Building Foundations: Growing Grassroots Football in the United States

Building Foundations: Growing Grassroots Football in the United States

Featured in the Raumdeuter Online Magazine – Edition #14

Soccer in the United States is an ever-growing sport, but it remains a long way behind the likes of American football and basketball in terms of history, infrastructure and progression.

Unlike the aforementioned sports, where the United States have a long, proud tradition of being at the forefront, and dominating on a global stage, soccer has long been playing catch up. Facing up against Europe, which has had a long-established and thorough footballing pedigree from the top to the very bottom of its football pyramid, the USA has sought to catch up and speed through years of crucial development, and is paying the price for it.

Continue reading “Building Foundations: Growing Grassroots Football in the United States”

Curacao goalkeeper Jairzinho Pieter dies in team hotel ahead of Haiti match

Curacao goalkeeper Jairzinho Pieter dies in team hotel ahead of Haiti match

Featured in the Raumdeuter Online Magazine – Edition #15

Curacao goalkeeper Jairzinho Pieter, a 31-year-old international from the island’s capital Willemstad, died after suffering a heart attack the night before his country’s international match with Haiti.

Haiti’s sports minister, Edwin Charles, confirmed Pieter passed away in the Curacao team hotel on Monday, after falling ill and suffering a cardiac arrest.

Continue reading “Curacao goalkeeper Jairzinho Pieter dies in team hotel ahead of Haiti match”

As a football traditionalist, the teams in Canada’s new Premier League are frustrating

As a football traditionalist, the teams in Canada’s new Premier League are frustrating

From late April this year, Canada will be kicking off its inaugural Canadian Premier League – a new top-division competition to help improve football in the country.

Even with an initial roster of just seven teams it’s a great concept. However, the football traditionalist in me has one huge issue with the new league system.

The names of the teams.

Now yes, I realise how pedantic and ridiculous that sounds, but it for whatever reason genuinely gripes me.

I’m a huge fan of football teams’ names being tied geographically to a particular town or city that they represent. It gives them a real identity and are easily recognisable as a feature of that place.

The teams competing in the inaugural 2019 Canadian Premier League are as follows; Cavalry FC, FC Edmonton, Forge FC, HFX Wanderers FC, Pacific FC, Valour FC and York 9 FC.

Only FC Edmonton retain a name that actually features the name of the place in which they play. It is the only traditional-style club name present in the league, and it just gives the whole tournament too much of an element of Sunday league in my opinion.

Yes, technically, HFX Wanderers have their place of origin – Halifax – in their name too, but why on Earth did it need shortened like that? What is wrong with simply calling themselves Halifax Wanderers, like clubs anywhere else in the world would?

As for the others, I get that there are meanings behind some of them. York 9 for example is named as such because it represents the nine municipalities that make up the York Region in Toronto; but don’t stick numbers at the end of your club name unless it’s the year you’re founded. It just screams amateur football – not a serious, professional club.

The rest – Valour, Forge, Cavalry and Pacific – are the same. These are clubs representing Winnipeg, Hamilton, Calgary and Langford respectively, but you’d have no way of knowing that from just the club name.

They don’t present a clear connection to their local area, and so again feel just like a cool name thought up for your local five-a-side team, rather than a professional football club with genuine ambitions.

Obviously, with no games yet played in the league, we can’t say how competitive each team will be with each other, but at least one of the seven sides will be playing in the CONCACAF Champions League. Due to the way it’s being set up, there’s a real chance if Valour or Forge outperform FC Edmonton in the spring season, they will be in the 2019 edition of the North American Champions League.

It all just comes across a little bit odd. For such a slick and promising-looking step forwards for Canadian football, it seems to have missed a step through the naming of the clubs involved.

Given only the club roster list and no more information, there’s a good chance more people would think it the local Sunday league division rather than a top-level division with continental qualification.

Is the MLS’ Designated Player Rule hurting US football, and is it time for a rethink?

Is the MLS’ Designated Player Rule hurting US football, and is it time for a rethink?

Atlanta United, fresh off the back of their 2018 MLS Cup win, announced the signing of highly-rated Argentine midfielder Pity Martinez. Normally, that kind of signing would be a coup for American clubs, but it has left Atlanta in an awkward position – they are now forced to sell or loan out one of their other top talents.

That is because of the MLS’ Designated Player Rule – or the Beckham Rule, as it’s sometimes known.

The rule was brought in as part of the salary cap regulations introduced for the 2007 MLS season. It allowed franchises to sign up to three players which they could declare as Designated Players.

These players were exempt from counting towards their team’s strict salary cap – with the idea being that MLS sides could therefore attract star players within the international football market by offering the player higher wages, or by paying a transfer fee for the player.

That system has found success too, with the MLS having had many prominent names grace its pitches since the rule was introduced.

Granted, a large number of these players – particularly those who already had a name for themselves in Europe – were coming towards the twilight years of their careers, but they still possessed top technical abilities that they could help pass on to the rest of the league. Their involvement actively pushed the level of competition in the MLS.

There is no question that the level of football and the quality of players in the MLS is at the highest it has ever seen.

Yes, it’s not quite the same as the top European leagues, but its come on leaps and bounds. There is real talent to be found across the pond now, and a real excitement around their football – and as far as I see it, there is no question the Designated Player Rule helped contribute to creating that environment.

One of the strongest elements MLS football has going for it is that pretty much any franchise, with a good season and a few smart signings, can do well and potentially win the competition. There isn’t really an established elite, and that is largely because of the salary cap.

It has prevented franchises with significant owners from simply bankrolling sides to the MLS Cup. Yes, some teams have more financial strength and typically do better in the league, but they’re not worlds apart.

Think of the difference in class between say a newly promoted Premier League side and Manchester City. It’s a huge gulf in skill, facilities and money.

The MLS sides, even the best against the worst, have a much smaller difference. And that is largely due to the strict financial regulations. The ability to only sign a maximum of three players without a monetary limit stops teams from being out of reach. That was perfect as the league was finding its feet, and developing talent from within.

However, now that it has become somewhat more established and the quality on display is much greater, it may no longer be the perfect system.

There is certainly an argument for keeping the strict financial limitations in place, to preserve this closeness between all the franchises, but the Designated Player Rule in particular will forever limit the league from progressing much further.

Right now, the MLS has reached its peak of quality under the current system, and so does that not say its time for a change?

Atlanta United are the perfect example. They burst onto the scene, playing a brilliant style of football and brought in Designated Players who were not older, highly-paid players winding down their players. Instead, they plucked names from arguably smaller sides and leagues – Miguel Almiron came from Argentine side Lanus, while Josef Martinez did join from Serie A side Torino, but previously to that had been playing in Switzerland.

These were not established household names. They were remarkable talents, but known only really to the truly devout football fanatics. But Atlanta took a gamble on them, and boy did it pay off.

Their style of play was eye-catching and fast-flowing; the perfect advertisement for what MLS football could be. It was great to watch, and it helped them take the league by storm – lifting their first MLS Cup just four years after the club was founded.

Now, they’re looking to push on further and tackle North America through the CONCACAF Champions League and improve their squad even further. Bringing in Pity Martinez will do that, but as said, its also caused The Five Stripes, as they’re affectionately called, to come crashing headfirst into the brick wall that is the MLS’ limitations.

They will be unable to play all four of their best-rated players next season – having exceeded the three player limit for Designated Players. They’re being told that they must get rid of one of the players who have the quality to make that difference and take the club to the next level

Two options have emerged as solutions to the plan, but neither actively helps Atlanta. First, and most likely, is to sell highly-rated Paraguayan midfielder Almiron.

The attacking midfielder is sought after by several European clubs, with most significant interest coming from English side Newcastle United and Spain’s Real Betis. Atlanta had been holding out against the move, unhappy at Newcastle’s previous offers, but now may be forced to take the cash.

New signing Martinez also plays in a similar position to Almiron, which will only ever so slightly soften the blow.

The other option is to send young 19-year-old star Ezequiel Barco out on loan. The Argentine youngster is Atlanta’s other Designated Player and the one who featured the least last season, but he’s very much seen as a real star of the future for Atlanta.

No matter the option the American side choose, they’ll be weaker than they would have been had they been able to keep all four star players. And there really is little reason not to let them have all four.

Now, I don’t necessarily think the MLS should immediately scrap the Designated Player Rule. I think that would see a small number of the clubs suddenly pump funds in and try to buy league success – quite similar to what occurred in China’s domestic league.

In the long term, given the quality level the MLS has now reached, I do think the rule needs to be let go, or else it will get no better, but I feel that it should be a gradual change.

For now, the perfect solution would be an increase in the number of Designated Players allowed. An increase to five perhaps, maybe in a few seasons then it could either be pushed up again or looked at being fully repealed, but certainly it needs increased right now.

Yes, there are loopholes around making players Designated Players using allocation money, but those are fiddly and don’t fit in a lot of situations. Largely, the rule that once served to increase competitiveness and keep relative parity among the teams as the league developed is now in fact strangling any further development.

It served it’s purpose, and it served it very well when the league was growing, but now its reaching its maturity it’s time to start loosening the stabilisers. Teams have to be allowed to develop further, have their shackles loosened a little more, if the US truly wants to compete on a global level in football.

That starts first and foremost with the Designated Player Rule.

Football’s ‘cantera’ policy: The last bastions of homegrown talent?

Football’s ‘cantera’ policy: The last bastions of homegrown talent?

The modern game has become a truly international spectacle, especially at the highest levels, with top teams featuring the best athletes from across the globe. Some sides may field full teams that do not feature any players of the nationality of their home country.

However, that’s not the case for all teams.

Across the world’s top divisions, there are a very small handful of clubs actively combating this move away from homegrown, domestic talent. They have chosen to impose voluntary restrictions on the players they can field and sign.

Three in particular have imposed this focus on homegrown talent through their ‘cantera’ policies, preventing the clubs from signing or fielding players who do not meet the self-imposed criteria. These restrictions are not written rules, but rather choices that have become so ingrained in the club’s history and tradition that they are a part of the clubs’ identities.

The most well-known of these clubs to have imposed these kind of restrictions on players is Spanish side Athletic Bilbao.

Since 1912, the side from northern Spain have adhered to an unwritten rule of only signing players with some kind of connection to the Basque region – the semi-autonomous region of Spain where Athletic Bilbao are based. Despite the policy not being included in the Athletic Bilbao handbook, the restriction has become a deeply ingrained part of the club’s tradition and identity, and continues to this day.

The club’s motto for the cantera policy is “Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación” which loosely translates to “with home-grown talent and local support, you don’t need foreigners” in English.

It is a policy not without controversy and unfortunate consequences – such as Athletic Bilbao having not fielded a black footballer until 2011 – but has also been praised for the work it does in helping develop local talent.

In principal, all players to wear Athletic Bilbao’s famous red and white shirt should have either been born in the Basque country, have strong familial links to the region or have “learned their football skills at a Basque club”. While the Spanish top division side has been criticised by fans of stretching that last definition at times, the club has always largely stuck to the signing policy, giving the team a clear identity and helping train the region’s young prospective stars.

However, while maybe best known, Athletic Bilbao aren’t the only club to have implemented such a system.

CD Guadalajara, or Chivas as they’re commonly known, are a Mexican first division side who similarly adhere to a self-imposed restrictive policy when it comes to their players.

The club has a policy of fielding exclusively Mexican footballers – the only top-flight team to do so in the North American country – and spends much of its time developing homegrown talent. Many internationally-successful Mexican footballers, including Omar Bravo, Javier Hernandez and Carlos Vela, all began their careers at Chivas.

In Ecuador, CD El Nacional are also noteworthy for having a tradition of only ever fielding Ecuadorian players, since the club’s inception back in 1954.

All three clubs have taken significant, and drastic, steps to help develop homegrown talent, but they have been successful along the way too. Both Athletic Bilbao and Chivas were founding members of their respective countries’ top-flight divisions. Neither have ever been relegated.

Bilbao are joined by just Real Madrid and Barcelona in being the three sides ever-present in La Liga, and while the club are not necessarily competing at the same level each season as those top two sides they have won the Spanish top flight eight times since 1929 (the fourth most times of any club), and the Copa del Rey a remarkable 23 or 24 times – with the official number disputed – which is second to only Barcelona.

Chivas are no less impressive, either. As one of only two Mexican sides never relegated from the top division, alongside their rivals Club America, they have lifted the trophy 12 times and are one of Mexico’s most successful clubs.

Even El Nacional have had a remarkable history, having won the Ecuadorian top flight 13 times (one less than the top club) and having represented their country in the South American Copa Libertadores competition 22 times – more than any other club in Ecuador.

Clearly, there is some success to be found in cantera policies, and while its not a policy that would suit every club or every fanbase, the existence of these clubs is a welcome and important reminder to the modern game not to forget about the homegrown talent that is available all around major clubs.

Athletic Bilbao, Chivas and El Nacional have all taken extreme methods to ensure they spend the time and resources developing those youngsters, but they are a testament to other clubs just what success you can have when you do just that.

Especially in a modern game ruled by astronomical transfer fees, much can be said for shifting perspective and focusing some of those funds into a club’s academy and development programmes.