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From the halls of Foxboro Stadium…

Does Running The Numbers Offer An Escape From Reality? Plus an Interview with Stephen Myles

Posted by tonybiscaia on May 7, 2010

A VIEW FROM THE FORT By Jim Dow

In a current exhibition at the Museum of Science, “Running The Numbers,” Seattle-based photographer Chris Jordan seeks to demonstrate the enormity of consumption in the United States by creating huge, six by ten foot murals depicting, for example, the 426,000 cell phones thrown away in the US every single day. The resulting images are a graphic indictment of the overwhelming profligacy of contemporary life; the sheer mass of plastic bottles, prison uniforms and Vicodin pills bear the weight of statistics made visible with such clarity as to make the viewer wince, at least a little.

Check it out on his website http://www.chrisjordan.com, it will help to see where this is going.

In this vein, suppose Revs supporters who own such shards from better times were to take their replica shirts for all the players who appeared in the 2007 MLS Championship match, a universally accepted high water mark for the former, highly successful iteration of Steve Nicol’s charges and lay them out, numbers up, on the tarp above the Fort for the next home match against the Quakes on 15 May. The lineup would be Matt Reis (1), Avery John (4), Jay Heaps (6), Pat Noonan (11), Jeff Larentowicz (13), Steve Ralston (14), Michael Parkhurst (15), Taylor Twellman (20), Shalrie Joseph (21), Andy Dorman (25), Wells Thompson (27) and Khano Smith (32),

Quickly, what do these twelve footballers all have in common? With the exception of last night’s horror show vs. Chivas, none of them are currently starting for the New England Revolution, and eight of them are no longer even with the team. While Chris Jordan spends hour after hour on a computer, fabricating his effective representations of consumption, it would take less than thirty seconds to lay out an equally effective commentary on the vicissitudes that currently define Kraft FC and, unquestionably, frustrate both Steve Nicol and any Revos support still paying attention in this playoff-saturated spring. You would have before you the graphic of an entire team, many in the prime of their careers; either playing elsewhere, injured or no longer starting for the 2010 squad. Of course, as would be the case in the annus horriblis that is 2010, Kahno Smith is the constant, having started in the 2007 championship and, once again, last night after various misadventures in places like the New Jersey swamp and the shadows of Lincoln cathedral.

Once, many years ago, when Steve Nicol had a brief spell as caretaker manager in the wake of Walter Zenga a TV reporter asked if the Revs were at the level of Port Vale FC, a team that perpetually bobbed between the old Second and Third Divisions of the English Football League.

He didn’t answer directly but, given today’s situation, one could readily ask, “are we less than Lincoln City in disguise?” since the most effective Revolution player against the gringo Goats is a reject from a club currently holding down 20th place in the 24 team Coca-Cola League Two, or to put a fine point on it, the fourth tier of the professional game in England.

All teams change, indeed many this dramatically over a three year period, but in the managed economy of MLS, it is difficult, if not impossible, to replace quality with quality and therein lies the rub that at this point may make the 2010 season unwatchable, unless a number of things break in favor of Kraft Sports Inc’s second team.

Run the numbers of the current Revos starting eleven; Preston Burpo, Kevin Alston, Darrius Barnes, Cory Gibbs, Seth Sinovic, Sainey Nyassi, Pat Phelan, Joseph Niouky, Marko Perovic, Zack Schilawski, Kehli Dube, plus Kenny Mansally and Khano Smith. These are the players that represented the Revs against Dallas this past Saturday evening. Then Dube and Niouky got red cards and were replaced by Smith and Tierney and now that Perovic has been run we’ll see who plays where against Columbus.

But, more important, how does that group stack up against the 2007 finalists, bearing in mind actuarial tables, money and who is/was on the way up or down; a difficult but meaningful set of stats, opinions and future stocks to analyze. For example, is Cory Gibbs an older version of Michael Parkhurst? You might say so, and thus far he has been quite good, although his longterm injury record belies that. Will Marko Perovic turn out to be Steve Ralston 0.2? Could be, he is awfully skilled, if he doesn’t go into a Balkan depression from assessing the reality of what he has signed up for, particularly after last night. Is Kevin Alston the reincarnation of a young Jay Heaps; athletic, smart and more skillful, or is he to be perpetually hamstrung by his dodgy hamstring(s)? Are Schilawski and Sinovic talents with a bullet, kids on the rise who may do a Dempsey against Benfica on the 19th of May in the same way that Clint stuck it to the overrated dirtbags from Sporting in late May 2004?

By way of comparison there were five Houston players (Onstad, Robinson, Cochrane, Mullan, Davis, Ashe) from the 2007 final that played for the Dynamo last week and while they are not quite the power of yore, and have certainly lost top level starters like Clark, DeRosario and Holden, they seem to have coped with change somewhat better than their former rivals for glory.

At the same time there is no doubt that the 2010 Revs do have some talent on the rise, but a position by position comparison of the two lineups is, at this juncture, a bit scary. Particularly when your two tyros, Joseph and Twellman are quite possibly toast. When you add to this dramatic transition that at the moment over 40% of the Revolution salary package is currently going to long term inactive players (Castro, Joseph, Reis and Twellman) you have a recipe for something between disaster and ineptitude, with an emphasis, unfortunately, on both.

Certainly, there needs to be a wholesale something along the lines of rejuvenation (getting healthy), perhaps housecleaning (bringing in new players), maybe just readjustment (settling into strategic roles) during the World Cup break that effectively makes the current MLS season an apertura and clausura, quite possibly the lifeline that New England needs to right the listing ship. While the months of May and early June offer a packed schedule of MLS matches, Cup ties and friendlies there needs to be equal intensity behind the scenes, preparing Plans A, B and even C, should the injured and suspended stars be unable to return. While it is always interesting, often frustrating and, at this point the only option, to see what the kids and newcomers are made of, without the presence of proven, defining entities like Joseph, Reis, Twellman as well as the departed, the level of play on view at Gillette this season, with one glorious half against a hapless Toronto side excepted, has been completely without form or style and, as a demonstration of professional quality and a reason to buy tickets, perhaps, indeed, at the level of Lincoln City (2009/10 average home attendance:†3,687).

An Interview With Stephen Myles:

When I was introduced to the new Revs Number Two and said that I’d like to do an interview he politely asked me what the direction of my enquiry might be as he would like to get his head around it before starting. This struck me as a winning combination of care and thoughtfulness and based on the fact that we spoke, on and off microphone, for over forty minutes, I was delighted that the team has added another really interesting soccer mind to speak with. In a word, he is a pleasure to engage on all aspects of the greatest game.

One other factoid about the affable South Yorkshireman, who came up through the Sheffield United system; a member of his family has played all four winning F.A. Cup Finals for the Blades!

He also has a great deal of experience with the development of young players both here as well as in the U.K. and I was most interested to find out his views on the subject.

JIM: You have a lot of experience in youth development, both in the UK and the US. What do you see as some of the major differences in the expectations and the ways in which it is managed in the two countries, being very different football cultures?

STEPHEN: I think the first thing is obviously the systems… between (the two countries). You are looking at the professional system and the youth system, as such. Obviously there are fundamental differences because of the way professional clubs are set up in England. The kids are taken into the clubs at ages seven, eight and nine years of age, here that system isn’t set up, it is actually individual youth clubs set up across the country. So you are getting professional staff that are managing clubs…and academies in England from under-Eights, up to under-16’s and under-18’s, whereas here you get, well, not professional staff…

JIM: Soccer dads, in some cases…

STEPHEN: In some cases, soccer dads… and that has been, obviously, a fundamental difference from the States to all the way around the world…where it operates in a similar fashion (to England). The other thing is, the difference between when the kids get to be eighteen years of age most kids (here) are going off to college. Now the colleges do a fabulous job with the resources and the time that the have with the players, but… those kids (everywhere else) at sixteen to eighteen and twenty are training every day with their professional clubs and the biggest thing is that they are in a professional environment, mixing with the (senior) pros. You know, a lot of it is that when you are mixing with people and you are seeing things from day to day, how the pros react, how the pros look after themselves, what they do, the little habits that the pros have, as a young kid you pick those habits up and they are all part of learning about the game. So I think that is one of the fundamental differences that are missing.

On saying that, there are a lot of good youth clubs around the States that have very, very good coaches and now that the U.S. has taken a stance with the U.S. Academy, it has been a giant leap forward… They’ve tried to get the cream of the crop playing against the cream of the crop around the country, so now you are not just getting (the best) in California where the better players might be playing against the not so good players, now what they are trying to do is to get the better players playing against the better players all the time, which is good competition. Training, (as) I’m sure you are aware, they’ve now gone to three nights a week, sometimes four, sometimes five nights a week with the kids and they are looking to emphasize training and more technical stuff. Which is, in effect, a giant leap forward, it is the right way to do it. I think the next step needs to be instead of the under-16’s and under 18’s, where, for me, putting them in that environment is a little bit too late because a lot of kids have learned bad habits and it is difficult, because instead of teaching them the tactical side of the game at sixteen, you are concentrating on trying to get them to do the technical side better, where really, at sixteen in Holland, in France, Spain and the rest of Europe those kids are technically very competent… by the time they’ve turned sixteen, or even fifteen or fourteen. So you can spend time… making more tactical approaches to the game and getting the kids to understand what the fundamentals are in terms of the tactical side.

I think that is one of the big differences. I think another difference is, and I’ve said this all along, and I’ve been coming over to this country since 1994, When I first started coming over, the exposure to the national game, to the international game, to the world game was very limited… Back where I grew up we would not only watch the games, it was our number one sport, we used to watch the games live, they would be on the TV all the time, even as a young kid, I’d watch them at five, six, seven years of age, watch the Cup Finals and that type of thing and then go out and try and emulate what had just happened in a Cup Final. So most other countries had that little one-up on the U.S. now with Fox Soccer Channel, with Gol TV, ESPN, I mean the game is on 24 hours a day and that can only be good for the (soccer) education of the younger kids, to watch that and see what happens and then try and emulate what your Drogba’s, what your Messi’s do, like the other day (when he put on a show in the Champions League), kids are seeing that and you hope that some kids look at that and say, “hey, I want do that now!”

JIM: A lot of people make the argument that there is this level of talent because the youth system in the States, to be blunt, is economically a middle and upper middle class system, a stepping-stone to college. Is there a way to open things up, do you think that having MLS development and youth teams will be a way to do that? I know that they are, for the most part, free of charge… Is there any real tactic to addressing these questions?

STEPHEN: I think that you just hit the nail on the head; I think that with the MLS teams, (where) the players don’t pay to play, I think that takes in every (economic) class of kid, whether it is a kid who is coming out of a poor neighborhood, we do the same with the NBA, the NFL, you know they always say that they look for the hungry kids and the hungry kids are the ones who have grown up with nothing. They’re the kids that want to get out of there, I mean how many stories do you hear about in the NFL where the kid comes out and he has had absolutely nothing and now he’s going back and donating to his neighborhood, it is very important… and the same thing is there about soccer. You know, you go and you find the Hispanic players, you find the black players, you find the white players, really kids that can’t afford a pair of football shoes but they are out there playing anyway and they are the hungry kids.

The other side of it is there’s a lot of good players come out of the middle class, there’s a lot of good players come out of the upper class, so I think with the MLS doing that I think they are perfectly on the right plane of thought there. With MLS doing that it takes out whatever class of kid it is (and) basically says, “hey, if you’re good enough, we’ll find you!” Now the other side of it is you have to remember in Europe , the way they go about finding those kids, they’re not just finding them in Europe, they are finding them world wide and, obviously, doing that means they’ve got to have a scouting network… One of the things that maybe we ought to look at is getting…and I know they’ve got it with the youth national team, they are relying on the youth clubs to do their scouting network for that… maybe within the youth clubs you’ve got to set your own scouting network up where it isn’t a coaching situation but somebody who recognizes where a good player is and will actually go in and watch the games in the park, watch the games that the kids organize where they are throwing their coats down on the floor and they are doing a made up game and now you’ve got some guy that’s… I mean there’s stories abounding in Europe where the guy’s walking through the park, walking his dog, he’s a scout, there’s a make-up game going on and he’s seen this kid who is waltzing around everybody, little Johnny who nobody’s ever heard of and hey, you know, I’d like to take a look at you!

Those kids, (and) I mean just by volume, those kids have got to be out there somewhere. So, it’s up to us and it’s up to the scouting system in the U.S. system to go out and find those kids.

JIM: The analogy I use is that if the U.S. population is 320 million and perhaps 10% of that number is really serious about soccer then we’ve got a country the size of Argentina when they won the World Cup in 1896.
STEPHEN: Of course you have, and just by volume there have got to be those (talented) people out there. You know, we’ve got to find a way to find them and give them the opportunity. Again, I think the U.S. Academy’s going the right way in what they are doing (but) I think they have got to expand it, it’s the right idea but they’ve got to get them younger, they’ve got to get them (as) under-12s, under-14s and under-16s and start developing those good habits with the kids (when they are) younger. Get them from sitting behind the computer all day, or playing the video games and that type of thing and get them out and get them playing.

JIM: So as a coach of a professional team, you’ve got kids like Mansally and Nyassi who are 21 but, in soccer years, they’ve got more years than say, Zack Boggs who has come from a very good college program but still, has been in college for four years. In time spent on the field, that is a huge gap, how do you address that, where can you try to insert/impart the experience to try to bring the players who, on the one hand have developed very well in college? After all, they looked good enough for the Revolution to draft them. On the other hand, in world terms, their growth has been stunted, or at least delayed by their time in school.

STEPHEN: You know it’s difficult because the system in place with the colleges has been there for a long, long time and its’ something that is a staple diet here (in the States). Education is a big part of it… I remember (in the U.K.), I think it was 1996, with the academies, when we moved from what were called Centers of Excellence, we changed them into the academies, the fundamental point why we did that was because there were so many players that were slipping through the grasp, we could have up to thirty apprentices, these were kids about sixteen to eighteen, if we got one or two of those apprentices to turn professional, we thought we had done a good job. Now the drop off there is alarming, you’ve got sixteen kids there that are effectively out of work, that have been working (training) for to years and now are out of work…

JIM: No longer training…

STEPHEN: No (more) training, and no education in some respects, be cause of the way that system is set up. Now the reason they set the academies up was to make sure that when those kids left that they left with qualifications that they could go and look for another job, given the opportunity. Now it is the same system here in the U.S. in terms of the education but it doesn’t happen at sixteen, it happens at eighteen and you go until 21 or 22 (years of age), now for me those years…

JIM: Are priceless, football-wise…

STEPHEN: Exactly, they are priceless, now… I don’t know if this will ever happen, obviously the ideal system would be… at sixteen years of age, for those kids to come into the professional clubs and look at the same system, because whether you like it or not, it works… for the rest of the world and you can’t really turn round and say, “well, yeah, it works for the rest of the world but we are going to do it different…” and then expect to compete with the rest of the world.

JIM: Especially technically.

STEPHEN: Exactly, and the bigger thing is tactically, because really you are giving yourself a… you are starting twenty yards behind everybody else and the expectations… it’s difficult, maybe in time, maybe it will start with the eighteen year olds… coming into the club and I don’t see any reason why you can’t bring a kid in at eighteen years of age, the kid goes to a local college here, does his education, her trains in the morning like we’ve trained here, we’re finished at a quarter to twelve, the kid’s in the classroom by one o’clock and working until five o’clock doing his education…

JIM: Makes perfect sense.

STEPHEN: And he’s around a professional environment, that’s priceless, you know maybe in time that is a system that hopefully we’ll go to, because, well, I’m a big believer, I’ve seen so much talent here in the States, it’s frightening, it’s frightening and I just think that if we can change that system to that (model) this county is going to move on another step.

JIM: And, of course, to end, this is a game, Italian defenders aside, that doesn’t overly reward size, all the U.S. based games do, so you have this whole class of kids who are athletically gifted, soccer talented, etc, who aren’t necessarily huge in size, and they can play a bit.

STEPHEN: Yes, of course they can, of course they can and the biggest example you (see on Barcelona) and you look at some of the players who are on the field (in a Champions League match) and they are six foot two athletes and mobile, well, we used to say in the old days, you could line a team up and I could go through the team and I could tell you (by their) size, who played where. You know, I could say, well, he’s a center back because he’s six foot five and he’s ugly and, you know and there’s the first center forward, he’s six foot four, he’s good in the air and there’s a little center forward, the guy who plays at the side of him, he’s five foot five and the midfield players and so on. But now, you look at the world teams and sometimes it is difficult to tell, I mean if you lined them up and didn’t know who they were, then you get somebody like Messi, who turns the tables completely and you look at the midfielders, Niesta and people like that, so for me, I don’t look at size or anything other than if he can play, he can play. If he’s got something and he understands the game and he can play, you give him a chance, you give him an opportunity, physically, maybe he can’t match up and that’s a problem but if he’s tactically good enough and he’s technically good enough, I don’t see any reason why he can’t play. And (size) doesn’t take anybody out of the scope when you are looking at players, you look at everybody.

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