…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.
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.
“A failure of imagination and player development ultimately cost the Americans a spot in next summer’s World Cup.”
And now comes the reckoning for U.S. men’s soccer.
A day after a decade’s worth of mistakes came home to roost, the U.S. federation now needs to clean up a program that for too long clung to aging talent and false hopes.
Or at least that’s what is supposed to happen after the debacle of Tuesday night, when in the space of 90 minutes, on a soggy field in a sleepy stadium in Trinidad, the Americans lost to a last-place team with nothing to play for and were denied a spot in the 2018 World Cup.
Whether the U.S. has the resolve to confront its problems, however, remains unclear. Tuesday’s defeat illuminated all of the deeply entrenched issues that close-watchers of the team have long complained about.
There was the failure of player development that left the team relying on a core of 30-somethings left over from two World Cup cycles ago.
There was the failure of imagination that caused the team to return, in the middle of qualifying, to a manager, Bruce Arena, it had fired a decade before.
And finally, there was the tactical naiveté that caused that manager to misjudge bottom-of-the-group Trinidad and Tobago and send Team USA out with an unsuitable plan and vulnerable in the most obvious places on the field.
“It was all there for us. We have nobody to blame but ourselves,’ said captain Michael Bradley, who, at 30 years old, is unlikely to get another chance in the world’s most popular sporting event.
In any other soccer country, the protocol now would be clear. The first order of business is firing the manager. The president of the federation occasionally resigns too, just as the Italian coach and federation president did in a wild news conference after the Azzurri’s exit from the 2014 World Cup.
Then, the federation orders a review of its development practices from the ground up. England, for instance, likes to call this “root and branch reform.” A parliamentary inquiry might even be in order.
It has yet to work for England, but versions of that thinking have paid off elsewhere. After the twin disasters of the 1998 World Cup (knocked out by Croatia) and Euro 2000 (eliminated in the group stage), Germany redrew its entire youth soccer structure, invested massively in facilities, and realized that a primary failure was in educating youth coaches. This wasn’t a quick fix. But in 2014, with a generation of talent grown in the new model, it won the World Cup.
How U.S. Soccer got here is a long tale of a broken system.
At the grass-roots, good young players are treated vastly differently in this country than virtually anywhere else in the developed world.
Everywhere else, a young player with promise joins a local club and is trained and cultivated throughout childhood by the club itself. In the U.S. a good young player joins a travel team and his parents are told to foot the bill for coaching, travel, uniforms, equipment and any additional training.
“We have to get to point in the U.S. where, when you are a good young player interested in the game, the first thing you get handed isn’t an invoice for several thousand dollars,” U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said two years ago.
The U.S. Soccer Federation invests millions of dollars each year to increase participation and train coaches, and Major League Soccer’s franchises have in recent years begun to open youth academies. But those efforts are a pittance compared with what happens in so many countries, where local athletic clubs view raising the next generation of players as both a civic responsibility and an investment, because one of them just might turn out to be the next Lionel Messi.
The U.S. has failed to cultivate even a couple of true international stars over the years—something that probably should have happened almost by accident given the size and wealth of the U.S. It’s been 40 years since Pele landed in New York and jump-started the soccer boom.
When Jurgen Klinsmann took over the national team in 2011, his scouts began combing rosters, especially in Europe, for players who might be eligible for an American passport and a spot on the U.S. national team.
Klinsmann’s teams relied heavily on German-Americans, players who were often the children of former American servicemen who had spent time in Germany. One third of his starting lineups were reliably German, with players like Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Danny Williams and John Brooks, none of whom were in the lineup Tuesday. He left Landon Donovan, arguably the best player the U.S. has ever produced, off the U.S. roster for the 2014 World Cup in favor of the unproven 18-year-old Julian Green.
Klinsmann urged every player to flee the U.S. and try to break into the top or even second-tier leagues in Europe, where the quality of play is far more challenging than in MLS. U.S. players, many of whom had spent their late teens and early 20s playing collegiate soccer, would only improve if they faced better competition, he preached.
Just as Klinsmann was pushing for U.S. players to fight for roster spots in Europe, however, MLS teams generated enough money to sign the top U.S. players to lucrative contracts.
Clint Dempsey returned to play for Seattle. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore returned to play for Toronto. Alejandro Bedoya left France for Philadelphia. Matt Besler eschewed opportunities in Europe for a rich deal in Kansas City. Striker Jordan Morris blew off Germany for Seattle.
Few of these players have improved since 2014. And they don’t face the weekly challenges that 19-year-old Christian Pulisic and striker Bobby Wood face in Germany, and defenders Geoff Cameron and DeAndre Yedlin confront in England.
After five years, Klinsmann’s criticism of the U.S. players wore thin, and the bulk of the team began to tune him out, leading to a series of poor results that culminated in several losses to open the final qualifying tournament.
“I had no problem with Jurgen challenging Americans to be better,” said Alexi Lalas, the former U.S. international who is now an analyst for Fox Sports. “But it began to feel more personal. Combine that with his results and that is where the problems came.”
When Arena was brought back in November, he seemed like the perfect antidote—a prideful veteran of U.S. soccer, who believed strongly in the value of MLS, having won its championship five times. But Arena’s conservative approach made the Americans vulnerable, especially on the road when Concacaf opponents felt emboldened to attack.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard, 38, looked every bit his age, getting beat from the flank 40 yards out on Tuesday’s winning goal.
Now, there are no quick fixes, and the U.S. will likely spend the next year and a half completely turning over its roster. They have to hope their next generation that is trying to break through in Europe continues to improve. These are players like 21-year-old Emerson Hyndman of Bournemouth, 22-year-old Matt Miazga of Vitesse in the Netherlands (on loan from Chelsea), and 19-year-old Cameron Carter-Vickers of Sheffield (on loan from Tottenham).
“It’s not going away anytime soon,” Bradley said of the disappointment of this year’s failure. “It’s not something you just forget.”
Thank you Matthew Futterman (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Joshua Robinson (email@example.com) for the research and writing.
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:
I coached my youngest daughter’s U11 futsal team this winter, which ended with the U.S. Futsal Northwest Regionals in San Jose a couple of weeks ago. They ended up second.
During the season we emphasized learning to play the game ‘right’, which includes ball control, skills, and playing out from the back. The emphasis was on ‘player development’, which doesn’t pay off until years later.
We played the same way during the tournament, including playing out from the back and using dribbling and/or passing to work the ball into the final third.
We won against all teams this winter (partly because their players were relatively weak) apart from one aggressive team with stronger players that didn’t give my girls any time on the ball, including when we were trying to work the ball out from the back.
These opposing girls were clearly the best opponents we had faced all winter – their futsal club had ‘recruited’ very good players from various outdoor clubs in places like Santa Rosa and the Greater Sacramento area.
So we lost the ball a lot near our goal and then all the opponents had to do was take lots of shots on goal.
They had a couple of skillful players that did some nice things, but overall this was aggression and intensity overcoming players that are still learning to control the ball at age 10/11.
The score during our group game was 5:13 against us, and it could have been worse.
Turns out both teams ended up in the Final so we played them again.
To give my team a chance to win I decided to change our tactics.
Instead of playing out from the back I told the girls to kick that ball up the field and then pressure the other team in their half.
I also kept one girl deep in the other team’s half. I instructed my girls to kick that ball up the field in the general direction of our lone forward and then run after it to pressure the other team in their own half.
This worked wonders. The other team lead 3:2 with five minutes to go, but the score should have been 3:2 in our favor if it wasn’t for two refereeing mistakes. And we had a couple more great chances but couldn’t finish.
To be clear, I’m not complaining about the referees and neither I nor the players or parents protested during or after the game.
The only reason I’m bringing this up is to point out how evenly matched the teams suddenly were.
We went from a completely one-sided 5:13 to a de-facto 3:2 by changing our tactics dramatically.
The game was very exciting and everyone was happy despite the loss. The overall feeling was that the girls battled hard and could have won the Final. And also nice to avoid a repeat of the earlier drubbing.
It felt great!
Now here’s the key issue:
My only objective was to win that Final. The tactical changes and the player instructions had only one goal in mind: to win. There was zero player development.
The quality of soccer was poor. No team controlled the ball for more than a few seconds and it was mostly hustle and long balls to avoid pressure.
Now imagine you’re a coach of one of our outdoor club teams. You’re playing in leagues and tourneys with relatively evenly matched opponents and often stronger teams.
In contrast, recall that our futsal opponents this winter were significantly weaker than us. So it was easy to play the ‘right’ way….even if we lost the ball playing out from the back the odds of the opponent scoring a goal was relatively low.
For the mathematically inclined: the probability weighted ‘cost’ of playing the ‘right’ way (in terms of losing games) was low compared to the gains.
The vast majority of coaches feel the pressure to win games, leagues and tournaments to keep players and their paying parents happy.
The coach needs to pay his/her bills and put food on the table, and the amount they earn is directly related to how satisfied families and the club’s Director of Coaching are.
And it just feels great to win more often than not. One can get addicted to the euphoria of winning, the happy faces, and the write-up on the club’s website…
It becomes very difficult to truly develop players because you will lose a lot of games for many years.
For example, playing out from the back and encouraging players to develop and apply dribbling skills will backfire for many years.
However, players that develop the right way will eventually dominate the same opponents that beat them up when they were younger.
My oldest daughter’s U15 team learned to play the right way. The skills, the dribbling, the off-the-ball movement, the accurate passing, the shooting technique….are nice to watch.
They demolished the opponents 13:0 in the Final of a major tournament, won Regionals and Nationals last year, and are undefeated in all futsal competitions.
And they always (!) play out from the back, they always (!) use skills and ball control and beautiful passing combinations.
They easily beat opponents that try to use physical aggression and/or kick the ball up the field. In fact, we like this because we regain possession and simply work the ball back into the other team’s final third.
It’s a simple law of nature that the other team can’t score without possession. The only team that can score is the team that possesses the ball.
“For me ball possession is the most important thing. It’s the first step and then the second, third and fourth steps can come after. With the ball, you have more possibilities to create something and to concede fewer chances. Soccer is about having the ball, playing and dealing with the ball. Because when we have the ball we score a lot of goals and we don’t concede a lot.”
Pep Guardiola 2015
Here are two brief clips from that U15 Final to give you a taste for their technical skills and ball possession abilities:
To get to this point of soccer skills and IQ you need to have learned all those more sophisticated soccer skills.
It is an absolute guarantee that these girls would not even be close to their soccer proficiency if they hadn’t put in the hard work and patience and been coached to develop as players from a young age.
We were fortunate to have had coaches that for the most part focused on player development and not ‘winning’ and the parents supported that development ‘project’.
So which route do you take? Have some fun and focus on winning these next couple of years or be patient and focus on learning to become better soccer players despite many painful losses and no trophies?
It takes a very strong coach and DOC to truly focus on player development. And patient players and parents.
Everything is stacked against it, but it’s the only way to elevate soccer in our country.
And it’s the only way if you want your son or daughter to become the best they can be at soccer.
And if a club and/or coach prefers to mostly ‘play to win’ then that is fine too. Many players and parents might well prefer this.
But please don’t pretend you’re doing otherwise. Be honest and transparent about it, and let players and families decide which route they want to take.
That futsal Final felt great and I would do it the same way again. But I’m glad we only had to play that way once this winter.
However, outdoor coaches playing most games against evenly matched or stronger teams will have a strong incentive to ‘play to win’ most of the time. Keep this in mind.
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.
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.
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.
We’ve just completed the first season with the no-heading rule for U11/U12 kids and younger.
I’m sharing a surprising observation half way down this page, but first let’s remind ourselves that there was a lot of concern that this would be difficult to implement and lead to a lot of confusion during games.
Well, here are two personal observation from officiating many games this last season where this rule applied:
First, it did not lead to the widespread confusion some naysayers predicted. Yes, there were instances of momentary parental confusion and delayed or missed calls from referees, but overall this new rule had no material impact on games.
It’s quite possible that you witnessed a game where a controversial heading infraction impacted the outcome of the game (e.g. was that really an intentional header?), but those were unfortunate exceptions, not the norm.
Everyone adjusted just fine. And we’ll see further adjustment this coming Fall season. It will fade into the background as a non-issue and the usual ‘handball’ and ‘offside’ controversies will dominate again….”It’s sooo obvious, ref!!”.
Second, and much more interesting, I saw many kids try to control airborne balls with their feet (!) by attempting to ‘catch’ or trap the ball instead of just letting it bounce repeatedly and then chase after it.
This is a much more difficult skill than heading. And it’s something you want to practice when you’re young so it gets hardwired into your brain. Don’t underestimate how difficult this is.
Heading the ball also needs to be practiced, of course, but youngsters can learn that even as late as 14 onwards. It’s a gross motor skill that can be learned relatively easily compared to the fine motor skills needed to control an airborne ball approaching at high speed with your foot.
And, in general, receiving the ball with your foot gives a player more control over the ball. When executed well it is very effective.
So in my view this no-heading rule turns out to be a blessing in disguise when it comes to player development.
There was a lot of complaining that this rule would develop players that aren’t as proficient in heading as our international competition, and in some cases heading the ball is indeed the better/smarter choice, but I very much doubt that this no-heading rule will impact the performance of our national team or players that want to go pro at 16, 18, or later.
And to be clear, I also believe that this no-heading rule is a blessing for the health of our children. It’s not so much the risk of concussions (which are bad, of course), but the damage from repeated impacts on the brain that worries me.
There is growing evidence that it’s these many non-concussive impacts that ultimately lead to permanent brain damage. To quote Dr. Michael Grey from the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Birmingham in England:
“The cumulative effect of repeatedly heading a ball could be damaging. We call these sub-concussive events that might not lead to [an obvious] brain injury each time but a little bit of damage builds up over time. There is some belief that these sub-concussive blows may lead to neuro-degeneration.”
Medical research into these sub-concussive blows is underway and we’ll see a growing list of scientific results emerge in the coming years.
I actually think we should make no-heading mandatory until U14/U15. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of it.