CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati coach John Harkes is considered one of the more knowledgeable people in the game of soccer.
When it opens play in March 2016, the new United Soccer League club is hoping to benefit from his experience as a former U.S. men’s national team captain and one of Major League Soccer’s founding players.
WCPO had a chance to pick Harkes’ brain on some of the hot topics now surrounding soccer at all levels. Here are some of his thoughts on the heading ban in youth soccer, the state of the game in the U.S. and whether there is a place for instant replay and other technology being introduced in other sports:
What is your opinion of the recent heading ban on kids under 11 years old?
I think certainly there has been a huge concern from concussion-related injuries. They are seeing a higher increase in the percentage of concussions going up recently. It’s hard to equate when kids have been training and learning it’s a skill and learning they can pass the ball with their head.
It’s not just heading. There’s a lot of different conversations that need to take place, because you can even practice heading in training with a soft sponge ball so they just understand the movements and skill sets, so when it comes to games, what you are trying to teach the younger players and the youth squads is how to understand and read the game, the depth perception of the ball, how to allow the ball to bounce actually and take it down with your feet instead of always challenging in the air. There are so many different components that go along with the heading process.
You don’t really head the ball many times in a game. It’s occasionally. If you actually did a survey of your whole youth team and counted how many times each player headed a ball through a game, it would probably be eight to 10 times a season. That’s not a lot.
So there are occasions where players are encouraged at the younger age groups, and I look at some of the coaching around the country, and you have to be careful what you are telling a child to do. If you are telling them to run through a brick wall and compete for every ball and challenge everything in the air, that may not be the right message. … People need to be very educated on the subject matter.
How much have you seen soccer grow in the last decade?
There have been incredible amounts of growth. It’s an educated fan base that’s out there across the country. We’ve taken a huge incline in the last five to six years, I would say.
It’s across all platforms when you look at the men’s national team, the women’s national team doing well or whatever and competing, then the professional game and the youth soccer and how much the exposure of the kids playing the most populated game played in this country across the board. It’s all intertwined with each other. It’s been huge. It’s a massive, massive growth that’s taken place.
Now you even see from the business side of it, the ownership groups at the highest levels are spending the money in the USL and the NASL and in Major League Soccer. On all fronts, you’re seeing the amounts take off.
For us, the interest is there, so it’s kind of like, ‘Let’s strike while the iron is hot,’ so to speak. And you see the way the USL is growing, the fastest-growing league in the world really, and the expansions and the clubs getting involved.
Logistically, across the country, we’re seeing tremendous growth, and it’s fantastic to see, and rivalries and teams competing down the road, it’s good.
Do you see Major League Soccer ever moving to a relegation system like the Premier League (where teams are bumped in and out based on their level of success)?
In comparing with the Premier League, which has unbelievable investors and the incredible amounts of money through television and endorsements and contracts, we’re still 20 years young as a Major League Soccer league, and I think it’s going to take a lot of time to get to a point where the ownership groups are comfortable enough for them to say they are OK being relegated.
From a business standpoint, that doesn’t make sense for them to spend the money they are spending and then to not be part of a television deal.
If things grow, the way things are growing with the USL and the growth of soccer in this country from a professional standpoint, the exposure and the mainstream media and the business that is coming into the game, it’s a possibility down the road, but I don’t think that’s anytime in the near future.
The U.S. men’s team has gone through some struggles recently (with the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal loss to Jamaica and Confederations Cup playoff loss to Mexico) and coach Jurgen Klinsmann has been on the hot seat. What do you think of the state of the team?
I think every national team in the world struggles at times. It cycles.
What you’re trying to do and what you’re hoping to see from a national team standpoint is the love for the game for the players, that they enjoy themselves and love putting on a jersey and representing the U.S. … You’ve got to have trust and faith in the process at times, and some people don’t and they criticize. That’s just the nature of the beast.
People keep talking about the staff and the rotation of players and the inconsistencies. It is difficult to have good chemistry on the field when you are constantly changing positions and player personnel.
There are going to be bumps in the road and they have to be, at that level, guys that can deal with the adversity and grind and take a look at themselves and say, ‘How do we get through this?’ and fight together, and maybe it makes them stronger.
How hard is that with so many young guys on the team?
People joke about what’s the method to the madness. There has to be a plan in place. Everybody manages differently.
I was always taught when I played how much you love and respect the game, No. 1, but as you get older and to the pro level, the No. 1 thing is that you continue to push yourself and not just be pushed by other people.
Managers at the national team level, they aren’t doing it like a club team where they work with the same people every week. It’s like, you go for two weeks and international, then you go away, and then you hope some guys come back in and they are fit. You rotate players and try to challenge players, which is good, but at some point you have to have a core of players and say, ‘This is what we’re all about,’ and other players are trying to get in there.
Hopefully that settles down and you start to see that cycle for the next World Cup stage in 2018.
All we can do is be hopeful and constantly cheer them on, which we all do, and hope they figure it out.
With more U.S. players now playing in Europe than back when you played, how difficult does that make things given the travel involved back and forth?
I think nowadays that side of the game has become so organized. The flights are great. Guys prepare themselves better. They become better athletes. The nutrition and education side is better, so that’s different.
There’s more of a scientific approach in the game to how you prepare physically and the amount of rest you need to get, so I think the players get it, and they take responsibility for preparation. They are at that level for a reason.
The difficult part comes in the education part of the game for players. People say, ‘Hey, John. Isn’t it great that (22-year-old right back/outside midfielder) DeAndre Yedlin went to Tottenham?’ I say, ‘Wow, that’s exciting, but what’s his role going to be and how will that affect his development? Is he ready to take that next step yet?' At the time, I didn’t think so. I thought he needed another two seasons with Seattle, playing as a professional on a consistent basis and learning the game. … Learning more about the game itself and how you fit in is very important, so you never want to rush that.
Do you look at the game now and wonder how your career might have been different with some of the nutrition and fitness tools available now?
I do. Those type of resources have become more significant and more available than in the past, for sure. It’s a big part of how the guys prepare day to day, week to week and year to year. You have to strike a balance.
Preparation and scientific approach is great for guidelines, but playing is still the most important part. It’s good it’s all there.
What about the goal-line technology being introduced?
If you ask guys like Frank Lampard, for England, who in the last World Cup has a goal that goes in behind 2½ yards and it’s not called a goal, yeah, it’s important.
Some of the technology, not that it’s overload of it, but again, it’s helpful. You just have to be very weary of how you use it.
Do you think there’s a place for instant replay?
We used to have this discussion all the time on 'Counter Attack' on Sirius XM.
The thing for the purists of the game, myself included, is stopping the game too much is a big concern. Yet sometimes the amount that lapses after the controversy that’s on the field, it can be 3 or 4 minutes anyway, so why can’t you have a four-person panel watching the video replay and have 30 seconds to view and move on? It could work.
You have to be very careful, though, because you don’t want to disrupt the game. The best thing about soccer is that it’s a constant flow for two halves of 45 minutes, plus extra time, and that beauty of it, to see how players figure out things on the fly is amazing to me. It’s just this constant movement of chess pieces on the field and filling space and interpreting space and understanding the timing of runs, sometimes where the communication is just a look.
That type of thing that takes place is poetry in motion. It really is, so you have to be careful not to falter too much. I always say if you are going to introduce it, it has to be a minimal distraction to the game.