Coaching, coaches … and me 01/13/2021 – Soccer America

Chess Puzzles

To be given an award -- to be thus honored -- is a satisfying experience. Dont let anyone tell you its not a nice feeling to be appreciated. Hence my sincere thanks to the United Soccer Coaches for handing me their new award -- their Media Career of Excellence award.

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The award pleases me while, at the same time, it puzzles me. I mean, over the past three or four decades Ive been a pretty persistent critic of modern coaching methods. But the United Soccer Coaches have evidently managed to look beyond the criticism and to find some merit in my musings.

Its not easy to do that, to publicly make a truly generous gesture, to openly praise your critics. I am grateful to United Soccer Coaches for making the difficult move - not least because it implies that they are aware that my problem has always been with the mechanics of coaching, rather than with the activities of individual coaches.

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Some 20 years ago, in the introduction to my book SoccerTalk, I identified the sort of coach I did not like -- the coach who turns soccer into a kind of chess game, who always emphasizes defense, who is full of theories and plans and charts and diagrams and set plays. I called him a Koach.

I named no names. It was the structure of Koaching that I was objecting to, the deliberate programming that suffocated the spontaneity and the creativity that I felt (and still do feel) were vital to the health of the sport.

In fact, I quickly learned that the koach, as an individual, barely even existed -- an odd situation that was brought home to me shortly after I had written a column critical of koaches. I was at a tournament, when I saw a coach heading purposefully in my direction. Exactly the type of koach I had criticized in my column.

I prepared myself for a hostile confrontation. The koach came up to me, stuck out his hand, and with the broadest of smiles, said Great article, Paul. No way did he see himself as a koach.

We discussed various issues I had raised, and agreed on all of them. Which pleased me, as I genuinely liked the guy. As an individual, as a coach. But not as a koach. I find I have not used - have evidently not felt the need to use - the word koach for some years now. Im hoping that means he is a dying species.

That makes sense, of course. At that time -- it would have been in the 1980s I think -- the topic of overcoaching was much discussed and much condemned. But no one ever admitted to overcoaching, certainly never claimed he did it. The uglier side of coaching -- if it exists -- is what the other guys do.

When you hang around the sport of soccer - this is probably true of any sport - the group you most frequently mix with are the coaches. This I have duly done and this is the time for me to hand out my own wee awards to a variety of coaches who I have known, admired and treasured as friends. Here are a number of them, in no particular order. The list could be much longer -- I offer groveling apologies to those Ive left out.

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The late Harry Keough was a lovely man who led his St. Louis University team to massive success in college soccer. I was suspicious of that success because I doubted the merits of the college game. Harry and I talked a lot, did a lot of disagreeing. But also a lot of laughing. Soccer discussions with Harry were always soccer with a smile. I did a lot of learning, too - about college soccer, about St. Louis, about young American players. Harry was about as low key as you can get. He was never boastful about his teams record, was always gracious to opponents. I never particularly liked the way his teams played, but I loved the man - a top line soccer coach and a through-and-through gentleman.

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Manny Schellscheidt was something of a problem for me. The recipient of the USAs very first A-license for coaching, something that smacked of koaching to me. And conversations with Manny - there were many of those - tended to be long and increasingly technical. Id be deceiving myself if I told you I never learned anything from Mannys koaching conversations. I learned a lot, but it was always the little gems of traditional wisdom that shone through. Perhaps they shone all the more brightly against the surrounding coachtalk.

Yes, there was something of the koach in Manny, but did it matter? I think not. What did matter was that Mannys teams - Im thinking particularly of his Union Lancers - played delightful soccer. Whatever Manny was putting into practice, it was not soccer-as-chess. I think I can thank Manny for forcing me to realize that I really didnt give a damn what schemes and systems a coach employed. What mattered to me was the end product, the soccer I saw on the field. With Manny, the soccer was always worth watching.

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Obviously, there will be sharp differences of opinion about what sort of soccer is worth watching. My taste, by no means a secret, is for the skill-oriented Latin American game. Which gives Arnie Ramirez, longtime coach at New Yorks Long Island University, a special place in my soccer heart. Arnie insisted on a Latin style. He recruited mostly Latino players, but always had non-Latinos too - though they had to be skillful ball-players. I was lucky -- there, in Brooklyn, almost on my doorstep, I had a genuine -- and very good -- Latin team to watch. Amazingly, this was a Division 1 college team - the only one that played Latin soccer. The ever-cheerful Arnie always bubbled with enthusiasm, ever-ready to discuss the intricacies and the secrets (well, I saw them as secrets) of the Latin game. My appreciation of Latin soccer owes much to Arnie, not least because he was willing to put up with my execrable versions of the necessary Spanish vocabulary. Suddenly, instead of forever talking about English or German or Scottish teams, I was learning about Boca Juniors and Santos. I was learning how much more was out there, waiting for me to discover it.

My travels with Arnie Ramirez included annual trips to the United Soccer Coaches' Convention.

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I had decided, very early in my soccer-journalism days (which didnt begin until my 37th year), that I would try to cover not only the pro game, but the youth game was well. I needed help, and I got it big-time from Ben Boehm, the resident youth-soccer genius at New Yorks Blau Weiss Gottschee club. Ben came up to me at the end of an indoor tournament. We were all on our way out of the gymnasium, and Ben had overheard a remark of mine criticizing the team that, I think, had just won the tournament. Too many right-angles, I had protested. I barely recall making the remark, but Ben heard it, liked it, and proceeded to tell me what I had really meant when using it. Well, yes, Ben, and yes again, and yes, yes -- how convincing and intelligent the man could be, making me sound much cleverer than I was. Ben knew soccer, the inner workings of the game, and he knew boys and what made them tick. It was -- and it remains - sheer joy for me to listen to Ben describing how young boys should be coached (never, you understand, over-coached), and how they should not be coached. But Ben was masterly on the other face of coaching, not the how side, but the what side - he knew also exactly what should be coached and what should be avoided. I had so much to learn from this man who understood a soccer comment of mine so much better than I myself did.

College soccer continued as an irritant for me. Something that promised so much, but produced so little. I watched, eagerly, Arnie Ramirezs LIU, but not much else. Though I did see a lot of Columbia University during John Rennies years there (1973-78). While the immensely-likeable Rennie did not manage to reconcile me with college soccer, I was impressed with his knowledge of the game beyond the college scene, and with his belief that the college game, even under strict NCAA regulations, could be reshaped to move it closer to international standards. Rennie took me along with him on a number of his recruiting trips, a totally new - weird and wonderful - experience for me. Rennie knew that foreign youngsters would almost certainly be superior to Americans of the same age and, in his final year at Columbia, he recruited two very good young English players - an early move to expand the restricted boundaries of the college game. Rennie was not alone in his ideas - all thought through and well-articulated. But I was later to face the deeply saddening reality that these would-be pioneers of a more relevant college soccer would find the doorway to progress repeatedly barred to them by the NCAA.

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Then there was Lincoln Phillips. Who really did shake up college soccer with an all-black team that won the Division 1 title in 1971. The elation of that victory - the first major NCAA title won by a black college - did not last long. Complaints were made to the NCAA by ... well, shall we say, by other NCAA soccer teams ... that Howard had used illegal players. Players from the Caribbean islands. The NCAA studied its regulations, not easy to follow, and established that the accusations were true, and the 1971 title was whisked away from Howard. Phillips was devastated, both for his players and because he felt he had been lax in checking player eligibility. Maybe. But there was a nasty feeling around that the NCAA regulations would not have been so energetically enforced had it not been a black college that was on trial. Despite the NCAAs suspension of several key players, Phillips did manage to get Howard - what he called the remnants of Howard - to the semi-finals in 1972. Howard returned in 1974, to beat St Louis in the final. Phillips -- I had followed his ordeal closely -- behaved with wonderful calmness and dignity throughout the trials and tribulations.

All that, while his team of skillful and athletic players showcased a bright new style for the colleges. Lamentably, the challenge of that new approach was not taken up. The dream of college soccer as the nursery for top pro players is fainter today than it has ever been.

A reunion with Lincoln Phillips at last year's United Soccer Coaches' Convention in Baltimore.

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I have been talking about American college and youth coaches. One does not get that close to pro coaches. In 1996, as MLS got underway here was the sight of American college coaches moving into the pro ranks. I had serious doubts about that. I did not believe that coaches with no pro experience at all would ever be accepted by pro players. Whoops. Bruce Arena immediately proved me utterly wrong, Sigi Schmid and Bob Bradley followed to show that Arenas success was no fluke. Arena and Schmid I got along well with. Bradley was not so easy. We had strong disagreements, but I need to stress that I have the greatest admiration for Bradleys decision to plunge into overseas coaching. A risky venture, a brave one, which has resulted in a rather changed Bradley returning to the USA to coach a predominantly Latino team - a team that, on its day can play soccer as attractive and exciting as anything that MLS has ever seen.

Bora Milutinovic and Steve Sampson, who in the 1990s preceded Bruce Arena as U.S. national team coach.

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Among international coaches, I greatly enjoyed a number of chats with Dutchman Rinus Michels, the man who could lay claim -- but to my knowledge never did -- to having invented total soccer. A genuinely modest man with a suitably subtle sense of humor. When he was the coach of the Los Angeles Aztecs in 1979, I once asked him about his policy of playing the ball out of the back -- it didnt seem to me that he had the players who could manage that. We must try to do it, he answered, then, after a pause, adding But sometimes I am closing my eyes.

Meeting Dutch coach Rinus Michels at Giants Stadium.

I rate Argentinas Cesar Luis Menotti very highly for resisting calls to populate his 1978 team with physical players and preferring to go with smaller, more skillful men ... who justified his judgment by winning the world cup. I had a short locker room conversation -- just one -- with Brazils Tele Santana. But I rate him probably at the top of my list of favorites, for his 1982 and 1986 world cup teams. Neither of which won the trophy. You will, I hope, allow me that one example of a successful non-winning coach.

World Cup-winning coaches: With Brian Glanville I interviewed Cesar Luis Menotti in 1978 during Argentina's victory on home soil. Franz Beckenbauer's time with the Cosmos was sandwiched byWorld Cup wins as a player and coach. Carlos Alberto Parreira guided Brazil to the 1994 World Cup title in the USA.

For sure, coaching -- especially youth coaching -- should be about more than winning. But it must not be about everything. When it is spread so wide that the coach takes on a quasi-parental role ... can that be right? I dont think so. That youth coaching must involve a good deal of incidental and basic psychology seems obvious, but the keyword is incidental.

But I have had my largest disagreement and disappointment with coaches -- American coaches, that is - over their long-standing refusal to gleefully embrace the Latino game. This, mind you, in a country with a huge Hispanic population, the majority of which is already sold on the sport itself.

I do see signs of change here. MLS seems finally to have discovered that Latino playmakers can work wonders for their teams. And young American-born Hispanic players are beginning, finally, to get on to the various U.S. national teams.

But the pace of change has been painfully slow. Please guys -- can we not speed things up while we develop a style of play that accommodates, that actually welcomes, Latinos?

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Aberdeen, Scotland, the 1989 U-17 World Cup. For whatever reason, the coaches of Australia and the USA did not provide a productive interview.

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Coaching, coaches ... and me 01/13/2021 - Soccer America

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