they seem when you're in there. Or as great as they seem when you're in there.

Soccer in America. Oh yeah, that's what I set out to write about.

I can hardly believe where the game has come. When I step away from the noise, I can hardly believe what's happened with this sport in my lifetime.

That's not saying it's great. Not saying it can't get better.

But I'm not into absolutes. Not into broad strokes. Not into black and white.

Once in a while, not always, I'll try to observe in silence.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

#BuckFiftyADay: Dean Smith's Classroom

So, as I wrote yesterday, my brother Scott became a regular attendee at Dean Smith’s practices in the early 90s. Since I worked in the Sports Information Office, I’d been privy to a few practices, and was keenly aware of Coach Smith’s meticulously choreographed sessions. I’d told Scott and he wanted to see for himself because, as he says, “There’s a connection between all sports.” What he witnessed was down-to-the-minute schedules, where student managers ran the clock, where balls were racked and quickly positioned for the next drill. The horn would sound, instructions were relayed, and it was on to the next thing. Statistics were kept in practice. Not so much points, but things like charges drawn, loose balls recovered, successful box-outs, as well as fundamental errors. My brother hasn’t taken it to that extreme in baseball, but I know he’s tried to make efficiency one of his coaching hallmarks.

Monday, February 9, 2015

#BuckFiftyADay: Dean Smith, Remembered. Dean Smith Remembered.

The end of pro baseball was nearing for my brother Scott, so he decided he was going back to Chapel Hill to get his degree. He wrote a letter to Dean Smith. Paraphrasing, Scott wrote: “I played baseball at UNC and I’ve played pro ball for the last 10-11 years. I’m coming back to graduate and I want to be a coach someday. Can I come to watch some of your practices?” Carolina practices were closed to the public. Scott quickly got a letter back from Coach Smith, telling him, “I remember you and followed your career. Your name is going on a list. Come anytime.” Scott became a regular attendee. Years later Scott became the coach at Princeton. He never told Coach Smith, but one day there was a knock on his office door. The Heels were playing at Jadwin that night. Coach Smith was there, just checking in.

Monday, February 2, 2015

#BuckFiftyADay: No One Cares about Tiger Woods' Swing

When I covered the Yankees from 1992-95, captain Don Mattingly refused to talk about his swing. He’d talk about anything else. But ask him, when he was going good or bad, to discuss his swing and he’d say, “I’m not going to talk about that.” Privately, he once said to me, “I’ve learned that it doesn’t do me any good.” I understood, which is why I think Tiger Woods now has to follow the lead of Donnie Baseball and stop talking about his swing. Ever since he started losing his grip on the game, it’s been one take after another on what he’s tweaking, why he’s changing, etc. Stop talking about your swing, Tiger. Better yet, stop focusing on your swing and focus only on the numbers you’re putting up. Get back to grinding, competing, scoring. And for God’s sake, stop telling everyone you’re close! The score’s all that matters.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

#BuckFiftyADay: Stop Telling Me What's Wrong with Youth Sports

Teammates, friends for life.
Every day, it seems, I read another story on all that’s wrong in youth sports. We are pushing our kids too hard! Let them have fun! I could go on and on, but I’d use up the entire buck-fifty. So, I’ll cut to the chase. What’s right for me, might be wrong for you. What’s right for you, might be wrong for me. I played sports like my life depended on it, from the age of 10-19. Agonized over bad days, lost sleep worrying about the next game. Big deal! Today, in large part because of all I poured into trying to be a good athlete (I was NOT a good athlete), I have life long friends who don’t remember if I booted a groundball to cost our team a game, or delivered a game-winning hit. What they do remember is that we gave everything we had for each other.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

#BuckFiftyADay: If You Only Knew Him Like I Know Him

Sometimes I think if you only knew. If you only knew about the former players who’ve told me he changed their lives, inspired them to be better players, better people, to stop drinking or doing drugs. If you only knew about the texts that come, often from players who barely speak English, to thank him, because they just got called up to their national team for the first time, or because his words, which maybe didn’t make sense when he coached them, now make perfect sense. If you only knew that coaching is so much more than putting on a nice suit on the sidelines on game day and looking the part. That coaching is time spent preparing to speak to players, because you know every word counts, every word has the potential to inspire or deflate. If you only knew him like I know him… But no, that’s impossible.

Friday, January 23, 2015

#BuckFiftyADay: My Brother Bob's First Words on the Hall of Fame

By Bob Bradley

I've not said one word about the Hall of Fame, so today I'll offer up a few with a guest appearance on my brother’s #BuckFiftyADay blog, starting things off with two names. Walter and Manfred. You see, long before my journey took me through places like Cairo and Oslo this ride began in my VW Rabbit, which I'd drive from Princeton to Union where I'd jump into Manfred Schellscheidt's Rabbit and make the four-hour trip to State College with a Union Lancer team or Region I team, or a pickup team, for a game at Penn State. Walter Bahr's Penn State. Manfred always made sure we'd spend a few hours at the Bahr home where we'd be welcomed by Walter's beautiful wife Davies. Sitting in the living room, a young coach had the amazing opportunity to listen to two great men discuss experiences, challenges, ideas and wishes for our game. Doing it with intelligence, humor and humility. I'll never forget their wisdom. I hope those two Hall of Famers know how much it meant to me. Congratulations also to Kristine Lilly and Brian McBride on your induction.