Let's Break The Youth Soccer Club Model
We need to break something! The U.S. continues to be unable to produce a world class player. And this despite an embarrassment of riches in terms of fields, facilities, equipment and population. There are currently over 323 million people in the U.S. By some estimates, approximately 3 to 4 million American kids participate in youth soccer clubs. Not one "world-class" player. Nations with far less produce talent far beyond the demonstrated capacity of the U.S. Why are we failing?
Okay, "world-class" is an extremely controversial adjective. But let's put that aside for now and agree to use a simple but popular metric, the 100 Best Footballers in the World as published annually by The Guardian. This is something fans and coaches alike should be able to use as a rough and ready guide. As with any list, there can be arguments about players left off the list, and whether the top 2 should be reversed. However, our topic is too important to quibble on the margins. Let's get the table set.
In its 2015 edition, The Guardian's list included exactly zero Americans. Okay. There were also no Americans in the 2014 list. The 2013 list? Zero. 2012? None. In fact, I find no evidence that an American player has ever been included in that list.
In 2014, The Guardian published its list of the Top 100 footballers of all time. No Americans made the list. Alright, that's not surprising if Americans can't even make the annual list.
The following year, Americans dominated a different list published by The Guardian , The 25 Greatest Male US Soccer Players. The top player was Landon Donovan. Claudio Reyna was #2, Clint Dempsey was #3, Brad Friedel was #4 and Brian McBride was #5.
It's not all bad news though. There are rays of hope. Last Fall the Guardian published its list of the top 50 emerging talents in the world and there was exactly one American on the list, Christian Pulisic. Christian's development path is a bit unique, however. As a youth player (its hard to make a differentiation with straight face since he's still a 17 year old kid) he trained with a club in Pennsylvania, but also had training stints with professional club youth academies including those of Barcelona, Chelsea, Porto, Villareal, and PSV Eindhoven. That's not your typical American youth player development experience. And now he's playing with the first team at Borussia Dortmund and the US Men's National Team. Extremely impressive! Someday Pulisic may be the first American to break into the Guardian's top 100.
Still, that's only one out 3 or 4 million American kids. Its not good enough.
So, how did we get here and how do we correct the situation?
Are we just going to cross our fingers and hope a world-class American player just pops up?
Should we aim to develop one or two word-class players? Or can we develop a generation of players?
Many of these questions are being asked at the national level, by USSF executives and Jurgen Klinnsman. But these questions really need to be aimed at the youth soccer clubs. After all, that is where the problem starts and where everything is going wrong.
We should sidestep the typical excuses, such as "Soccer is not the top sport in the U.S.", "The best American athletes don't play soccer" and "We need more time." I don't believe such excuses shine any light on what needs to change. We are doing it wrong in the U.S., on a massive scale, and we need to accept that reality and confront it. What matters most is the training and development experience of 3 to 4 million American kids and figuring out why they aren't developing into world class footballers.
I also need to knock down the next false choice. This is not about Development v. Winning. Winning is a by-product of development. The objective of every game is to win. We all want to win. But how you win is also important, especially at the younger ages. And this is where American youth soccer clubs have let our kids down. Winning at all costs at the youth level is pointless and, worse, detrimental to the long-term development of kids. It is vastly more important for kids to learn how to play the right way and develop critical and fundamental skills, even at the expense of losing a few league games.
In my view, the problem is the structure and objectives of the traditional American youth soccer club. They are all wrong, and its hurting players and stunting our country's ability to develop world-class players. It's relatively simple to see how the wrong club structure negatively impacts youth player development. The typical youth soccer club focuses on the present at the expense of the future. Don't kid yourself, that is exactly what is happening.
Let's rip up the youth club model and start over!
Virtually all American youth soccer clubs are set up the same way. The primary organizing principle is the team. A typical club has multiple teams. Coaches are assigned to one or more teams and expected to conduct practices and coach weekend games for those teams. Teams are formed through try-outs and cuts. The type of training differs wildly from team to team as there is no uniform, mandated curriculum. Coaches can freelance and they always do. This means kids on one team have a very different experience than kids on another team. This also results in the absence of any identifiable, distinguishable club-wide playing style.
The most serious consequence of the typical youth club structure, however, is the absence of a true player development culture. Instead, the typical club's culture is entirely about team-development.
It all begins with the tryouts where clubs concentrate on selecting players to help them win now - today - and at all costs. Through try-outs and cuts, the youth clubs aim to build a team they hope will win games and tournaments today. That leads to coaches selecting the tallest, strongest, fastest and most aggressive kids. Left out of the equation is the patient, attentive cultivation of players. Missing as well is any sort of reliable commitment to the future development of individual players. If a coach feels a player falls short in certain aspects of the game, they cut them and move them to a lower level team. It's as simple as that. End of story.
But there is a pathway for those kids, right? A way for them to work their way up.? Nope. "Try out again next year." "Go get some outside technical training somewhere." "Keep practicing at home." That is what passes for a development pathway at most U.S. youth soccer clubs.
Let's face it, at most American youth clubs the "B" team players are screwed. And so are the "C", "D" and "E" team players and every player below the "A" team. There is no institutional plan or system to progress players up. "A" team coaches aren't obligated to look to the "B" team for replacements. They can recruit! And that also means recruiting from outside the club. For sure the "B" and "C" team coaches have no incentive to progress players up because they also need winning teams. Lost in all of this are the long-term developmental needs of players.
In the typical American youth soccer club, individual player development is treated as a by-product of team development. It's largely an accident. If you play well with the team, then you must be developing, right? Possibly, but the truth is that virtually all of players produced by American youth soccer clubs are simply not good enough to make it to the top clubs and leagues in Europe. Sooner or later, these players will be told they are not good enough on the ball. It turns out that just making the "A" team coach happy or winning a tournament does not make you good enough on the ball.
And why are kids in typical youth soccer clubs not good enough on the ball?
Why are American youth soccer clubs continuing to churn out players who can't compare technically to their European peers?
Perhaps the culprit is the predominant culture of U.S. youth soccer clubs, which emphasizes today. To win today, a coach can't help but take developmental short cuts. They pigeon-hole players into positions, play a more direct style and emphasize game strategy rather than developing the fundamental skills of each player. They have no time (or perhaps no ability) to teach technical skill and technique. But if they rack up a few wins, the coach will prove to parents and the club management that he or she is a winner. That's much easier than being a teacher, making technical instruction core training that happens at the club rather than supplemental training and sticking with players over the long-term.
I know what you are thinking. Everyone's heard all of this before, clubs focusing on winning over development, blah, blah, blah. You're right! Everyone's been talking about this for a long time, but nothing is changing. Really! Nothing is changing. Sure, some clubs say they focus on player development and discourage the reflex to direct soccer. They try to play out of the back, move players to different positions and emphasize a possession style more than direct play. Fine. Point conceded, but only as to a few clubs. But even those clubs remain entrenched in a "recruiting" culture, not a development culture. And every spring kids march off to tryouts and find themselves in clubs where the focus is still on winning games and true soccer education and patient development is virtually non-existent.
We need a cultural revolution in youth soccer. And it must start at the grass roots level. The culture at American youth soccer clubs is all wrong! It's backwards. In the best footballing cultures in the world, the cultures of development, the focus is first and foremost on technique, ball mastery and skill development. And that must be treated as core, not supplemental.
Some in this country continue to focus on team development and higher level team tactics, and at the same time say the requirement of technical skill is a given. They'll cut kids who aren't good on the ball , but do little or nothing themselves to raise the level of technical skill and technique. Let's face it, American players, from grass roots to the national teams, are just not good enough on the ball compared to peers in Europe and elsewhere. Technical brilliance may be a given for kids in Barcelona or Buenos Aires, but its definitely not a given in the United States. It's just not acceptable any longer for American youth clubs to pay so little attention to development of fundamental ball mastery.
There is a better way! But it will require legions of adults, coaches and parents to get out of the way, drop their adult ambitions of league and tournament glory into the wastebasket, roll up their sleeves and do the hard work of training and developing players.
American youth soccer clubs need to overhauled. They should be youth soccer schools or academies. Rather than a collection of teams, clubs should be about developing a group or pool of players. Coaches should focus primarily on teaching players fundamental skills rather than recruiting for winning teams. The "build a team to win today" mentality has led to a profoundly negative and counterproductive youth soccer culture, and that will be hard to change. But it must change. Here's how:
“If you want to raise the level of the elite player, then you must raise the level of the average player.”
- Rinus Michels former manager of Ajax Amsterdam and the National Team of The Netherlands.
1. Organize By A Pool of Players. The progressive youth club will admit a fixed number of kids and commit itself to developing them. Ideally, players are admitted without tryouts or cuts. Remember that US Youth Soccer recommends that tryouts/cuts not happen below the age of 13. Players are not enrolled to a team. The number of players in the pool depends on the club's resources, such as fields, coaches, etc. Players are divided into training groups roughly by birth year, but with flexibility so that technically advanced players may train with the next higher birth year, and lesser skilled players can train with the next lower birth year.
Cap the pool of players and give current players the priority to re-enroll for the next season or semester. Add new players only when current players drop or when you can responsibly increase enrollment without diminishing quality of instruction. Work with the players you have and develop them!
2. Form Teams From The Pool of Players and Adopt Roster Fluidity: Since the club is not organizing principally by teams, competing as teams becomes another development tool. This puts competitive play in its rightful place for a youth development-focused club. Games and tournaments give players the opportunity to put their training to the test, and it gives coaches another tool for developing each player. Call these teams "development teams" or something similar to indicate to parents and coaches that the point of the teams and the games is player development, and that the winning ambitions of coaches are not important. The players will bring more than enough ambition to win. Teams can certainly be formed so that players of relatively like ability play together, but the teams should be fluid so a player on a "B" team can be called up to the "A" team at any point in a season for developmental reasons. Ideally, a player's level of technical skill, game intelligence and appetite for challenge should be the criteria for an receiving an invitation to join a higher level team. This kind of roster fluidity creates incentives for players to train harder and it provides coaches an opportunity to progress players now, rather than next year. Similarly, "A" team players who rest on their laurels and show lack of effort can be moved to the "B" team where they face the prospect of earning their way back, which can happen quickly if the player puts in the work. Progressive youth soccer leagues allow this fluidity for developmental purposes, but everyone should recognize it can be the devil's playground. The temptation to drop "A" team players to "B" teams in order to win games cannot be allowed so roster changes should be made by the club's Director of Player Development and accepted by the team coach.
3. Job #1 for Coaches is Developing Each And Every Player. This is critical! Coaches must take the time to work with each and every player and develop each one. Of course, this also means that the mentality of clubs, coaches, players and parents must change. Clubs need to stop boasting about how many league titles and tournaments they've won and instead recognize and reward coaches who make positive changes in players' development. Coaches must accept that the outcome of games will be less important, and that they will be judged on how many players they progress to higher levels of training and performance. Players must be encouraged to train hard and begin each game with the intention of winning, but should also be encouraged to take equal pride in their personal performance. Parents must be advised not to define themselves by their kids' progress. Most importantly, parents must be patient with the development process and not focus on team wins or moving their kids to the club down the street that wins all the tournaments.
There will always be youth clubs that will ridicule all of this and instead continue their mission of developing "elite" teams. They believe its unfair to have the best kids playing with the average kids. Take your son or daughter there, and you will likely find a program focused on money and featuring a pyramid scheme where B, C, D and E team players are financing the needs of the A teams. That is not development.
4. Provide Advanced Training For Technically Advanced Players. Forget developing elite youth teams. The primary goal should be promoting the development of all players. That also means providing advanced training for the most promising players. The method of selection is not a tryout, but rather the player's entire body of work, meaning their technical abilities, tactical intelligence, ambition, training habits and behavior, leadership potential, love of the game, everything. For these players, advanced training should be provided regardless of age (though generally not younger than 10) and in groups of mixed ages. In this way, advanced training sessions become the play-up situation, not the games. Avoid turning advanced training into an excuse to create an elite travel or tournament team.
And while we're at it, let the most talented girls train with the boys. Why not? in iceland they're doing just that and producing amazing players.
5. Create a True Development Pathway. A proper youth development pathway focuses on levels of training, not teams. For example, a club might have a basic or primary training program where players are grouped roughly by birth year, but with flexibility to move advanced players to older training groups. Additionally, players with the strongest level of technical skill can be grouped together for more advanced tactical training, ideally with a focus on developing game intelligence. The most talented players should be placed on individual development plans developed by the player and the coaching staff. These plans should be aimed at providing additional training to address any weaknesses, with the goal of helping the ambitious player join a collegiate team or a professional club academy either in the U.S. or abroad.
This is a revolutionary idea, I know. Its disruptive, requires sacrifice and hard work and calls for adults to submerge their personal soccer dreams of winning leagues and tournaments. But more than anything, it requires commitment and bravery. Why keep doing the same things and expecting different results? That is the definition of insanity.