This is a MUST READ on the single biggest issue in youth player development in our country. I’ve posted about this many times from different perspectives – for example here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
I made some edits to the original post for brevity and highlighted key sentences in blue below.
The American struggle – why US Soccer can not consistently produce a #10
TheAwayEndFooty.com, @theawayendfooty – Jan 26, 2016
Why does the US fail to produce many true #10 attacking midfielders who excel at the highest levels of the game?
First let’s describe characteristics of a #10, a position described as the playmaker, the orchestrator, or the maestro of the team. The player on the pitch that holds the key to unlocking the opposing defense.
The player given this role usually roams behind the #9 striker, but is given freedom to play in the wide areas and in behind the opposing defense in search of the ball if necessary.
Sometimes, in the case of players like Modric, Xavi Alonso, or Mousa Dembele, these players are put deeper in the midfield as the #8, to maximize the attacking threat for teams with a wealth of attacking options.
Here are some famous #10s:
The job of the #10 is to score goals, assist, and orchestrate goal scoring opportunities for teammates, while helping as much as they can defensively in the midfield.
This role requires a high level of technical ability, incredible comfort with the ball in tight areas, a creative view of the game, a willingness to attack at a high pace, and the ability to distribute the ball with precision.
The role is usually given to the best ball player on the team, and is extremely important to the offensive success of any team playing any variation of 4-3-3.
The US was somewhat successful asking Clint Dempsey to fulfill this role for the national team. The former Tottenham front man was employed behind Jozy Altidore in the build up to the last World Cup and the Texas native excelled as the Yanks #10.
Dempsey has a tremendous ability on the ball, he is creative when he dribbles, is able to take players 1 v 1. In my opinion Dempsey was as close as we have come to having a true #10 for our national team.
Which brings up the question, why is it so tough to find players with these abilities, and what made Dempsey such a good option during his prime?
Dempsey grew up playing with Latinos in street matches in Texas, an influence you still see in his game to this day. Every time Deuce gets the ball he looks to humiliate the opposing defender, almost as if he is fighting for the attention of the neighborhood onlookers.
In these pickup games, where a goal may win you the match meaning you live to play again, it is not hard to see that Dempsey thrives to be the player who bags the winner for his group of friends. Sending whatever collection of villains on the other side of the dirt pitch to the sideline.
Dempsey brought the street foundation and view of the game to the college and professional level, and excelled, learning how to apply this attitude and craft in the professional setting.
So what characteristics are needed from a young player in order to transform into a #10?
The foundation of this position is developed at a very young age, and is a technical foundation of the game. A future #10 needs to excel at dribbling. Not only the action, but the concept, of dribbling the ball at defenders, humiliating and beating them with their individual skill.
Players should look to play in environments where dribbling, self expression, and creative ability on the ball is promoted before passing until they are around the age of 10-12 where they can start to be introduced to the team aspect of the game.
An aspiring #10 needs to then develop his ability to pass and play through defenses as defenders become more skilled and physical in the teenage years. In this stage of a player’s development success through passing should be demonstrated, but the player should still strive to increase his or her skill set on the ball.
Like I stated earlier dribbling is still an extremely important aspect of the position, and the ability to drive at the defense at a high pace in order to distribute or shoot should be emphasized. The player should learn to love to attack defenses and create opportunities to score for themselves and teammates.
At this level selfishness should develop, along with a fearlessness of opposing defenders and of making mistakes.
The quicker the player learns the concepts of the position, and the more chances he or she has to play in the role the better.
The advanced movements and ability to find gaps between midfielders and defenders you see the likes of Mesut Ozil perform weekly should be the next aspect of the player’s game that needs to be developed along with the continued development of their technical ability, explosiveness, and comfort on the ball.
The environment the player is surrounded in now comes into play in the later stages of development. The playing environment supplied by the coaches affects the confidence levels of the players and the mentality they then take into competitive matches.
The player needs to be given the opportunity to create by their coaches, and allowed to exist in an environment where the pressure to not make mistakes is very minimal.
This is where one of the downfalls of the American #10 lies in my opinion. Players who are not given the opportunity to express themselves in this role, with a fearlessness of opponents and failing, will never reach their full potential.
The pressure to win meaningless matches on the weekend, and make academy teams at the higher level clubs, discourages players from trying new skills, techniques, and decreases the flare and creativity in youth soccer.
Players are discouraged to dribble or go 1 v 1 in favor of passing the ball square or backwards, there is no willingness to attack, no urge to humiliate the defense by being clever or creative.
The game becomes boring, uptight, and bogged down with too much emphasis put on possession of the ball and the result of the match by success crazed coaches and parents. The Jedi inside the young player is slowly but surely morphed into a member of the clown army of mediocrity we witness so often in US Soccer.
Learning to compete and to win is essential in the development of a young player. Learning what it takes to win and what causes a team to lose is pivotal and by no means am I saying this aspect of the game should be taken out in favor of everyone being encouraged to try hard and do whatever they want on the pitch.
A young #10 needs to understand that the success of the team lies in their ability to create, their ability to get touches on the ball, and their ability to unlock the other team’s defense.
Thus why the #10 should be judged to a higher standard to the others since the team has bet its entire account on that player impacting the game. Coaches, parents, and teammates need to find the balance of positively encouraging these players to be creative and expressive, with also holding them accountable for how much of an impact they are having on the match.
In the end the drive you find in most of the world’s best #10 comes from within the player. The inner enjoyment of attacking will lead them to success in this sport, and if the hours are spent as a youngster perfecting their individual style and ability on the ball, the player could be on their way to developing into an elite #10.
Most players who end up playing the playmaker role develop playing constant recreational games, an aspect of US Soccer that has been missing at a grassroots level.
Soccer is too organized and parents become too involved in the sport and fail to allow kids to go play for fun and competitively in an unorganized setting [check out a typical neighborhood street soccer court in Barcelona]. With the sport still dominated by the suburban middle class, most kids do not play enough as youngsters to really develop their own ability with the ball.
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Lifelong player and student of the beautiful game in Germany, England, and USA. Volunteer futsal coach and USSF referee. View all posts by James
8 thoughts on “Our Biggest Struggle”
Yes, agree fully. It’s actually too depressing to apply this to youth soccer for all the reasons you are familiar with. Here’s the concrete application: Without blowing up Zelalem too much, he is exactly the type of player (but maybe it’s not him, we can’t know for 5 more years) we’re talking about–can dribble, good on the ball, calm, patient. This is excellent for a possession-oriented team like Arsenal or Barca where you need someone to hold possession, recycle, send through balls. But will Klinsmann use him over some bigger, sturdier midfielder like Bradley, when we’re more of a counterattacking side? With a #10, you have to direct your attack through him, you have to care about possession, you have to want to camp in the attacking 3rd against teams parking the bus, and still succeed. The USMNT is ill-equipped now to do that. Change is coming, with smaller, more skilled players in the funnel (Pulisic, Hyndman et al). Will JK be able to transition? Has a country been able to do that without a handful of world class players to support that transition?
I agree with you. There is only so much a coach can do with a given player pool. It starts at the youth development level and can take a decade or more to bear fruit. Pulisic is true world-class talent from what I can see. Let’s hope he keeps developing.
I agree with your statement that the root cause is lack of understanding on soccer.
However, I don’t think a person has to understand soccer fully to know the right way to teach a kid.
I would phrase it as lack of interest in soccer.
I grew up in Asian culture where playing sports was highly discouraged if you are a good student.
So I never had chance to play nor to watch game because it was considered as waste of time.
It all started when I decided to use soccer teach my son (will be 10 this year) life lessons, learning to focus, hard work ethic and playing with other kids. Then I was hooked, and kept learning/researching.
Previous post was my conclusion.
How do we change the culture? I think it will take time and lots of luck.
1. concussion issue in football will cause many parents to shift from playing football to something else.
Soccer will benefit getting more kids. but it will take a long time before having impact, if any.
2. we need one superstar that can ignite interest in soccer. For me, it was my son making me interested in soccer.
But for entire nation of Korea, it was Park Ji Sung. Just one person who made into the premier league inspired everyone.
The culture that looked down upon professional sports players is almost gone now (over 30 year period).
We need someone like Jordan, Curry and Messi (more relatable version).
Practically in the Bayarea, I think like-minded parents and coaches need to get together somehow.
Create a club where coaches can develop kids instead of trying to win all the time.
If parents and coaches stick together and eventually produce top quality U16 and above teams, it could change the course.
It’s going to be very difficult though.
If somehow my son becomes top tier player because of this new club (far from it currently), do I really want to stay or do I want to move him to a club with DA so that he gets recruiting exposure? It’s a hard call to make as a parent.
For now, I think everyone is looking out for themselves.
Clubs will fill the top team with scholarship players that can win games, ignorant parents will happily brag about winning State Cup (5th tier bracket) and coaches will train kids to win games. Parents who understand the game will break bank to survive in this env by doing extra training.
Luckily, I found a coach who makes living (or trying to make living) by providing technical training and small sided games only.
I see enough kids and parents attending his sessions, but compare to club training on the next field, it’s way to small.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Daniel. I agree with you. I am wondering if we can change what parents look for though – if parents recognize the importance of development over winning then they will select coaches and clubs that do it right even if it costs money. The root cause is a fundamental lack of understanding of soccer and what it means to play well.
Coaches and clubs are held hostage to this because they need to make a living from coaching. Some coaches and clubs do this intentionally, of course, to milk naive parents – these coaches and clubs don’t care about true longer-term player development. But I don’t think those are the majority – it’s just that they are stuck between making a living this week, this month, this year and player development that might not show results many years down the road. And if too many parents are ignorant then what is a coach to do…
Also, I wrote a couple of posts on the lack of street soccer culture and its impact on player development: http://sfbayareasoccerdad.com/2015/11/06/the-massive-impact-of-a-weak-soccer-culture-and-low-population-density/ and http://sfbayareasoccerdad.com/2015/11/16/lets-do-soccer-a-massive-favor/.
With the pay to play model, I don’t think we can fundamentally change how kids are trained in the club env. The clubs need to win in order to attract more players so that other things are paid for.
Also in US, we don’t typically allow unsupervised outside play time so there is no street soccer culture. I don’t see this changing anytime soon. As a parent new to soccer culture, it seems to me the only way is to invest even more in training outside the club env.
For those who see the current limitations will have private/semi-private training which cost even more to play. Also, you need coaches who are willing to focus on technical training without worrying about the team winning and still make enough for living.
I say odds are stacked against US producing our own #10.
Great article – and so true, at least form my perspective…here is what i have seen:
1. Coach at U8 wants to win
2. Coach puts best players in all the time – no bench time, and no/minimal discipline
3. Kid is not allowed to be creative and make mistakes. Instead he becomes fully aware that the outcome of every game hinges mostly on his play. This is at the age of 8/9!
4. Feeling pressure to succeed, and win and not let his teammates and the parents on the sideline down, the kid plays hard but repetitive soccer, with no risk taking or creativity.
5. The team wins – a lot. But the kids growth as a soccer player is stunted.
That kid then gets to 11v11 and struggles with the basics of seeing the field, accurate passing, moving to space, etc. His or her development has probably been delayed by 2-3 years, if not forever, due to the pressure to “perform” and win.
Outcome…as you point out, a general dearth of elite level soccer players, #10 or otherwise!