Commentary

Mandates and beyond and a self-criticism (Part 1)

For those of you who do not know my background, I was in the USA between 1978 and 1987 and in those years I played and refereed under the USSF. When I came back to the USA in early 2016, the national governing body’s name had long since been changed to U.S. Soccer and many things in soccer have changed for the better.

U.S. Soccer moved to Chicago – from Colorado Springs - , there are now a number of professional leagues – in 1987 we had none - MLS is very strong on the business side with a goal of expanding at least to 30 franchises, the number of registered players is around 4 million, the U.S. women's national team is the dominant WNT in the world and the list goes on.

What seemed still problematic is on the men’s and developmental side. The USMNT did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup and is ranked 22nd in FIFA rankings. To mention a few of our problems: Due to pay-to-play system, kids of underserved communities cannot be completely integrated into the system and the fragmented youth landscape have different approaches, ideas and objectives as far as the development of players are concerned.  For a complete list of things that can be developed you can read some of my and other writers’ old articles. The unique applications that existed in our soccer system 30 years ago still exist although some have been phased out like the two-person officiating system. I believe these are partially engraved into our soccer system by the “American exceptionalism” approach. In order to understand what   “American exceptionalism” is in general, one has not to forget that the USA is one of the three countries in the World that still predominantly uses the Imperial System of Measurement -- the other two countries are Liberia and Myanmar.

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After a few months of moving to the USA, I met with an old friend from Germany who had been a prominent coach in the USA. We had coffee and at the end of an hour of chatting he told me: “You think like a European but things do not work here like in the old country.” I did not understand what he meant then. Later, I started writing for Soccer America with the perspective of a European. I recommended lots of changes and especially mandates to US Soccer for a better soccer system. I knew that countries that mandated changes and set standards across their soccer landscape had been successful. If you look at the success stories of Germany, France, Belgium and lately England, you will see well-designed, mandated and executed developmental plans. When the National Governing Body of soccer in any European country mandates a change or applies a standard it goes down to the grassroots without a hitch or opposition. Coming of this background, I thought same could be done here in the USA. After talking to a number prominent people, including some of the incumbents of U.S. Soccer administration as well as some former ones, I came to a realization that mandating anything – forget about soccer - by a centralized authority in our country is very difficult and meets immediate opposition and resentment if you do not do the necessary communication and stakeholder involvement in the process properly. Even that might not be adequate. 

Let me a share an anecdote that opened my eyes to this reality. Player Development Initiative (PDI) is a mandate by U.S. Soccer and I believe it is one of the best projects for the development of soccer in our country along with the Developmental Academies (DA). Although I understand that it was not properly communicated and shared with the stakeholders, still the value it contributes to the pre U12 game is immeasurable.  It was met with a great deal of opposition by various constituents of U.S. Soccer, including the change to a new global aging system.

About a year ago, I went to instruct/coach new young referees in a small city in Texas. The new referees were going to referee 7v7 games and I was going to coach them. In the 7v7 game, PDI mandates a “built out line” and build out lines should be equidistant between the penalty area line and halfway line. In this city’s 7v7 facilities, all built out lines were drawn a few yards from the penalty area. I told the person who was responsible for the referees in this city that these lines should be equidistant between the penalty area line and the halfway line, and that I was going remark them appropriately with cones. He said that they have decided in the city soccer association that they did not like the idea of having it equidistant and decided to have it a few yards from the penalty area. A small city association with very little soccer culture, experience and know-how has decided to by-pass part of a mandate by U.S. Soccer. I am sure that U.S. Soccer spent months researching to put down the details of the mandate. I did not ask him why they thought it was not a good idea to have the built out line equidistant, instead I told him that I represent U.S. Soccer and I will teach and coach as the PDI mandates and if they want they can use the built out line as it was drawn in their fields in their own city association games. The referee representative did not like my approach or answer as if I have violated his association’s basic rights of freedom.

This little incident taught me a lot and I started to think from a different perspective. 

As I said earlier, the concept of the DA is another very valuable project by U.S. Soccer and it was an effort to create a parallel universe of development with proper global standards to the our fragmented youth soccer world. It started a strong competition for the USYSA and U.S. Club Soccer. Although it was not a mandate, it was a radical step taken by U.S. Soccer unilaterally. It met with resistance and is still being challenged. It is not a perfect system – no system is – but can be improved. I wrote a series of articles on the areas of improvement for the DAs and I learned recently that U.S. Soccer has decided to tier the U18-19 Boy’s DAs. That was one of my suggestions and I hope it is coupled with an opportunity to move between tiers through promotion/relegation so it creates a healthier competition platform for the teams.  Otherwise, the DA system with two "arbitrary" groups will be rather controversial.  Mike Woitalla, in an excellent article recently underlined the dangers of having a tiered system without a well-defined system of identifying the members of each group. Promotion/relegation is an ideal system for this task; since there is also an outcry for promotion/relegation in the soccer community. U.S. Soccer can take the lead in a league it organizes. If U.S. Soccer can mandate for the first tier to be free-to-play then it will be the icing on the cake. I also hope that the same tier approach with promotion/relegation is applied to lower age groups over time. I still think we need a pre-DA group with more relaxed standards. 

The USL recently decided to have its own DA system with different standards than the US Soccer’s. This shows the success of the DA system since USL decided to create its own DA system. I am not even mentioning the new and successful players in our USMNT that come through the system.  Still, there are many constituents of U.S. Soccer who do not like the DA system since it creates a very serious competition for them.

This is the first part of two part series: “Mandates and Beyond and a Self-Criticism.” In the first part, I tried to criticize myself for being such a strong advocate of mandates and national standards by U.S. Soccer without noticing the obstacles.  Also I did not realize that our country was the most litigious country on the planet which makes U.S. Soccer’s implementation of mandates even more difficult. Although I now know that any mandate or national standard in soccer is very difficult to implement in our country, in the second part of the series, I will talk about two soccer-specific reasons for this difficulty. You cannot just blame it on the political infrastructure and biases of the country.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet@ahmetguvener.com) is the former Secretary General and the Chief Soccer Officer of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Georgetown, TX.

12 comments about "Mandates and beyond and a self-criticism (Part 1)".
  1. Randy Vogt, August 8, 2019 at 8:52 p.m.

    Ahmet, nice article, but I would like to point out that the two-person officiating system has not been phased out as much as we would like. I would take an educated guess and say that it's still used for most high school games in this country. Certainly, that's the case where I live on Long Island.

  2. Ahmet Guvener replied, August 9, 2019 at 2:14 p.m.

    This article like all my other articles are intended for the US Soccer affiliated games. High school and college games and their rules are one of the uniqueness’ of our soccer culture. 

  3. Bob Ashpole, August 8, 2019 at 9:18 p.m.

    Very well done and informative essay, Ahmet. 

    Randy has just indirectly pointed out the problem of scale we have in the US. Nobody else has such an immense program. I imagine that a lot of people are familiar with soccer in their own state, but in every area? Sounds impossible to me.

  4. R2 Dad replied, August 9, 2019 at 12:23 a.m.

    Bob, I don't see it as a problem of scale. I think that's just an excuse for the fact there are so many know-it-all coaches who think they know better than our authorites. Ahmet's build-out line example illustrates this. 

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, August 9, 2019 at 3:24 p.m.

    You are correct that the Yankee traditional disrespect for authority is a problem illustrated by the build out lines.

    Randy's allusion to the existence of 2-referee crews in his state in response to Ahmet's generalizations illustrates the problem of scale.

    Ahmet correctly pointed out that scholastic soccer is different, but in my (relatively limited experience) a lot of affiliated clubs would only register their premier (travel) players. They would not register their in-house players, and so were technically able to deviate from the Laws when and where they wished. Using 2 official crews is an example. I suspect that is still the case in some places.

  6. frank schoon, August 9, 2019 at 1 p.m.

    Good read Ahmet, Thanks. But here is my pet peve and that everything here ,as far as player development/improvement is seen through the lens of structure and organization. Just look at all the articles written recently or even recent changes by USSF ,USL, MSL, whatever ,on player development, it's firmly instituted through structural changes...In other words, only one side of the equation....
    If you look just at the technical aspects ,ONLY , take the poorest countries, 3rd world, 2nd world, Africa, South America,and you will see these kids have much better technical skills than our kids who are drowning in structure, organization, and money.  We are worried about those kids who lack money for them to learn soccer via pay to play. Try reading Zlatan's autobiography and see how he learned....
    Sorry ,guys , but I can't identify with this reality of our situation, especially when I compare the progress these kids of less  fortunate countries have over our kids.   This leads me to say so glad those less fortunate kids don't have all this structure , wealth , STRUCTURE AND ORGANIZATION and it certainly hasn't done anything for our youth's development in the past 50 years. We need to look at another way of developing our kids and it is very simple but we need an impetus. 

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, August 9, 2019 at 3:32 p.m.

    Frank, I understand what you are saying and agree with you, but others might think that you are against organization and structure per se. That would be a mistake. USSF managers can have all the organization and structure that they care for--it won't impact play. The problem is when adults organize and structure play to the point where only discipline is taught.

  8. frank schoon replied, August 9, 2019 at 4:42 p.m.

    Bob, I hope others are not that simple-minded to think that I"m against structure. It is the excess , the dominane and overkill of structure in the development of the players...Those who tend to rely greatly on structure I find have a lack of feel and understanding for the game. 

  9. E Muschick, August 9, 2019 at 1:43 p.m.

    Randy,
    In our St. Louis area, most high school games use the 2 ref system. Why? We don't have enough referees for 3 man system, all games. Of course, the stronger teams/leagues use 3 refs. 
    Maybe some day we'll have enough referees - and the schools will have enough money - for 100% of the games and 3 refs -- at least at the varsity level. Gut feel is that JV and freshmen games - for both boys and girls - will continue with two whistles on the field. 

  10. Randy Vogt replied, August 9, 2019 at 3:43 p.m.

    Yes, the two-person officiating system lingers because of a lack of refs, schools not wanting to pay for another official and some people, including refs used to this system, being resistant to change.

  11. James Madison, August 9, 2019 at 7:07 p.m.

    The US is not only large, but is composed of quasi-free states, some of which are more soccer-oiented than others. I can remember when there was a 10-year plan to make us competitive in the Men's World Cup.  I think we still will get there---eventually.  I still think soccer is continuing to sink in.  On a different subject, i question Randy's guess, as CA has about 10% of the nation's population and high school players, and the diagonal system of control is standard here.  And on a third subject, which may be more pertinent than it seems on the surface, Great Britain has a controversial prospective new leader who has many simiilarities to our own president and who proposes to return that nation to the Imperial system of measurement.

  12. Ric Fonseca replied, August 9, 2019 at 11:09 p.m.

    InterestingHere's a tidbit for you folks When I came here I played a curious game called kickball on a softball/baseball diamond.Imagine my and the other kid's surprise when instead of kicking the ball and running around the bases, I took off and dribbled around the bases! I was sure corrected rather quickly by a Portugese speaking teacher But fast forward to my junior high when my cousin and I tried to organize a futbol-soccer game only to be chastised by the P.E. teacher. Rats!Fast forward to my high school, Castlemont, still, no futbol, but did have a "soccer friendly" PE teacher. But it wasn't until I was in the Army when I rediscovered my soccer playing quest at Ft. Lewis (WA) and played virtually every weekend, what say you, simply stated, I've been there, seen that, and done that. My "rude awakening" as to what the author alludes to is, when my children wanted to play the sport and what was available then was a new youth soccer organization, called ayso, My, baptism by fire to the mandated rules and regulations and the required parental involvement in a child's game, hit home when I tried to find a "K" team for my five-year old daughter and was told out right by a regional commissioner, sorry no room for her So, again, what's the point? I mention this because the US mindset to what the author alludes, is deeply ingrained, and it has been always: my way or the highway.After my military stint- I've experienced some very negative and very closed minds concerning our sport - jeez, my own experiences are enough to fill a thome or two, vis-a-vis the two man officiating system (why do they still use them? Lack of sufficient money,) close minded-AD's (athletic directors) on and on, So from the early 60's to the present, our sport continues to progress, even though I've not many other close minded AD's but have seen our sport grow exponentially. Jeez, this past weekend I saw the Atlanta game and was literally blown away by the attendance; likewise I was very pleased to note the crowd at the Rose Bowl But as mandates go, I must say that James Madison's comment on our "quasi-free states...(sic)" system, and the then so called "ten-year" plan when I first heard of it, in the early 70's, and then the '80's, 90's.... still prevail. All I can say, is that what happened amigos is still happening, "the so called territorial close mindedness, this is my affiliated league, your's ain't affiliated, Oh Lord, there is so much yet that needs to be told, and yet, so little time, and when I do think back to my being declared athletically ineligible by the AD at my university - all because I'd been going to college too long (some quirky NCAA rule - not withstanding my military service!; Stay tuned...;

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