From the halls of Foxboro Stadium…

Proper Dues To A Great Man Plus Some Thoughts On Player Development & An Interview With Amaechi Igwe.

Posted by tonybiscaia on August 3, 2009


One of the great influences in modern soccer has sadly passed on, Sir Bobby Robson who, in his time broke any number of barriers, including playing the ball on the deck with, gasp, non-Englishman at Ipswich Town in the 1970’s, this in the days when Scots, like Alan Brazil, George Burley and John Wark were considered “foreigners,” in the old English First Division, to say nothing of the two Dutchmen he brought to play for the Tractor Boys, Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen.

Of course, just to keep the opposition honest, he also had hardmen like the aptly named Terry Butcher, as well as Mick Mills and Russell Osman at the back. And in the spirit of old Divvy One, even the front players like Alan Brazil and this northern dude Paul Mariner got in their licks, sometimes right in front of the referee.

In full disclosure, Ipswich Town were the first proper football team that I watched regularly, albeit from a distance, as they were often featured on a PBS version of BBC Match of the Day in the late 1970’s and early 80’s.

After his time at Ipswich Robson took over the England team and led them as far as anyone has since 1966 and all that through the present day with the “Hand of God” quarterfinal vs. Argentina in 1986 (It wasn’t the hand of God. It was the hand of a rascal. God had nothing to do with it…” himself opined) and then to the semifinals in Italia 90, losing on penalties to the eventual winner, Germany. Robson continued to break the provincial English mold by successfully coaching in Europe, with some of the biggest clubs around, Porto and Sporting in Portugal, Barcelona in Catalonian Spain and PSV Eindhoven in Holland. His last managerial gig was with the perpetual sleeping giant, Newcastle United, in the wake of one of Ruud Gullit’s many managerial messes and he stayed on for five years, until 2004. He then became a print and TV pundit who offered a few quite critical observations about the state of soccer in the States, particularly when young Becks was considering a move to MLS. He went out to cancer on his own terms after almost eighteen years battling with various forms of the disease, in the end creating a foundation in his name after having been given a final diagnosis of just a few more months. A great man, he will be missed.

Any number of players, coaches and managers have been developed, improved and mentored by him, including The Special One, Jose Mourinho who worked under him at Sporting, Porto and Barca, first as a boy interpreter and later assistant manager. In many ways Robson can be seen as a back-in-the-day Geordie version of the contemporary French professor, Arsene Wenger who, like his predecessor, has long been ahead of his time in the development of young players. Certainly Robson’s interest and importation of players from outside the U.K, along with Spurs manager Keith Burkinshaw was prescient relative to the present-day Premier League.

The moaning, wailing and general breast beating that has accompanied the late July portion of Commissioner Garber’s “Summer of Soccer” has definitely created a greater ruckus than anything outside the celebrations of the 70,000+ Puebla fans at Giants Stadium who saluted Mexico’s five goal outburst against the hated Yanquis. It is worth noting that Bob Bradley’s teams have tanked in the second stanza of two consecutive finals against quality opposition.

Is it tactical failure, lack of condition, or just being overmatched, whatever, it is worth noting. Against the Selecao and El Tri you could say class will out but even as casual a fan as Barack Obama took the time to tell Lula, the President of all Brazilians that the U.S. won’t blow it again and then, of course, they did, albeit against a quite different team thanks, in no small part to a terrible penalty call against the Revolution’s own Jay Heaps.

In what may well be the last big real football match above Jimmy Hoffa’s burial site what really hurts is we witnessed an MLS gringo all-star team vs. what amounted to the same from the MFL. While there were three U.S. starters in Goodson, Pearce and Perkins who ply their trade in Europe and only two (Dos Santos and Vela) for Mexico comparing the bench at Arsenal or on the pitch at Ipswich and Tottenham with starting at IK Start, Hansa Rostock and Valerenga, well to be kind, a training session with Wenger beats first team football in Norway, other than with Rosenberg so the U.S. was totally outdone in that department. With the exception of Pearce, who has always plied his trade in Denmark and Germany, all the other Gold Cup Nat starters have been college and MLS-bred while young hotshots like Gio and Vela went straight to the A & B of big clubs world famous for developing young talent (Arsenal and Barcelona).

So the match-up last Sunday put a lineup of mostly inexperienced MLS players against nine Mexican players who will likely dress, if not start against the States in the Azteca come 12 August. These are hardened pros, making big pesos, ducking kidnapping and extortion every day, hounded by a rabid press corps, playing in the limelight and under pressure 24/7 from belligerent barras and hysterical hinchadas. For their MLS counterparts this was all new territory, I seriously doubt if even the most faithful poster on Big Soccer is going to key Jay Heaps’ car because of a dubious penalty or fling a bag of urine at Kyle Beckerman for getting completely hosed by his green-clad opposite number Torrado of Cruz Azul.

What we saw last Saturday is all part of a growing up process which, interestingly enough, is just as much directed at people like Bob Bradley and Sunil Gulati as it is towards any of the players involved. If the U.S. is to move forward these two are going to need to figure out how to include real footballing talent into the currently white bread/preppy development system at U.S. Soccer. It is, in fact, time to clean house and bring in coaches and scouts who will start to look past size and emphasize skill when they evaluate kids. Think of north of the border equivalents of Dos Santos and Vela, how much chance would pint-sized terriers have in the current U.S. method of assessment that so often favors cookie-cutter “athletes” over smaller, more technical players?

To stand by the side of the Revolution training ground and hear the Ayrshire, Lancashire and Merseyside accents of the coaches you might think that the brain trust bias would be towards big, beefy cloggers and hoofers to thump their way through the muscular MLS season. But a quick survey of the more than 22 players (yes, amazing, two shy of a full squad!) spread about the greensward makes it clear that size, shape and nationality are as varied as the other accents and languages. A metaphor for this would be the sight and sound of Gabriel Badilla and Edgaras Jankauskas stretching together and chatting amiably, apparently in Spanish, likely the lanky Lithuanian’s fourth language.

What is clear when watching training is that there are any number of styles present on this team, from sheer, silky skill like Steve Ralston to combative confrontation, mixed with a bit of footballing, as with Jeff Larentowicz and everything in between and beyond. Hardly a team of simple grafters and one which may well mature into a present day version, albeit at a bit of a lower-level, of the kind of squad that Sir Bobby Robson cobbled together for the Cobbold brewing family (chairman of Ipswich Town FC) some thirty years ago. Considering that through seventeen MLS matches there have been at least fourteen different configurations of players it may take some time under playing conditions for the current one to hit on all cylinders, we’ll see next Saturday and through the late summer into the fall just where all this is going, truly a work in progress.

Having been with New England for three seasons now it is easy to forget that Amaechi Igwe is barely 21 years of age. As a Generation Adidas player he left California collegiate power Santa Clara to be drafted by the Revs in the first round of the 2007 SuperDraft. Like so many of the new young defenders he is confident on the ball and part of the Revolution evolution from booting to building up from the back. I spoke with him after training.

JIM: Something that I have noticed in now fourteen years of watching young players come up to this team and MLS generally is how your generation seems so much more comfortable with the ball at your feet than in the past. Do you think that is simply evolutionary or is it something that is stressed more by coaches, etc. as you are coming along?

AMAECHI: You know older guys, they grew up in a baseball, basketball, football era (but) now that we get to see Portuguese soccer, English soccer, that sort of thing on FSC, ESPN and ESPN2 you really are watching the best players in the world all the time and you just see what world class soccer is about. It’s about skill and taking care of the ball and making technically sound (decisions).

JIM: Is there ever a culture clash with that because of course in previous years, not so much here with the Revolution but in youth and college soccer the scary thing would be that when a defender started up the field with the ball, taking on players everyone would go “Whooah! Boot it!”

AMAECHI: People are starting to recruit players like myself (as defenders), I grew up playing forward, I was a skilful player when I was younger and I eventually moved back on the left side because I’m left footed and you can see that, I (was) moved back when I was with the under 17 (National Team) so they are definitely looking for technical players to play defense. That is what happens in a lot of soccer countries like Brazil, they move outside midfielders to outside back, the game now really demands outside backs to be a lot more technical, even center backs…

JIM: If you had your choice, as a player playing every day, where would you prefer to play?
AMAECHI: Where would I prefer to play, I feel every player would say forward, in college I played left forward, I guess I prefer left midfield but it is tougher to find outside backs who have played there and have experience and are young, so that’s the position for me for the long run.

JIM: I noticed when the U.S. was playing Mexico last week in what was basically an All Star game between the MLS and Mexican League that the two players who came in and seemed to make the difference, Dos Santos and Vela, are tiny by U.S. standards. Now my somewhat paranoid thought is that if those guys had showed up as 12, 13, 14 year olds at some high end youth team a U.S. type coach might look right by them.

AMAECHI: That’s not necessarily true, I actually had the opportunity to play against Vela (with) the U-17 National Team and even back then, when he was a lot smaller than he is now, he was their star player, so it’s not… I mean if you are a smaller guy you have to work a lot more on your skill, usually you see smaller guys being a lot more technical than bigger guys, so… the good thing about soccer is you don’t have to be six foot, seven foot, you can be any size, you can be five feet (or) seven feet, it is just a matter of what position you play and what kind of player you are.

JIM: But the traditional knock against U.S. Soccer and soccer development generally in this country is that the coaches look past skill for size, athleticism and endurance and yet you’ve come up through the highest levels of the youth system and you have had a chance to observe, have you seen players fall away or get cut because of perceived discrepancies or problems with size?

AMAECHI: I don’t think it has to do with size, more work ethic, you know? When you get to a certain level everyone is skilful in their own way. What I’ve learned here is that you can take a good touch or make a good pass every single time and that’s skill, you know? It is just a matter of how hard you work at what you are good at, if there is a small guy who is really skillful and (he) just keeps working at taking guys on and finding ways to not get knocked over, you see Steve Ralston out here, you know he is a smaller guy but he is one of the best players in the league, I mean you see it every day (with him). Vela and Dos Santos are both great players and they are both pretty small but they have found ways to work with what they have and definitely have succeeded against what you (are talking about).

JIM: You have been a pro for three years now, what has been the biggest learning curve for you coming from high level college and national teams, what has been the difference training and playing every day as a professional?

AMAECHI: Like you said, it is developing my skill, being able to do something that would help anybody, just that first touch, just simple things, if you get a pass in and you take a good first touch it opens the game up so much because if someone is putting pressure on you and you take a good first touch (suddenly) there is a lot less pressure, they are further away from you, you can see more of the field and just (have more) confidence. Stepping out here as an 18 year old with Shalrie Joseph, Steve Ralston and Taylor Twellman, all great players who could go over to Europe and do well…

JIM: And you had all those Pachuca guys coming at you last year…

AMAECHI: Yeah, playing against guys I used to grow up watching, you just have to get the confidence and say, you know what, I can play in this league, I’m good enough to go against one of these guys and do well.

JIM: As a player who does have a very good touch, what is the difference for you playing on fake turf versus real grass under pressure?

AMAECHI: It just depends, if the turf is wet it is a lot faster but if it is dry it is stickier, so (the ball) bounces a lot more and it is harder to get a good first touch off, or a good pass off, so it makes the game tougher. When it is wet it makes the game a lot faster, Sometimes you just have to make a lot more precision passes, take a little weight off the ball. On grass everyone, obviously everyone grew up playing on grass, we’re out here (training) and everyone takes it for granted but it is just how it is (with turf).

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