Bengtsson highlights darker side of youth academy soccer

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“There’s something very, very wrong with the way of treating players and the mentality of how we see if you’re strong enough.”

From time to time, we see words like those used to describe American football. There we’ve come to expect battlefield metaphors to extend beyond the field. They may seem excessive, but you know what you’re getting into when you play a game that involves body armor.

We don’t expect those words to apply to soccer, but for Martin Bengtsson, a former player on Sweden’s U-19 national team, they’re his warning to young players whose dreams of stardom obscure the reality of club youth development. They’re a message from a man whose academy experience had him cut his own wrists.

Back in 2004, Bengtsson was signed by Italian powerhouse Inter Milan. He was 17 years old. As he told the BBC’s World Football program, his time at the club became like “prison.”

“I needed to escape and the razors became my way out. I cut as hard as I could, I needed to get out … I was really sick, I heard voices and I started to lose the feeling of whether it was night or day. What I remember is that I was walking around in a big cloud and I couldn’t handle it anymore.”

Not every player can be Lionel Messi, swept from Argentina as a 13-year-old to Barcelona’s idyllic La Masia. Some players are merely swept away. Most fail, and as they do, they persist in environments where the main measuring stick is whether a club’s investment in you will be rewarded.

The players are separated from their families. They’re learning new languages and cultures – how to be on their own at a very young age. Often they’re dropping out of school.

For Bengtsson, the cultural shift seems to have ben too much. Moving to the intensity of Italy’s soccer world from the relatively placid surroundings of Sweden, Bengtsson was surprised at club discipline that punished the entire team for individual mistakes. He reacted strongly when returning from time with Sweden to find song lyrics thrown out and his guitar privileges taken away.

For many, this type of discipline would be expected, particularly in the world of professional team sports – particularly at the level of Inter Milan. But that doesn’t mean that world is for everybody.

Bengtsson’s reaction may have been more severe than most, but thousands of young men across the globe are going through the same process. Many will succeed. Most will not. A few will risk falling into the same depression as Bengtsson.

As much as people envy professional soccer players, their paths are not without risk. If they stray off course, somebody’s not always there to guide them back on the road. Even if they’re only 17 years old.

Bengtsson recovered. He moved away from soccer. He’s currently a musician back in Sweden, part of the punk rock group Waldemaar. He’s also an aspiring novelist.

Off to slow start, Morris, Seattle know “things can change quickly”

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Both Jordan Morris and the Seattle Sounders are off to a rough start in defense of their MLS Cup title last Fall, and the USMNT’s star striker admits to recalling last season’s wild turnaround as an inspiration.

“After the game last week we mentioned that we have a lot of the nucleus from last year and we all know that things can change quickly,” Morris said to ProSoccerTalk this week.

Seattle won just seven games before Matchday 22 last season, rebounding with a burst after coach Sigi Schmid was replaced by assistant Brian Schmetzer. The Sounders went 8-2-2 down the stretch en route to an MLS Cup win over Toronto FC.

While he hasn’t scored in five matches and only has two markers in 12 games, he feels success is coming for the 3W-5L-4T Sounders. Morris said the club knows the results aren’t there, but also that they are producing chances.

[ MORE: Monaco star’s Man City medical ]

“It’s been okay,” Morris said. “Definitely not the start I would’ve wanted. It’s not an excuse but we’ve hit a lot of posts and had other near misses.”

Seattle has a huge opportunity to flip the script on its season when Cascadia Cup rivals Portland visit on Saturday. The free-scoring Timbers are dangerous in attack, but have been opened up 20 times this season. Only two teams have conceded more goals than Portland (which has played the most matches in the league, it must be said).

And it may or may not surprise fans that Morris’ focus has been one of his strengths: the final product.

“I’m working on the final third, whether it’s shooting or finding the open guy,” Morris said. “It’s a big deal for us to finish our chances. Scoring or the final pass in that final third.”

Despite his relatively cold start, it would be surprising if Bruce Arena didn’t tab Morris in his crop for next month’s World Cup qualifiers. The 22-year-old also seems relatively certain to be a part of the Gold Cup plans.

“I’m excited and hopefully I get called up,” he said. “These World Cup qualifiers are obviously a very big deal and Bruce has done a really good job of getting us on the same page.”

Morris is also participating in a unique promotional activity with Delta Air Lines for Sounders fans, as he and Cristian Roldan are among Seattle teams picking fans for “positions” in a Fan XI. Once assembled, they’ll travel to L.A. for a Sounders road match and even sign one-day contracts. Morris was happy to get on board with it.

“It’s for our fans, who are amazing,” he said. “Delta’s idea to make a Fan XI gives the fansa chance to have the behind the scenes experience of being part of a team put together by having different skills. We love rewarding our fans.”

Day Seven: All the action from the U20 World Cup (video)

Kim In-chul/Yonhap via AP
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Mexico has automatically qualified for the knockout rounds of the U-20 World Cup despite falling to Venezuela.

[ MORE: U-20 World Cup latest

Germany dropped below Mexico in goal differential after allowing a 3-0 lead to sink to one, though El Tri still likely would’ve advanced to the next phase despite Germany’s result.

Mexico 0-1 Venezuela

Caracas 19-year-old striker Sergio Cordova scored for the third-straight match in what is sure to make him a hot summer commodity as Venezuela clinched Group B with a perfect 3-0 record.

Germany 3-2 Vanuatu

Vanuatu’s potential name of the tournament Bong Kalo scored twice in the second half to sink Germany below Mexico on goal difference.

Guinea 0-5 Argentina

A brace from Lautaro Martínez gives Argentina hope of the knockout rounds with a third-place finish.

England 1-0 South Korea

Everton’s Kieran Dowell scored the lone goal of the match to give England the Group A crown.

Zabaleta staying in Premier League with West Ham move

@WHUFC
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A week after bidding Manchester City an emotional goodbye, Pablo Zabaleta has announced he’ll be staying in England.

The 32-year-old right back is moving to London, where he’ll join West Ham United on a two-year deal beginning July 1.

[ MORE: Three key battles in FA Cup Final ]

The San Lorenzo youth product went to Espanyol in 2005 to begin his European adventure, joining Man City in 2008. He won two PL titles, two League Cups, and an FA Cup, and was named the club’s player of the season in 2012-13.

From WHUFC.com:

“Manchester City gave me the opportunity to come to this wonderful league, the Premier League, something I’ve been enjoying a lot as a player and of course for me it was probably the right time to move on.

“Also, as a player, I thought I wanted to keep playing in the Premier League. For me, after being in this country for so long, this is a new challenge for me in the Premier League and I’m ready for it and looking forward to it.”

Maybe he just wanted 3G.

Young Sam Byram can learn plenty from Zabaleta, and the signing means that star right-sided man Michail Antonio likely won’t have to be wasted at right back in emergency situations. Good risk by the Hammers.

Valencia extends Man Utd deal to great Mourinho praise

Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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Jose Mourinho has made no secret of his Antonio Valencia appreciation, and the Manchester United manager has rewarded his fullback with a new deal.

Valencia is nine appearances away from 300 in a Manchester United kit, with 22 goals and 61 assists as a Red Devil.

[ MORE: Monaco star’s Man City medical ]

Valencia said United has “been my life” since arriving from Wigan Athletic in 2009, while Mourinho heaped praise on the Ecuadorian captain’s character with glowing praise.

“It is no secret that I had been an admirer of Antonio’s long before I joined the club. I knew what a fantastic player he was and he has not disappointed me on that front. However, what I could never have imagined was what a great person he is. I know I have said this before but I truly believe it is a real privilege for us to have such a good player and such a good man. I am delighted he has extended his contract.”

Only Ander Herrera and Eric Bailly recorded better tackle rates at Old Trafford last season, and Valencia was credited with a team-best 1.5 crosses per game.