Some people say that I live, breath and drink the game of soccer, and to those people, you are very correct. I have a passion for the game that I want to share and instill into people that I come across, especially younger players. I want these young aspiring athletes to respect the game and all of those that are involved within it. With this I hope that the more they play, the more they gain a thirst that cannot be quenched.
This past Christmas will go down as the best one I have ever spent. I was fortunate enough to go back home to England with my son, Owen and girlfriend to spend the holidays with family and friends. It was great seeing my parents and friends tell my girlfriend about me as a child and how I grew up just wanting to be involved with football. I was fortunate enough to have made a career in the world’s best sport on both sides of the Atlantic and I am still blessed that I can keep giving back.
The highlight of the trip was being able to take Owen to see my (and now his) beloved Liverpool(Red’s) play at Anfield. The result might not have been great but it will be an experience that will forever be etched in my memory. He cheered, jumped up and down as his football hero’s Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez played on the hallow turf. Since then, trying to explain the whole Suarez racism incident with a six year old has been complex, but it made me realize even more how much of an influence the professional players can have on the life’s of fans and young children. I remember idolizing players as a kid and as I attempted to understand the Scouser’s with their broad accents during our half-time conversations, you could see their passion for the club going as far back as the great Bill Shankly and how they really do live for the game.
As the final whistle blew at Anfield, disappointment set in as the Reds only managed a 1-1 draw against struggling Blackburn Rovers. So we trudged through the crowds to the club shop to purchase some souvenirs. However, the highlight of my day was still to occur. As we were walking back to the car loaded with bags, we noticed the players leaving the ground and Owen stood there in awe of Martin Kelly as he attempted to hold a two minute conversation with him, shaking his hand the whole entire time.
These are memories that I will never forget and as I start to read the Bill Shankly Autobiography, I keep trying to fit the American game (square peg) into the lifestyle that is lived and played in other countries (round hole). For the past decade we have been looking to improve the style of the game, the fan base and the professional leagues, but even as I watch events unfold at the NSCAA convention including the MLS Draft I can’t help but feel we are still quite a bit off.
Over the past 10 years, the MLS has come a long way and it is great watching fans in stadiums creating atmospheres like they do in Portland and Seattle. I can see change happening and the league gaining more strength, I hope one day we do have the players being idolized like Gerrard and Suarez but before all of that occurs we have to make it free for the elite players to play and give them opportunities to test themselves in elite environments.
The MLS may be growing and people starting to follow the game, but I never see fans for any of the sports in the US having the same passion that they do for their clubs in England, Spain, Argentina and other nations where they simply live for the weekend. Prior to my trip back home I was instructing a USSF "D" License in Northern KY and as I sat eating my breakfast in the hotel lobby I watched fans from the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Stealers shared tables and discussed plays for that afternoons NFL game. I thought, " this would never occur in any other country", but as civilized as it was I missed seeing the fans who whole heartedly feel like they are kicking the ball with their hero’s throughout the 90 minutes.
Now I am not a big reader of books but I do like reading the trials and tribulations of professional players through their autobiographies (IE Bill Shankley Autobiography). Many of you know the first chapter always starts about how they started playing and how much of an inspiration their parents were in their life. Some may say we have and advantage in this country because we offer programs that start for children as young as 4 years old. The difference is that it costs to play and it’s organized in the United States where as in other countries it is free (both in cost and free from coaching, organization, and structure.)
Overseas, everyone can play and emulate their hero’s, and with everyone playing the pool becomes bigger for the elite clubs to pick from. They learn how to work for it, but here most kids have everything handed to them. I will never tell a parent on how they should parent their own child (I have my own son to deal with) but I will always look back and gain inspiration from my own parents. They made me work for things in life including the opportunity to play football; It’s only now that I am older I can turn around and see how much of a help my parents were. In the United States we criticize them for being over bearing, however if we are going to insist on charging kids to play we need the parents and they will forever feel like they have a right to voice their opinion.
Owen with my parents prior to a Liverpool match at Anfield
I always tell the kids to thank their parents for what they do, even now I would like to thank mine for driving me all around England when I was growing up so that I could kick the ball around. My biggest gratitude to them is for giving me some tough lessons when I made mistakes on the field. They may have been upset with me on occasions but I learned that if I created the problem, I had to solve it. However I know that I could have never played had we been forced to pay over $600 for 12 weeks of soccer. I guess we have to be thankful that some organizations are working out ideas to make the game free.
As those organizations grow it may have a counter reaction to the professional leagues because they are feeding the colligiate game. NFL, NBA and MLB need college sports but does Major League Soccer? I just watched the draft and saw young men aged 21-22 years old about to embark on a professional career, if you have not made it a another league somewhere in the world by this age you chances of ever making it become very slim. Some people may say the Premier League is detrimental to the growth of the English National team, is college soccer hurting the growth of the US National Team and Professional Leagues?
Many of you may have seen the opinions of Fox Soccer analyst and Former US Men’s National Team player, Eric Wynalda at the NSCAA convention and he does have some great opinions on how the game needs to change. What frustrates me is how so many people can sit around and pick the game apart and tell us what we are doing wrong, but how many people are willing to try to change it.
I may never have the opportunity to affect some of the major issues on a national level to have an impact, but I do know that every child I work with, I will try and install a love for the game, respect all that are involved in it (including their parents) and give them the best opportunity to accomplish the goals that they want to reach. And hopefully help them find a Hero or two along the way!!