The above image is from the France vs USA game at the U20 Women’s World Cup on Sunday. It shows our team during a goal kick. Every goal kick was like this.
What do you see?
I was watching the game with my 14 year old daughter. We glanced over the first goal kick. During the second goal kick my daughter said that it looks funny how bunched up they are. Twenty adult-sized players in roughly 10% of the field!
And then during the third goal kick it hit us – our national team can’t play out from the back!!!
This stunned us. My daughter’s U15 ECNL team plays out from the back – 90% of the time. It has been part of their player development for years, but it’s rare unfortunately.
[Post-publication update: my daughter watched the Stanford vs Santa Clara Women’s Soccer College game last night at Stanford. Guess what – these teams did the same bunching up on goal kicks as the U20 national team!]
Playing out from the back is fundamental to modern high-quality, possession oriented soccer. It’s been the standard for quality soccer for a decade at least.
I’ve included a great educational video at the very end of this post – it shows playing out from the back all the way down to the U10 level.
And click here for a good article on this topic. To quote a key passage:
“Football is besieged with coaches and players lacking technical ability and tactical awareness to start with the basics before implementing this methodology and the results can be catastrophic.
A team with players lacking the technical ability or composure will require these players to take risks that cannot be overcome if the ball is lost so deep in the defensive third.
Without a midfield comprised of players willing and able to receive the ball under pressure, playing out of the back is a fool’s game.
From a developmental standpoint, teams excelling at playing out of the back are comprised of players whose footballing education focused on technical ability and proficiency at a young age.”
It was obvious to my 14 year old daughter (and even my 10 year old daughter) that the French players had better touch, skill, composure, movement, and soccer IQ than our players.
Yet, this U.S. Soccer press release referred to the game as being “a physical match” and head coach Michelle French commented “what an absolutely incredibly athletic team France is”.
Were we watching the same game? Hopefully Michelle had to say this for the press release and is having very different conversations behind the scenes.
And can it really be true that our most elite players don’t have the technical ability, soccer IQ, and confidence to play possession soccer?
Don’t our elite goalkeepers have the foot skills needed to support teams playing out from the back?
Global soccer powerhouses such as Germany, Spain, England, and France are applying their world-class coaching and deep understanding of the game to a growing number of girls now playing soccer in those countries. France in particular stands out for me at U20 and below – this bodes well for the future.
And there is one country doing an even better job than the Europeans: Japan.
The Japanese U20 team is playing beautiful soccer. They are playing with technical ability, tactical understanding, creativity, teamwork, and discipline far above anyone else. It’s a treat to watch. And this ability exists across all age groups, not just this U20 team.
[By the way, you can watch these games at http://www.foxsoccer2go.com. Live and recorded.]
Girls have traditionally been marginalized in those countries because soccer was a “man’s sport”, like (American) football here in our country. That started to change about a decade ago and will continue to change going forward.
So world-class player development plus a rapidly expanding pool of raw talent = trouble for us unless we improve our own player development.
Might this be one of the reasons why U.S. Soccer is taking control of elite player development with the launch of the U.S. Development Academy for girls this coming summer?
I strongly suspect that U.S. Soccer will relatively quickly extend the USGDA down to U12/U13 (from the initial U14/15) and then eventually U10/11. Developing world-class technical ability – the foundation for everything else – can’t start early enough.
This begs another question: what have our top clubs and coaches been teaching our girls these last ten years?
Mostly how to win games using the most athletic and physically mature girls possible plus a low-risk ‘kick the ball up the field’ approach.
This reminds me of the coach of the U14 ECNL team that beat my daughter’s U14 ECNL team in the semifinals of the most recent Surf Cup.
He kept shouting “get corner kicks” during the second half because his girls were physically superior to our girls (but technically inferior).
They scored two goals from corner kicks and advanced to the final, but we played much better soccer.
Frankly, from my many years watching and officiating ECNL (and EGSL) games across all age groups, it’s primarily about ‘winning’ and rankings and trophies and player recruiting. There are exceptions, of course, but I believe that the overall picture holds true.
The rivalries between ECNL clubs in each geographic sub-region is intense and often politically charged as clubs compete for local talent. It can get nasty at times.
This dynamic is a disgrace for (elite) player development, and a massive disservice to our girls and our country.
What doesn’t help is that the vast majority of parents even of top girls (and boys) only understand the game at a superficial level and have little patience for true longer-term player development.
Parents shop around for winning teams/clubs without looking closely at how the team is winning and what the youngsters are being taught.
And let’s not forget that coaches need to earn a living in our pay-to-play system. Much of their earnings (and the club’s health and growth) depend, unfortunately, on winning games to attract more talent.
So we need to be careful who to blame. This isn’t necessarily the coaches’ fault – they have to put food on the table after all.
Let’s compete, of course, but the elite level in particular has to be about longer-term player development, not simply ‘winning’.
It has to be about risk taking, not risk avoidance. About creativity and artistry and smarts, not primarily athleticism.
Time to do the hard work of true world-class player development, folks!
And teaching our youngsters the technical ability and tactical understanding to confidently play out from the back is integral to that.