“Yet not long after this savior had arrived, the product had proved immutable, the transfer incompatible, not so much because of the raw materials—the actual players, who were flawed but seemed capable of change—but because of the system that produced the raw materials and people who controlled the system.”
This passage is taken from Jim Yardley’s wonderful book Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing.
Brave Dragons tells the story of former Seattle Supersonics head coach Bob Weiss, who was hired by the Chinese Basketball Association’s Shanxi Brave Dragons to become the team’s head coach at the start of the 2008-2009 season. Weiss was brought in by Brave Dragons owner Boss Wang, a volatile and NBA-obsessed steel mill owner, who sought Weiss’s expertise as a means to form the Brave Dragons into an NBA style team.
As the season progresses, Weiss’s efforts to install an NBA style offense and teach progressive basketball skills (primarily individual decision making and awareness within the system) are regularly short circuited by Boss Wang’s kneejerk insistence on running the team through endless conditioning drills and demanding the team adhere to Wang’s latest backwards whims on how to be more like former and present NBA legends like Michael Jordan and Steve Nash (which always seem to boil down to being more aggressive and initiating physical contact with opponents).
Weiss is repeatedly told that his methods are inappropriate for Chinese players in large part because of the widely held belief that Chinese players are genetically inferior to players in other basketballing nations. Correspondingly, Chinese players are chosen for advancement and trained based on crude measures of physical growth potential rather than technical excellence or understanding of the game.
Boss Wang and his deputy, Liu Tie, explain to Weiss the conventional wisdom that the only way the Brave Dragons and Chinese players in general will achieve basketball superiority is by enduring intense physical exercise that will toughen them up and make them stronger.
At several points Weiss (and his tactics and philosophies) are relegated far down the line of authority while Wang and Liu Tie manage and coach the team. In lieu of Weiss’s NBA-light tactics and playing philosophy, Wang and Tie spend practice forcing the players to run until exhaustion and screaming at the players for any perceived lack of toughness or agression.
The result is predictable. During the games the Chinese players are completely lost and chaotic. The Brave Dragons rely on a revolving cast of foreign players, including former NBA player Bonzi Wells, to initiate offensive production amidst the unstructured chaos. Wells and the other foreign players are horrified at the lack of coherent philosophy and sociopathic behaviors of Boss Wang and his subordinates. Wang’s draconian methods come to a boil when he punches various players and staff members in several different incidents throughout the season.
This struggle between professional sporting intellect and deeply ingrained cultural and sporting cognitive biases should sound familiar to soccer fans and constituents in the United States. I still can’t believe my eyes when something like the opinions in this piece are published as acceptable analysis. Blah blah blah, we just don’t have the players; we have to scrap out games against WORLD SUPERPOWERS!!! (who happened to have finished last in their groups at WC 2010) like Italy and France.
Anyone who watched Caleb Porter’s U-23 team take on Mexico should feel a real hot streak of skepticism towards this “We’re the underdog and that’s just how it is” line of thinking. Our guys went at a very talented Mexico U-23 team and showed the senior team how it should be done. I have no reservations stating that we could have achieved a similar if not better result against Italy with the U-23 squad that was on the field last Wednesday against Mexico.
Altidore and Dempsey aren’t working to recover possession? Fine, bring in Gyau, Agudelo, or Adu who all showed commitment to pressuring and tracking the Mexicans all over the field. Bradley and Edu won’t close down Pirlo? Bring in Diskerud, Corona, and Morales who were right on top of the talented Mexican central midfielders when they received the ball.
It’s hard to say whether the U-23s who played against Mexico are the best American players eligible for the age group or whether the same team will be on the field during Olympic qualification. What is for sure is that none of these U-23 roster members tasted the champagne development curricula of places like Barcelona or Ajax. Many of them came up through the same dysfunctional American system that produced the core of the senior team.
The takeaway is that Porter’s philosophy and his ability to communicate to his players cuts through all the noise about the limitations of “American soccer culture” or the established player pool. The only thing stopping us from producing teams and players of high footballing quality is ourselves and our inability to see past the cognitive biases and wrongheaded “conventional wisdom” about our shortcomings as a footballing nation.
The evolution we’ve been waiting for and that Klinsmann has been describing in the future tense is happening right now with the U-23’s under Porter. Porter has successfully implemented the style and philosophy Klinsmann has identified as a goal but failed to produce. Klinsmann’s product is becoming indistinguishable from the status quo of American soccer.
Is Klinsmann’s situation a case similar to Weiss’s, where his expertise is caged by structural and systemic factors? The mediocre national team performances compared to the inspirational and progressive performance of the U-23’s suggest otherwise. While I’m sure there are some factors that Klinsmann could point to as roadblocks for implementing his philosophy and style of play (marketing pressure, agents, etc…), one of the benefits of being a national team coach is a high degree of discretion in choosing the philosophy, player pool, and technical staff. Unlike Porter, Klinsmann has failed to utilize this discretion to demonstrate a cohesive and progressive footballing product.
Unfortunately, it is beginning to appear that Klinsmann’s methods are skewed by a sense that his value is closer to a psychological guru as opposed to progressive leader. After the Italy game, Klinsmann identified the primary value of the win as a means to elevate the MNT player’s self-confidence when playing against “established” teams like Italy (Reminder: Italy took last in their Group in WC 2010) as if some adolescent lack of confidence was the real roadblock. Did the U.S. players look real confident when they were totally bunkered for the last 20 minutes or when Pirlo was dropping dime after dime over our back line and our central midfielders dropped 20 yards off of him?
What about when the U.S. beat Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup with a team consisting of many of the same players as the Italy squad? Shouldn’t that have been some sort of cathartic confidence boost for the consistency of our game to levels previously unseen?
By contrast, Porter’s post game comments identified the system that he implemented with the U-23s and praised the players’ ability to execute the tasks required to impose the system and philosophy on the opponent. Porter’s leadership is rooted in the system that he has chosen and implemented. The players are charged with executing the tasks he has communicated to them as a means to achieve collective superiority. The players’ commitment and collective buying into Porter’s philosophy was an inspirational display of the potential of U.S. Soccer. They have been chosen because of their abilities to work within the system and they did so admirably against Mexico.
Confidence isn’t gained by getting lucky every couple of years against more storied footballing nations. It comes from implementing a successful philosophy and rehearsing the system until it’s down cold. If a coach cannot initiate this by communicating a set of coherent, cohesive principles and making hard decisions to see that those principles are carried out, the cracks of incoherence and lack of a unified understanding start to show and the system starts to fall apart.