Q&A with SA columnist Paul Gardner

Tom Shenk

Do you think the MLS/USSF has done its best in identifying young talent? It seems the future of the pro league and national team rests squarely on the shoulders of those running Project 2010. I am concerned that not enough is being done to find the prospects which are out there. There are many young players in New York City who exist outside of the USSF mainstream, but whom I think could be quality professional players. Carlos Queiroz seems to have grasped that nugget of truth rather quickly. Those in the soccer community who worship the almighty dollar might do well to find the bargain players and develop them. Yet it seems the USSF hierarchy balks at this idea.

Paul Gardner: I would separate the two: USSF has definitely not done a good job, while MLS is trying its best to repair a bad situation created by USSF. The stumbling block, all along, is college soccer. Linking player development to getting a college education is praiseworthy, of course. But we know that it doesn't produce players. And anyone with half a brain can see that, given the NCAA's crippling restrictions on college soccer, it never will.

In a system geared to providing players for the colleges, the players who get overlooked are, logically, those not considered ''college material'' -- the sort of city players you are talking about. When MLS started Project-40, it did so because it knew that the college way was not working. P-40 is designed to keep promising players out of college soccer (not out of college).

The USSF is a partner in P-40, but this is the first time that it has adopted an essentially anti-college line. Far, far, too late in my opinion, but we must be thankful for even a late change of mind.

Jordan Carroway

What is your opinion about the way in which U.S. Soccer has handled the hiring process for the new coach? If Bruce Arena was the guy they really wanted, couldn't they have concluded this MUCH earlier?

Paul Gardner: The guy they really wanted, the guy they thought they had, was Carlos Queiroz.

That's why they signed him as soon as he was free, last January. They knew he wouldn't have anything to do for six months (they gave him a top coach's salary to write a report!, but then he would take over from Steve Sampson as soon as the U.S. World Cup adventure was over. But Queiroz walked out on them in June, just as he was about to be appointed.

Arena became a much stronger candidate overnight because Queiroz' defection strengthened the arguments against employing a foreigner. But Arena's lack of international experience was a problem, to say nothing of his frequently expressed scorn for the workings of the USSF. I don't think this thing could have been settled earlier, because D.C. United had to have a considerable say in the matter. Arena is very important to them in maintaining the value of the franchise.

Marty Cassidy

What do you think of the USSF's decision to not enter the 1999 Copa America. It seems to me that if they are serious about competing for the 2010 World Cup, international experience gained through playing in such a tournament should be a top priority.

Paul Gardner: Agreed - - and there aren't too many of those tournaments. The coach-related problems undoubtedly made matters difficult, but one suspects that marketing and sponsor considerations were more important.

Gregg Betts

Do you think MLS will be able to survive in the long-term? Can it achieve, say, the level that hockey holds as the fourth of the ''big four'' sports in the U.S.? What can MLS do to ensure its growth and survival, especially considering the attendance problems in Tampa, Kansas City, Dallas and New York?

Paul Gardner: Oh yes, MLS can survive. Whether it will depends on its ability to present a consistently exciting game on the field. Meaning, its ability to attract and hold fans and TV viewers. I was much happier about that side of it when Sunil Gulati was wielding dictatorial powers about which marquee players were being signed. But now the coaches have much more say, and the quality of the players has dropped alarmingly. Not only the quality, but the type of player, too.

MLS will also have to modify its single-entity structure. Without that structure, in all probability there would be no investors. But with it, the league is dangerously limiting its own ability to respond to market demands. Tampa may be the wrong place, maybe the franchise has to be shifted. Lamar Hunt has faith in Kansas City, who am I to argue? Dallas suffers the worst stadium problem in the league, way too big, too old, and at the wrong site. New York -- potentially the best franchise of the lot -- has hordes of fans put off by three years of mediocrity. A disaster that needs to be remedied quickly.

Oliver Tse

Please comment on the upheaval in Europe, with some form of ''Super League'', whether controlled by UEFA/TEAM AG or by media companies (NewsCorp, Canal Plus, Mediaset, Kirch, Bertlesmann, etc.,) starting in 2000-2001. How much change will occur as a result of this? With the domestic leagues fade into oblivion? Will smaller clubs have to become ''farm clubs'' (a.k.a. ''nurseries'' in British-speak) for the media-owned super clubs in order to survive?

Paul Gardner: I think there will be a SuperLeague, whether it's run by UEFA or MediaPartners or whoever. The cries of alarm raised by the big clubs against commercial takeover have a hollow ring. If the money's right, the clubs will jump. They talk about the importance of the small clubs as providers of talent, but they now begin to spend a lot of money on creating their own so-called academies -- how is that going to help the small clubs? Also, why limit matters to Europe? How about a world league? Or do the Europeans, with their traditional arrogance, now assume that they've already bought up all the world's best players?

Gordon Fry

Having been witness to the NASL success in Tampa Bay, do you have an opinion as to why the current MLS team is struggling at the gate? Many seem to think that it's a matter of sports saturation, but I disagree. Tampa has a tremendous youth soccer community and it doesn't appear to me that the league management is tapping that market.

Paul Gardner: I'm not a Tampa expert. Francisco Marcos (who was much involved in the success of the NASL's Rowdies) tells me that Tampa '98 is a very different city from the Tampa of the NASL days, and that sport-saturation is an important factor.

Jose Sanchez

What is your opinion about Jorge Campos' departure to Mexico on the eve of the MLS playoffs? This would never have happened in Europe!

Paul Gardner: A disgrace and an awful embarrassment for MLS. The league can hardly to afford to turn its back on skillful and crowd-pulling players like Campos. But then I could never understand why he went to Chicago anyway. No doubt it wouldn't have happened in Europe -- but then, given the Europeans' snotty attitude to goalkeepers, what European club would have deigned to sign a Mexican goalkeeper in the first place?

Bill Dunbar

Given your obvious love for the creative soccer player, can you explain their usual lack of defending skills or more likely their refusal to make any serious efforts to do such? Would you rather see soccer games that play out like All-Star games with score lines of 11-10 (all scoring creativity and no real effort at defending)?

Also, you have an obvious love for youth soccer and an obvious distaste for ''schooled'' coaches. Being a totally unschooled youth coach, I have long wondered why you make no mention of past or present attempts at leading a youth team toward enlightenment. I am sure that many of your readers would love to know how you've done or what you'd do if you climbed down out of the stands.

Paul Gardner: I like players who can PLAY. Soccer developed a huge problem in the 1970s that turned into a gnawing cancer throughout the 1980s. Defensive play. Tactics were defensive (they usually are), coaches were defensive (they far too frequently are), but above all defensive players were allowed to get away with almost anything. Fouls, both personal and tactical, were the chief tools of the defender's repertoire. Genuine defensive skills were in short supply -- why bother when kicking an opponent up in the air was much easier, and not severely punished, if, indeed, it was punished at all? The reaction, finally, has settled in, and things are getting better.

But we still have far too many defenders who can't play, and who are encouraged to believe that they can be good attackers! Players who simply haven't a clue what to do when they find themselves in good attacking, or even scoring, positions. Plus, of course, far too many genuine attacking and creative players who are saddled with defensive duties, so that their concentration on what they do best is something less than 100 percent, often fatally undermined by having to worry about defensive, rather then attacking, positioning.

The answer to your -- presumably rhetorical -- question is this: I'd rather see a 4-3 game than a 1-0 game, assuming both are full of skill and commitment. I have written on a number occasions that for an attacking player to be good, he must be confronted by good defenders. Genuine defenders, that is, not cheaters and foulers. There is of course that pathetic school of thought that holds that all goals are scored as a result of defensive errors, a barren way of looking at soccer that leaves no room at all for attacking skill. Presumably, perfection to those lost souls means a strong of 0-0 ties. Anyway, this is all theory. I have lived through all the decades I'm discussing, I have seen the various types of soccer. I don't need theory -- I have seen the damage that overly defensive mentalities inflict on the sport.

My coaching career was limited to one season at a high school (12-14 year-old boys) here in New York. Quite successful, actually. But I had better players. Your question, anyway, hides a misconception. Next time you don't like a restaurant meal, or a piece of music, or a building, or don't find a comedian funny, or a film entertaining, will the fact that you are not a Cordon Bleu chef, or a concert pianist, or an architect, or Steve Martin or Woody Allen, stop you from airing your views? Should it? You are the customer, you are entitled to your say. There is no right or wrong here. Unless you really believe that only coaches can understand coaches -- in which case, I guess that only the best coach in the world (and who would that be?) should be permitted to criticize other coaches.

Karen Roman

My son is a thirteen year old player who will attend a small high school whose boys' soccer team wins about 50% of their games. He is playing club ball with a strong team (State Cup finalist) in a strong league (top teams from several states). He made the ODP team and ranked high at the Regional camp. His team trainer has an ''A'' license. He plays up 1 or 2 age groups on occasion. What can we do to help his development besides moving to a strong soccer country?

Paul Gardner: It's not easy -- in fact, it's not possible -- for me to answer your question without knowing much more about the player and the circumstances. In general terms: high school soccer is irrelevant to a young player's development. Being with a strong club is much more important -- but what sort of soccer are they playing? A winning team in youth soccer may be nothing more than a team of big strong athletes, not skillful soccer players. Making the ODP team -- well, again, that may be good, or it may mean nothing, such have been the vagaries of selection to these teams. Playing up is, in my opinion, essential to player development. The only youth program in which I have implicit faith is Tahuichi, in Bolivia. Some time spent there -- it's tough, Bolivia is not the USA -- would be time well spent.

[Editor's note: The Tahuichi program has produced, among others, D.C. United's Bolivian stars Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno.]

Joseph P. Nolan

Do you think U7-U9 players should be taught dribbling over passing, and do you think they should not be taught positions, other than rudimentary goalkeeping, and be allowed to play all over the field?

Paul Gardner: If the question is put that way, then dribbling every time. The subtle dribbling skills need to go in early, they need to become instinctive. Passing is much easier to learn. Perhaps, though, we should be talking about encouraging kids to learn, rather than teaching. A huge difference of approach, not only for the kids, but for the ''all-wise'' adult who positions himself as the teacher. Rigid positional play should certainly not be a feature of kids games -- I think it is important for the kids to have a say in where they feel comfortable.

Phil Heckman

After seeing many U-14 and high school games on fields less than 65 yards wide, I've come to believe that putting 11-a-side soccer in a space that's too narrow degrades the game by, for example, squeezing attacks into the center and by making it easier to throw the ball from the touchline into the goal box. What's your view on the effect of field size on quality of play and on player development? What youth/young adult field dimensions are common in other countries?

Paul Gardner: Narrow fields are a major problem at all levels, but they are especially insidious at the teenage level. Their worst effect is to encourage physical play -- it is so much easier to man-mark on a narrow field. Couple that with free-substitution and you have a recipe for a hard-working, hard-running game with little time or space for real soccer skills. A disaster. Narrow fields are a bigger problem in the USA than elsewhere, because so many fields are really football fields with their 55-yard width.

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