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The Big Pitcher – Project Projection

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

One of the toughest things to do as a soccer watcher is to project. How will a player performing well on Field A for Team 1 will do if placed on Field B and Team 2?

Even the people who are paid to make these judgments at the highest levels have a far from sterling success rate. For us amateurs, it can feel like the height of foolishness even to guess whether the way-better-than-everyone-on-the-field girl at pickup is former-Division-1 or former-Division-III good, much less whether someone who’s scoring consistently in MLS will be able to repeat the feat for the U.S. team or in the Premier Bundesligue A.  

So then it’s a little satisfying to see a pair of players we had pegged for success three tiers down move on to MLS and do pretty well in their first two months in the league. Those of us who live in Austin got to see two of the young season’s promising rookies, Dillon Powers and Kekuta Manneh.

It didn’t take the Football Manager database to figure that out those two had futures at a higher level, not when they were the two best players on the field every time they stepped on it. (The Aztex had a third player drafted in the first round, Blake Smith at number 8 to the Impact. I get Smith’s strengths, but given the choice I would have taken Powers and ran with him, positional needs be damned.) We’ve covered their influence on the Aztex here before

Last year I saw Manneh do this in Houston live, mere minutes after he stepped onto the field for the first time and just hours after he actually joined the team. It was like those teams who show up for the finals of a rec league season with that one guy who hasn’t been to any of the previous games. And that guy starts juggling as he jogs around the field to warm up. Manneh Manneh indeed.

With Manneh and Powers it may have been easy, but this projection is supposedly one of our weak points as a soccer-culture. As the narrative goes, we see kids who are bigger, stronger or faster than everyone they’re competing against and decide they could probably cut it at the next level, while Lil Messi and Xavi Jr. …sorry… while Young Schweinsteiger and Mini-Reus are left picking up the discarded Capri Sun husks. (I sense a wonderful Muppet Babies/JL8-esque web show coming on.)

Those physical gifts obviously help when making the jump. Manneh demonstrated with his assist Saturday that being significantly faster than your opponent is an advantage no matter how old you are. Similarly Kei Kamara, who’s off doing his best Iron Fist impression with Norwich City, has discovered that just because the Premier League is the “Best League in the World” (© 2008) doesn’t mean the defenders can jump any higher than they do in MLS. On the other hand, ask Brad Davis, or even Omar Gonzalez for a while there, about what it’s like to be too slow for international play. The technical skills that come with constant (and year-round) practice at a higher level are slowly learned, but speed kills on day one.

You’ve likely heard all the reasons our system has trouble picking out these gems: inexperienced coaching at the youngest ages, overemphasis on winning rather than player development, poor playing surfaces hampering touch, close control and passing. Because of that difficulty we seem to be trying option B: Teach everyone the technical stuff, and then siphon off the ones who picked it up and are still strong and fast. That’s what newly triumphant Germany appears to have done. Young Schweinsteiger (It’s pronounced Schweinst-ee-ger) would be playing forward and goalie and probably point guard and quarterback long after his more diminutive Spanish counterparts had been relegated to the number eight shirt on the Chess Club.

We do need to do more to find and polish those less-obvious gems, but for now it’s a strategy that makes sense for American soccer. If you’ve traditionally produced athletes, then why not take those known commodities and try to make them better rather than reaching for a kind of player we may not even be able to find?

The Austin Aztex begin their second PDL season next weekend in Oklahoma City. I have no idea how many future first round picks we’ll find on the field here this season, but I’m looking forward to trying to figure it out.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for “The Other 87 Minutes”, their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of “the Tuesday 10” or the “Tuesday XI”. While attending Emory University he won “College Jeopardy”

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, Major League Soccer

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