A View from Afar / Commentary

How Italian soccer’s problems highlight U.S. and Philly pro soccer’s upside

Photo: Daniel Studio

We’ve had no hot water for almost a week in my house here in Naples, Italy.

Last week, a repairman showed up to fix what had previously been a situation in which we had almost no hot water for two weeks — i.e. you could get a little bit, and then your shower went cold. He “fixed” it, and now we have no hot water at all.

The way repairs work in Italy, or at least in Naples, is like this:

First, either you fix it yourself, or you pay extra for the landlord to take care of this stuff. We chose the latter.

Once you choose that, you tell your landlord when you need repairs. He then drags his feet as long as possible until finally contacting a repairman after you apply pressure just right. The repairman then shows up — or sometimes, he doesn’t show up at all — looks at your problem, tells you he can’t fix it right then and that he’ll have to come back tomorrow. Then he’ll come back, and either he’ll fix it or he’ll tell you once again, “Ok, I need something else,” and then he’ll come back again to finally complete repairs. He gets paid for every visit. It’s a nice little racket.

Eventually, he’ll finally fix it well enough so that it functions for at least a day. Then he leaves.

Then it breaks again.

They rarely fix the underlying problem. It’s always a Band-Aid patch. Roman construction 2,000 years ago was probably superior in many ways to its modern Italian counterpart.

This summarizes a key aspect of life in Italy, and it tells you a lot about why the nation’s professional soccer league is in the situation it’s in.

  • Stadiums are old and crumbling.
  • Games are scheduled very late, often with 9 p.m. starts.
  • Ultras dominate the stands, which are often largely empty because of the poor stadium quality and sometimes violent environment.
  • Gate revenues are down.
  • Teams go bankrupt, collapse, and reform in lower divisions.
  • Financial concerns increase the fear of relegation to the point that clubs are more vulnerable to corruption, as seen with the recent Catania match-fixing scandal.
  • The television contracts are weak. To watch games, you have to pay for Sky cable. So people don’t bother, and they gather to watch in communal environments outside pubs. (Those gatherings are actually pretty awesome sometimes, mind you.)

As much love as there is for the game here, professional soccer in Italy is not doing well. The talent remains, but most clubs struggle to get by. There is little vision outside a few clubs (Juventus, Roma), an unwillingness or inability to fix the hard problems that lay beneath the surface, and a resulting sense that the future is not brighter. In fact, this largely describes Italy as a whole.

In contrast: American pro soccer

In contrast, you have pro soccer in the United States. The slow growth approach has been taken, with investment in stadiums over the last decade being a crucial development. Academies are being established. The first “home-grown” players are emerging from these academies as successful pros. Fan attendance is up. TV contracts are improving. Revenues are improving. A cycle of growth continues.

It’s all because Major League Soccer has focused on establishing and steadying the foundation on which they’re building the game.

The pressures on U.S. pro soccer clubs will never equal those in Italy and other countries like it, where soccer is basically the only pro team sport in town and relegation and the ensuing financial losses are an ever-present concern. As long as we have multiple popular pro sports in the U.S., you will never have the same proportion of die-hard fans for any one team as you will in places like Italy. In major American markets, there’s always another sport to turn your attention to when your soccer team lets you down. In Italy, there is only calcio.

I generally don’t write about my experiences here in Italy, where I moved last year, because this is a Philadelphia publication. But I’ve increasingly been thinking about the foundations of successful pro soccer clubs, including while looking at Philadelphia Union, and I also want to avoid writing the same thing every week in this column. (“The Union lost. Again. The team’s construction is flawed. So this is to be expected. But they’re still too talented to have the worst record in the league.”)

So, you have this analogy. It’s an optimistic view toward the growth of U.S. soccer and a correspondingly pessimistic view toward soccer in countries like Italy, Argentina, Brazil, Greece, and even probably Spain.

Similarly, it’s optimistic toward professional soccer’s ascension in the Philadelphia area, if the Union can correct the flaws in their foundation and bring them in line with their strengths. Their USL affiliate in Bethlehem should be a strength if they do it right. Their academy should be a strength. Their market and proximity to New York should be a strength. Their core players should be a strength if they identify the right ones (Nogueira, Marquez, Blake, etc.) and build around them smartly. And so it goes. How do they address the remaining weaknesses?

The Union may be stumbling through an extraordinarily frustrating season, but the foundation is pretty much there. The question from here on is what club leadership will do with it next.

40 Comments

  1. This is a fantastic POV, Dan. People are an impatient lot in general, but it is ramped up when discussing sports. As much as we would love MLS to be on the same financial footing as EPL, Bundesliga, La Liga, etc., Garber and his partners have been extremely intelligent and patient in the growth process. With the lessons of the old NASL, the current stewards are patiently growing the game here, and we, as fans, will be better off because of it.
    .
    Even looking at the depressing history of our beloved club, we have been playing for less than 6 years. There are plenty of prestigious clubs around the world that have 6 years (and more) of disastrous results, only to rebound in time. Newcastle has ridden incredible waves of highs and lows over time. Norwich finished 3rd in EPL in 1992, and then disappeared into the wilderness for 2 decades.
    There is a foundation, and there is hope. And as long as the league is set on this solid foundation, the talent will improve, if for no other reason than they are guaranteed to get their money here!
    .
    It would be nice to be on the trophy stand. I’m sure one day our team will be there. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the overall steady growth of the league, both in finances and respect.

  2. I respect this point of view and appreciate the analogy particularly with regard to MLS. Locally, I struggle though with the ‘homeowner’ who doesn’t call the repairman at all and leaves the disfunctioning toilet broken… this is how I feel about this Union sometimes and it is a bitter truth for me. It is very sad that we are so poor…even as the league appears to be growing and gaining respect. The Union is a laughingstock on the field and that is a clogged lue that shouldn’t be.

    • I wouldn’t say the Union are necessarily poor as it’s clear to me that the FO is foolish. Look at the NYRB and DCU. Their spending is roughly on par with the Union’s, but the results are vastly different. Throwing money at the team doesn’t make the underlying problems of mismanagement, poor coaching and development, and poor salary cap/MLS rulebook navigation disappear over night.

      • People have been quick to point to NYRB and DCU this season. But we seem to be neglecting their poor management over the past 5 years, give or take.
        If you take Henry out of the equation, NYRB would have been average, at best, during the years that he was there. DCU was an afterthought of the league for a long time. “They should be better…they are in a big market…etc”
        .
        We are in that same zone now. We are a club recovering from painful mistakes. Let’s see if we can do what those clubs did and make the correct decisions to pull ourselves out of the hole.

      • +1 I was merely making the point that greater spending does not lead to better results; however, smart spending in value can lead to wins. NYCFC and TFC are great examples of how to not manage a cap.

      • Salt Lake and Kansas City are two more examples where they don’t generally do flashy, high dollar signings, but compete year after year.

      • Good point, plus, NYRB and DC have 20 years under their belts as organizations.

      • You are confusing player salaries alone as the only spend. Those other teams invest a lot more into their own infrastructure, staff in the FO, facilities. MLS pays salaries of players , clubs pay salaries of FO. The Union are dirt poor in comparison.

    • el pachyderm says:

      By poor I stress quality of play not cash resources.

  3. Great stuff, Dan. I typically try to take 1 or 2 overseas trips each year which usually are tied into going to a few local matches except Italy for all of those reasons that you detailed. I would imagine that aside from Juve’s new stadium, going to a match in Italy is like going to one at a dangerous version of RFK.

    We are so lucky here in the States that we’re able to watch so many matches on TV. I was in London recently and I found myself frustrated at not being able to see a particular match on TV. It was odd that I went on vacation to a place where I can see less matches than from the couch in my home.

  4. I AM 35 YRS. AND 500 MILES REMOVED FROM PHILLY, THEREFORE RELYING ON YOU GOOD PEOPLE TO KEEP ME INFORMED. ONE QUESTION. WHY THE HELL IS EVERYONE SO EASY ON CURTIN? AS I SEE IT, FROM A POOR VANTAGE POINT I AGREE, HE’S BEEN A PLEASANT, GLIB, HANDSOME, MONUMENTAL TECHNICAL FAILURE. HE DOESN’T SEEM TO UNDERSTAND WHO HIS BEST XI ARE OR HOW AND WHEN TO GET THEM ON THE PITCH. WHO IS HE BRIBING TO KEEP HIS JOB? HE IS NEGATING ALL THE BENEFITS THE UNION SHOULD HAVE.

    • They are hanging their hopes on an unproven recently retired player with zero coaching experience or education who played in a nacent league that played good old fashioned defensive ugly American soccer. His team is exactly what I expect them to be.

    • I’ll continue to make the argument that firing Curtin just for changes sake is not the right approach. Doing that would just make things worse. I think the two biggest player mistakes the Union have made were Freddy Adu and Rais Mbohli. Both of these happened to coincide with the hiring of an interim manager which is when Sak is at his most powerful. Why push for another “opportunity” like that? Instead, hire someone more responsible as GM and go from there instead of getting back on the same old merry-go-round.
      .
      Firing Curtin is akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Could he be improved upon? Yes. Would the Union actually hire someone that is enough of an improvement to make up for the additional turmoil? Probably not. For now, lets give him some time to grow and instead worry about the underlying issues.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        This friend speaks my mind.

      • I don’t think there are many Union fans calling for the immediate firing of Jim Curtin and the installation of another interim head coach. At this point in the season, it probably wouldn’t do much good.
        .
        However, if JC were replaced by a more experienced and accomplished coach after the season — especially one selected by a new team GM — I doubt that many Union supporters would object.

      • MSG. Solid.
        .
        I certainly would not quibble with Bruce Arena or some young multilingual Dutch fella with Ajax pedigree. No I would not quibble with that a bit.

      • +1…let him grow. Good, smart player in his time. And, there are so, so many other problem that are far greater than a few rookie mistakes made by Jim Curtin.

      • you did have players shaking their heads when he made substitutions last match……particularly, when Wenger came on……….what does that say about how the players feel about their gaffer? We will never get that story…it stays in house. But a little snippet/insight like that tells a whole lot……..

      • “Could he be improved upon-yes”

        Think you lost your own argument. So the inverse is he makes it worse. Which means missing the playoffs. Or losing the Cup. Last years Cup loss is at his feet with that lineup. There are many fans calling for his head. Many of us never wanted him to get the job, as completely unqualified as he was/is.

      • One of the problems is if the Union win the Open Cup…….you figure that buys a lot more time for JC.

    • Curtin is a rookie coach and is working from a position of weakness re: the roster. Sure, the Union have a few good players like Edu, Nogs, Sapong, Chaco, and now recently Barnetta (who hasn’t impressed all that much to date). But look at the overall talent pool and look at the depth. At best, they have 5 proven MLS starters w/ maybe a couple of borderline guys in Marquez and Gaddis. You could argue that Richie is going to be a very solid player in this league, so make it 6 starters. LeToux is a bench guy at this point w/ a terrible first touch and an inability to play wide. Andrew Wenger is brutal in the final 1/3rd. The LB position is a disaster w/ Fabihno falling asleep at the wheel as much as mediocre college player. The goalkeeping is utterly horrendous. Brian Carroll has played nicely, but he’s a stopgap. I really like Lahoud, but he has been hurt for much of Curtin’s tenure. And, the U have the worst depth in the league.
      *
      It’s the pros. You need a top-notch technical director to shape the team, you need committed ownership, you need…talent. Jim has none of that. You can question his tactics, formation, and lineups all you want, but when you don’t have a single player on the team that can consistently put the ball in the back of the net…you’re just not going to win many games. Period. To blame the season on Jim Curtin is misinformed, at best.

      • I’m not sure I would fire curtin, I’d like to keep him here. However someone else needs to keep him in check and make him answer for certain things. It would help his growth. He has been here for a little over a year, and if one thing is clear, his system and gameplan is not working, period. He hasnt tried anything different, just different players. Even taking a more defensive approach with lacarroll was only made out of roster necessity. That the same problems and issues happen game after game is a testament to his weakness as a manager. No one would argue he isn’t hampered by the roster, but make a change and do what you can around those limitations

      • part of the problem is many of the players aren’t “Jim’s guys”…….they are “Hack’s guys”. I am not a fan of JC, but in his defense……he’s really only just starting to bring in his guys to fit his vision. Most of the players were brought in to implement Hack’s vision. You can see what Jim wants…….big, strong, fast guys that can bang in the MLS……not necessarily the most technical. Hack wanted Barca ball in Chester…..hence Nogs, Madaina etc….which makes sense. But now Jim has come in with a different philosophy…and the players he has at the moment may not fit. I kind of feel a little bad for him…….even a new college coach can come in and bring in 9.9 players a year to fit his or her new vision….and bench the rest ( I’ve seen it!)……but Jim, a professional coach doesn’t have that freedom……crazy.

      • While they may not be his guys you have to learn how to adapt. Year after year we say oh well so and so isn’t one of his guys. Happened after Nowak left with Hack same now that Jim is there. You arrange tactics and structure to who you have and explain what is needed to the players. I would disagree that he wants big strong fast guys I mean he signed Barnetta and he fits none of those characteristics. It is a shame that it is not easier for the coaches to turn over the team here in Philly, but learning to work with what you have is essential for taking this coaching position under this ownership. Its clear to me that with some imagination, tactical awareness, and restructuring the formation that these players could play the style Jim may want to play. I just tend to think Jim is not disseminating that information correctly to his players. I mean think of the players that have struggled coming to this team this year. Skills may not be what we expected, but at times they seem lost on the field (Vittoria, Nando are often examples of this, even CJ to start out the season).

      • Doc, I agree with the coaching aspect of your response……and as you may have seen previous in my posts, I’m by no means giving him a pass. Just trying to empathize a little………and judging by the club’s past…I didn’t think Barnetta was really his call….because he doesn’t fit that mold. But I’m not necessarily talking about 11 tree toppers either dude!

  5. Dan much appreciated as always. Just curious. why do you view the proximity to NY as a strength? From my point of view I see it as a weakness. For one, it cuts down on our potential recruitment area for our Academy (I can’t recall the actual boundaries now, but I know it doesn’t go too far north of maybe Trenton). Also I view it as always being considered nationally as the little brother to NY (ie NY will always get more coverage and more prime time games than Philly.) Finally as a destination for potential transfers, I would imagine NY would primarily be preferred to Philly. So just curious why you included that as a strength?
    .
    I would have added one potential additional strength myself though. I think the affiliation with Bournemouth could be a potential strength as long as it’s not just an affiliation in name only.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Shane, my apologies, as an old history teacher I can’t help myself sometimes.
      .
      New York was not ALWAYS bigger than Philadelphia. New York’s harbor has always been much better than ours, but until the effects of the Erie Canal transformed New York City’s hinterland from just the Hudson Valley to that plus the Mohawk Valley plus the Great Lakes plus all the rivers that flow into the Great Lakes, Philadelphia was the larger more important city. The Schuyllkill accessed are larger more fertile area of land. The First Bank of the United States was in Philly, the nation’s temporary capital was moved from New York to Philadelphia until the sea of mud along the Potomac had some buildings amidst it.
      .
      Admiral “Black Dick” Howe took New York City in 1776 not because of the city itself but because the Harbour was the best anchorage for the British Navy along the east coast of North America (Chesapeake Bay is more complex to enter and leave than is New York Harbour) and as such the foundation for the British to attempt to win their late 18th C version of the war in Vietnam. His brother, Army general Sir William Howe, thought he could win that war by capturing the biggest city in the colonies, their capital, Philly. Of course by so doing he doomed Burgoyne in upstate New York, allowed Louis 16’s advisors to persuade him that vengeance against England was more important than balancing the budget, and triggered not only the success of the American Revolution but also that of the French in 1788-9. General Howe had much for which to answer when he stood in front of St. Peter at the pearly gates.

    • Shane I could be wrong on this but the proximity to NY as a strength to me would be the fact that it gives foreign players a frame of reference. It also explains to them that you are near lots of activity and if they so choose they could possibly live in NY and still play for the Union. I see it mostly used as a selling point to those uninformed about the area. Use it to bring people in then once they learn about the area they can spread talk that its not just NY that is an area of interest in the US. At least this would be my thoughts.

      • Yes, that’s actually what I was referring to, foreign player signings. But definitely a good question from Shane. There are only so many DP spots in NYC. Not everyone can play there. It might be a good selling point to some foreign players that you’re pretty near NYC. Then again, maybe not. I don’t know. Outsiders typically don’t know how cool Philly is until they’re really there for a good amount of time.

        In terms of the catchment area for youth recruitment, it may not be big geographically, but population-wise, I figure there’s probably plenty.

    • Shane, we have kids from all over the country and a couple from the Caribbean in the academy. With their residency, I don’t think geography applies…..its a school. Point is, boundaries are easily circumvented if you want to get a kid into the academy. Look at other DA residencies like IMG, Shattuck’s-St. Mary’s, and Real Salt Lake AZ……..they come from everywhere…including abroad.

  6. Dan. No hot water in your house in Naples! That was the majority of our life there, but don’t worry, it will be fixed “DOMANI”!!

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