The essence of soccer is the manipulation of…

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.

MUST WATCH – Documentary on Pep Guardiola @Manchester City

All or Nothing: Manchester City

In this ground-breaking docu-series, follow Manchester City behind the scenes throughout their Premier League winning, record-breaking ’17-18 season. Get an exclusive look into one of the best global sports clubs, including never-before-seen dressing room footage with legendary coach Pep Guardiola, and delve into the players’ lives off and on the pitch.

What makes a country good at soccer?

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.

whatmakesacountrygoodatsoccerimage1

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.

The pitfalls of chasing the elite player dream

 

Brain injury from heading the ball – growing evidence from England

THIS!

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.

Comparing Girls’ Development Academy with ECNL and High School Soccer

The launch of U.S. Soccer’s Girls’ Development Academy (GDA) this August is probably the single most discussed topic in girls’ soccer currently.

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.

To help explain the reasons for the GDA, April Heinrichs, U.S. Soccer’s Women’s Technical Director, gave an interview to SoccerAmerica last November. I strongly encourage you to read it. April’s comments resonate strongly with me.

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:

gdaecnlhighschoolnationwide

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:

gdaecnlhighschoolnorcal

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’.

girls-da-map

One more time: the critical importance of small-sided games

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).

img_0151

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.

small-sided-games-chart

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.

Excellent documentary on the German soccer youth development approach

Example of elite talent with excellent technical skills: Martin Ødegaard (age 17) @Real Madrid

Soccer players are artists not athletes – encourage freedom and creativity

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.

 

THIS is world-class young talent. Pirlo surely would agree. How do we get to this in our country?

The massive negative impact of our weak soccer culture and low population density

This is a long post, but I think it’s an important one. I hope you stay with me on this.

One of the themes on my blog is a concern that we might not be emphasizing creativity, risk taking, and ‘craziness’ enough in our youngsters. Click here and here for a couple of posts on this topic. We might be over-coaching and creating too many clones (click here for post).

But do we really want to pay good money for (quality) coaches to just supervise ‘street soccer’ and organized free play? In other words, most coaches might well be doing precisely what they should be doing, similar to youth coaching in Europe.

So if we assume for a moment that it’s not so much a coaching weakness in our country then what might explain (all or part of?) the skills and creativity gap between players here and those in Europe and Latin America?

It is very likely that much of this gap develops when our players are young, between the ages of, say, 5 and 12, maybe 14.

The critical difference between youngsters here and in Europe and Latin America is the lack of free soccer play during school breaks and later in the day in neighborhood parks and backyards.

This leads to a huge gap in hours played per week and a huge loss of creative play opportunities.

There are arguably two main reasons for this: first, a lack of pervasive soccer culture here (still), and, second, much bigger distances and busier roads that make walking or biking to a neighborhood park or a friend’s backyard much more difficult for our youngsters.

The lack of pervasive soccer culture makes it difficult to get a critical mass of soccer free play during school breaks, which is where our youngsters spend the majority of their time.

My son attended the German International school here from Kindergarten through grade 4. Soccer was everywhere…the boys played during every break, talked a lot about soccer, wore soccer jerseys, and traded stickers of soccer players.

I remember this well from my own time growing up in Germany – we played soccer pretty much during every school break (often using just a tennis ball) even if we just had ten minutes and then often got together after homework to play some more on some neighborhood grass patch.

My son then switched to our local American neighborhood school and it all pretty much ended. In fact, he became reluctant to wear his (expensive) soccer jerseys because some of the kids were making fun of them.

Since this school switch the only touches on the ball he gets are during his team practices – probably only a third the touches he was getting before and now everything is structured drills and systems of play. And it’s this professional coaching that I’m willing to pay for, of course, not just supervised street soccer.

To quote from a recent research paper on this topic:

“In other countries, soccer is as important as family and religion. It is the sport that every kid growing up plays first, and a major part of this is how relatively inexpensive the game is to play. And in poorer countries, kids need nothing but a ball and some space. They’re not playing twice a week at practice. They’re playing seven days a week just for fun. And this is where many of the great soccer nations stand out from the United States. As a result, this education and push for technical mastery of skills is lost, and true development falls to youth clubs, where the kids may only be for 3-4 hours a week. Development is stunted because the sport is not engrained into American culture yet.

Klinsmann acknowledged this same issue being the biggest difference between American players and players from global soccer powers:

“One thing is certain: The American kids need hundreds and even thousands more hours to play. That is a really crucial thing. If it’s through their club team, if it’s through themselves, whatever it is. The difference between the top 10 in the world and where we are right now is the technical capabilities and the higher pace. In a high-pace, high-speed environment, to keep calm on the ball, to sharpen your minds so you know what to do with the ball before you get the ball. That’s the difference right now. You might have technically gifted players here, but once you set the pace two levels higher, they lose that technical ability because they’re getting out of breath or their mental thought process isn’t fast enough.”

The second issue about greater distances and our lower population density is also an important factor. It is much more difficult for youngsters to get together after school to just play some soccer. Jumping on a bike to the nearest park or your friend’s backyard is just not feasible in most areas and even if it’s feasible for some there isn’t enough critical mass of players that turn up to play.

The population density of urban areas in Europe is around three times higher than here, and around six times higher in Latin America (data source here). This makes it much easier to get together to play.

In most parts of Europe and Latin America the odds are high that simply turning up at a park with your cleats will get you into a pick-up game. And it’s much easier and safer for youngsters to move about their neighborhoods.

This might also explain why Hispanic youth here tend to be much more creative and skillful. They tend to be much more immersed in soccer culture from birth, are more likely to be playing soccer in their neighborhood schools and with their dads and siblings, and tend to live in neighborhoods with higher population densities. They are constantly surrounded by a strong soccer culture and can play the game pretty much every day.

Unfortunately, many of these same Hispanic youngsters typically don’t have access to quality professional coaching as they get older, partly because of our expensive pay to play system. So they drop out of our player pool as teenagers. But that’s a topic for another day.

There is no quick fix for this and there’s no one to blame. It will take time for our soccer culture to strengthen and become more pervasive.

It’s difficult to overcome the population density issue, but it would be a big win for soccer to be voluntarily played every day by a critical mass of kids during school breaks. And wearing a soccer jersey to school has to become ‘cool’.

Many of our soccer coaches might well be doing a very good job given what they have to work with.

It might be as simple and as difficult as that.

Book Recommendation: Das Reboot

Here’s the well-researched story on how German soccer reinvented itself to finally win the World Cup again last year:

Das Reboot: How German Soccer Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World

Surely some insights we could apply here in the U.S.?

Fastest five goals in Bundesliga history – and saving the best one for last.

Take a moment to watch Lewandowski score an incredible five goals in 9 minutes for Bayern Munich (link below) to propel them to a 5-1 victory over their title rivals Wolfsburg. He completed a sensational five-minute hat-trick, added a fourth moments later, then took his tally to five with a brilliant acrobatic volley, saving the best for last.

Watch Guardiola”s reaction at the end.

CLICK HERE FOR MATCH HIGHLIGHTS

This was the…

  • fastest hat-trick in Bundesliga history;
  • fastest to reach 4 goals;
  • fastest to reach 5 goals;
  • first sub to score 5 goals;

…and he only needed 9 touches for all 5 goals.

Great way to watch games from around the world

I can strongly recommend FoxSoccer2Go. It’s about $20 per month but I get to watch games from all the major national leagues and tournaments, including the UEFA Champions League. It streams nicely on my laptop, tablet, and smartphone.

Enjoy!

Germany 2014 FIFA World Cup Champions

My country of birth, folks, and where I grew up playing the game. My first post simply had to be about this. Fully deserved after many many years of hard work by the German Football Federation and countless coaches and players.

Fourteen years to be precise, with the introduction of a revamped youth development system. Germany has always been a soccer powerhouse, but to become true World Cup contenders again required many improvements in player development and coaching.

Here are a couple of articles summarizing some of those improvements:

http://www.theguardian.com/football/2013/may/23/germany-bust-boom-talent

P.S.: I just have to add this 7:1 win over Brazil in the semifinal. Arguably the worst defeat in the history of soccer.