…time and space. It sounds so simple, yet it’s so very difficult to understand and master. Few players, coaches, and spectators, including at the professional level, truly understand this. And even fewer know how to teach it.
Before we continue, watch this 70-second gem of a clip demonstrating how Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City dominated Manchester United on Nov 11, 2018, through a superior understanding of time and space. Overlaid on this recording are some of Pep’s instructions to his players from a documentary on his work at Manchester City.
At the most fundamental level, players have to pass, move, dribble, faint, etc. to manipulate and shape the space and time available to them, their teammates, and opponents, with the objective to score goals and to maintain possession.
Maintaining possession gives teams a tactical advantage because it allows them to shape the game and reduce the time available for the opposition to score. And the reason for immediately pressing the opponents on loss of possession is to quickly restrict the space available to them before they can shift from a defensive stance into an attacking mode. It’s easier to win the ball back in the seconds after a loss of possession while the opponents are still adjusting.
At the individual player level, moving to create a passing option for your teammate or to pull an opponent away from a specific area of the field are examples of shaping and creating space. Passing to ‘break the lines’ is another example of this.
And so is dribbling toward an opponent – the purpose is to either pull the opponent away from their current position (and thus opening up space behind them for teammates to slot into) or to get past an opponent and then occupy the space behind him/her and draw other opponents toward you and thus freeing up space for your teammates.
Players manipulate time through, for example, the timing and pace of decision making, passing and touching the ball. For example, if players aren’t passing at pace to ‘switch the field’ then the opponents have more time to shift across and close the space that the switch is meant to exploit.
Take a look at these four examples from a recent Liverpool v Arsenal game. Note the smart, confident, and synchronized manipulation of time and space using the various approaches described above. There is very clear purpose to everything the players are doing…this isn’t just quick passing of a hot potato to simply retain possession.
How often do we see youth players ‘safely’ pass backwards to avoid taking risks and losing the advantage that forward movement of the ball and teammates could have given the team? How often do we see one-dimensional youth players that have no confidence to take on players probably because they get chewed out by their coaches if they fail? How often do we see top youth players with no idea how to smartly move off-the-ball to support a teammate with the ball or how to exploit newly created space or when and how to pull opponents into areas of the field to effectively neutralize them?
And just as important are the mental abilities of the player. A split-second, accurate perception of the micro-moment and then quick execution of an appropriate action is essential. Some players are innately better at visual/spatial perception and processing, for example. And the players that have put the work in to learn skills deeply enough to execute actions intuitively and instinctively gain an enormous reaction and accuracy advantage.
Finally, it’s the player’s state of mind that is also crucial. For example, a player who tends to be anxious or distracted will be at a big disadvantage – the former will, for example, take too long to make decisions and won’t commit fast enough to the next move, and the latter’s perception and processing of the situation will be much slower than opponents that are focused.
Modern (European) soccer is now firmly grounded in the principles of learning to control and manipulate time and space. ‘Playing out from the back’ is one example of that and it’s the hallmark of youth teams with coaches that are teaching the kids the right way to play the game.
Unfortunately, too few parents and youngsters have the appreciation and patience and commitment to learn to master the beautiful game at this deeper level, especially since there will be many more losses than wins during the early years.
That said, through my officiating I’ve seen many more youth teams play a possession style of soccer here in NorCal these last 12 months, including building out from the back. I very much hope that this change is permanent.
The USA was knocked out of the 2018 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup this week following a 4-0 loss to Germany, a 3-0 loss to North Korea, and a 3-0 win against Cameroon, placing last in Group C. This follows a similar outcome at the U20 Women’s World Cup this summer.
As food for thought, I’m pasting below the full article published on SBNation after the U20 Women’s World Cup. Keep in mind that our female YNTs typically don’t perform well but our full WNT tends to compete for trophies, at least so far.
So it could be argued that U.S. Soccer might be focusing much more on longer-term player development over ‘winning’ at the youth level, which should be assessable by a trained soccer eye when comparing aspects such as skills, creativity, and soccer IQ displayed by our YNTs with that from other nations.
In other words, underperforming the way we do at the youth level could be acceptable if we’re witnessing our YNTs learning to play, say, a technical and creative possession-oriented style of play pioneered first by Johan Cruyff and further developed and refined most recently by Pep Guardiola, first at FC Barcelona. This is the modern way to play soccer and requires a high level of technical proficiency, a deep understanding of the beautiful game, and lots of soccer IQ, which takes time and patience to learn.
An opposing perspective would argue that there is little true player development nationally and in our youth clubs, and that the gap between us and other nations is shrinking. Here’s an earlier blog post on what I believe explains the relative dominance of our WNT these last couple of decades. It has little to do with modern player development.
So are other nations catching up and likely to surpass us soon based on what’s on display at the youth level? The following article argues that point:
The dust has settled from the elimination of the United States U20 women’s national team in the group stage of the 2018 U20 World Cup. So this seems like an appropriate moment to begin taking stock, to think a bit about what this latest failure says about the state of the YWNT program.
The way we lost
Start here: the U.S. U20s played two peer opponents known for their reliance on possession and quick passing (Japan and Spain), and couldn’t beat either. Against Japan, the U.S. was stifled and then gradually overcome; againstSpain, we were played off the park in the first half—and an urgent second-half comeback could only muster a draw when a win was required.
In other words, we were decidedly third-best in our group during this most recent World Cup. And that poor showing is only the latest in a series of YWNT failures over the past three cycles (2014, 2016, 2018), in which both our U17 and U20 sides have consistently played poor-quality, ineffective soccer when it mattered most.
The U20s in 2016 made it to the semifinals—but they did it by playing an embarrassingly conservative style to get out of the group, and then by scraping past a superior Mexico in the quarterfinals through reliance on fitness. We’ve just seen the 2018 U20s. (The U17s’ World Cup this year is yet to come.)
So there is an ongoing, multi-cycle pattern of performance problems in the YNTs. That’s obviously concerning in itself. But what is more worrisome is that these problems may reflect deliberate philosophical and stylistic choices made by those in charge of the program—choices that can be seen in which types of players are, and are not, called up to the YNTs and rostered for World Cups.
The wrong players for the wrong job
Here, it’s worth remembering that it’s not the job of the YNT program to “produce” elite players, per se. That is, of necessity, left to individual youth clubs and coaches. Instead, our YNTs are supposed to sift through the player pool and find the best youth players available at a given age group, then make those players even better through exposure to the highest levels of training and competition, including meaningful matches against international opponents.
But what that means, of course, is that the YNTs’ particular definition of “best” will inevitably affect the selection process. Which is a problem, when that definition seems to be overly narrow.
As others have noted, the YWNT style in recent cycles, including the recent U20 World Cup, heavily emphasizes individualistic flank play. Central midfield, the theory goes, is simply too easy to clog up defensively. Better to skirt around that part of the field altogether, get it wide as early as possible, and create havoc through 1v1 and 2v1 attacks down the wing.
Thus, in the current cycle, WNT technical director April Heinrichs and U20 head coach Jitka Klimkova picked a roster that was heavy on attacking players with an ability and a propensity to attack and take on 1v1 from wider areas—e.g., Sophia Smith, Ashley Sanchez, Abigail Kim, Erin Gilroy, and Alexa Spaanstra. (Midfielder Taryn Torres, who can play in a variety of positions, tended to be deployed by Klimkova as a flank attacker as well.)
B.J. Snow’s U17 rosters in the 2014 and 2016 cycles similarly favored fast, direct attackers, especially 1v1 dribblers out wide. In fact, Snow’s squads for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers and the 2016 U17 World Cup were so loaded up on forwards that they each basically had only three true midfielders. (Oddly enough, these teams also struggled to play through midfield and break down organized defenses.
And the flip side of emphasizing flank play and direct 1v1 attackers is ignoring good players whose strengths lie in other areas. In recent cycles, our YNTs have repeatedly passed over, or outright rejected, talented players who don’t quite fit U.S. Soccer’s preferred mold–all in the service of a style that the YNTs have yet to successfully deploy.
Perhaps the most striking example of this curious approach to player selection is Tierna Davidson—rejected by the YNTs at youth level, but solidly entrenched with the senior national team before her 20th birthday. Despite excelling with Bay Area ECNL side De Anza Force, Davidson was never called into a YNT camp at one of the younger age groups.
Nor did B.J. Snow ever call her into a U17 camp in the 2014 cycle. And in the 2016 cycle, Davidson was cut from the U20s after World Cup qualifiers and sent down to the U19s instead. Apparently April Heinrichs and then-U20-coach Michelle French thought she was not good enough for the U20s. (No, really.) Two years after that, Davidson was starting for the senior WNT.
How did YNT coaches and scouts so comprehensively get Davidson wrong? It’s hard to say for certain. It’s worth noting, though, that some of Davidson’s particular strengths are her ease and composure on the ball and her passing under pressure. And these traits will be much less valuable in a side that tends to ask its centerbacks only to make very simple passes to a defensive midfielder or an outside back and let the front six take it from there, rather than joining in an effort to build from the back through the middle.
One similarly can’t help but notice that over the past three cycles a number of other players who have performed admirably as composed centerbacks in possession-oriented NCAA sides—Schuyler DeBree and Taylor Mitchell of Duke, Samantha Hiatt of Stanford, KristenMcNabband Phoebe McClernon of Virginia—have also been overlooked before U17 level, passed over by the U17s, marginalized by the U20s, or all of the above.
This devaluing of players whose strengths lie in possession and combination play is not limited to the backline, either. It can also be seen in the midfield, as well.
Take, for example, Savannah McCaskill. She’s smart, has an excellent touch, an eye for the killer pass, and good athleticism. She played before college at an ECNL club (Carolina Elite); led South Carolina last year to their first College Cup berth in program history; had a strong rookie season in NWSL; and has already received half a dozen senior team caps. Yet she was also never called into any YNT camp before U18; and received only a single U20 callup.
Or look at UCLA. Their run last year to the final of the College Cup drew heavily on the burgeoning talents of three freshmen midfielders: Viviana Villacorta, Delanie Sheehan, and Olivia Athens, all of whom had played for well-known California youth clubs before college. None of them were ever called up by the YNTs before U18 level either.
For that matter, star Duke playmaker Ella Stevens—the attacking linchpin of the Duke side that made it to the College Cup last year before losing to UCLA in a beautifully tensesemifinal—was considered and cut by both Snow at U17 level (in 2014) and Heinrichs and French at U20 level (in 2016).
A common element of this formidable set of players is that they are more passers and playmakers, rather than 1v1 dribblers. These days, apparently, being an attacking-minded midfielder who looks to combine, to build attacks through passing and off-ball movement rather than only direct take-ons, gets a player marginalized by our YNTs, not celebrated.
None of these players, moreover, were obscure. None of them grew up in locations that don’t attract scouting attention. None of them played for small youth clubs (or small NCAA programs) for financial or other personal reasons. In other words, these players are just the most obvious, high-profile examples of players whose abilities were not properly recognized and cultivated by the powers that be. They are surely not the only ones.
In short, our YNTs have now amassed several consecutive cycles of failure; and they’ve done so playing a style that has proven ineffective, seemingly employing selection criteria that are so limited by that ineffective style that it has led them to repeatedly pass over excellent young players of whom they should have been aware. Are there realistic hopes for change?
True, Snow and French were relieved of their head coaching positions last year. But April Heinrichs, who as WNT technical director has been responsible for the YWNT program over this entire period — who has hired and overseen Snow, French, and every other current YNT coach — remains in her post and shows no sign of going anywhere, assortedfiascos notwithstanding.
French was retained as an assistant to senior team head coach Jill Ellis (before leaving that role to take the head coaching job at the University of Portland). And French’s replacement, Jitka Klimkova, was hired from within the YWNT program and has now presided over a World Cup failure of her own.
As for Snow, well. He’s been made the director of national-team talent identification for the WNT program as a whole.
So consider: April Heinrichs thought that Tierna Davidson, Savannah McCaskill, and Ella Stevens, among others, were not good enough to play for the U20s. And she chose B.J. Snow — who passed over Davidson, cut Stevens, and never met a direct dribbling forward he didn’t like — to run talent ID for the senior WNT, after he failed badly selecting and coaching the U17 WNT.
That means, apparently, that notwithstanding his poor track record, Snow plays a crucial role in setting national-team selection criteria for youth, college, and pro players. He’s the one telling WNT scouts and coaches what to look for and value. And he’s also the one going round to the vaunted Girls’ Development Academy and other youth clubs and telling them what sorts of players fit the national-team profile.
This is disturbing–not merely because it suggests that the YNTs’ ongoing struggles will persist, but also because it underscores that no one at senior levels in USSF is meaningfully overseeing the YWNT program. We’ve had three straight cycles of YNT underachievement and stagnation, and yet at a fundamental level, nothing appears to be changing. How much more failure will it take before those running the program are held accountable for their poor performance? At this point your guess is as good as mine.
I’m sharing here the full article that appeared in The Economist on June 9. A fascinating read.
Wealth, size and interest in football explain almost half of countries’ international performance. The rest can be taught.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, within kicking distance of Uruguay’s national football stadium, 14 seven-year-olds walk onto a bumpy pitch. They are cheered by their parents, who are also the coaches, kit-washers and caterers.
The match is one of hundreds played every weekend as part of Baby Football, a national scheme for children aged four to 13. Among the graduates are Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani, two of the world’s best strikers.
Messrs Suárez and Cavani are Uruguay’s spearheads at the World Cup, which kicks off in Russia on June 14th. Bookmakers reckon La Celeste are ninth-favourites to win, for what would be the third time. Only Brazil, Germany and Italy have won more, even though Uruguay’s population of 3.4m is less than Berlin’s.
Though it is no longer the giant that it was in the early 20th century, Uruguay still punches well above its weight. Messrs Suárez and Cavani reached the semi-finals in 2010 and secured a record 15th South American championship in 2011. Their faces adorn Montevideo’s football museum, along with a century’s worth of tattered shirts and gleaming trophies.
If tiny Uruguay can be so successful, why not much larger or richer countries? That question appears to torment Xi Jinping, China’s president, who wants his country to become a football superpower by 2050. His plan includes 20,000 new training centres, to go with the world’s biggest academy in Guangzhou, which cost $185m.
The United Arab Emirates and Qatar have spent billions of dollars buying top European clubs, hoping to learn from them. Saudi Arabia is paying to send the Spanish league nine players. A former amateur footballer named Viktor Orban, who is now Hungary’s autocratic prime minister, has splurged on stadiums that are rarely filled.
So far these countries have little to show for their spending. China failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup, and even lost 1-0 to Syria—a humiliation that provoked street protests.
Footballer, meet model
The Economist has built a statistical model to identify what makes a country good at football. Our aim is not to predict the winner in Russia, which can be done best by looking at a team’s recent results or the calibre of its squad. Instead we want to discover the underlying sporting and economic factors that determine a country’s footballing potential—and to work out why some countries exceed expectations or improve rapidly. We take the results of all international games since 1990 and see which variables are correlated with the goal difference between teams.
We started with economics. Stefan Szymanski, an economist at the University of Michigan who has built a similar model, has shown that wealthier countries tend to be sportier. Football has plenty of rags-to-riches stars, but those who grow up in poor places face the greatest obstacles. In Senegal, coaches have to deworm and feed some players before they can train them; one official reckons only three places in the country have grass pitches. So we included GDP per head in our model.
Then we tried to gauge football’s popularity. In 2006 FIFA, the sport’s governing body, asked national federations to estimate the number of teams and players of any standard. We added population figures, to show the overall participation rate. We supplemented these guesses with more recent data: how often people searched for football on Google between 2004 and 2018, relative to other team sports such as rugby, cricket, American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey. Football got 90% of Africa’s attention compared with 20% in America and just 10% in cricket-loving South Asia. To capture national enthusiasm and spending on sports in general, we also included Olympic medals won per person.
Next we accounted for home advantage, which is worth about 0.6 goals per game, and for strength of opposition. Peru gets extra credit for playing so often against overachievers, for example. Finally, to reduce the distorting effect of hapless minnows like the Cayman Islands and Bhutan, we whittled down our results to the 126 countries that have played at least 150 matches since 1990.
Our model explains 40% of the variance in average goal difference for these teams. But that leaves plenty of outliers. Uruguay was among the biggest, managing nearly a goal per game better than expected. Brazil, Argentina, Portugal and Spain were close behind. West Africa and the Balkans overachieved, too.
Sadly for ambitious autocrats, the data suggest that China and the Middle East have already performed above their low potential. Cricket dominates Google searches in the Gulf states (no doubt largely because South Asian migrant workers love it). Just 2% of Chinese played football in 2006, according to FIFA, compared with 7% of Europeans and South Americans. China and Middle Eastern countries have occasionally managed to qualify for the World Cup, but none has won a game at the tournament since 1998.
The model’s most chastening finding is that much of what determines success is beyond the immediate control of football administrators. Those in Africa cannot make their countries less poor. Those in Asia struggle to drum up interest in the sport. Football’s share of Google searches has been rising in China but falling in Saudi Arabia.
Nonetheless, officials with dreams of winning the World Cup can learn four lessons from our model’s outliers and improvers. First, encourage children to develop creatively. Second, stop talented teenagers from falling through the cracks. Third, make the most of football’s vast global network. And fourth, prepare properly for the tournament itself.
Start with the children. The obvious lesson from Uruguay is to get as many nippers kicking balls as possible, to develop their technical skills. Mr Xi wants the game taught in 50,000 Chinese schools by 2025. China might try something like “Project 119”, a round-the-clock training scheme for youngsters, which helped to lift China to the top of the medal table at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The trouble is that relentless drilling “loses the rough edges that make geniuses”, says Jonathan Wilson, editor of the Blizzard, a journal covering the game around the world. East German players trained much harder than those in West Germany, but only qualified for a major tournament once.
The trick is not just to get lots of children playing, but also to let them develop creatively. In many countries they do so by teaching themselves. George Weah, now the president of Liberia but once his continent’s deadliest striker, perfected his shooting with a rag ball in a swampy slum. Futsal, a five-a-side game with a small ball requiring nifty technique, honed the skills of great Iberian and Latin American players—from Pelé and Diego Maradona to Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Andrés Iniesta. Zinedine Zidane was one of many French prodigies who learned street football, or ballon sur bitume. In an experiment that asked adult players to predict what would happen next in a video clip, the best performers had spent more time mucking around aged six to ten. Another study found that academy prospects who ended up with contracts had put in more hours of informal practice as children.
Such opportunities are disappearing in rich countries. Matt Crocker, the head of player development for England’s Football Association (FA), says parents are now reluctant to let children outside for a kickabout. Many social-housing estates have signs banning ball games. Dele Alli, a mercurial England attacker, is unusual for having learned in what he has called “a concrete cage”. The challenge is “to organise the streets into your club”, say Guus Hiddink, who has managed the Netherlands, South Korea, Australia, Russia and Turkey.
Deutschland über alles
The Deutscher Fußball-Bund (DFB), Germany’s national body, has done so zealously. In the early 2000s it realised that Germany’s burly players were struggling against defter teams. Our model reckons Die Mannschaft, as the national team is known, should surpass everyone else, given Germany’s wealth, vast player pool and lack of competing sports. But between 1990 and 2005 it performed about a third of a goal worse per match than expected.
So the DFB revamped. German clubs have spent about €1bn ($1.2bn) on developing youth academies since 2001, to meet 250 nationwide criteria. Youngsters now have up to twice as much training by the age of 18. Crucially, however, sessions focus on creativity in random environments. One exercise involves a robotic cage that flings balls from various angles for a player to control and pass. The men who won the World Cup in 2014, writes Raphael Honigstein, a German football author, learned through “systematic training to play with the instinct and imagination of those mythical ‘street footballers’ older people in Germany were always fantasising about”. Our model reckons that since 2006 the team has performed almost exactly at the high level expected of it.
England has followed, overhauling its youth programme in 2012. Mr Crocker explains that players are encouraged to take risks and think for themselves. Spanish clubs have long excelled at this, by endlessly practising the rondo: a close-quarters version of piggy-in-the-middle. But the England under-17s that thumped Spain 5-2 in last year’s World Cup final ran rings around their opponents. Mr Crocker says they devised their own tactics, with little managerial help. England’s under-20s won their World Cup, too.
Such self-confidence was lacking in South Korea, Mr Hiddink recalls. When he took over in 2001, the country was already overachieving relative to our model’s low expectations, given its 2% participation rate. But the manager believed that his charges had been held back by a fear of making mistakes. “Deep down I discovered a lot of creative players,” he says. With some help from lucky refereeing decisions, South Korea reached the semi-finals in 2002—making it the only country outside Europe and South America to get that far since 1930.
The second lesson for ambitious officials is to make sure that gifted teenagers do not fall through the cracks. The DFB realised that many had been overlooked by club scouts, so it set up 360 extra regional centres for those who missed the cut. One of them was André Schürrle, who provided the pass that led to the cup-winning goal in 2014. In South Korea Mr Hiddink noticed that some of the best youngsters played for the army or universities, where they were sometimes missed by professional scouts.
When Russia bid to host this year’s tournament in 2010, Mr Hiddink implored his then-bosses to create a nationwide scouting programme, to no avail. The Russian team has declined since then, failing to win a game at the European Championship in 2016. Russia now has one of the World Cup’s oldest squads. Such short-sightedness has harmed America, too, which failed to qualify for this year’s tournament. Our model reckons it should be one of the strongest countries, even accounting for the popularity of other sports such as baseball and basketball. But few players get serious coaching in the amateur college system, and those who are not drafted to Major League Soccer cannot be promoted from lower divisions.
Centralised schemes are easier to establish in small countries. Every Uruguayan Baby Football team has its results logged in a national database. Iceland, which has qualified despite having only 330,000 people and 100 full-time professionals, has trained over 600 coaches to work with grassroots clubs. Since 2000 it has built 154 miniature pitches with under-soil heating to give every child a chance to play under supervision. Such programmes are unfeasible in Africa. Abdoulaye Sarr, a former Senegal manager, says that the pool of talent is huge but barely tapped. Money that could be spent on scouting is lavished on officials instead. In a conspicuous waste of scarce resources, Senegal is sending 300 of them to Russia.
Belgium poaches elephants
West Africa has, however, taken our third tip by tapping into sport’s global network. Western Europe is at the centre of this network, since it has the richest clubs, where players get the best coaching. Ivory Coast, which failed to qualify this time but is Africa’s biggest overachiever, exported a generation of young stars to Beveren, a Belgian club. Many of them later thrived in England’s Premier League. When Senegal beat France, the reigning champions, in 2002, all but two of its squad members played for French teams.
Senegal could have used its resources even more effectively. Patrick Vieira, who left Dakar for France aged eight, was playing for the former colonial power. He was one of several immigrant Frenchmen who won Les Bleus the World Cup in 1998. His home country had never contacted him. Today Senegal is more astute about recruiting its diaspora, and has picked nine foreign-born players for the tournament. Our model reckons the country has performed about 0.4 goals per game better since 2002 than it did before.
The 21st Club, a football consultancy, notes that among European countries the Balkans export the highest share of players to stronger domestic leagues. Since 1991, when Croatia’s 4m people gained independence, none of its clubs has advanced far in the Champions League, Europe’s leading club competition. Yet Croatian clubs have sold lots of players to Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Milan, and those émigrés carried Croatia to the semi-finals in 1998. These export pipelines can become self-perpetuating, thinks Mr Wilson: “once a team does well at a World Cup, and some of its players do well, everybody wants to buy them.”
Some countries are less adept. In the past 15 years Mexico’s under-17s have outperformed those from Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. But a third of Mexico’s senior squad plays in its domestic league, compared with just two or three players for the others. Dennis te Kloese, the national director, says that the Mexican diaspora boosts viewing figures and revenues for domestic clubs, who can pay high enough wages to keep talented locals in the country, rather than venturing to unfashionable European leagues. This domestic bias helps explain why Mexico is one of the few Latin American countries to perform as well as expected, rather than better.
Exporting players is not the only way to benefit from foreign expertise. Mr Wilson says that much of South America’s footballing education came from Jewish coaches fleeing Europe in the 1930s. Today there is a well-trodden circuit of international gurus like Mr Hiddink, who was among the first of a dozen former Real Madrid bosses to have worked in Asia. Yet Mr Szymanski of the University of Michigan has shown that few managers can do much to improve mediocre teams. He also finds that teams outside Europe and South America are no closer to catching up than they were 20 years ago. The data suggest that South Korea has fared slightly worse since 2002 than it did before.
Mr Szymanski believes these countries are experiencing a kind of footballing “middle-income trap”, in which developing economies quickly copy technologies from rich ones but fail to implement structural reforms. A clever manager might bring new tactical fads but cannot produce a generation of creative youngsters. China is said to be paying Marcello Lippi, who led Italy to victory in 2006, $28m a year. Unless he is supported by youth coaches and scouts who reward imaginative play, and a generation of youngsters who love the game, the money will be wasted.
Our final lesson is for the World Cup itself: prepare properly. For starters, make sure you can afford it. In 2014 Ghana brought in $3m of unpaid bonuses by courier to avert a players’ strike, while Nigeria’s squad boycotted a training session over wages. Fabio Capello, Russia’s former boss, went without his $11m salary for months after the rouble collapsed. Navigating dressing-room politics is trickier. Winning players from Spain and Germany have described the importance of breaking down club-based cliques and dropping stars who do not fit the team’s tactics.
The hardest decisions fall to the players. England’s results from the penalty spot have been woeful, losing six of seven shoot-outs in tournaments. Video analysis shows that players who rush tend to miss penalties; the English are particularly hasty. So the under-17s, who won a shoot-out in their World Cup, have worked on slowing down and practising a range of premeditated shots.
The bane and the delight of the World Cup is that decades of planning depend on such fine margins. A country could plan meticulously and still be thwarted by an unlucky bounce of the ball or a bad decision by the referee. “If something goes wrong, everybody wants to rip up the book,” says Mr Wilson. For spectators, however, this randomness offers a glimmer of hope. Teams from Asia, Africa and North America remain the underdogs, but ought to have had more fairytale runs like South Korea’s in 2002. The 21st Club reckons there is a one-in-four chance a first-time champion will emerge this year. For one intoxicating month, fans around the world will forget the years of hurt and believe that their history books, like those in Montevideo’s museum, could be about to add a glorious new chapter.
This comes as no surprise to many of you that already ‘get this’ intuitively from having played and watched this beautiful game your entire life. And you’ll also understand why I used the above image for this blog post.
Without an appreciation of and commitment to the artistry of soccer we won’t be able to credibly compete at the international level and the growth of soccer here will stall.
Some day the majority of coaches, players, and parents in our country will hold this truth to be self-evident. We still have some way to go, unfortunately, but we have to keep chipping away at this folks. Keep the faith!
Last Saturday’s Atletico Madrid vs FC Barcelona game was a perfect example of modern top-level soccer.
It had everything – skills, technique, creativity, excellent off-the-ball movement, great defending and goalkeeping, playing out from the back, spacing, pressing, shooting, passion, pace, team work….the list goes on.
This is how huge the gap is in our country. This is where we need to be if we want to compete internationally.
And to reach this level of soccer sophistication requires a fundamental revamp of how we teach, play, and organize soccer. It starts with our coaching quality, and includes finding a way for our best/better players to avoid college soccer.
I’m including here a 12-minute highlights clip, but it doesn’t do the game justice. I strongly encourage you to find a recording of the full game and watch it with your soccer-playing kids. It’s very entertaining and a great learning opportunity.
This is my first post in many months – I’ve simply been too busy at work and with family. But Tuesday night’s US MNT elimination from the World Cup jolted me into posting again.
I have not felt this angry in a while. This is a national disgrace, an international embarrassment.
Let me be very blunt: what a joke of a team and coaches. USSF lacks leadership that understands this beautiful game deeply enough. The quality of soccer in the MLS is poor and the incentives in that league are not aligned with developing players to compete internationally. And don’t get me started on college soccer.
Time to stop the BS and start with a complete and deep revamp of how we teach, play, and organize the beautiful game here.
We need to hold our coaches more accountable and support only those that truly understand the game and how to teach it. This also means that we as parents and the leaders of our youth clubs educate ourselves about what it means to learn and play futbol properly.
In contrast to pretty much all soccer powerhouses such as Brazil and Germany and Spain, we’re paying our coaches and clubs a lot of money, right? So if we have a pay-to-play model here let’s at least demand a service that can justify these cost.
This applies to all levels of coaching – national, pro, college, and youth. And it applies to US Soccer leadership as well as us parents.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while then you know that this doesn’t come as too big a surprise to me, but I still feel angry about it.
We have inmates running the asylum and it needs to stop.
In contrast, tiny Iceland (pop 335,000) qualified for the World Cup yesterday in first place (!) in its European (!) qualifying group. And remember their recent remarkable European Championship performance?
That’s a country only about one-third the population of the City of San Jose here in NorCal.
Let’s do that again: 335 thousand people with limited resources on an icy island in the Atlantic ocean near Europe perform better than 335 million people living in the wealthiest country in the world with unbelievable facilities and resources and brainpower and a deep and pervasive tradition of sports.
When will there be enough evidence to finally trigger deep changes in how we train and play this beautiful game in our country? Have we finally reached a tipping point?
I’ll leave you with these three clips to reflect on:
The GDA is supposed to mirror the successful Boys’ Development Academy, which was launched in 2007, and is expected to become the new home for our elite female soccer players, effectively replacing the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), which will now become a league for the second tier teams.
Many clubs, coaches, and parents are wondering why there’s a need for a GDA when ECNL has been providing a regional and national league system for our best girls since 2009.
What makes this more contentious is the ‘no high school soccer’ rule for girls in the GDA. This rule states that GDA players cannot play high school soccer while also training and playing with the GDA primarily because of overuse health concerns and poor quality of coaching. They can, however, opt to take a three-month break from the GDA to play high school soccer and then return once the high school soccer season is over.
First, we haven’t emphasized technical skills enough in our country. Raw athleticism, speed, size, and aggression have dominated player selection for too long. This works well especially at younger ages if ‘winning’ and ‘rankings’ are important.
For example, U12 or U14 girls that are physically more mature and have the basics down will typically beat girls that are technically more proficient but are physically less developed at the same age. The club’s and coach’s win-percentage and team ranking will be higher, which in turn attracts more paying families.
But those same ‘winning’ girls will struggle eventually as their technically superior smaller peers mature physically too over time. And many of those ‘winning’ physically mature U12 or U14 girls overshoot as they fully mature into young women. I have seen many ‘winning’ 12, 13, and 14 year old girls turn into slow and ineffective players at age 15 and 16.
At the international level a focus on physical attributes won’t be sufficient going forward given the big improvements in the development of female soccer players in countries like Japan, France, Spain, and England.
For societal reasons and because of the deeply embedded male soccer culture in leading soccer nations, female players only recently started playing soccer in larger numbers there. And those countries are now bringing their deep expertise in player development from the men’s side to their female players.
This is very apparent when watching the most recent U17 and U20 Women’s World Cups. Japan and France in particular played the most sophisticated and complete soccer, and the gap between them and us in those age groups was significant.
“When people say the gap is closing, I would say the gap has closed and we’re falling behind in these areas.” – April Heinrichs in NYT interview, June 2015
Going forward, the ideal female player combines soccer-specific athletic attributes with excellent technical skills and superior soccer IQ. And developing these kinds of players starts when they are very young and needs to continue throughout their youth soccer years.
This will also increase the quality of play domestically and the entertainment value, which in turn should lead to a larger viewership and, over time, more financial resources for women’s soccer.
So with this background in mind, here’s how April described the key differences for each of the girls’ soccer models:
GDA = Primarily Player Development – no financial incentives, just longer-term player development owned and organized by our national soccer federation. Strong centralized control over all aspects, including coaching standards, curriculum, training and game schedule.
ECNL = Primarily Business – a league for our pay-to-play clubs to compete against each other. Need to ‘win’ to keep and attract paying parents with talented girls. Clubs and coaches retain, for all practical intents and purposes, full independence.
High School Soccer = Primarily Social – girls enjoy playing with school friends for their school and get local peer group recognition. Focus is on ‘winning’ with the available pool of players at the school, not player development. Risk of injury is high.
I tried to capture the differences between three models at the national level in the following chart:
I support the introduction of the GDA because it promises to be the best *player development* environment for our elite girls, assuming the coaching quality and player development curriculum is truly world-class. And there will still be the ECNL for girls that either don’t make it into the GDA or prefer to play on ECNL teams.
There will be some regional differences initially – for example, here in NorCal of the big girls’ clubs only De Anza Force has committed to the GDA. Other clubs like Mustang and San Juan have decided to stay with ECNL for now, but that is likely to change if their best girls start to try out at GDA clubs once the dust has settled. In other regions, such as SoCal, ~80% of the top clubs have committed to the GDA as of February 2017.
So the chart for NorCal looks something like this:
In NorCal the best players and coaches will initially still be in the ECNL simply because all of the ECNL clubs and their players aren’t expected to switch to the GDA. However, as the GDA becomes established nationwide and much of the college recruiting and national team scouting aligns with that, more top female players in NorCal will switch to GDA clubs, which will force the ECNL clubs to apply for GDA membership too.
There are probably going to be more changes as we get closer to the summer and there are probably going to be some teething problems, but odds are high that the GDA will be successful. U.S. Soccer will put its full weight behind it. And the GDA will serve our most elite girls well because the focus promises to be primarily on ‘development’ not ‘winning’.
Read the below letter from Ronaldinho and then watch the clip at the end. Enjoy!
Dear eight-year-old Ronaldinho,
Tomorrow, when you come home from playing football, there will be a lot of people in your house. Your uncles, friends of your family and some other people you won’t recognize will be in the kitchen. At first, you’ll think you’re just late for the party. Everybody’s there to celebrate the 18th birthday of your brother, Roberto.
Usually when you come home from football, mom is always laughing or joking around.
But this time, she’ll be crying.
And then you will see Roberto. He will put his arm around you and bring you inside the bathroom so you can be alone. Then he will tell you something you won’t understand.
“There was an accident. Dad is gone. He died.”
It won’t make sense to you. What does that mean? When is he coming back? How could dad be gone?
Dad was the one who told you play creatively on the football pitch, the one who told you to play with a free style — to just play with the ball. He believed in you more than anyone. When Roberto started playing professional football for Grêmio last year, Dad told everyone, “Roberto is good, but watch his younger brother coming up.”
Dad was a superhero. He loved football so much that even after working at the shipyard during the week, he would work security at Grêmio’s stadium on the weekend. How could you never see him again? You won’t understand what Roberto is telling you.
You’re not going to feel sadness right away. That will come later. A few years from now, you will accept that Dad is never coming back on earth. But what I want you to understand is that every time you have a ball at your feet, Dad will be with you.
When you have a football at your feet, you are free. You are happy. It’s almost like you are hearing music. That feeling will make you want to spread joy to others.
You are lucky because you have Roberto. Even though he’s 10 years older and already playing for Grêmio, Roberto will be there for you always. He won’t just be a brother, he will become like a father to you. And more than anything, he’ll be your hero.
You’ll want to play like him, you’ll want to be like him. Every morning, when you head to Grêmio — you will play for the youth side, while Roberto plays for the senior team — you’ll get to walk into the locker room with your big brother, the football star. And every night, when you go to bed, you’ll think, I get to share a room with my idol.
There are no posters on the walls in the bedroom you share, there’s only a small TV. It won’t matter anyway, because you won’t have time to watch any matches together. When he’s not traveling for matches, Roberto is taking you outside to play more football.
Where you live in Porto Alegre, there are drugs and gangs and that kind of stuff around. It’s going to be tough, but as long as you are playing football — on the street, at the park, with your dog — you will feel safe.
Yes, I said your dog, by the way. He’s a tireless defender.
You’ll play with Roberto. You’ll play with other kids and older guys at the park. But eventually everyone will get tired — and you will want to keep playing. So make sure you always take your dog, Bombom, out with you. Bombom is a mutt. A real Brazilian dog. And even Brazilian dogs love football. He’ll be great practice for dribbling and skills … and maybe the first casualty of the “Elastico.”
Years from now, when you are playing in Europe, a few defenders will remind you of Bombom.
Childhood is going to be very different for you. By the time you’re 13, people will have started talking about you. They’ll talk about your skills and what you’re able to do with a ball. At this time, football is still just a game to you. But in 1994, when you are 14, the World Cup will show you that football is more than just a simple game.
July 17, 1994, is a day every Brazilian remembers. On that day, you’ll be traveling with the Grêmio youth team for a match in Belo Horizonte. The World Cup final is on TV, and it’ll be Brazil against Italy. Yes, that’s right, the Canarinho will be in a World Cup final for the first time in 24 years. The whole country will seem to stop.
Everywhere in Belo Horizonte, there will be Brazilian flags. There will be no colors except green and yellow that day. Every single spot in the city will have the match turned on and be filled with people.
You’ll be watching with your teammates. The final whistle will blow with the score tied 0–0. The game will go to a penalty shootout.
Italy misses their first PK, and so does Brazil. Then Italy scores. And then … Romario steps up. His shot curves to the left … hits the post … and flies in the goal. The guys on the team are screaming and yelling.
Italy scores and there’s silence again.
Branco scores for Brazil … Taffarel makes a save for Brazil … Dunga scores for Brazil.…
Then, the moment that will not just change your life, but the lives of millions of Brazilians.…
Baggio steps up to the spot for Italy and misses.
Brazil are World Cup champions.
During the crazy celebration, it’s going to become clear to you what you want to do for the rest of your life. You’re going to finally realize what football means to Brazilians. You’re going to feel the power of this sport. Most importantly, you will see the happiness that football can bring to regular people.
“I’m going to play for Brazil,” you’ll tell yourself that day.
Not everyone is going to believe in you, especially with the way you play.
There will be some coaches — alright, one in particular — who will tell you not to play the way you do. He will think you need to be more serious, that you need to stop dribbling so much. “You’ll never in your life make it as a footballer,” he’ll say.
Use those words as motivation. Use them to keep you focused. And then think about the players who did play the game beautifully — Dener, Maradona, Ronaldo.
Think about what Dad said, to play free and to just play with the ball. Play with joy. This is something that many coaches will not understand, but when you are on the pitch, you will never calculate. Everything will come naturally. Before you have time to think, your feet have already made a decision.
Creativity will take you further than calculation.
One day, just a few months after you watch Romario lift the ’94 World Cup, your coach at Grêmio is going to pull you into his office after training. He’ll tell you that you’ve been called up to the Brazilian under-17 national team.
When you get to the training camp in Teresópolis, you will see something that you will never forget: When you walk into the cafeteria, you’ll notice the framed photos hanging on the walls — Pelé, Zico, Bebeto.
You’ll be walking the same halls as those legends. You’ll sit at the same cafeteria tables that Romario, Ronaldo and Rivaldo sat in. You’ll eat the same food they ate. You’ll sleep in the same dorms they slept in. When you put your head down to sleep, your last thought will be, I wonder which of my heroes slept on this pillow, too.
For the next four years, you will do nothing but play football. You will spend your life on buses and training pitches. In fact, from 1995 to 2003, you will never take a vacation. It will be very intense.
But when you turn 18, you will achieve something your father would have been very proud of. You will make your debut for Grêmio’s senior team. The only sad part is that Roberto won’t be there. A knee injury will cut his time at Grêmio short and he’ll go to Switzerland to play. You won’t get to share the pitch with your hero, but you’ve spent so many years watching Roberto that you’ll know what to do and how to act.
On match days, you’ll walk through the car park where your father used to work security on the weekends. You’ll enter the dressing room where your brother used to take you as a kid. You’ll pull on the blue and black Grêmio shirt. You’ll think: Life can’t get any better than this. You’ll think you have finally made it, playing for your hometown club.
But this is not where your story ends.
The next year, you will play your first senior match with the Brazilian national team. A funny thing will happen. You will actually show up to your first training camp a day later than your teammates. Why? You’ll be delayed by a match with Grêmio in the final of the Campeonato Gaúcho tournament against Internacional.
Playing for Internacional will be the captain of the ’94 World Cup team, Dunga.
You will play very well in this match. So when you arrive to the pitch for your first day of training with Brazil, your new teammates — the guys you watched win the ’94 World Cup — will be talking about one player: the small kid wearing number 10.
They’ll be talking about you.
They’ll be talking about how you dribbled past Dunga. They’ll be talking about your title-winning goal. But don’t get too confident, because they’re not going to go easy on you. This will be the most important moment of your life. When you get to this level, people will expect many things of you.
Will you keep playing your way?
Or will you start to calculate? Will you play it safe?
The only advice I have to give you is this: Do it your way. Be free. Hear the music. This is the only way for you to live your life.
Playing for Brazil will change your life. All of a sudden, doors you never even knew were available to you will start to open.
You’ll start to think about playing in Europe, where a lot of your heroes went to prove themselves. Ronaldo will tell you about life in Barcelona. You’ll see his awards, his Ballon d’Or, his club trophies. Suddenly, you’ll want to make history too. You will start to dream beyond Grêmio. In 2001, you will sign with Paris Saint-Germain.
How can I tell a kid who was born in a wooden house in a favela what life will be like in Europe? It’s impossible. You will not understand, even if I tell you. From the time you leave for Paris, then Barcelona, then Milan, everything will go by very, very fast. Some of the media in Europe will not understand your style of play. They will not understand why you are always smiling.
Well, you are smiling because football is fun. Why would you be serious? Your goal is to spread joy. I’ll say it again — creativity over calculation.
Stay free, and you’ll win a World Cup for Brazil.
Stay free, and you’ll win the Champions League, La Liga and Serie A.
Stay free, and you’ll win a Ballon d’Or.
What you’ll be most proud of, though, is helping to change football in Barcelona through your style of play. When you arrive there, Real Madrid will be the power of Spanish football. By the time you leave the club, kids will be dreaming of playing “the Barcelona way.”
Listen to me, though. Your role in this will be about much more than what you do on the pitch.
At Barcelona, you’ll hear about this kid on the youth team. He wears number 10 like you. He’s small like you. He plays with the ball like you. You and your teammates will go watch him play for Barcelona’s youth squad, and at that moment you’ll know he’s going to be more than a great footballer. The kid is different. His name is Leo Messi.
You’ll tell the coaches to bring him up to play with you on the senior side. When he arrives, the Barcelona players will be talking about him like the Brazilian players were talking about you.
I want you to give him one piece of advice.
Tell him, “Play with happiness. Play free. Just play with the ball.”
Even when you are gone, the free style will live on in Barcelona through Messi.
A lot will happen in your life, good and bad. But everything that happens, you will owe to football. When people question your style, or why you smile after you lose a match, I want you to think of one memory.
When your father leaves this earth, you won’t have any movies of him. Your family doesn’t have much money, so your parents don’t own a video camera. You won’t be able to hear your father’s voice, or hear him laughing again.
But among his possessions, there is one thing you’ll always have to remember him by. It’s a photo of you and him playing football together. You are smiling, happy — with the ball at your feet. He is happy watching you.
When the money comes — and the pressure, and the critics — stay free.
Play as he told you to play.
Play with the ball.
[Click here for a clip showing Ronaldinho play with the ball and his opponents.]
I was watching the European La Liga Promises youth tournament a couple of weeks ago and, apart from the quality soccer these U13 kids from around Europe (and especially Spain) are already displaying, what struck me the most was that these 12 and 13 year old boys were playing 7v7 (!) on small fields with small goals.
Note also the additional line running vertically across the field about five yards in front of each penalty box. Opponents are not allowed to cross this line during goal kicks to encourage playing from the back instead of punting the ball up the field.
I’ve known that youth soccer in Europe, and especially in Spain, is played on smaller fields with fewer players for longer, but seeing it in action at this elite youth tournament reminded me of how important this is for player development.
Take a look at the Spanish age chart below. The third row, Alevin, is U12, the fourth row is U13 (aka Infantil B) and the fifth/last row is U14 (aka Infantil A). U12 plays 7v7, U13 9v9, and then U14 plays 11v11. (But note that the U13s still played 7v7 at the above La Liga Promises tourney).
Click here for an excellent presentation on the importance of small-sided games. I’m pasting a couple of quotes and key slides from that presentation here:
“Over the years, we (the U.S.) have relied on athleticism and fitness. But times are changing, and we can’t rely on that any more. In small-sided games, you can’t take plays off. The girls we saw training were all totally engaged. You can’t start to do that at age 25.”
Carli Lloyd (World Cup Champion 2015, World Female Player of the Year 2015 & 2016)
“When you play on big fields (as a young player), there is not much demand for clean technique. I developed technique later. When I went to college, I still had a very weak left foot.”
Heather O’Reilly (World Cup Champion 2015)
In 2016 U.S. Soccer introduced very important changes along these lines (click here for the full U.S. Soccer presentation on the value of small-sided games) and I very much hope that all leagues, clubs, and coaches in our country fully implement these changes.
As the below chart shows, U.S. Soccer hasn’t gone as far as Spain, unfortunately, but this is a big improvement already.
Our U12s are now supposed to continue playing 9v9 on smaller fields (this ended at U11 Spring before), and the U13s then start with 11v11 on full-sized fields. In Spain the U13s still play 9v9 for another year though and the U11s and U12s play 7v7.
If longer-term player development and teaching quality soccer is the goal of a club and coach then there is no question that small-sided games and focus on skills and technique is essential. Click here for a very good webpage listing the benefits of small-sided games.
We need to do much more of that in our country and I personally hope that U.S. Soccer will fully adopt the Spanish approach to even smaller-sided games for longer in the near future.
Taking this one (small) step further, I would love to see futsal as a regular year-round part of the youth soccer experience, at least until age 12, but ideally 14. For example, instead of, say, three outdoor practices per week, let’s do two outdoor sessions and one futsal session focusing on skills, technique, and ball control – all in tight spaces.
If you’re unfamiliar with futsal simply search my blog using keyword ‘futsal’. And if you’re interested in where to play futsal in NorCal click here.
Probably the biggest hurdle are the economics given that youth soccer in our country is a private market with clubs operating as businesses (which is not the case in Europe). Click here for a blog post on how much youth soccer can cost and click here for a blog post on our ‘pay-to-play’ system if you want to learn more.
The economics become more difficult as rosters are reduced for smaller-sided games. Coaching, say, 16 or 18 kids at the same time is much more profitable than, say, 10 or 12.
And there will also be resistance from parents who’s son or daughter doesn’t have the skills and ball control needed to be successful in smaller-sided games, nor the interest to work hard on skills development.
These parents will push for larger games because the lack of soccer ability is much easier masked on a big field playing 11v11, especially if he/she is good at running and physically on the larger end of the spectrum in his/her age group.
This youngster will be able to stay with a top team for longer, but will end up being a worse player over the medium- to long-term.
And coaches will have to do the hard work of teaching skills and technique in more detail for longer. Many don’t have those skills themselves, unfortunately, and it’s easier to focus on ‘bigger picture’ 11v11 coaching.
That said, we’re heading in the right direction and we are going to see the fruits of the changes U.S. Soccer has implemented in the coming years.
These Football Times published a must-read article a couple of weeks ago on the big gap in coaching quality here compared to countries like Spain.
It describes one US coach’s experience with three Spanish guest coaches during a summer camp on the East Coast and then his three years of learning about soccer in Spain.
Here are key sections from that article (edited slightly for brevity and clarity):
The three Spanish coaches each taught me more about football than I had previously learned in my 15 year playing career through a variety of different settings including travel teams, premier clubs, summer camps, high school soccer, college soccer and ultimately men’s league.
My coaching career, which included US Soccer national courses, club and collegiate experience, and working summer camps, had been as educationally disappointing as my time as a player.
Between playing and coaching, I had been a part of the US Soccer Federation for 16 years, yet what had I really learned?
In the two weeks I had been working with the three football wise men, I discovered football had a game cycle, it had four phases, each technical ability had a specific tactical intention, it could be simplified in 2v1s and 3v2s, training finishing didn’t mean you’d score goals, defending was more than your stance.
They were showing me through their actions that coaches facilitate learning not with their instructions, but their well-crafted sessions.
Coaches don’t teach creativity but nurture it.
I witnessed how they played chess with their players whilst empowering them to be more than pawns. They demonstrated that coaches are in the spotlight for the losses and in the shadows for the wins. This was merely the tip of the iceberg and I wanted more.
These three Spanish coaches did something US Soccer never had: they inspired me.
At that point, I came to the conclusion that I knew nothing about football. US Soccer had failed me. I had dedicated the majority of my life to it and it had let me down.
Throughout the years, on countless teams with a myriad of experiences and numerous coaches, I was betrayed with a lack information, inspiration and motivation.
Footballistic unfulfillment fed my yearning to learn everything there was to know about my childhood passion, and the only place to achieve this was 6,000 kilometres away.
So I went to Spain three years ago to study football and I finally understand it.
There is an exorbitant amount of mental and physical elements that concern a player’s development over the course of a year, and more so, their integral career. To assign an unqualified and untrained individual to be responsible for a team of young football players would be detrimental to the sport and the integrity of the children.
In order to train any team at any age, the Spanish Football Federation requires coaches to have completed at least the UEFA B license (465 hours over at least nine months of theoretical and practical learning and evaluation). A coach in possession of a US Soccer National ‘D’ license (36-40 hours) is allowed to train any team at any level younger than 15.
How do we expect an individual who’s been prepared for a mere 40 hours to be capable of growing young players into exceptional footballers?
To read the full article click here. It’s worth it!
Thank you, David, for sharing your experiences. It helps push us along here!
GoalNation published an interview with soccer legend Paul Breitner about youth player development in our country. Below is an excerpt with some edits for brevity, and please note that Paul’s command of English isn’t perfect.
Considered one of the greatest living footballers, Paul Breitner won the 1974 World Cup with Germany and is one of the few players in the world — like Pele and Zidane – who have scored in two World Cup finals. He won seven German National Championships with Bayern Munich (1972, 1973, 1974, 1980, 1981) and two with Real Madrid (1975, 1976) in Spain.
Q: If you were a player who had been developed in America, would you have gone on to be a professional player who scored in two World Cup finals?
Paul Breitner: Never.
Q: So you don’t believe you would have grown into the player you became if you had been developed in our current youth soccer world?
Paul Breitner: No, I would have developed to become the same as 100 (other) players in the US. You have the same types of players and everyone has to learn the same moves.
Q: What is important for a soccer player to be successful?
Paul Breitner: A soccer player has to do his job feeling free, and not being commanded and demanded. A soccer player needs to have the freedom to create ideas. He has to defend and attack in his own way – with his own intuition.
Q: What do you believe is wrong in American youth soccer?
Paul Breitner: The problem is that Americans think soccer players are athletes. No way – a soccer player is an artist not an athlete. Coaches have to realize that they are working with artists, not robots.
Q: How are youth soccer players developed in Germany?
Paul Breitner: In Germany, every player is guided according to his own possibilities, his own skills and is not treated the same way as the ten or fifteen other guys on his team. Players are encouraged to discover all kinds of freedom, creativity and responsibility. Respect, partnership, fairness; we teach these values from the age of four.
Please leave a comment at the end of this post if you know of any more futsal clubs, leagues, and/or tourneys so I can update this post. It would be great to make this list as complete as possible. Thank you!
Tens of thousands of kids across NorCal are getting ready for the winter futsal season. Most of the clubs mentioned below offer year-round futsal programs, but there’s definitely a huge surge during the winter months when the outdoor soccer season slows down.
I can’t say this enough – you MUST try futsal. Your sons and daughters are almost certainly going to have a blast and will learn a lot too. It’s excellent for player development. And you will enjoy watching the games – there’s much more action than outdoor soccer and your son/daughter is in the middle of the action pretty much all the time – there are only four field players per team.
You don’t have to join a futsal club or be part of one of our soccer clubs to participate – many futsal teams are coached by volunteer parents with soccer background. Simply pull a group of seven to nine outdoor teammates or friends from different outdoor clubs together, register your team, and go play.
With the help of awesome soccer mom Gaby and encyclopedic soccer dad Mark, here goes:
FUTSAL CLUBS (click on the club name for website or FB page)
Futsal Kingz– skills and fun for all levels and age groups, both boys and girls, across various locations in the South Bay. Tim Newsome and his team are GREAT! I can’t recommend them enough. Sessions and camps year-round, both competitive and recreational. Also compete in tournaments, most recently winning U.S. Futsal Nationals in the U8 and U9 age bracket.
World United Futsal Academy (WUFA)– competitive futsal mostly for boys, but girls are welcome too. Led by Vava Marques, USA National Futsal Team Coach, who grew up playing the game competitively and pro in Brazil, and Daniel Berdejo-del-Fresno, who grew up in Spain and most recently was the Head of Coaching & Sports Science at the International Futsal Academy in England and since 2010 on the coaching staff of the England Futsal National Teams. Daniel also wrote a free book on futsal coaching.
World-class coaching for the strongly committed soccer/futsal players. Year-round sessions. Close relationship with FC Barcelona’s futsal program in Spain, including training at FC Barcelona’s facilities and hosting of FC Barcelona futsal coaches in Palo Alto.
Burlingamer in the North Bay and in Evergreen (South/East San Jose). This also includes the Gamer Futsal School. Nice facility and quality coaching year-round. GFS owners Jen Short and Roxy Kamal also serve as the U.S. Futsal Women’s National Team Coaches, and teams compete in various tournaments.
Legends Futsalin Central and South San Jose. One of the oldest futsal clubs in the Bay Area. Very competitive across all age groups for both boys and girls. Also now have a semi-pro mens team I believe.
Futsal Without Borders in San Jose. Organized by passionate soccer mom, Diana. Compete in Bay Area, regional, and national futsal leagues and tourneys, and also organize international futsal trips, but little ongoing coaching and player development. Primarily recruiting kids from the strongest outdoor soccer clubs to maximize performance at tourneys.
WINTER FUTSAL LEAGUES (click on the league name for website or FB page)
Futsal San Jose – this league is the most popular in the South Bay/San Jose area. Hundreds of teams across all age groups, both boys and girls, compete from the first weekend in December to end-February. This league uses a clever ranking and game scheduling system that matches teams based on previous weekends’ game results. Sign up now!
Stanford-Palo Alto Futsal League – teams compete in January & February. This league is organized by Vava Marques from WUFA (see above). Teams are grouped by age and ability. Sign up now!
San Francisco Futsal League – organized by SF Recreation & Parks and played at 13 centers across the city from January to March, U5-U18 boys and girls teams compete in recreational, intermediate, and advanced divisions. Note that the city website refers to ‘indoor soccer league’, but it’s futsal.
Keep in mind that the above two Nationals don’t actually attract the various Regional/State Champions from around the country because youth teams are not (yet) willing to travel far (and incur the cost) for futsal. So Regionals can often be more competitive than Nationals. This will change over time with futsal’s continuing growth.
By way of background, U.S. Youth Futsal and U.S. Futsal are the two competing national futsal organizations. My understanding is that both have the same status with the U.S. Soccer Federation, and that USYF is stronger on the East Coast while USF is stronger on the West Coast.
Please leave a comment below if you know of any more futsal clubs, leagues, and/or tournaments. Thank you!
Have you ever seen a professional sports team celebrate an opponent during a major competition? This speaks volumes about Falcao’s status in the world of soccer, and futsal in particular.
Falcao retired today at age 39. He brought immeasurable joy to futbol and inspired a generation of players, including Neymar, through his ginga. He lifted futsal to new heights and will be forever remembered alongside greats such as Pele, Cruyff, Maradona, Ronaldinho, and Messi. Thank you for the magic, Falcao!
And respect to the Iranian players for this kind of sportsmanship!
Here’s a 40-second clip showing the celebration immediately after the Quarterfinal and then take a look at the FIFA clip on Falcao.
SoccerAmerica published a great article on one Bay Area family’s experiences in the Italian youth soccer scene. It’s written by Chris Pepe who’s son plays on the U12 Juventus DA team here in the Bay Area. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Chris!
Click here for the full article. For brevity, I took the liberty of posting only the key parts of Chris’ article below. I recognize immediately what Chris describes from my time growing up in Europe. The same observations apply to Latin America.
The difference between a soccer culture that is deeply embedded within society and one that is just another scheduled sports activity shows itself on the fields of play.
If you’re interested in my views on this please click here, here, and here for additional articles.
Ok, here are Chris’ observations in Italy:
“At some point in the evolution of soccer in the USA, it seems we all became convinced that our children could or even would play professionally … statistics be damned! A truly American belief, born out of our eternal optimism and sometimes nauseating can-do spirit.
Despite the lack of a broad-based structure to scout and identify young talent, we still believe our kid will be the one. Irrespective of the millions of kids playing soccer for countless hours every day, we think the two hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday is enough.
Despite the desire buried deep inside the impoverished kid that needs to play to find a better life, we are convinced it can be done. It’s a matter of expectations, and if there is one area where the USA over-indexes against its soccer-rich counterparts, it’s in confidence and its closest offsprings: expectations.
In Italy, instead, it is generally accepted at an early age that your kid won’t play for Inter or AC Milan. The best talent is selected early on, in some ways lowering the level of expectations that your son will become a professional player, and easing your desired outcome for this weekend’s game.
Nationwide rankings are not discussed or, to the best of my knowledge, even kept at the youth level here. The game is not played to bolster coaches’ ratings or build association points or prestige.
The Italian youth soccer game forms part of an intricate social structure that contains layers of amateur teams and professional associations that neatly ladder up to the professional Serie A.
Every town and village has its own top-flight squad, and a structure below that ladders its way up. Whether the top team plays in Serie A, B or C, or somewhere below, matters little other than the fact that it enables every player in every town to continue to play for as long as they may choose.
In our adopted town in Italy, knowing that the ‘best’ and most connected kids were playing for our local Serie B youth team, Vicenza Calcio, weekends have become much more relaxing. Oh sure, you do get to play against them, if only to see how the game is properly played.
And, yes, exposure is possible even at the lowest levels and in the smallest town, but is identified early on freeing the mind and the soul to play for the love of the game and with no particular professional ends in mind.
My son’s new school in Italy is attached to one of the many local churches, Chiesa del Carmine. As tourists, we had often marveled at the number of churches in Italy, rarely seeing the hidden courtyard sheltering a small calcetto court behind. Think small-sided 5v5 games on a basketball-style court. [Side note from this blogger: click here for a similar neighborhood court I came across wandering around downtown Barcelona recently.]
The Carmine courtyard has a small-sized soccer field, and numerous well-spaced trees that act as goalposts for any number of after school pick-up games. As the courtyard turns into a public park in the afternoons, kids from the neighborhood rush to pick teams, wearing last years Juve or Milan shirt bought at the market for 10 euro.
They Ro Sham Bo to determine teams, and proceed to play with reckless abandon. There is no structure or hired coach, there are no fees or scheduled breaks. Kids only stop play to cheer the slickest new move, or to get pointers on how to execute the latest trick. Older kids look out for younger kids, and younger kids test their toughness against older kids.
No meals will be missed, but kids play until darkness descends and their hearts are full of the beautiful game. It is here among friends where new moves are tried, individual skills are honed, and confidence is built.
In the USA, I would drop off my son at assigned times to run and kick and learn soccer’s structured basic skill-set. I would then rush to bring my daughter to her practice at the same time; do a bit of shopping; or maybe sneak in a run.
There was never an after school pick-up game or other opportunity to play. I could often convince my friend Marvin, a Salvadoran-American, to bring his three sons and meet at the local park. But even then, we never had enough players for a spirited match, and would make up games or run through drills.
I have often believed that U.S. youth soccer is dominated by ‘organized’ babysitting, as opposed to spontaneous play, and this notion has been reaffirmed while living in a country that has soccer as part of its very DNA.
While soccer remains perched on the cusp of a real mainstream following in the USA, we continue to excel at ‘soccer-by-appointment,’ rather than evolving into a sport driven by passion. Kids in Italy, while not quite filling every piazza with neighborhood match-ups, still play calcio more for the fun of it than for the appointed necessity of it all.
On my son’s Italian team (San Lazzaro), sponsored by the local pizza joint (Pizzeria Albera), there is no one outstanding athlete that can out-run the pack, and score off a long ball sent from the defense. It helps of course that, at this age (until age 13), kids play 9-a-side games on small-ish fields, with even smaller goals. There are three periods of 20 minutes a-piece, and little substituting.
At the start of each game, kids line up and walk to the center circle, while parents applaud both sides in an effort to set a standard for fair play. Once play begins, the focus is on playing the game properly and as one cohesive unit, one team. When the ball does cross the end-line, the keeper, no matter his skill level, must always play the ball from the back to his expectant defenders.
The team will then work the ball up through the midfield, and across the halfway line. Sure, this leads to countless mistakes and numerous unaccounted-for goals; irrespective, the emphasis remains the same, and the game must still be initiated from the back. It’s a rare match when the keeper punts the ball more than twice, and even more rare for a long ball to be played.
Winning remains an objective, however it’s the appearance of play, the ‘bella figura,’ that matters most. Losing well and looking good are acceptable; losing bad and looking bad are not.
Calcio and life are inextricably intertwined in so many ways here. Here you learn from a very young age that soccer is much more than a game. It’s a way of life.”
If you’re familiar with my blog then you know how important I think creativity is for player development and that I’m concerned about an overemphasis on quick passing at too early an age. I hear “don’t dribble” too often.
Click here, here, and here for just some of my posts on this topic.
I came across an article in GoalNation about a sports psychologist who works with players and clubs in the English Premier League. He describes the following three key attributes of a top-performing player’s state of mind:
I want every player, no matter their level, no matter their age, to play with fun.
Excellence starts with fun. A man-of-the-match performance starts with a fun mindset. Being determined and being disciplined starts with a mind attuned to having fun on the pitch. So aim to go have fun.
Fun is a building block to playing with freedom – without tension, worry and doubt.
What does playing with freedom look like to you? What does it feel like?
I hope your coach gives you permission to play with freedom – when I say freedom I mean two things.
Firstly, I mean being on your toes, being ready for the next play, being sharp, alert, alive and lively. I mean not weighed down by the burden of fear.
Secondly, I mean being given permission to make mistakes. All soccer players make mistakes – even Ronaldo, even Messi.
If your coach hasn’t mentioned this then I ask you to give yourself permission to make mistakes. Because when you do (and it’s a case of when rather than if), you will have a mindset to simply carry on.
Free players carry on no matter what happens. They don’t dwell on a past mistake. They don’t dwell on going a goal down. They play with fun and freedom.
Of course you need to be focused as well. A great competitor is focused on each play at hand. Having fun and being free gives you a great platform to play with focus.
I want you to pick one or two things you can focus on accomplishing during the game. Make these things controllable. For example, “complete my passes” isn’t controllable. “keeping great body language no matter what” is controllable.
Here’s a quote from that article to summarize its key point:
“Well-to-do families spend thousands of dollars a year on soccer clubs that propel their children to the sport’s highest levels, while thousands of gifted athletes in mostly African American and Latino neighborhoods get left behind. Soccer is the world’s great democratic game, whose best stars have come from the world’s slums, ghettos and favelas. And yet in the US the path to the top is often determined by how many zeroes a parent can write in their checkbook.”
We probably all agree that soccer in our country is expensive. I posted on this topic a couple of weeks ago – click here to read about the cost of competitive youth soccer.
And the higher the quality of coaching and the higher ranked a team is, the higher the cost, partly because of considerable in-state and then out-of-state travel. Talk to someone who’s son or daughter plays on one of the Development Academy or ECNL teams to learn more. But even the second and third teams at the bigger clubs are expensive and travel quite a bit.
To be very clear, I am not saying that soccer clubs are doing anything ‘wrong’ in terms of the fees they charge. And some try to make needs-based scholarships available to talented players and organize fundraisers.
It’s simple – the bills have to be paid by someone and in our private market called ‘youth soccer’ it’s the parents, of course. And there are also many indirect cost to consider beyond just the direct cost such as club fees. To quote from the article:
“Scholarships often cover the cost of the league but little else. They don’t provide transportation for the player whose parents might work during practice, or don’t have enough money for gas to drive to games. Some families don’t have email and can’t get the club announcements. Resentment builds.
“The parents will say to scholarship kids – and I have seen this countless times – ‘Why did you miss the game on Saturday? We are paying for you to be here,’” Lusson says. “What does a kid say to that? Or what happens if they are late to practice? Or who is going to pay for them to travel to that tournament in San Diego? That’s like the moon to some of these kids. We have kids here in the East Bay who have never seen the beach.”
They drop out and drift away and we lose them and that’s terrible because they were really, really talented.”
The other key point this article makes is that some of the best soccer is actually played in the ‘ligas Latinos’. Click here for an article I came across describing one of those ligas.
I have refereed countless games across all age groups and levels, and see the difference between teams from Latino neighborhoods across NorCal and teams from middle-class and well-to-do neighborhoods.
These relatively well-off teams tend to be more disciplined and ‘solid’ throughout, and often also consistently fitter, but seem to lack that extra level of soccer understanding, technical skill, and creativity that many of the Latino teams have.
As a rule of thumb I see better individual talent on Latino teams, often much better.
You can’t get this from just going to structured team practices three times a week that the kids from middle-class and well-to-do neighborhoods typically pay their club fees for.
They tend not to have time for more soccer anyway – there are other extracurricular activities that help them grow into ‘well-balanced individuals’ and strengthen their college applications.
Throw in extra tutoring to do well in school and a busy social life too, of course. Most don’t even have time nor interest to watch top international games on a weekly basis.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with these priorities, of course. It’s a smart approach for these kids given that practically none of them are aiming to turn pro, but it should be clear to everyone that these youngsters can never reach the elite level.
Yet our player development system is supporting them as though they will and ignores those that actually have a realistic chance to join the elite.
And then we also have the college system that distorts the discovery and development of true top talent. The well-to-do teams travel to college showcases and have the grades to get into college, especially the top college programs (with the better facilities and coaches typically, because those pay best).
For many (and probably all top) clubs the college placement rate is a key selling point so their programming is at least partially influenced by what colleges are looking for.
And I don’t blame the clubs for that. They are simply operating within the system. Why should coaches that dedicate their professional lives to the game not maximize their financial return, like you and me?
Being a martyr for a cause is easy to say, but impossible to do when you have to make a living, support a family, and save for retirement. And that coach will be remembered by very few for ‘fighting the good fight’.
Truly talented underprivileged kids, that are never seen at these college ‘showcases’ because they simply can’t ‘pay to play’ nor have the grades because they had to help support their families, simply vanish.
And that’s a massive loss for our country, not just in terms of becoming World Cup contenders at some point, but also in terms of making our MLS games more entertaining.
In my view, the USA game against Colombia (Fifa Rank #4) in the Copa America two weeks ago made all this painfully visible. It’s not so much the fact that we lost, but rather how we played.
Yes, we won the next three games against Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Ecuador, mostly because we simply played with more heart and energy and against much lower ranked teams than Columbia, but there simply is no player or coach in our country who can credibly compete in the top 10 internationally. Period. We rank 29th, by the way.
Watch the USA v Columbia game again and then the Argentina v Chile game. And finally watch the 0:4 semifinal loss against an Argentinian side that was playing at only about 50-75% of what they are capable of.
Quoting an analyst (with some edits for clarity and brevity), “we had just 32 percent of possession, our midfield lost the ball quickly, we had zero shots (not zero shots on goals – zero shots total), and we were out-played in every way possible. It’s not so much that the U.S. got beaten as it was that they weren’t even in the game.”
We battled and never gave up, but the difference in class along pretty much any soccer dimension, individual and team, was obvious.
That’s the chasm we need to cross and we won’t be successful until we’ve figured out how to discover and then nurture truly our best and most passionate futbol talent wherever it might be.
There is no easy solution to this pay-to-play problem, but I strongly suspect that the only feasible way to truly discover and develop our best soccer talent is to have at least some type of large central funding source with aligned incentives that can support a broad scouting net and then pay for a very large number of youngsters’ development.
U.S. Soccer will have to own this – government funding won’t be available for this. Many other countries, including soccer powerhouses such as Germany and Spain, provide taxpayer funded government support (sometimes a lot and even the entire cost), but we don’t operate like that here.
In addition, clubs that develop talent need to be compensated by the pro clubs for that development. Right now the bigger clubs, especially those with USDA and ECNL status simply suck up the talent that was developed by smaller clubs.
And then the MLS clubs in turn mop up the top talent without owing one of the lesser clubs anything for their player development work.
And once you have a system in place to identify the best talent how do you then best develop them? Insert them into the existing youth clubs (with external funding support) or maybe have a centrally organized system of development through US Soccer?
It’s relatively easy once you’ve identified those that are truly elite – they can join one of the fully paid USDA teams at one of our MLS clubs, but there’s the millions of 5 to 12 year old underprivileged kids that need to be nurtured. Or at least a good portion of them.
It’s the only way to identify the diamonds in the rough and an important part of the changes we need to eventually be able to help fulfill the enormous potential of this massive, sports-obsessed, and wealthy country of ours. We have no excuse!
By the way, click here if you’re interested in some wealth distribution data. This Forbes article is just one source – there are many and they all tell the same story.
P.S.: And then we have to make sure that creative talent isn’t suffocated by shallow, risk-averse coaching that suppresses this creativity, but that’s another topic for another day. If you’re interested, I’ve shared my views on this many times including here, here, and here.