On the Future of American Soccer

For the first time in a long time, I believe there is a meaningful, tangible evolutionary trend in the way soccer is addressed in the United States.

Let me preface by saying that my evidence is purely anecdotal, which arguably doesn’t qualify as evidence as all.  Nothing like shooting down your argument before you even hit the third graf, huh?  But having grown up in the American youth soccer system, and now having a sideline perspective, I’ve seen enough to know that Bob Dylan headlines the marquee for this particular spectacle—the times, indeed, are a’changing.

When I entered the American youth soccer system, somewhere around age six, the focus was largely on competitive effort and results.  It was, after all, an American athletic offering.  You compete.  You win.  What the hell was a tie to anyone, and what were we to do with a losing record?

Almost immediately, you were taught to dribble and shoot.  Basic skills, okay, necessities for doing much of anything on the pitch.  But whereas other nations may focus on ball skills, tactics, or small-sided scenarios, the American program circa 1995 was an immediate 11v11 affair offering a hodgepodge of fast kids, toebashes and daisy-picking.  The only directions: pass, shoot, THAT WAY!  The only objective: win.

There is something inherently American about results.  Culturally, we don’t like to dissect the how and why of it all.  We’re a bottom-line people.  If you’re going to do it, by golly, you’re going to emerge victorious.  What’s the sense in any other approach?  If you don’t teach kids to win, surely, you’re teaching them to lose!

Right?

Essentially, when I was in my elementary years, you “developed” your skills in a program which rewarded speed and power over tactics, finesse and ball skills.  Everything was fairly predictable.  The fast kid beat everyone else to the ball and found himself on a bee-line toward the keeper.  The leg kid wound up to boot the ball while everyone in the immediate vicinity scattered for fear of taking one to the gut, or worse, the groin.  Everyone else just kind of ran into each other, ran in clusters, hacking and shoving where they dared.

Travel programs or traditional clubs didn’t really surface until you were about 12 years old, though I’m sure there were exceptions.  Twelve was the magical age where you either played high-level competition across the state and region, or stayed with a local recreational program.

So you would think, of course, that club programs would refine the skills sorely lacking at an earlier age, right?  Well, kind of.

At 12, I learned basic strategic concepts I probably should have learned at an early age.  Sometimes, you have to go backwards to go forwards, in learning of the possibility of dropping to an open teammate and switching the field or playing the ball into open space when a sideline was shut down.  I started to learn about cover and pully systems, about proper marking techniques, about the intricacies of each players’ role, and specifically, why right-wingers should never find themselves on the opposite touchline!

Still, the endgame was very much results-oriented.  My first U12 club coach was the greatest coach I ever had.  He got a mismatched group of kids to play as a team, to understand positioning, proper organization, movement, possession techniques, etc.  But even then, the goal was always to win, and the focus at the conclusion of our 4-4 season was less that we had taken huge strides in understanding how to play soccer, than the fact we finished the second half of the season 4-0!

My experience was very much the same for the rest of U12-U14 play in particular.  Practice drills were all about shooting, scoring, putting the ball in the back of the net, with little thought as to how or why we were doing it.  World Cup.  Wembley.  Blood.  Scrimmage, scrimmage, scrimmage.  Little emphasis on formation—all club teams seemed to assume a 4-4-2 with no discussion of how that might change as games unfold—and a total reliance on athleticism, as if strategy and smarts were tertiary items that should only be broached on occasion.

So while practices were fun, and I recall notching more than my fair share of goals and assists (particularly fond of my right corner crosses into the box) through spring, winter and fall seasons, I can’t honestly say I improved much, if at all, as a player from ages 12 to 14.  I played about as well as my confidence allowed at any point…and that was it.  There was very little instruction of how I might, for instance, get a bit creative in the air, or with my feet, or how I might make a better run into space, or how I might pick up a head of steam, encourage a teammate to drop back to cover for me and take on a certain defender.

It was all, effectively, a scrum.  Occasionally, an athletic kid broke away.  When I started playing keeper a bit more toward ages 13 and 14, I saw my fair share of them!

(And even then, as a keeper, there was a stunning lack of education on angles, box play and commanding the backline.)

You would figure high school, then, might cure all that ails developmental soccer.  After all, kids are finally settling into their athletic potential in high school years, and understanding core sport concepts.  A high school football team, for instance, is far more likely to run a shotgun spread play with multiple option routes, for instance, than a junior high team which largely relies on basic run plays.

But my view of high school soccer was basically this: spend 30 minutes in the weight room, run laps or hills, warm up with a few basic four-cone possession drills, and then shoot or scrimmage your way to the finish line.

Scoring.  Shooting.  Winning.  Not much else.

So you can imagine my surprise at returning to the club I grew up in, then, and seeing an actual developmental academy system in place.

I’m still new, and I don’t know all the specifics.  Most of the time, I feel like a player myself, taking it all in and understanding what coaches are going for now, how much it’s all changed.  But what I see is the system folks like Jurgen Klinsmann reference when they envision a brighter future for American soccer.

Gone are the aimless scoring exercises.  Gone are meaningless competitive exercises.  They have been replaced by a developmental pool which refines ball skills and tactical awareness from a young age.  U8s are no longer as focused on winning games, then, as they are understanding when you might use inside, outside and laces, and how you might take away an attacking angle and slow the opponents’ advance.  U11s—who I help coach—are less instructed to WIN and SCORE ALL THE GOALS as they are to apply tactical lessons to gameplay, learning how to support teammate runs, execute a drop pass, switch the field, keep possession, etc.

Gone are pointless conditioning exercises—honestly, kids can either run or they can’t, and no amount of practice laps or sprints is going to change that, at least for developmental ages.  In their stead: proper warm-up drills which place an emphasis on controlled touch, positive stretching techniques and head-up execution.

It’s these little things you see adding up to a more talented player pool.  Understanding tactics early on, so creativity can be taught and encouraged when kids start tapping into their athletic potential.  Executing set pieces, moving the ball as a cohesive unit, learning basic soccer theory so that fundamental execution becomes an afterthought and players can focus the majority of their attention on those undefined elements which depend more on their ability in a spot, in a moment.

This is what America is finally figuring out, I feel: soccer isn’t football, or at least, our interpretation of football.  There is a proven method to developing talent.  It may not mesh with our traditional understanding of American sport, and we have to accept that if we ever really want to evolve our national product.

I can see some of the early examples.  There are players in our U14 pool who would take my lunch money, and the U15+ squad would destroy most varsity squads I’ve ever come across.  With such a high tactical awareness and understanding, these players are free to evolve those untapped parts of the games my generation of American soccer was never quite afforded, and the results are stunning not necessarily in terms of “American” results, but in terms of aesthetics, form and qualities that translate to higher levels of competition.

This is the future of American soccer.  And I can’t wait to see what it means for our national team in the decades to come.