Nick Sindt was one of the first community members on TSG. That he scheduled a honeymoon so near to the World Cup (May of this year) does not in any way diminish his soccer knowledge or standing in the TSG community.
I’ve been wanting to run this piece from Nick for awhile and with the introduction of Claudio Reyna last week as Youth Technical Director now is the time.
Curing US Soccer Development Ills
Quick, name the last US National Team outfield players to be considered World Class by those who are not ardent and biased supporters of the USMNT. I bet the only two names you came up with are Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, and even for those two you were teetering on whether or not someone from England or Italy would consider them truly “World Class.”
While I was coaching youth soccer in Illinois I received their monthly newsletter, which contained an interesting article (reproduced in its entirety here) about how to appropriately measure success in US Youth Soccer. The main point of this article is putting forth the idea that the use of a professional sports model when attempting to determine and measure youth sport success is not only incorrect but is also detrimental to the development of our youth, which could be one of the reasons that the US has yet to produce a player of the stature of a Rooney, a Messi, a Ronaldo.
Per the statistics of the following pages here (Winter & Summer), one could argue that the United States is the most dominant sporting country in the world. In the the Olympics, “we” are first by a long-shot. We should have the best athletes in the world. Take a look at some of the stars in the NFL and NBA, the physical feats that they are capable of are simply jaw-dropping; one time NFL sack artist and probably Hall of Famer Warren Sapp got his 300+ pounds across the 40 yard dash finish line in roughly four and a half seconds, while I can barely move my 160 pounds the same distance in less than 6 or 7 seconds.
So why haven’t we conquered the soccer pitch yet? It all comes down to the US focusing on physical talents (size, speed, and strength) instead of technical and tactical skills. As the article points out, the sports Americans excel at are typically statistically driven and coaching-centered, and soccer is neither of these.
Sidebar: do you think that you can accurately, statistically quantify the value of a player like Xavi Hernandez or Andres Iniesta? (Actually, I’m working on that Nick.)
Given soccer’s standing in this country, how do we go about developing some of these “world class” athletes into “world class” soccer players capable of cracking the starting line-up of some of the hallowed teams like Barcelona and Manchester United?
The immediate answer to this question is better coaching. Sure better coaches will get more out of players than lesser coaches, but that’s not enough. We need a complete overhaul of the entire soccer system in this country, starting from the recreational leagues where 6 year-olds play bumble-bee soccer and moving up through the youth clubs and professional ranks.
If we want to win the World Cup before I’m dead and buried (next 70 years, give or take) we need better coaches and coaching, more learning conducive environments for our young players, and a youth club and national team development system that is based on actual talent instead of “checkbook talent.”
Have you ever stopped by the local park and actually watches Rec League soccer? Have you watched the coaches during a Rec League game? Some of the things that you will bear witness to are absolutely appalling. One time (watching a U-13 Rec League) I actually heard a coach applaud and shout encouragement when a player “hoofed” (believe me, this was the perfect definition of that term) the ball 60 yards up field, to no one in particular, and eventually out of bounds.
To make matters worse there wasn’t anyone around him and the player could’ve made a simple possession saving pass to a teammate. That day I found myself saying, as most of you would, that this coach is a complete and utter moron and the discussion would end there. In retrospect, I don’t know that we can only blame that coach and others of his ilk.
Most of the coaches for the local rec leagues are parents volunteering their time in order to keep the league going, and they don’t necessarily have a lot of experience with the game. Not to put these parents down, bless their hearts, but rec league is essentially kids running around outside chasing a ball they’re not allowed to pick up with their hands. As far as developing the necessary skills for advancement in the sport goes, it’s about as useful as riding a moped from LA to New York.
What about the club level you ask; these kids are obviously better, right?
Of course they’re going to be better due to the simple fact that they’re focusing enough on the sport to shell out the hundreds of dollars per year it costs to play club ball, and hopefully more organized practices than the average rec league team.
But the problems that I witnessed, as a young and inexperienced coach, is that most kids that I’ve worked with at the U-13, U-15, and even the U-19 levels are stuck in the First or Second stages of development cited in the Illinois Youth Soccer article.
This means that instead of coaching my U-13 players on their decision making on and off the ball, I continually had to work on the basic inside-of-the-foot passes and using the appropriate foot to make the pass instead of poorly using the outside of their right foot to avoid using their left. So at a time when Wayne Rooney was training with the Everton Youth and Reserve squads, my U-13s were desperately trying not to use the left foot and couldn’t juggle a ball more than 15 times using only their feet.
While youth clubs provide better coaching, for the most part, and better access to good competition thus doing a better job a developing the skills and mental side of the game, too often you heard of or coach against teams that are only about winning games and tournaments to up their prestige. While winning is an important skill to teach young athletes, winning at all costs sacrifices the long-term development of players for short-term gains.
To solve the issues plaguing the development of our players we must first mandate that all rec league coaches have the USSF “Y” license at the very least.
Though you can argue that a license doesn’t make you a good coach, parents with little or no experience with the game can learn an awful lot about what makes good soccer and get some tips for planning a practice from these classes.
Who should foot the bill for these coaches to take the classes? The leagues themselves operate with the sole intent of earning enough to merely keep going year after year, so they’re not a viable option. The USSF could pony up the dough, since it is their future after all that would benefit the most from this setup. But I think it would behoove the clubs in the area to subsidize this endeavor.
The only problem is that the middle of the road and even the elite youth clubs don’t really have an incentive to spend this large amount of money each year. Sure they’ll get better players out of it, but better players don’t pay the bills, richer players do. To entice these clubs, and even the MLS and other outfits, to invest in the coaching of grassroots soccer, they need to have an economic interest in these young players, or more of an economic interest in the MLS clubs’ case. If your local youth club were able to develop players that were eventually picked up by an MLS side, and in doing so they received a nice little stipend, they would be more inclined to invest.
The next step is to create the appropriate environment for players. How many of you reading this played for a club team that competed in a league as well as 4 or 5 tournaments each Spring or Fall?
Let’s assume that would total somewhere around 30-40 games per Spring or Fall, add in ODP for those players who have the skill, time, and money to play and you’re looking at roughly 50-60 games per season. Some states don’t preclude a player from playing club ball during the same season as their High School soccer season, which means elite level players could be playing upwards of 100 games in a given calendar year; 60 is too many for a professional player, so why is it different for non-professional players?
The new USSF Development Academy has the correct mindset, focusing more on practice, development, and higher levels of competition instead of playing meaningless game after meaningless game after meaningless game. They’ve even gone so far to decree that any team competing in the league must practice at least three times and no more than 6 times per week, and the clubs involved in this competition are not allowed to participate in any tournaments outside of the competition (it includes 4 showcase tournaments and playoffs each season).
While limiting the number of games and focusing more on the practices is a step in the correct direction, there is still the gigantic issue of money. Due to the limited number of clubs involved in the Development Academy, any team competing can expect to travel quite a bit to get to away matches (for example the Central Conference, which is split into three regional divisions includes teams from Colorado, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Texas).
The USSF does assist these clubs with some of the costs, and I’m sure local business pitch in with some sponsorship money but most players are required to pay some portion of the fees associated with playing at this level.
In order for US Soccer to get to a point where we can consistently call ourselves one of the world’s best sides we need a system where a kid’s socio-economic status has nothing to do with his ability to play the sport for the best teams in the country, rather his talent determines which team he plays for.
Since the MLS has 16 clubs that are spread across the vastness that is the US and Canada, it would be extremely tough for each club to have a developmental/residential academy system that can reach all areas of the country, therefore the youth clubs have to be involved in nurturing young talent regardless of the ability to pay hundreds of dollars per year.
This brings us back to the stipend, if the youth clubs, and elite youth clubs as well, were given a monetary incentive for developing better players we would see a) more “under-privileged” urban kids playing the game and b) more of a focus on developing true soccer players. While this may sound like the ranting of a lunatic, the Philadelphia Union are already partnering with a local youth academy, and the Vancouver Whitecaps (MLS expansion franchise in 2011) have stated that they would be open to youth transfer fees for clubs that nurture and develop players consistently.
Though, this dream scenario hinges on the adults in charge of running the clubs invest money back into their clubs and not skim off the top, greed and corruption ruin too many good things. The youth clubs’s mission and purpose will then have to be to serve the clubs that pay the fees, to produce the next great player. Because, the transfer fee garnered from this player being “sold” to a professional club, here or abroad, makes the 50 other kids who didn’t make it worth all of the money invested. This money would then go back into the clubs to develop more players.
If am allowed to dream huge….If I owned an MLS club, and cash flow was not an issue, I would set up partnerships with as many youth clubs within the area, especially those in the inner cities.
These partnerships would be akin to an employer-employee relationship; my club gives the youth clubs coaching courses, free camps for those partner clubs, as well as a certain amount of money each year to be spent on coaching fees and education, player scholarships, or other development oriented costs, not uniforms or tournament entry fees. In return for those modest sums of money, the clubs would in turn abide by player development guidelines that are set forth by all of the clubs involved in order to provide my club with technically and tactically astute players, not just a bunch of athletic assholes only focused on winning at all costs. As the years go on this relationship would be reviewed and the amount of money would be increased or decreased accordingly.
In conjunction with these partnerships I would create a paid (meaning to compensate the players and families in a small way) residency academy for U-14 age groups and up, we would hold tryouts every other year to keep the talent fresh, as some players may “lose the plot” or simply not wish to continue down this path, and we may uncover a player that was a late bloomer. Players from the partner clubs would obviously tryout for free, while all others would pay a nominal fee.
Clubs whose players are selected for the squad would receive a two-tiered transfer fee based on number of years with the club when we signed them. This fee would help offset the cost of developing the player for X number of years, as well as encourage them to continue the good work. Now if my club then sells the player on to another club a portion of that fee will go to the youth club, again to encourage better player development in the future.