Written by Will Parchman

warner

Defying the notions we have as children that our most fantastical dreams are rooted in reality, Arsenal beat Sutton United 2-0 on Monday in the 5th round of the FA Cup. Sutton United was the first fifth-tier team to ever reach this late stage in the competition, and they managed to draw Arsenal. At home.

Sutton United, nestled in a hamlet in South London, was a curio for so many reasons the English press struggled to keep up. Its notice board notifying fans Arsenal was coming to town was an ancient manual board ringed by barbed wire. Its field is (gasp) turf, a relative rarity in the UK. Its backup keeper is an overweight odd-job handler in his mid-40′s who sleeps at the stadium three nights a week.

But by far the most widely reported bit of curiosity from Sutton’s Gander Green Lane was the dressing room. Namely, how damn small the visitor’s changing room is. And at least in the press, it was everywhere. I’ll save myself the hours of toil and simply let you pick through the myriad articles. It is a small changing room. You know. Befitting a fifth-tier side.

It’s almost like the English press have never covered a CONCACAF Champions League match before. Ah. Yes. Right.

Sutton United’s locker room is a point of interest. It’s small. Arsenal have a fleet of millionaires. The tea isn’t great. So on and so forth. But in reality the entire experience paled in comparison to the manic evenings provided by another cup competition (albeit not a domestic one) half a world away. And yes, I’m speaking of the infernal CCL, which provides more oddball away situations than perhaps any singular competition in the world. The Champions League’s very format works to weed out these sorts of matchups, and even the Europa League is hardly a battle of plucky upstarts. The majority of its clubs have sizeable multi-million dollar budgets.

International leagues like these – like the CCL – have to build from the ground up, so you understand its growing pains. The competition is new and played largely in countries with fragile infrastructures. But on some level it becomes hard to justify the material and emotional expense of playing these games in cricket stadiums to a smattering of fans while the well-supported league calendar waits off-stage with a titanium mallet. It’s hard to imagine that MLS clubs, in the thick of the playoff hunt when it hits the group phase in August and September, don’t view this competition with a heavy dose of skepticism.

But there’s also something else at work, something warmer. It isn’t necessarily about what the CCL is, but what it represents. Whether it’s Jamaican clubs selling their own shirts out of their hotel or these games in far-flung corners where the stadiums are glorified scrambles of concrete and rebar, the game is reduced to its essence in these moments. No steep banks of seats filled with thousands of fans, no international media presence. Just the game.

With that in mind, here three of my favorite CONCACAFy road moments for MLS clubs in the CCL since the competition reformatted in 2008. Sutton United, eat your heart out.

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Written by Will Parchman

elsalv

By now you’ve no doubt heard, at least through some desultory back channel via That Uncommonly Annoying Soccer Nerd in your text chain, that the U.S. imploded in its opener at the U20 CONCACAF Championship in Costa Rica. Playing against 10 men for more than three fourths of the match, the U.S. was the equivalent of a blind dog in the final third and ran wholeheartedly into cabinets, chair legs and couches for the better part of 90 minutes.

It was not good, although the goal that sent the U.S. to that most ignominious of fates was something to behold, like trumpets echoing off the marble steps of the Hagia Sophia or perhaps a cocked Carlo Ancelotti eyebrow in the golden, dappled light of autumn. Leandro Avila, incredibly enough of Iowa Western, take a damn bow or perhaps five or six or twelve hundred.

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Written by Will Parchman

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On an operational level, the shortcomings of soccer development in the U.S. are so well documented that we, as a country, seem to chase each other around their poles at least once a year. There is pay-to-play, which limits youth interaction. There is coaching education, which is historically substandard. There is the scouting apparatus, which is an incomplete shell. There is the size of the country, which is prohibitively large. There is pro/rel, which is practically a dog whistle for “indiscriminate yellings of any magnitude.”

These battles are already well underway. Those individual battlefields are awash in the smoke from the ringing cannons, the fields themselves littered with the detritus of a thousand internet arguments won and lost on Pyrrhic terms. The business of improvement in these areas will continue as training compensation lawsuits play out in the public purview and the Development Academy attempts to grip its future on both sides and MLS attempts to jam investment down its operational ladder and USYS and USCS attempt to financially undergird youth systems of their own. These conversations and arguments are noble ones, but for those in the fight, they are at times numbingly selfsame and insulated from the American sports world at large.

American soccer is a bubble. It is a shrinking bubble, but it is a bubble nonetheless.

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Written by Will Parchman

deltas

In 2016, the LA Galaxy traveled more than 38,000 miles to their 17 MLS road games. Taken in context of the wider sports landscape, the figure was stunning. Setting aside that the number was many times larger than the requirements of any soccer league in the world, it dwarfed many American teams as well. It was more than all but eight Major League Baseball teams, who are privy to a 162-game season. Three others – Houston, Seattle and Vancouver – barely crested 40,000.

The 2017 SF Deltas laugh – and perhaps cry – at the paucity of the figure.

The San Francisco Deltas are the NASL’s newest franchise, a lone figure walking into a burning building. The NASL shuddered at its foundations in 2016, losing five teams to MLS, the USL and closure as well as sole ownership of its Division II status alongside the faster-rising USL. The Deltas are the only fresh face in the league in 2017 (North Carolina FC is essentially just replacing the RailHawks), and they’re also the first NASL team planted on the American West Coast in the modern league’s history.

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The weight in Bob Bradley

Written by Will Parchman

bradley

Coaching is a strange profession. At its core it is a visceral, overheated space between failures. There are not so many jobs in the world where your job clock ticks down and not up, but here we are. Where your job would allow redemption, coaches must find it in other boardrooms and bosses.

This was Bob Bradley’s story at Swansea. Following 85 volatile days in Wales in 2016, it was the second time he’d been fired as a professional coach, the other being the 2011 ouster that led to Jurgen Klinsmann’s red carpet into the USMNT organization. The inner sanctum of Bradley’s thoughts are protected by high walls, and the core of his thought process plunges downward like a well. It has always been hard to peel back the measurement in Bradley’s tenor and get to the beating, raw, bloody core of the matter.

This is precisely why Bradley’s Wednesday entry in The Players’ Tribune – I Am An American Coach – is so other-than. It is a rare emotional glimpse inside the machinery, and in many ways it is heartbreaking.

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Written by Will Parchman

a.espncdn.com

For a long time there’s been a commonly held notion that at least as far as soccer fans were concerned, the U.S. viewership pool is something like a bottomless well. Nobody was quite sure how deep it went, considering the rising tide of the game’s popularity here. It always sort of felt like the tech boom of the late 90′s. The growth was sustainable until it wasn’t.

There is some truth to this, but the uncomfortable elephant in the corner is that the market is beginning to stabilize, even if that stability is encased in steady year-over-year growth. And Mexico’s Liga MX emerged from the ratings duststorm of the last 10 years – a decade that witnessed the growth of astronomical TV deals and improvised digital offerings – as the unquestioned King Under The American Mountain.

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Written by Will Parchman

jesus

Jesus Ferreira goal videos are becoming something of a running theme ’round these parts.

Back in December, not long before I tabbed him as FC Dallas’s best up-and-coming prospect, Ferreira did a fairly crazy thing at the Development Academy’s winter showcase in Florida with FCD’s U18s. During the preamble to a free kick, the New York Red Bulls let left their drawbridge open and unguarded, and Ferreira walked right inside the gates. The goal was an object lesson in chicanery.

Ferreira’s at it again, this time on the senior level.

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Written by Will Parchman

zetuna

The diaspora among young American soccer players is real. The machinery of the modern game practically lit beacon flares alongside the roads outward, to places as close as Mexico and far-flung as Mongolia. It has never been easier.

This is modernity, an ever shrinking series of concentric circles that burns off fog and makes geography more of a toy than an impediment. That soccer players, and Americans in particular, have increasingly flocked to foreign development systems is perhaps then not so much of a surprise. It’s more of a modern story than everything else. The interconnected world played out on a green field.

This is Yousuf Zetuna’s story, anyway.

Zetuna’s family moved from Iraq to Michigan when he was 6, and by the time he was a teenage he was deeply involved with local youth club Vardar. Thanks to a connection with his uncle in Oaxaca, Mexico, Zetuna left Michigan last summer for a fly-by-night trial with Ascenso MX club Alebrijes in the Mexican second division. The club, hewed from the failed ashes of another local club in 2012, has generally hovered around mid-table on the second rung of the Mexican ladder for the breadth of its existence.

Zetuna’s story represents one of those multiplying unknown tales shoved in the back of the lengthening tome chronicling Americans Abroad. For every Brooks Lennon and Christian Pulisic, there are 20 Zetunas toiling in obscurity in small clubs around the world, desperately banging on the first team door in environments one could hardly consider palatial. This is the road, paved with necks craning to sleep on bunched up sweatshirts during bus trips and imperial performances to the echoes of empty stadiums and conversations in languages you barely understand.

Zetuna, who traveled to the trial with his younger brother Yohan, impressed. They both did. Alebrijes opted to take both on what’s essentially become an extended trial the club plans on finalizing when the paperwork arrives. Zetuna, who turns 18 in March, is still awaiting is work visa and can’t officially join the first team for competitive matches until then. He expects that to arrive soon, which would precipitate his joining the first team for next season.

In the meantime, Zetuna is training with the first team and plays in friendlies (in which he’s appeared in five) and in preseason camps. The club’s been impressed with Zetuna, who’s biding his time until first team minutes arrive.

“We decided to take the chance and come here because for it has been our dream ever since we were extremely young to play soccer professionally especially at a this young age,” Zetuna told me. “This golden opportunity for us was just impossible to reject.”

Zetuna, a skilled forward with a knife-edge instinct around the box, has been impressed with the level. In more than one instance, he’s had to take a moment to appreciate the journey.

“The level of soccer is very good and different from the way soccer is played in the USA,” Zetuna said. “The environment is very professional and players are amazing. They play at a technical and tactical level I had never seen in the USA. Here the player’s technical ability and movement in the field is much more important than anything else.”

Zetuna’s tale is both unique and more broadly emblematic of the challenging yet rewarding American experience abroad. As an Iraqi-born Michigan native, it’s unlikely he could have even stepped foot in the country during the brief, explosive and divisive roll-out of Donald Trump’s swift travel ban three weeks ago. While that legal battle plays out in the public purview, Zetuna and his brother are criss-crossing Mexico in an effort to break into professional soccer.

This is the heart of the experience for the majority of young Americans abroad – a tooth-and-nail battle for playing time, respect, bigger things. And if Zetuna’s journey ultimately leads him there, he’ll have a dusty stint in the heart of Mexico to thank.

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Written by Will Parchman

james sands

The Homegrown Watch at NYCFC was notably delayed by the club’s decision to take a more methodical approach with its academy roll-out. NYCFC didn’t even announce its own academy until a month prior to the senior team’s MLS debut in March 2015. It finally joined the Development Academy in August 2015 – albeit at just the U14 level – well after the first team began playing its own MLS games.

Contrast this with Atlanta United’s approach, for instance, and you can understand why, entering its third MLS season, NYCFC has yet to sign a Homegrown and Atlanta United already has three. In lieu of Homegrowns, NYCFC’s basically dumped bags of allocation money on young draft picks. After dropping an unknown amount of cash to trade up to No. 1 to grab Jack Harrison in 2016 (it was probably a lot), NYCFC spent $325,000 in allocation to secure Jonathan Lewis and Kwame Awuah in a pair of draft-day trades.

Judging by Patrick Vieira’s recent statements, both in the press and on the field, the age of the NYCFC Homegrown could be rapidly approaching.

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Written by Will Parchman

rgv

They just call it the valley.

The Rio Grande Valley isn’t a true valley, in the strictest sense of the world. It’s technically a floodplain, nearly 1,900 square miles of oxbow lakes and mangroves and Jerusalem thorns situated at the southernmost tip of Texas all spilling out of the coffee-and-cream Rio Grande. It is hot here, seemingly always, and the children play in the resacas and the meanders and ride across the bridges to the interconnected islands.

Two of the five most Hispanic cities in the United States by percentage are in the Rio Grande Valley, and a third is miles up the waterway toward El Paso. It is an uncommon place in these days of Trump, as life plays out in the hypothetical shadow of a wall. Some immigrants who passed over the nearby border into the valley wait and pray. Others stake Trump signs into their lawns.

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