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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The lower tiers of American soccer are an overgrown jungle with a dense canopy that more or less repels light as an evolutionary trait. And until recently, that too included the USL.
The PDL, for instance, is technically the fourth “tier” on the American soccer “pyramid,” which is less a pyramid below MLS as it is a frantic sea of thrown elbows and confused looks. “Fourth tier” would imply it’s hooked into the system somehow, and the PDL more or less floats on its own cloud. It is part of the same sky as MLS and the USL and NASL, but it is distinct within it.
Perhaps the PDL’s most obvious utility is as a heat lamp for college players languishing in a comically long offseason that drags, for most teams, through eight entire months. The PDL season (there are 75 teams) runs May through August, and most every elite college program encourages its players to play in the PDL to keep the edges sharp. In fact, North Carolina coach Carlos Somoano told me as much earlier this month.
Minnesota United took its time. It ultimately eschewed the approach Atlanta United took with its academy system and hewed more closely to NYCFC’s tack. But either way, Minnesota United is now officially on the Development Academy radar.
Christian Pulisic’s formal arrival at BVB fueled a sort of revival in American interest in its prospects in Europe. After a trough period following a spasm of soccer-playing expats in the 00′s, the question today is not so much whether a young American can break into a European first team. It’s merely a matter of when.
And so the wheel spins on which player is next off the conveyor belt and onto the first team roster. And though he’s hardly been the most widely talked about American abroad, the next major breakthrough hit could be a Lennon in Liverpool.