Saturday, April 4, 2009

Advice from The Special One

Love him or hate him, you cannot ignore Jose Mourinho, because he is the proverbial moth drawn to the media spotlight. This recent FIFA International Break found the Special One in the United States as he prepared for the World Football Challenge, which will be occurring here this summer. While paving the way for Inter Milan’s first appearance in the United States in 40 years, Mourinho took some time to talk to the press about a variety of topics, including the MLS and the state of soccer in the U.S.

On the whole, it seems that Mourinho has a much more realistic view on the state of the Beautiful Game in the U.S. then a number of pundits and journalists on both sides of the Atlantic.

“I’ve been quite impressed. I lost a game with Chelsea to an MLS team, they lacked precision but showed enough quality. I think it’s good for American football when some of the boys play in Europe - and they’re playing every week in the Premiership, in the Bundesliga. Their inclusion is good for them, good for the [US] national team because then they go back to the national team and bring the experience of high level football in Europe. MLS loses without the best talent, they go down, the players go to Europe, they leave MLS, but you cannot have everything at the same time.”

Mourinho stated that he watched last year’s MLS Cup and found it to be enjoyable. He understands that one of the problems facing soccer in the US is that the sporting culture of this country revolves around baseball, American football, and basketball, and it is not easy to compete with these sports. But, the U.S. is a country built on immigrants and there are large communities in the U.S. that love soccer, and it is those communities that need to be invested in, presumably, by the MLS and US Soccer.

I agree with Mourinho that the MLS’s focus for fan growth should be on the existing soccer fans in this country, not just the immigrant communities but all of the native born who get up early on the weekends to watch the Premier League and other foreign leagues. Something Don Garber initially recognized when he took on the role of Commissioner of the MLS. Of late though, it seems that MLS on the whole has lost sight of this concept and it’s only the media and marketing savvy teams pursuing this goal. I can understand someone who has never watched soccer having no interest in the MLS, but people who follow football teams in Europe, Mexico, South America, Asia, etc., should be given a reason to go to a local MLS or USL match.

According to Mourinho, the MLS should not invest in just one big name player from Europe, like David Beckham, but rather the MLS needs to bring in two real players from Europe for each MLS team and several coaches from Europe. What’s interesting is that Mourinho initially talks about the MLS having to do this without controlled budgets or financial walls. He believes that the MLS needs to view this as an investment in its future. On first blush, it seems that Mourinho is advocating that the MLS follow the path forged by the NASL, but then he goes on to state that the players and coaches who come to the MLS need to come here with the goal of making an impact on the sport here in the U.S., of growing the game, not with the goal of making a bunch of money then going back home. To sum it up, Mourinho states: “People coming here must have the mentality of give more than receive. More worry about giving and not going home with pockets full of money.” (Don’t worry, it isn’t lost on me that Mourinho is taking a shot at Beckham too.)

I like Mourinho’s thinking, but I fear that in this world the almighty Dollar, Euro, or Pound is the driving force. Maybe, one day, there will be some players willing to come to the US for the primary purpose of growing the Beautiful Game on our shores, but I fear those players might be in the twilight of their careers, with little gas left in their tanks.

The more interesting component of Mourinho’s statement is his suggestion that the MLS bring in more coaches from Europe. I suspect Mourinho was thinking that more MLS teams should be coached by Europeans, but I would prefer it if the coaches brought in from Europe are brought here not as head coaches, but as assistants who can work with MLS players on their technical skills and soccer IQs. Instead of spending a large amount of money on bringing over head coaches, such as Mourinho, who would have too many difficulties adjusting to the financial and bureaucratic constraints on acquiring players and building a squad, the MLS would be smart to lure aware coaches/teachers from the youth academies or lower rungs of the European coaching hierarchy. These coaches could focus on developing and enhancing the skill sets of the MLS players without having to worry about the big picture issues of fielding an MLS team.

It is refreshing to see that someone with the stature of Jose Mourinho has paid attention to the MLS, can be critical without bashing the game here, and can provide serious suggestions on what can be done to grow the game in the US. Some diehard fans of the MLS might not appreciate everything Mourinho has said, but his comments should not be ignored. There is still work to be done on growing the MLS’s stature in the U.S., some of that work needs to be done by the people drawing paychecks from the MLS and some of that needs to be done by the fans of not just the MLS, but of the Beautiful Game. I really do not care if the MLS ever achieves the stature of the NFL or MLB, but I do want the league to reach a point where nobody can seriously call it a Mickey Mouse league ever again.

In the end, Mourinho stated:

“To come here - we have nothing to learn from you about our game – we have nothing to learn. But we have a lot to learn from you about sports. Not about our sport, but about sports and about sports organizations, sports investments, sports marketing, sports merchandising. We have everything to learn from you.”

Well, in exchange for teaching the rest of the world about the business of sports, let’s be willing to let them teach us about improving the product on the pitch. I think that would be a fair trade. The history of the Beautiful Game in the U.S. is long, proud, and oft forgotten. Let us not be too proud to ignore the criticism and advice from The Special One.

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