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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Concussion Lawsuit

ESPN and the New York Times reported yesterday that a group of parents had filed a class action lawsuit in California seeking to change soccer's concussion protocols. Named in the lawsuit was seemingly everyone from FIFA down to AYSO. The suit is not seeking damages but attempting to force soccer in general to change its rules as a matter of safety. Legal experts think the biggest problem the lawsuit will have is technical (jurisdiction in particular) because they question whether or not FIFA can be sued in a California court over the matter since FIFA is based in Switzerland.

My gut reaction had less to do with the jurisdiction issues (if for no other reason than some of the organizations sued are American youth soccer groups who will almost certainly have to deal with the lawsuit eventually) and more to do with the question of whether or not changing the rules of the sport is the right way to go.

The stories reported two rule changes that the plaintiffs wanted to see. There may or may not be additional changes included in the lawsuit; neither article was clear on that point.

One of the two changes was targeted only at the professional level, which was to allow a temporary substitution while a player suspected of having a concussion is examined. That one I could see happening. It takes a a fair bit of time to do a proper examination and no one wants to play down a man for that long if they don't have to. That has to put pressure on the doctor and the player to be quick, and that could lead to mistakes. Sure, the player will still want to get back out there if he/she has been subbed out. But at least with a replacement on the field, there would be less of a rush. I think this one is plausible.

The second  proposal would directly affect youth soccer, which is to limit the number of times players under 17 could head the ball in a game. I think this one is just too impractical. For one thing, you often have players over 17 and under 17 on the same field, which would essentially have the players playing under two different sets of rules at the same time. For another, how do you keep track? It's not always clear which player in a crowd got a head on the ball. And you would almost certainly need an extra official just to keep those records as the game went on. It also wasn't clear what the penalty would be if a player headed the ball too many times. I just can't see this one working very well, or at all, unless you can get headbands for the players to wear that can both count impacts and signal the referee(and possibly the players) when a player has reached their limit. Perhaps the band could change colors somehow.

Now, in the mean time, there are a number of doctors who have suggested simply not letting younger kids head the ball at all, though I can't think of anyone who has set the age limit any later than some point in junior high. Banning heading completely for kids 12 or 13 and under makes some sense to me because, quite frankly, their skulls still aren't very well knit together and their brains are still developing rapidly. There is much more risk for kid of that age. And quite honestly, at that age, there won't be many kids who could gain advantage by being good at heading, so you really wouldn't affect the game much.

Soccer has been somewhat slow to react to the concussion issue in some ways. The NFL, NHL, and MLB have all addressed the issue in one way or another. But at the same time, soccer hasn't been ignoring the issue.The discussion is already ongoing as to what to do, and states all over the country are adding concussion protocols. And my experience has been that the youth organizations are generally much better at enforcing their own guidelines than FIFA did at the last World Cup, though as with any system where human beings are running it, mistakes are made. But on the whole, I think an honest effort is already being made to protect the kids, and we need to focus more energy on that and on figuring out what is best for the kids and for the game.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Weekly Preview

The season kicked off this past weekend with various tournaments and non-league match ups. Only the OAA starts league play this week, but there are plenty of good games out there.

OAA Red - Every game in OAA Red is important because they only play each team once. Defending champion Troy Athens opens up league play on Tuesday with a road game against Berkley while Clarkston hosts Rochester.

OAA White - Bloomfield Hills hosts Avondale in an early season showdown between a couple of powerful teams. Lake Orion hosts Royal Oak on Thursday in what should be another quality match up. Seaholm and Groves renew their rivalry on Thursday.

OAA Blue - Oxford hosts Farmington in what should be a good game.

Non-League

Monday - Rochester hosts Dakota in an interesting match up. Meanwhile, Adams travels up to Grand Blanc. The Bobcats are always good and should provide a good test for the Highlanders early.

Tuesday - Harrison hosts North Farmington as the teams compete for the city championship.

Wednesday - Adams has an even tougher road game when they travel to Novi.  Fraser hosts Troy in a high quality game. Eisenhower travels up to Clarkston for a good match up.

Thursday - Oxford hosts the newly merged Lapeer schools. L'Anse Creuse North and L'Anse Creuse face off in yet another rivalry match up. Clawson plays Lamphere in a game that could be interesting.



Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Sportsmanship

The new season starts in a couple of days, so  as is my tradition, I want to re-post some comments about sportsmanship and safety  because, despite what some people might think, sportsmanship does matter. If it ever reaches the point where it doesn't, we should stop playing the game.  Sportsmanship is about instilling values in the players, but it's also about playing safely.

Most high school games have a declaration about sportsmanship read before the game. But in order for such declarations to be little more than lip service, we all have to act they like mean something. Respect from others cannot be demanded. It must start with respect for others. This is not naive. This is life. Respect that is "demanded" is really fear masquerading as respect and won't last any longer  than the fear does. Part of sports, the part that has always mattered most at local levels(and should matter just as much at the highest levels, even if it is sometimes forgotten), is the life lessons it teaches to kids who will never play in the World Series or the Olympic Games, who will never even lace up their sneakers for a mid-major college team, though those lessons will serve the elite players well too. Those lessons have to start with the example set by those closest to them. Please, let's remember to be civil to everyone at the games, even when the big league and rivalry games take place, and later on when the playoffs start raising the stakes. Rather than dwell on specific instances, let's look at a few basic guidelines.


Give the ref a break - They don't get paid much and most of them really are pretty good at what they do. You're not going to get every call you want, maybe not even every call you deserve. The officials are human; they make mistakes. But most of the time things really will even out over the course of the game - if you just give them a chance. No one can get yelled at an hour and a half and not have it affect them no matter how much it isn't supposed to. And remember, the official has a different view and may have seen something you didn't that would change the call. If the official is really that bad,  they get rated after every game and those ratings are made available to coaches and athletic directors. Consistently bad officials will find themselves without work.  In the meantime, all that yelling and screaming is just making it even harder for the official to do their job and to control the game in a safe manner.

 Don't yell at the players to "get up" or assume they dived - Some injuries don't look like much, but are very serious. Sometimes there isn't even contact with another player. ACLs often tear when a player plants to turn (think Rod Woodson trying to keep up with Barry Sanders) or when they land wrong(Lindsey Tarpley's  knee injury against Japan in spring of 2011). It really doesn't look like anything really happened - until the player can't walk off the field and spends 6 months or more rehabbing the injury. Concussions can also be very deceptive. Sometimes there is the sickening thud of heads clashing, other times someone cracks their head on the hard ground or turf.

Not every fall is a foul - Even in a tightly called game, a certain amount of pushing is allowed in soccer, particularly shoulder to shoulder pushing. And if there is a size difference, smaller plays will sometimes "bounce off" of larger ones when they come in to challenge. There are no fouls in any of these cases. Also, different referees have different standards. Some will "let them play" more, the same way that some hockey officials will call more penalties than others or some basketball officials will call a tighter game with more fouls. In particular, if both teams show a willingness or a desire to play a physical game, a lot of officials will "swallow the whistle" as the saying goes. And remember, there is usually a different standard applied in the penalty area. Things that might get called at midfield are often let go in the penalty box. Officials generally don't want to give a penalty kick unless the play was recklessly dangerous or took away a good scoring chance for the player getting fouled.

Dangerous play is always a foul - The idea that "he/she got the ball so there is no foul" is a myth. Dangerous play is a foul whether the contact is made with the player first or the ball first. Coming in with the spikes exposed, two footed lunges, and recklessly flying in to body check an opponent or to crash down on an opponent after going up for a header are fouls no matter what. This is as much about safety as sportsmanship.

Not only are these lessons important, but sportsmanship makes the game safer.  Yelling at the officials can sometimes affect the calls, whether we believe it should or not, and drive up the frustration level of everyone involved. Even if it doesn't, the players may internalize that anger coming from people off the field and allow it to affect their play on the field.

Finally, dangerous play invites retaliation. We must all ask ourselves whether the yelling, the recklessness and the confrontations are worth the increased risk of injury - accidental or deliberate, that comes with such behavior. No one wants to see a game where five players get knocked out due to injury, or watch the knee injuries and concussions pile up as the season goes on. Those injuries are common enough when the game is played in a sporting manner.

Above all, remember that this is high school. The players have other things on their minds - SAT/ACT tests, exams, dances, college applications, and who knows what else. Even the ones who think of themselves as "soccer players" have a lot of other things going on. It's a big part of their life, but for very, very few is it the focus of their life. While winning can provide great memories, those aren't the only things going on in their lives or even the things they'll remember the most. On senior day, when the coach is reading what all the graduating players put down as their "best memory" of their time on the team, a lot of players don't even put down something that happened on the field. It's the trips they took, the relationships they formed on the team that they remember. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

World Cup - Looking toward Germany

Well, they got a point. It's disappointing considering how close they were to going through.  But sometimes the other team just makes a brilliant play. Still, the US controls their own destiny. If they can get any kind of result, even a draw, against Germany, then they're through to the knockout stage - no backing in, no worrying about the other result. Given the difficulty of their group, that's a perfectly good result. After that, it all depends on who they have to play.

But first, there is Germany to deal with. This is going to be a very challenging game, even if Germany doesn't put their best team out there. A draw will put both teams through, but neither team can afford a loss or they could get knocked out on goal differential. So neither team can afford to just take the game off and play for a draw. At least, not initially. At some point in the game, the teams may settle into things and play for the draw. But early on, that's not going to happen. 

The US MUST find a way to possess the ball like they did against Portugal. They also need to shore up the defense. In the first game, they did a very good job of clearing the ball but struggled a bit with marking at times, especially in transition. Against Portugal, it was the other way around. They did a good job of marking (even on the tying goal) but struggled to clear. They have to put it together defensively now. The US rarely manages a clean sheet in the World Cup (only twice since 1990). The only thing that has been saving them is that they're scoring. But they can't count on lighting up Germany.

Obviously, the health of Matt Besler and the overall fitness of the team will be key to the defense. Besler has been dealing with a tight hamstring and the US has one less day of rest and just got done playing in extremely humid and hot conditions, conditions which have affected other teams in their follow up games.

From an offensive standpoint, the US has to be able to possess the ball and create some chances. They can't sit back. Germany has too many talented offensive players to just let them have the ball. They have to play Total Soccer. They also are going to need at least one goal out of Dempsey or Bradley. Dempsey has been very good so far. Bradley was invisible against Ghana but had a solid game against Portugal. He needs to step up again. They also need to find someone to hit set pieces that are dangerous. The US has made a living offensively off of set pieces in the past, and while it's nice they're scoring in the run of play, they need to start making teams pay for conceding corners and free kicks. Most of the time, the US really hasn't shown much in those situations. That has to change now that the US is going to start playing the top teams Germany, probably Belgium after that if they get through. Pure and simple, against top teams, you can't waste chances.

Friday, June 20, 2014

US World Cup - Position and Portugal

The US got an important 3 points against Ghana. They didn't play very well, but they won. Klinsmann has made a career of winning ugly as the US head coach. The win goes a long way toward the US finding a way through the group. At this point, they are pretty much through with a win against Portugal or back to back draws against Portugal and Germany. If they're lucky, Germany hammers Ghana and then doesn't field a full team in the last game, making that one easier. But there is work to be done beforehand.
At the end of the day, the result is what matters, and the US got the result they needed against Ghana. But the US also has to play better if they're going to progress. They gave up too many chances to Ghana, but they got lucky that the Black Starts couldn't finish. Decent finishing puts at least 3 of those opportunities in the net.

They also have to figure out how to replace Jozy Altidore. Altidore is the only target striker on the roster, and Klinsmann pretty much has based the entire offense around having a tartget striker to play off of. Probably, this means Dempsey is going to have to play that role, but it's not what he does best. This is where the US misses Landon Donovan (who could fill the role, though it isn't his best) or Terrence Boyd.  As a result, the US may have to change systems.

Matt Besler also left the last game with an injury. It doesn't appear serious, and that's good because while John Brooks scored the winning goal, he also played mediocre defensively. The US has to get it together defensively. The one possibly extenuating circumstance is that the US scored so early against Ghana that they fell back too early - like they were deliberately trying to sit back and defend. If you do that for basically the whole game, what we saw against Portugal is what happens.

On the plus side for the US, Portugal is even more beat up than the US. Coentrao is out. Pepe is suspended due to a red card. No one is sure just how well Christiano Ronaldo's knee really is. There is a chance that Portugal will field only SIX of their best 11.

At this point, we also don't know what the lineup will look like. Chris Wondolowski seems the likely replacement for Alitdore. But at this point, we're only guessing.

Against Portugal, the US needs to get at least one point. Three would be fantastic and likely book them into the second round. The big key is how to shut down Ronaldo. If they can do that, they should be good. Portugal isn't the deepest team offensively and will have even more issues due to injury. But even injured, Ronaldo is going to be tough to handle. Perhaps the best thing is to attack down his side a lot and try to force him to run more and to defend. Test that injured knee and see how much it's going to limit what he can do. Ronaldo isn't the best or most committed defender, but if the US can put enough pressure on his wing, then he may have to defend.
Beyond that, there is a lot of debate about "Who will mark Ronaldo?". But really, the US needs to consider a group approach. They've been playing two defensive mids anyway with Jones and Beckerman both out there and they have defenders that can get forward. So they need to switch it up and run different players at him. Really, there isn't any one player on the US roster who can mark Ronaldo. So a group approach is going to have to be taken. Thanks to the various injuries, there are more places where the US can "cheat" from and maybe get away with it. Ronaldo is going to draw some fouls and probably get a US player booked (I'm thinking Jermaine Jones here), but if they can defend set pieces well and stop Ronaldo from creating in the run of play, they'll be alright.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

World Cup

The World Cup starts today with Brazil taking on Croatia. The US doesn't play until Monday when they play Ghana. I've talked with several people, including some local coaches, about both the World Cup and about Landon Donovan being left off the roster. There isn't a clear consensus on whether leaving Donovan off was a good move or not...but here's my take.

I don't like it. I don't like it for the simple fact that he's better than several of the players on the roster, including some of the guys who will start on Monday. At this point, he's still better than Bedoya, who will be one of the wing players. And the US can't afford to leave talent at home. We just aren't deep enough. Klinsmann can claim form all he wants, but it rings hollow. Even from afar, it's pretty easy to see that the real issue here is that Donovan and Klinsmann don't like each other. And both parties are at fault. Let's not forget that Klinsmann had hardly been named the coach of the US team before Donovan walked away from the team for several months.

But Donovan isn't the only questionable personnel decision.  There are SEVERAL players on this roster who don't really belong. And you just can't afford such mistakes when you only get 23 players. Since 3 have to be goalkeepers, that leaves you only 20 field players. And there are at least 3 guys on this roster who have shown nothing worthy of being on the team.

Julian Green - He's a good prospect. But he was basically handed a spot for declaring for the US. He has two sub appearances for the team this spring, one of them after he was named to the roster. And he has shown nothing in those appearances. He looks overwhelmed right now.

Perhaps even worse is the mess on the US defense. Omar Gonzalez is hurt and it is unclear when he'll return. John Brooks and Tim Chandler have looked terrible in the send off games. Brooks has only 4 caps, and Chandler had not played for the team in over a year before being named to the team, including several months where he was refusing call ups.

That means the US basically has ONE trustworthy and healthy back up defender right now -DeAndre Yeldin, a 23 year old kid with only a handful of caps. He's talented and he looked impressive in the send off series, but there it is inexcusable roster management that the US is about to go into the opening game of the World Cup with Yeldin as the only clearly viable back up on defense right now, especially in a group that is as offensively minded as this one. When you combine that with the omission of Donovan and the distraction that could cause, the US is suddenly a team on the verge of imploding...and if they implode in this group, it will be very, very ugly.

Still, the US at least for now SEEMS to have dealt with all the problems. And there is an opportunity here. The US has the matches in the preferred order. Ghana is tough but beatable. Portugal is capable of laying an egg against anyone AND has to deal with an injured Christiano Ronaldo. Getting out of this group is tough but doable. But they need to bring their best every game.

Too bad they didn't bring their best roster.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

State Semifinals

The state Semifinals are tomorrow and there are some interesting match ups. Almost all of the match ups involve teams from southeast Michigan.

Divison 1

Utica Ford vs. Utica Eisenhower

The teams have met twice before with Ike winning both games 1-0. Ford goaltender Nikki Topping has dominated in two straight shutouts and is a force to be reckoned with. She'll have to be on her game though to stop Paige Duda and the rest of the Eagles.  Quite frankly, it's a heck of an achievement for Ford to get here considering they lost their best field player, Cecilia Steinwascher, over a month ago and they aren't supposed to get her back.

Northville vs. Okemos

Northville is SO good offensively. They have flat out dominated almost everyone all year. But Okemos could provide a good test. They'll have to shore up the defense a bit though because Northville will hang five on them in a hurry if they don't.

Division 2

Birmingham Marian vs. Livonia Ladywood

Another battle between familiar teams. Marian hasn't had much trouble with Ladywood in their previous encounters, and it's hard to see that changing as long as they have a healthy Kelly Sweeney.

Division 3

Freeland vs. Detroit Country Day

DCD just survived a tough regional and knocked off Powers in the final. To be honest, I'm not sure what to make of Freeland. They have a good record, beat Midland Dow early in the year, and were ranked #6 heading into the playoffs. On the other hand, they've had a very easy road and were absolutely crushed by Powers about a month ago. Unless there were a lot of extenuating circumstances in that game, it's hard to see them beating DCD.

Divison 4

WOLL/Everest vs. Lansing Christian

WOLL/Everest are back in the semifinals for the 3rd straight year. This should be a good match up. Both teams have been on a roll lately in the playoffs, but it's hard to see the Lakers losing this one.