What’s troubling with this?

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.


Author: James

Lifelong player and student of the beautiful game in Germany, England, and USA. Volunteer futsal coach and USSF referee.

23 thoughts on “What’s troubling with this?”

  1. I watched the women’s U20 USA vs Japan match today and the USA looked pretty bad. They lost 0-1, but they could have lost by 6 goals. They really struggled moving the ball from the back and couldn’t maintain possession of the ball. They kept losing possession after 2 or 3 passes. I found it surprising how many players would just kick the ball down the field. A break away by kicking the ball to the 9 is their own strategy for scoring. Japan however, played beautifully. They moved the ball so well as a team and got ~25 shots on goals. I hope the USA can turn things around.


    1. Fully agree with your observations, Adam. I was stunned by how bad it was when I first saw our U20s play. And what worries me the most is that the technical foundation typically developed when players are young simply aren’t there. It’s very difficult if not impossible to develop those skills later. So are our current 12 to 22 year olds a lost generation? We shall see how this unfolds in the coming years.


      1. What technical aspects are we referring to here. I had a DOC tell me to not bother coaching POTB will my U13 girls because they weren’t technical enough. I told him that’s nonsense. POTB requires receivingredients far foots, first touch, sharp passes. I couldn’t understand what he meant by technical then because my girls all had that.

        So I ask what do we mean when we say technical because most think it means stepovers, elasticos, ronaldo chops etc.


        1. The relevant technical skills in this case include ball control and first touch and accuracy of passing across the full range of speed of the player and the ball. This also includes how well a player can receive and then control a ball (on the front or back, left and/or right foot) plus give the ball the correct first direction. There are other factors, but these are good examples. While technical skills such as stepovers and Cruyff’s aren’t central to POTB, it is nevertheless important for players to be able to take a player on and dribble if a passing option isn’t immediately available. These more sophisticated technical skills are essential to overcoming high-pressing opponents.

          So what level of technical skills and ball control is needed to POTB? This depends on the quality of opposition.

          In other words, a bronze level U13 team should be able to POTB against bronze level opponents, but will get overwhelmed POFB against a gold level U13 team. The gold level team would almost certainly compress the available time and space for the bronze level players to keep possession.

          There should be no reason why your U13 girls can’t learn to POTB. It might actually surprise your opposition, and, if practiced for long enough, could be very successful.

          And here’s someone who agrees with you: Albert Puig, who ran FC Barca’s youth academy La Masia, now runs De Anza Force here in NorCal. One of his first edicts to ALL coaches is that every team will POTB. Every team, irrespective of gender and technical ability.

          Some coaches had the same reaction as your DoC. But turns out it’s all relative to the opposition. I saw the sixth or seventh U14 boys team POFB after only a month or two of practicing this and they actually did quite well (against similarly weak opposition, of course). I was pleasantly surprised.

          Another factor that comes into play is whether your parents have the patience and understanding to accept more losses initially. There can be many frustrating games until you see the pay-off.


  2. Great comments above, and agree with all the concerns. My more immediate concern, however, was how few spectators were in the stands. To the points made above, do the economics of what you see in the picture support major changes to the current US soccer sport model? That is, will you see the US move away from the HS/college+club sports model for soccer to adopt the euro-style club/academy model? Not so sure, but we shall see if USSF can sell the GDA over the ECNL/HS/college path. It may be difficult for those of us living in the SF area to appreciate just how important HS sports is in American culture, but just check out a basketball game in the Midwest on any random Friday night. There are 5~10 thousand fans there, in a HS gym mind you. Not to mention a HS football game anywhere in the South, where these events carry religious fervor.


    1. Very good question, Tom. I think the answer differs by gender, unfortunately.

      For our elite boys I can definitely see a future that avoids college soccer. It’s simply not good enough nor are the incentives aligned. Some elite boys already skip college soccer and head to Europe to develop as best possible. And for these elite boys high school soccer is already off the table.

      For girls the economics don’t work the same way, unfortunately. There’s simply not enough money in women’s soccer to justify the risk that comes from having no college degree. However, there must be a way for USSF to offer both a quality college education and top-quality player development. Imagine a national training center that includes an on-site college plus dorms. They could incorporate many of the remote learning tools to reduce the need for too much teaching staff – think of a partnership with Stanford (who already do this)…the professors would teach virtually. If designed well, this could be very powerful. So our elite boys and girls study and train soccer on a mini college campus.

      All this wouldn’t affect the quality of HS soccer. Let’s assume on average one girl and one boy per HS is good enough to be in the elite category. Take them away from their HS teams and the overall experience for folks watching won’t change materially. Keep in mind that only very very few boys and girls are actually elite. Take the ECNL teams – there are only a handful of players, at best, that are good enough and committed enough. Often it’s none of them. So we’re talking about a small group of girls.

      My prediction is that the GDA will become the home for our elite girls. There will be some adjustments and/or drama along the way, but the GDA will most likely be successful. We need centralized control of player development. ECNL clubs/coaches can pretty much do what they want and their incentives are not aligned.


      1. Well, the Euro-soccer academy picture you paint will be difficult to imagine here because the the economics of the sport (not the individual economic incentive) won’t support it. But it’s nice to imagine! Interestingly, that’s essentially what you have at say a Duke Univesity basketball program…

        See this article today about some major clubs rethinking the GDA. It will be interesting to watch. Definitely some growing pains down the road. If it were fully funded by the USSF, that might help!



        1. Thank you for sharing this, Tom. This is part of the natural ‘drama’ I referred to. Clubs, coaches, players, and parents have to make their own decisions on this GDA issue. The GDA is only for the elite players and if clubs don’t think they can support GDA participation then they shouldn’t join, at least for now. And if girls want to play high school soccer then they should do so, of course. It comes down to what’s important to the player and the folks that run clubs.

          I think it should be possible for USSF to pull enough funds together to build and run that kind of ‘national training center with college’ set-up. It won’t happen overnight, but it should be feasible.

          The crucial difference between that kind of set-up and the Duke/College example you mention is that incentives are aligned. College soccer programs are by and large not about player development – it’s about winning and trophies and beating your historical rivals. A USSF mini-campus would be able to focus on player development while also giving the players a quality education. Has to be implemented correctly, of course.

          Anyway, let’s see where things go in the coming years.


      2. By the way, James, I don’t actually see the difference between ECNL and GDA in terms of “exclusivity”. For example, there are 3, and perhaps even 4 GDA clubs on the peninsula, where presently there are only 2 ECNL clubs. Am I missing something?


        1. The number of clubs are practically the same (roughly 80 or so nationwide), but GDA only takes roughly half the players because age groups are combined. And the GDA’s rules regarding level of commitment and high school soccer and college decisions etc. will also self-select girls out of the GDA track.

          NorCal appears to be an outlier, btw. The top girls’ clubs appear to have decided to stay with ECNL for now. Only Force is joining GDA if I recall correctly. So initially the quality of girls in NorCal will be much higher in ECNL than GDA. It’s going to be interesting to see whether clubs change their mind after a year or two (or more) and join GDA after all. Or if the best girls decide to switch a GDA club because they believe being part of the USSF national system ultimately gives them best visibility and player development.

          We shall see.


  3. My coaching assistant and I started teaching our u14 girls POFTB two seasons ago. We got them from local rec teams and other clubs so they already had prior coaching but it was the typical “conditioning”, random skill work around a cone, then scrimmage training.

    Thankfully we have extremely supportive parents who bought on to our vision and we were able to teach POFTB and saw tremendous growth.

    I think POFTB can be taught but there has to be a tolerance for mistakes from parents. Like you said, unfortunately ,most just want trophies at any cost.

    So I recommend to any coach that when assembling a team and recruiting you must also factor in the parents; you will also be bringing them on to the team with their kids.


    1. Thank you for sharing this, Kit. Respect to you for taking the difficult road. Keep the faith in the coming months and years! For futbol, for the girls!


  4. Nice article. Agree with everything.
    We all need to ensure everyone knows what is going on behind the curtain. Articles like this serve as an enduring beacon of truth.


    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment, Brendan. There is a lot to improve on, unfortunately and change will most likely happen slowly because of vested interests. We shall see.


  5. Great article. I agree. I’ve watched the last two USA games and it’s frustrating that our top talent in this country don’t have the tactical IQ and technical ability to play expansive soccer. I think the main issue is their positioning. To able to build out of the back as well as penetrate the opposition’s defensive lines, they have to provide multiple passing options for their teammate who has the ball. To do this they have to be able to form triangles and diamonds on the field by staggering their positioning and have players in between the lines of the oppositions unit. From what I’ve seen USA like to play around the opposition instead of through them. I believe their needs to be more emphasis on building our play through the middle of the field instead of on the flanks.


    1. Great observation, Matt. Fully agree with you. I would like to add that we MUST improve technical skills in this country. And especially our girls need dramatic improvements. Better technical skills = better ability to accurately exploit space & time, including tight space….more composure, more accurate passing, more creativity, larger toolkit. Also need to add much better off-the-ball movement. Appreciate you taking the time to comment!


  6. Thank you for posting this. I’ve tried to watch these matches, but am having trouble even finding replays. It’s almost like they’re hiding them from the public, and from your analysis they have plenty to hide. OK, the coach is clueless and should be blacklisted for this embarrassment. But what I’m concerned about is that Jill Ellis has a hand in all these coaching selections, so she has effectively rubber-stamped this coach and by extension her player pool filter. Maybe that back line can play the ball out of the back, but we’ll never know and the coach is depriving them of this experience. Like you said, this is soccer 101 but apparently US Soccer doesn’t think so because they’re refusing to implement this basic concept. In ~8 years of refereeing I have only seen one female player (from a club in Castro Valley) who had world-class ability and that was mostly due to her unnatural quickness. Should have been trained as an AM but her coach only played her as a destroyer because it was best for the team (but not her) because she dominated midfields like I’ve never seen. Haven’t seen her in the USWNT player pools and she’s probably about 21 by now. Seems we’re still not learning how to select, promote and train players.


    1. The games are being shown live in HD on FS1. You can also stream live and recorded games through http://www.foxsoccer2go.com. I believe only World Cup level games are broadcast at the youth level.

      The challenge for our national coaching staff is that they have to work with the raw materials they are given. And it’s too late to teach 18/19/20 year old players the technical abilities and soccer IQ to materially elevate the level of play. In addition, even our elite players have to still finish high school and/or attend college.

      And then what are our elite players being taught during those four years at college (soccer wise)? College is again about ‘winning’, not player development. This is why the truly elite boys are now circumventing college soccer here and heading to Europe. This doesn’t necessarily work for our girls because the risk/reward equation is different. But if our elite female players lose precious elite development time during those four years at college then we have to figure out what to do about that. European countries don’t have college soccer – it’s all professional club coaching and player development. The same in Japan and Brazil etc.

      Very much appreciate your thoughts!


      1. Thanks for the tip. Foxsoccer2 is a decent deal & signed up for that. Watched the first half of the France game as well the Ghana game and it’s the same stuff. Those poor girls on the back line are being done a great disservice. This isn’t the 90’s–can there be an explanation? Perhaps they transition during the knockout stages? That’s something Ellis might do but I doubt that current back line can manage it, or that French has gamed for it (a plan B). Hope I’m wrong.


        1. I doubt this will change as they get older. The fundamental issue is that our elite women don’t have the technical ability and tactical understanding to control the ball well enough to play from the back. The risk is simply too high that the ball is turned over in the defensive third. Btw, both Stanford Women and Santa Clara Women did the same during their college playoff game last week. I haven’t watched men’s college games recently to know if they also avoid playing from the back, but I suspect they also lack the technical ability to do that successfully. This requires world-class player development from age 5. Unfortunately, our youth are selected more for their athleticism and physical maturity instead of skills and soccer IQ.


  7. Having done many DA matches, I do not see the program is developing any better players than the counterparts in the ECNL. There is still the fight for talent between local DA teams and a lot of politics. The only difference is the player’s parents are not footing the bill so many more players have an opportunity.

    As far as the U-20 team, I saw the same issues with their play. We are not the dominant force in Women’s Futbol as we once were. Its going to take a cycle of players to get that back.


    1. Thank you for sharing your DA observations, Ron. Let’s hope USSF improves the way the DA works, because without a world-class youth development model and culture our women will continue to fall behind and our men will not catch up.


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