Birth Year Matrix – hot off the press, after some confusion these last few months, here’s the final version from US Soccer

finalbirthyearmatrix

Quality of college players according to superstar Andrea Pirlo

“Young players arrive in MLS from colleges. They don’t know tactics and very little technically. Physically, a lot.”

-Andrea Pirlo, one of the best playmaking midfielders of all time. Won pretty much everything there is to win with AC Milan, Juventus, and Italy, including the World Cup in 2006. Currently playing for New York City FC.

via @Gazzetta_it

Big push by overseas pro clubs into U.S. youth soccer

International professional clubs have been very active recently here in the U.S. An increasing number of them are setting up official affiliations with youth soccer clubs across the country to identify talent as early as possible and then develop them in the right way, including at their home academies in Europe.

Here’s a very interesting ‘must-read’ article on this topic just published by the LA Times: Other Countries Are Scouting Young U.S. Soccer Talent.

Quoting from this article to set the scene:

When Brad Friedel was growing up in suburban Cleveland a generation ago, youth soccer was more an afterthought than an organized activity. “There was nothing there,” he remembers.

So he was a bit surprised when he moved back to the U.S. after spending most of the last 20 years playing in the English Premier League.

“The entire landscape and scope of what soccer is today doesn’t compare, doesn’t even look remotely similar, to the landscape that I left,” he said.

I will post an article in a day or two specifically about what this trend looks like in the Bay Area, but here’s a brief clip from the Wall Street Journal summarizing the motivations nicely.

They happen to interview the youth academy folks from famous English Premier League team West Ham, but there are many more clubs doing the same now here. West Ham now has dozens of affiliates across the country – check out their website here for a full list.

Behavior of visiting North American parents during youth game in Barcelona

I came across an interesting blog post about behavior of visiting North American parents during a couple of youth games in Barcelona.

Most of us probably recognize this kind of behavior from our games? Do the ‘instructions’ sound familiar?

I’m pasting it here with some edits for clarity and brevity:

About three weeks ago we had some visiting teams from North America in the Barcelona area. Two of my sons (2003, 2004) had the opportunity to play a game each against their North American opponents.

English is also not very common in these parts so when we had these visiting teams from North America it was a good excuse to practice my English just in case I am forgetting it.

I quickly got in some conversations with visiting parents. Many had questions as to how we like it here, how is the soccer, how is the coaching, schools and many other questions about Catalonia and Spain and general.

The conversation was good and I learned about the visitors as well, where they were from, what people did as a profession and…..how good their team was.

I was taken back by the last comment. Perhaps they were good but just surprised how easy the last sentence rolled off their tongue.

As we spoke I was watching both teams warm up similarly with passing, dynamic stretches, possession game etc. As we were approaching the start of the match the parents said to me, “nice talking and meeting you, we will speak later again but we need to get into game mode.”

I just smiled but then thought to myself what the **** is game mode? 🙂.

As the referee brought the captains in for the coin toss these parents went on the sidelines as if they were hired to work as assistant referees.

Typically in Catalonia, most mini stadiums provide seating for all the spectators and this stadium was no different but all the visiting parents lined up on the sidelines.

I know from my time in Canada that this often happened and usually an observant referee would move the parents back to provide some room between the side line and the parents. But there wasn’t much room between the sideline and a wall.

This was what they were used to so perhaps they didn’t know, which was ok, but what happened next was surprising.

As our team was in a team huddle getting ready to begin the match, the opposing team was just standing around quietly waiting and the parents were the ones yelling, “let’s go boys, we can do this, we didn’t come here to lose, let’s goooooo.”

It continued for a few minutes and many of their players would look at their parents. It was very easy and very quick for me to match the player with the parent.

So the game started and both teams were a bit nervous but it brought me back to Canada very fast. The famous call of “send it” rang in my ears like a bad dream of the past and I was not sure to whom they were supposed to “send it” to as no player was in an advanced position.

The “send it” continued for the whole match, then there were some others of my all-time favorites like, “not down the middle”, “kick it out”, “just give it a big boot” but the one that really took the cake was “what the hell are you guys doing?”

It was 5-0 for us after about 8 minutes and it ended up 6-2. The parents were giving instructions the whole match, most of it was wrong, they were all zoned in on their kids and conversations were going back and forth with their kids during the game.

The next day my younger son played their younger group and it was much of the same from their parents. The same instructions were being yelled out, constant dialogue between player and parent. Some scolding from parents to the child like “don’t embarrass me, we travelled all the way to Spain for this”.

This game was a complete disaster on the pitch for the other team.  It ended 17-2, which really was a flattering score for the visitors in all honesty but it showed the huge gap between the two teams.

Many parents involved in the game today, especially in North America, did not grow up in the sport, never played the sport and even those that may have don’t realize that many changes have taken place.

It is important for clubs to educate their parents.

Very good post on what is holding us back. Read the comments also!

 

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.

The declining role of high school (and college) soccer?

I came across this article from a high school soccer coach and I don’t understand what his point is.

It’s quite simple in my (simple) mind:

High school soccer is a great way to bond with classmates in your neighborhood and to learn what it means to be on a team. It can be fun and a confidence booster for youngsters. No question there is a place for high school soccer.

However, the standard of play, the coaching, the practices, the tactical understanding, and the opposition for high school soccer is so far from competitive soccer levels, especially the top level, that boys and girls that are pursuing soccer at the top level cannot justify taking time out to play on their high school teams.

The gap really is large and top players already have so little time left outside their clubs’ demanding practice & games schedule and keeping up with school work.

Top players need to focus all their time on top developmemt programs, avoid risk of injury that often comes from playing against opponents that aren’t quite in control of their movements, and avoid possibly adopting bad habits during the high school soccer seasons.

The high school years are often make or break years for top players to reach the elite level. High school soccer simply doesn’t provide what this kind of player needs. The social aspects are (unfortunately) just ‘nice to have’ for top players.

There surely is no question about this.

Losing a star impact player can make a difference for specific high schools, but high school soccer as a whole won’t be materially affected if, say, the top 1% of players skip the teams.

So I strongly suggest that high school soccer continues to focus on what it does best, recognize what it doesn’t do well, and support U.S. Soccer’s elite player development efforts. And vice versa, of course.

I don’t see why high school soccer should be in decline. The better we do at the top level in this country, especially internationally, the more soccer will grow here.

There is no reason for conflict. A rising tide lifts all boats.