Andrew Carleton signed a Homegrown contract with Atlanta United at 15. He’s played alongside Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron at 16. And he’s now gotten the YouTube Treatment. Welcome to the bigs, my dude.
The 2015 Canadian U20 World Cup qualifying team was supposed to be different. That it was not was the continuation of a deeply troubling valley in Canadian youth national team soccer that’s continued without much substantive change through the present day.
The 2015 team entered CONCACAF World Cup qualifying in 2015 with no shortage of hyped players. Marco Bustos had already signed professionally with the Vancouver Whitecaps and was (and is) a rare attacking mind. Cyle Larin was less than two months away from embarking the single most productive rookie season in MLS history, and in fact he gave his MLS draft thank-you speech from the cloistered Canadian U20 camp in Jamaica. Sam Adekugbe, Marco Carducci, Jackson Farmer, Kianz Froese… the names stretched toward the horizon. This was, without much question, the best Canadian U20 team in living memory.
It also turned out to be the worst performance in a U20 World Cup qualifying tournament in Canadian history. C’est la vie.
As far as continental cup competitions go, the CONCACAF Champions League is still riding shotgun in the struggle bus. As a tournament, it has value as a sort of wacky collision between Central American teams nobody outside those countries ever sees, heavily supported Mexico teams and more lightly but still significantly followed MLS sides.
Personally, I can attest to the competition’s madness. In August 2015, I was in house in Seattle to witness one of the wildest games of soccer I’ve ever seen – in any venue, continent or competition. Honduran outfit Olimpia snagged a shock 1-0 lead in the fifth minute (via recently signed Houston Dynamo wide man Alberth Elis) and then retreated to its bunker for the duration. It looked as though they’d hammer Seattle out of the competition when, in the 90th minute, Erik Friberg scored an equalizer while Olimpia midfielder Rommel Quioto, who’d been booed and then responded by antagonizing the crowd for time wasting, was watching from the sideline.
In relative terms, this has been a quiet offseason for MLS. Since the Sounders dropped TFC for the iron throne in December, the league’s biggest transfer was probably Portland’s splash for Sebastian Blanco, the South American wide player who might end up being the best winger in a winger-depleted league.
Otherwise, no Kakas, no Henrys, no Gerrards, no Dempseys. The less-flash-more-substance offseason has, in a few notable ways, been the league’s best ever.
Dorian Gray, may he rest in fictional peace, can relate to San Jose’s deformities of creative impetus lo these last several years.
Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray finishes with the protagonist confronting his own depravity in the form of a grotesque, gnarled painting of himself. Throughout the novel the magically-imbued painting assumes Gray’s lesser virtues, and by its end Gray is so horrified by the result that he attempts to stab it into nonexistence. Gray, though, is ultimately stabbing at himself, and in his fit of madness he inadvertently brings about his own demise.
This has largely been the San Jose Story for the last three years. KinnearBall has never been particularly reliant on direct assists, and the 2012 Quakes were about as English as MLS is ever liable to get – all mad scrambles to second balls, boot-and-chase into the box, wildly swung headers on crosses and a lethality on free kicks that tested the bounds of credulity. But even still, the service provided to Chris Wondolowski in the last three seasons has been… shall we say… abysmal?
In 2014, the Quakes finished a 30-point season – the second-worst in the league – with a meager 22 assists. It was also second-worst in the league, exactly 40 assists behind league leaders LA Galaxy. A year later, the Quakes again finished second-bottom in the league in total assists, this time with a modest uptick to 26. They missed the playoffs again. In 2016 (I think you can see where this is headed) the Quakes, incredibly enough, finished second-worst in the league in assists again, falling back to 24 as a team throughout another season without the playoffs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.