In the past two months we’ve seen our US Men’s Team head to Germany, exhibit mostly conservative play, get schooled, and lose their head coach. While many may be distressed by this turn of events, I see an opportunity for a new beginning and fresh start. In keeping with the topic of the upcoming 3rd American Soccer Carnival, let’s talk about The Way Forward for soccer in the US, from the perspective of youth players.

[Note – many of the links in this post are to Adobe PDF files. You’ll need Acrobat Reader to read them]

Love him or hate him, Bruce Arena had an impact on youth soccer. It would be impossible to talk about moving forward without looking at what has been done in the past decade related to youth soccer and the various levels of play and competition. When Bruce was hired, he wanted total control over the national team and little interference from the US Soccer bureaucracy. This enabled him to have an impact on the US youth programs as well as the national teams.

The biggest change over the past 5 years has been the implementation of small-sided soccer. With strong encouragement from national and state organizations, local youth leagues nationwide have been phasing in small sided games. Proponents note that small sided games allow for significantly more ball touches for younger players. The more times the touch the ball, the better they will get at controlling it. Here are the US Youth Soccer talking points in support of small sided games:

1. Because we want our young soccer players to touch the soccer ball more often and become more skillful with it! (Individual technical development)

2. Because we want our young soccer players to make more, less-complicated decisions during the game! (Tactical development)

3. Because we want our young soccer players to be more physically efficient in the field space they are playing in! (Reduced field size)

4. Because we want our young soccer players to have more individual teaching time with the coach! Less players on the field and less players on the team will guarantee this! (Need to feel worthy and need to feel important)

5. Because we want our young soccer players to have more, involved playing time in the game! (More opportunity to solve problems that only the game presents)

6. Because we want our young soccer players to have more opportunity to play on both sides of the ball! (More exposure to attacking and defending situations)

7. Because we want our young soccer players to have more opportunities to score goals! (Pure excitement)

Interestingly enough, there has been much resistance to this in certain areas of the country and while the latest map shows wider adoption than the PDF document, there is still a long way to go. Looking forward, we need to stay the course and continue to encourage states to adopt small sided game formats for U11 and younger.

Small sided games weren’t the only changes being stressed by USYSA and the USSF. A few years ago, US Soccer released a paper titled Player Development in the United States: Maintaining A Perspective. This was a wakeup call that changes were afoot.

U.S. Soccer believes that first and foremost youth soccer is a sport that players should experience and enjoy as a game with a focus on individual experimentation and development. U.S. Soccer encourages creating soccer environments that will help promote the players’ lifelong love of the sport. These environments should allow for the creativity, spontaneity and experimentation that the game of soccer naturally encourages. Too often, children are put into situations where development is secondary and winning is a priority, which leads to burnout and stifles individual skill development.

We believe that a player’s development is enhanced when the short-term goals of a coach are pursued within the perspective of the player’s long-term needs.

US Soccer was calling out the coaches and parents that tried to satisfy their desire to win to the detriment of player development. The focus was on ‘free play’ and ‘experimentation’ for younger players with the coach doing less directing and adopting more creative drills and activities that allowed players to learn on their own. This was pretty revolutionary for the US which is often used to drill sergeant coaches. You heard it over and over that coaching to win had to be stopped, otherwise too many kids would be lost due to burnout and the lack of ‘fun’. The framework had been laid.

This paper was followed up by another dedicated specifically to how youth players should be developed in the US: U.S. Soccer Federation Position Statements & Best Practices For Player Development. Written by Bruce Arena, April Heinrichs (USWNT Head Coach), and John Ellinger (U17NT Coach), and contributed to by ODP staff and state Directors of Coaching, it was intended to "shape the future direction of youth soccer in the United States". Two things stood out since they flew in the face of what was happening nationwide:

Tournaments: Teams are participating in a vast number of tournaments each season. The participation in these tournaments by youth teams often creates a "win-at-all cost" attitude and has a negative influence on player development.

This high level of participation in tournaments effects the development of the player in the following way:

  • time is reduced for development, i.e. practice
  • excessive play at competitive tournaments can be detrimental to individual growth and development
  • winning becomes the main issue for the coach rather than the long term development of the player

Recommendation – For players below the age of ten a festival format should replace a tournament structure. Festivals feature a set number of games with no elimination or ultimate winner.

Competition: To promote a playing environment for preteen players that allows them to pursue playing opportunities that meet both their interest and ability level [and] To strongly discourage playing environments for where players under the age of twelve are forced to meet the same "competitive" demands as their older counterparts.

Recommendation – Players under the age of twelve should remain in developmental soccer programs where no league or match results are maintained.

On the surface those may not seem to be drastic statements. But to anyone familiar with the intensity level of youth sports in America, it set off a storm of debate. Traveling teams often spend an extraordinary amount of time going to tournaments and it is hard to argue with the idea that too many tournaments reduce development time. But it was interesting that they didn’t recommend a reduced tournament load. Instead they simply pushed U10 into a festival format.

Nationally, the Directors of Coaching signed on to the non-compete idea. However, many people, including myself, felt it went too far in a society as competitive as the United States.

There is no question that youth soccer is riddled with coaches from U12 on down who coach to win instead of concentrating on player development. My main concern is that we’re trying to take away competition so coaches have less ‘incentive’ to win when it is unlikely to change their behavior. Even if there isn’t some shiny trophy or designation as season champs at the end of a season, competitive coaches want to win and will coach to win.

On the flip side, children need to be gradually exposed to competition, pressure, and handling loss or setbacks. Waiting until they are almost teenagers seems to be a bit too long. My U8 and U10 teams have participated in end of season tournaments and the matches have provided valuable lessons in handling pressure, dealing with loss (of course 🙂 ) and keeping perspective.

You get the feeling that one of the aims behind these recommendations is to remove enticements for bad coaching behavior. The problem is that many coaches and parents feel that winning is the ONLY thing, even at very young age levels (admit it – you kept score at your kid’s U6 matches!). Instead, moving forward, we should be teaching our coaches how to coach. DOCs need to be working VERY hard to teach coaches the fundamentals of player development and the bad behaviors to avoid. Will this solve all problems? No. But it will probably have more of an impact on overall coaching behavior than just taking competition and standings away.

Which brings us to the next part of the best practices, and that is coaching education. I view this as a VERY good recommendation that, moving forward, we need to keep and continue to improve. Our league had 20 or so coaches attend the ‘E’ level training and all of them felt it was excellent. Even coaches who had played soccer for years and had been coaching youth teams for a while got their eyes opened by the methods and techniques presented. I know I did. Many of our coaches are so excited about what they learned that they can’t wait for the Fall practices to begin to put them into action. Moving forward we need to work to expand the pool of instructors, possibly reduce the cost or identify alternate funding resources, and encourage youth coaches to continually improve.

I believe we CAN teach our coaches to be better and to concentrate on player development over winning. At the same time, we need to leave SOME level of competition in place so the kids can be exposed to it. I would much rather have kids who found out for the first time what it is like to lose a championship match in a tournament when they were 8, not 12 or 14. Kids do quit soccer because it isn’t fun anymore, but that seems to be more the result of coaches and parents with bad attitudes and outlooks, not the fact that kids had to compete some. Maybe that’s naive, but I believe if we take the more difficult path trying to educate our parents and coaches about proper player development, we’ll find ourselves much farther ahead than if we just remove enticements and hope it stifles bad behavior.

Once kids start to move out of the recreational youth leagues, things get a bit more interesting. One of the more controversial programs is the Olympic Development Program.

The US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program was formed in 1977 to identify a pool of players in each age group from which a National Team will be selected for international competition; to provide high-level training to benefit and enhance the development of players at all levels; and, through the use of carefully selected and licensed coaches, develop a mechanism for the exchange of ideas and curriculum to improve all levels of coaching.

Sounds like a noble goal – selecting the most talented players in each age group and getting them the coaching they need and providing a selection process to filter up onto the national teams. However, complaints about ODP are everywhere (search BigSoccer or other soccer boards for ‘ODP Problems’ or ‘ODP Complaints’) and most relate to money and the way players are selected. Players pay a lot of money to attend ODP camps and clinics, but that does not mean they will be selected for the teams. You’ll find the biggest complaints from parents who have talented kids paying money for ODP programs only to have a kid who never participated in the ODP clinics get chosen for the regional teams. That’s how it can work and it breeds resentment. Besides that, ODP training can be financially prohibitive to less affluent people. Here is an example of costs for ODP in Oklahoma. While they do have scholarships available, it still is a significant cost for most.

Is ODP fundamentally flawed because it relies on parents who can pay for the training that will often get their kid noticed and selected? If so, what other option is there? You need financial support to reduce or eliminate the burden on the families with talented kids. Which brings us to the MLS. Much has been written about the extensive youth development programs and academies of European teams and the lack of a similar setup in the MLS. But that is starting to change. Ives Galarcep wrote an article earlier this year that talked about how such a program might work:

You almost forget your dream as you play down to your competition. There’s no sense in creating when your coach is more interested in hoofing balls to the big kid up top with the bad feet and brand new cleats. You don’t give up. Instead you keep dancing, keep creating, until one day an unfamiliar coach stands on the sideline watching you. He is from a Major League Soccer team. He likes what he sees and he thinks he can help you.

Now rather than continuing to have your skill eroded like grass without water, you are training with top players, players who share your gifts. Coaches rave about your skill and understand your vision, but they also explain how to put your gifts to better use. It seems to good to be true you think. There must be a catch. When does the bill come? It never does. The team simply wants you to play and grow and maybe reach a point one day where your dream and their dream can converge.

The MLS is expanding each year, extending it’s reach. Many feel the league is very close to financial stability with some clubs well past that stage. If the MLS were to develop a broad and fair development program, we could see a lot more players getting the high quality coaching they need. MLS isn’t sticking their head in the sand.

the program MLS is working on implementing would be the first tangible step toward establishing a legitimate youth player development program throughout the league. It is a necessary step for a league that is beginning to lose out on more and more young prospects to foreign clubs that are increasingly targeting the United States as a source for young talent.

"There is a lot more competition every year for the young guys, and while I don’t think that was the driver behind this particular program, it is a factor," said Gazidis. "The development of our own players will help form bonds between young players and our teams.

"The real driver of this is simply find new ways to better develop talent," said Gazidis. "Right now the super elite are plopped out of the system in this country and placed in one program, the program in Bradenton. There are probably 500, 600 or 1,000 players who have every bit as much potential as those 35 at IMG. We want to really give top class development to a much wider group of young players. If we can create that type of dynamic element on the youth level, and cast a wider net, it will only serve to help us find and develop that much more talent."

It is hard to argue with that logic. Many people feel our players need to head overseas to get the level of training they need. I’m not so sure of that. Bruce Arena often was heard talking about his disappointment in the core skill level of some of the players rising through the ranks. A MLS youth development program could build on the improved training players received in their early youth years. Once players hit adulthood, depending on where the MLS is, it may make sense for them to get some hardening over in Europe. But sending our youngest prospects straight to Europe straightaway seems self defeating.

But regardless, looking forward, we need to make sure the selection and development programs we have in place allow ALL our promising prospects to get the training and experience they need to move to the national level. ODP programs need to be assessed for fairness in the selection process. Financial aid needs to be solidified to ensure all players get a fair shot. The financial realities of ODP make the possibility of MLS funded player development very attractive. If it were done right, we could see much broader pools of players being trained by the professional MLS coaching staffs and that would be a good thing.

One issue that all levels of youth development face is attracting minorities. There are still MANY regions of the country where soccer remains the sport of soccer moms and mini-vans. While I don’t believe that better integration of, say, Hispanic players, will have the drastic effect some hope for, it WILL strengthen and deepen the pool of players. Youth leagues have got to start outreach programs into minority communities. Something as simple as translating informational web pages and registration forms can have a big impact. In many communities you see Hispanic children playing pickup games late at night after the fields are vacated by the ‘league’. They should not feel like they have to stay separate. State associations should continue to promote Futsal in urban areas where it may be difficult to find space for turfed soccer fields. Nike caught on to this vibe. By showing soccer in an urban light in commercials, they helped dispel the mini-van aura. A player who can dance with a soccer ball is just as impressive as one who can dance down the court with a basketball. We need to make soccer intriguing to communities that may not really understand what it is about while working to overcome language barriers that are not going away any time soon.

So after all that where are we? Here are Soccer Dad’s thoughts in a nutshell. I believe we’re in a lot better shape at the youth level than some people think. To summarize, moving forward…

  • The implementation of small sided play from U6-U12 will help players develop better ball skills through significantly more ball touches and game play.
  • Continuing to stress the education of our coaches and parents to break the win at all costs attitude without taking competition away.
  • Decide if the ODP model is sustainable in its current format and is it sufficiently accessible to ALL players who need that level of training to develop their ability.
  • MLS creation of a youth development program to broaden the training opportunities domestically for young players
  • Improve outreach efforts to minorities, urban areas, and communities where there are language barrier issues.

I realize this article went into a lot of detail, but it seemed important to have sufficient background as to how we got to where we are today and where we have to go. For all his faults in the World Cup, Bruce helped make some significant improvements to the programs developing our youth. He really did leave a lasting legacy on youth soccer and for that we should be grateful. By building on that legacy, hopefully the next USMNT coach will continue to give youth development the attention it deserves. After all, they will soon benefit from it as new generations of players emerge with more refined foot skills and quicker game play honed from hundreds of small sided matches. Only with a vibrant and strong youth development program can we find and develop the best players to represent the USA on the international stage.

So there you have it. A critical part of The Way Forward is ensuring our youth have the best opportunities available to improve their skills and that those opportunities are available to all. The children are our future after all…