“You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Read up on what others have done.” To me, this means doing what the best footballing nations are doing at the grassroots level first, then addressing it at the National Team level. American soccer has this really nasty habit of believing itself infallible. Why does American soccer have to try and swim against the current? The conspiracy theorist in me thinks it wants to remain sub-par to ensure those in control can maintain control and in positions of power and influence. The optimist in me thinks enough is enough, let’s figure this out at the bottom and work toward a common goal at the top. One does not build a house starting with the roof. I’ve said it before and I will continue to say it until we acknowledge and act to remedy the problems of our game.
The base level of coaching is not good enough. Good coaching courses, curriculum, and leadership are entirely too rare, and for some, too expensive. At the minimum the entry level courses should be free. When the coaching education follows the business model of soccer here, there’s bound to be issues aplenty. It becomes a money grab and a money game. Those with the time, resources, and money to pay the fees get the education. I can see paying for good curriculum at the C-Level and above. We don’t have enough good coaches trained in the methods of today’s game. The relics of the past continue to mold the future, which is a problem. Addressing the coaching problems is a big piece of the puzzle to improving the quality of the game from the bottom-up.
There is also a culture of over-coaching. Players have turned into drones. They seek a coach’s approval in every task. There is no free play component in some communities. The game is free. Coaches in the United States must think soccer is gridiron whereby every play is drawn up in a playbook and every play is coordinated by others who are NOT playing the game. There is this latent need to “control” everything. Let the kids play. Let them make their mistakes and correct them on their own when possible. The average American player has a limited ability to think their way through the game. Creativity is coached out of so many youth players. This has to stop.
The next problem is the pseudo-coaching that is prevalent in the game. As stated in the wonderful blog entry by Innovate FC: “Pseudo-Coaching looks like good coaching. Players feel like they are learning and any observer might think that they are watching a great session. The only problem is, that very little learning is taking place.”
The easy thing to do would be to look at the recent US U-20 CONCACAF Champion performances and come to the conclusion American soccer development is big trouble. Personally, it begins well below that level, where the grassroots game is chained to the radiator in the basement of the American sporting landscape. American youth soccer can be called many things, but elite is not one them. Nor can it be called functional. The system is full of fallacies and charlatans.
The crux of the problem is open access to the game. What the means is the demolition of the current American system. Right now, too many young players and families are priced out of the game in a pyramid that is not only closed, but also upside-down. In the United States, some of the best players with the most potential are systematically priced out the game before a competent coach can even begin to help them develop. This is true for boys and girls, men and women. The number of players that hang up the boots at 22 is alarming. There are simply not enough professional teams to create a healthy and robust professional culture.
There is no reward for youth coaches to develop talent other than what comes in the Win/Loss category. A cognizant youth coach knows that his or her best players will be hawked and funneled away for free. No compensation is paid to a club that churns out wave after wave of great players. On the global scene, the best coaches know when to “let go” and do their best to prepare the player for the next level. And, they usually receive a payment or support from that next level club (of course, there are no guarantees, but the point stands).
Whenever I go to Central America, South America, or Europe, I know I will see kids playing the game 24/7 on any piece of available land in un-coached settings. I know that most established club teams keep their neighborhood roots intact and players learn how to defend their turf, play within a strong community, and sooner or later, the best players leave to play at the “next level”. To some, that’s a better club with more access to the next progressive level, the professional academy. I also know that when I’m Stateside, I will see kids playing basketball 24/7, in their neighborhoods, defending their turf, in un-coached settings.
And I know that basketball’s version of what is under-serving youth soccer, The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) is not without faults itself. They may even sound familiar as revealed by Kobe Bryant. His criticisms may sound frighteningly familiar to what one might say about the current state of American and Canadian soccer development.
In Europe, fundamentals and the pedagogy involved in teaching and championing the mastery of the requisite skill sets is directly related to how soccer is taught. In his criticism of AAU, Kobe Bryant said, “I just think European players are more skillful than American players. They are just taught the game the right way at an early age. …It’s something we really have to fix. We really have to address that. We have to teach our kids to play the right way.”
Concerning AAU and its something anyone involved in youth soccer could apply to the game. “AAU basketball. Horrible, terrible, AAU basketball. It’s stupid. It doesn’t teach our kids to play the game at all, so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap, and they don’t know how to post. They don’t know the fundamentals of the game. It’s stupid.”
American soccer is full of regurgitation. The same coaches are cycled through the system. When one is fired from a Major League Soccer team, he is likely to be hired and appointed in the National Team Youth set-up. One of the most troubling facets of the national soccer scene is how good coaches are find themselves on the outside looking in. Hugo Perez is a coach I admire. He is committed to helping develop and bring great Latino players through the American system, which is essential to the progress of a nation with such a diverse population and strong Latino communities. I know that Tab Ramos and many others have put faith into bringing Latino players through, but this one example of backwards politics and odd decision-making.
Anyone who tells me that a USSDA is “free” is mistaken or doesn’t have a kid in a Development Academy. As far as I know, MLS DAs are free. And if the murmurings are true, non-MLS DAs are doing more to alleviate costs. Yes, the league fee is covered. But factor in the real costs: equipment, travel, food, the cost of missing school, the cost of parent missing work to get a player to a USSDA environment. The only thing “free” about this is a player is “free” not to participate. But I don’t aim to vilify the Development Academies. We must accept that the system is imperfect. The amount of travel each Development Academy does should increase as the players get older. Traveling thousands of miles across the country for a U12 game is costly on the players, the parents, and the club itself. The leadership from U.S.S.F., however, is where I begin to shift blame.
Every few years, U.S.S.F. keeps the wolves at bay by proffering a new plan rife with buzzwords and check-boxes that accomplish so much…on paper. When Project 2010 was proposed, I was 13 and I knew it was a bunch of fluff. The thing is, most of the radical changes aren’t radical at all. They are common sense. To start an academy at the U13/14, U15/16, and U17/18 levels is ridiculous. Anyone who has coached teenagers knows the challenges of getting players who lack the skills of teens in other countries. So, U.S.S.F. will institute a U12 level, which is still too late. The best academies in the world are working with children at the U8-11 levels meaning those players are well ahead of those emerging from US Soccer Development Academies.
Additionally, it’s impossible to play “catch-up” with other nations in terms of development. When an American player is learning how to really use their weak foot at age 14, players in academies overseas are learning how to implement the same system of play that the senior team at the club uses. At Ajax, players are not lied to. When a player is not good enough, the parents and player are included in the rigorous evaluation process so there are no surprises if/when that player is released. Here, players’ egos are inflated and pumped full of nonsense to retain that player’s (or their parents) services (and revenue stream).
The problem is not that these “Action Plans” are published, it’s that they are not properly audited with the due diligence that any good Action Plan should be. When U.S.S.F. fails a generation of players, the same people somehow keep their jobs. I made a comment recently that the people in charge of coaches’ education are the people we need to remove from positions of influence. The cycle of mediocrity continues for a few simple reasons. American soccer is full of charlatans. People whose interest in the sport is purely to make money. That’s fine, but they should not be in positions overseeing development, nor should they be in charge of making decisions about this realm of the game.
Identifying problems is the easy part and these are but a few. A remediation plan is required to ensure that the state of the American (and Canadian) game improves. Open access starts with community involvement and the blessing and support of the United States Soccer Federation. A national directive beyond the national team programs should be supported by U.S.S.F. to raise the bar for the grassroots levels. The logic here is pretty linear. If the lowest levels of a talent pool improve, the top levels will HAVE to improve lest they get passed up. By failing at the grassroots level, the American game continues to perform a masterclass in mediocrity on the international level on both the men’s and women’s sides of the game. Creating a cultural shift away from the clueless while prying soccer from the clutches of the suits whose main interests are lodged in monopolistic control of the American professional soccer market is one step. Another way is to simply demand more from the American soccer media, which does more cheerleading than it does reporting.
Solutions I see as salient and realistic are things that I try to work with in local communities on a daily basis. Free kick-arounds for kids are important. Building soccer cages in communities that are safe and accessible is another step that U.S.S.F. could help with, but why leave it up to the Federation? Write to a local community leader and committee for funds and engage people who have the power and desire to help change the game in a positive way. For every unused piece of recreational real estate, there should be a land grab for soccer-centric facilities. One thing America and Canada have over most other countries is usable space and infrastructure. Other systemic changes include eliminating pay-to-play for all academies, eliminating “league standings” before the U14 level, and shifting the paradigm away from winning and placing emphasis on learning.
In the United States, there is an obsession with coveting the result without respecting the process. Everyone wants to look like a professional player, but nobody wants to train the youth players the way future professionals are trained. A great deal of self-analysis is required and it starts with the United States Soccer Federation. The people deserve better transparency. The players deserve better coaching. The coaches deserve better education. But, unless everyone demands these improvements, the American game is resigned to its current role of “hardworking underdogs” absent a true footballing identity.
I contend that the minute both U.S.S.F. and the Canadian Soccer Association decide to open the market up and lead the way, both nations will be major powers in the game.