By: Jon Townsend
This past Sunday, like any given Sunday (no, not the movie), I found myself on the bumpy fields playing what many call Sunday League soccer. As a former collegiate player and a guy who’s been around the post-college doldrums of American soccer from combine invites, lower league football in Germany’s Regionalliga’s, “professional” indoor soccer, high-level, intense USASA games operating as U.S. Open Cup qualifiers, and a plethora of competitive cash tournaments complete with ringers and hacks aplenty — Sunday league soccer remains an enigma to me.
I know the level is hit-or-miss. I know the fields are pastures. I know most players are hungover hacks. But I love playing the game and I’d rather be playing than stuck at home on a Sunday morning. Maybe one day, I’ll get smart and hang up the boots. Maybe.
Inevitably, competition courses through my veins like battery acid. I hold myself to the same standards I did when the games mattered much more. That’s my fault. A misplaced touch, an errant pass, a flubbed through-ball on my end — all of these really bother me. I’m plagued by my own past where these things were non-issues most of the time. I also find myself in the center of the park amid the chaos and shit-talk. As a technical player with a solid frame, I’m thrown in the arena of the Sunday League furnace and I’m happy to oblige my teammates who have neither the poise, technical skill, or fitness tank to do so. I understand my limitations and strengths. I also understand that simple play results in effective soccer.
This is where I begin to lose my mind. I know it’s foolish to try and dribble the lopsided ball on the uneven field adorned with potholes, bits of glass, and rusty bottle caps (I’m not kidding). Opponents aren’t looking to defend, they’re looking to maim. It’s clear the best way to win is to play as a link-up man and exploit the cavernous openings that appear between defenders at this level. Check to the ball, check my shoulders, turn out of danger, start the attack or maintain possession. The game is really a exercise of two-touch soccer. To take more touches in the center of the park is risky. The position demands vision, intelligent movement, and the ability to play simple soccer. And more often than not, playing a forward through is easy at this level. It is here that I discover a fundamental problem with the American player.
One problem with the American player is the absence of ability to play within one’s skill-set. For some reason, the worst players feel the need to dribble, shoot, kick the ball away, or try a knee-cap clearance. For some reason, the worst players try to be playmakers. This is why they are, and always have been, deemed surplus to requirements.
I understand this is their chance to be selfish and play. Inevitably, I find myself checking to the ball only to see it blasted to the other team. Over the course of 90 minutes, week after week, it begins to become an issue. Believe me, this isn’t a display of direct soccer by any stretch of the imagination.
The other center midfielder is a former collegiate player, too. He’s working his ass off to get the ball, defend, cut off passing lanes, communicate, and he’s getting bypassed as well. We look at one another and it’s clear we are beyond frustrated. I remind myself, this is Sunday League soccer, so the result is of secondary importance. But the lack of understanding, the continual idiocy on display, the kick-and-run strategy hasn’t worked the previous 35 times, so why try it again? These are things that perplex me and would vex anyone considering themselves sane. Although we lose 2-0 to a terrible team, I begin to realize there’s more to this story than a frustrating day at the field.
On the way home, I stop at a local soccer complex where I watched two Development Academy Teams play, one non-MLS DA against one affiliated with a team in MLS. I watched with one intention: to see how the next generation plays the game.
The technical ability was good for most players. The speed of play was better than I expected. But under duress, most players began to panic. It was like they were drones and couldn’t improvise a way to handle pressure situation.
Shouts of “Clear it!” and “Put your foot through it!” ring out from the sidelines as the young defender tees the ball up and smashes his foot through it. His center midfielder, a hardworking terrier-like player with clean technique has just made himself available as an outlet, checked his shoulders, masterfully freed himself from his marker and is ready to receive the ball (to feet) and switch the point of attack and maintain possession. Instead, the defender lashes at the ball, swinging wildly and slices it across the field to the other team’s grateful defender — who passes it to their center mid who begins to storm back down the field.
Of course, I’m empathetic to this overlooked midfielder’s plight. I’ve just experienced something similar, but I had my time in the game. But this…this is different. These young players represent the latest and greatest of American soccer, right? Am I missing something here?
After 20 minutes, another shot flies over the goal. On the ensuing goal kick, the same center midfielder checks back to receive the ball under no pressure from the opposing forwards. Most of theses teams, I’ve been told, ha even conditioned to play out of the back. And yet, the goalkeeper hoofs the ball down the field. A parent yells, “Give it a ride!” and oh, does he!
At no point have the strikers up top won any aerial battles. At no time has this “strategy” worked. Over the course of 90 minutes, I count how many times a center midfielder checks to the ball only for his teammates to dribble out of bounds, into trouble, kick it away, or ignore his good movement. In a full game, at the U-16 Academy level, he showed for the ball around 60 times. He received it 16 times. Of those 16 times, he linked up with other players 6 times resulting in good attacking movements or maintaining possession for his team. This player had a total of 33 touches on the ball in 90 minutes. As a center midfilder. The other team’s center midfielder was no slouch, but opted not to chase or pressure this player.
The opposing center midfielder knew the other team would simply kick the ball away and bypass their playmaker. Visit any low level game, a high school game, and a collegiate game and you will find one commonality — panicked soccer. American players, from a young age, are conditioned to associate “booting it” with quality. Parents gawk at the how far their child can kick the ball. When he or she receives the ball within 40-yards of goal, have a guess what the shouts are…”Shoot it!”
Make no mistake, playing possession soccer isn’t easy for most American players. Part of this is because the American game hinges (and hangs) itself on athleticism and displays of “power”. Players are taught to kick the ball out of bounds or up the field instead of playing out of a situation. Young players are punished and scorned when they take chances or make mistakes — thereby killing their creative drive.
What does it matter if a U-8 player tries to link up with a teammate and loses the ball? That’s what learning is about in soccer. The coaches who do well at the youth levels instill a “passing the ball is fun and necessary” philosophy. They encourage the skill and the repetition of the movements.
What I see with generation after generation of panic-stricken players is the destruction of the American maestro well before he or she can even develop. The player who sees the game and is the pivot or conduit between the defense and offense is bypassed.
Sure, there are good American center midfielders, but how many are developed too late on because the current culture of coaching and playing champions “kicking it far”? A lack of utilization of the center midfielder is rampant in the American game. Instead, running box-to-box and “distance covered” are measures of quality and player performance. That, to me, is insanity.
I get it.
I run marathons.
Distance covered and hard work matters in soccer, but these are entry fees, not accomplishments, for the teams and countries the U.S. must strive to compete with and against.
Change starts with parents keeping the praise of poor soccer to a minimum. Kicking the ball out of bounds or up the field in flurry of flustered action does not bode well for a player. To praise this only damages them. Coaches can only teach some much technique, which should also be valued the way effort and physicality are.
The truth is coaches don’t have time to spend on more technique while attempting to implement tactics. The better players are technically, the more coaches can help raise the baseline Soccer IQ for players. Stress the importance of body control. That should never stop. If players can’t receive and pass the ball, they can’t play. It’s simple. Two-touch soccer need not be a lost art here. When players and coaches regard technique on the same level of importance as physicality, running fast, and jumping high — an evolution in player development will take place.
Competent players are usually happy, capable players. Remember, composure and confidence on the ball are not mutually exclusive.