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Youth Football in the US



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Ruud Gullit: ‘We can’t play sexy football at LA Galaxy’

“I can’t play sexy football with this team at the moment because we are not ready for this. There is a huge difference between the very good players and some of the average players.

The reason for this, I have found out, is that young players are not being schooled in the way we do it in Europe. A good young player in Europe will start at youth team level at a professional club and over the years he will build up his knowledge and develop a natural affinity for the game along with a good tactical brain.

But here in the United States they play soccer in the schools and then college and they are 20 or 21 years old and they are coming to me, having been coached straight out of a book. None of these coaches has played at any kind of high level. This is a major limitation when these players come into the professional game and it means that I have to go back to basics with them.

They’re just rough diamonds and they don’t have the tactical vision. Some of them will make it, some will not, but all of the teams see the same young players because of the draft system, so my challenge is to develop them into something more than anybody else can achieve with them. That’s a tough challenge.”

From here, one needs more of a summary than an explanation.

So here’s a broad outline.

How does a kid in America learn to play soccer?

He can’t play much of a pick-up/street game with friends because there are no streets in America. There are suburbs. Street games are for basketball, often in a tough urban center or under a roof. Spaces for free soccer pitches have been long turned into parking lots. (People need room for their SUV’s)

But suburbia has its own limitations – it is spread out. One could perhaps bicycle from home to home but walking is usually frowned upon. Local schools usually bus their students in. When you’re on the bus, you ain’t walking. And you ain’t playing street soccer.

And, so with pick-up games eliminated, one looks to the organized game. That is run by a plethora of occasionally coordinated youth clubs. Clubs charge fees to play and that often negates a possibility of the poorer kids joining the club. Still, that isn’t the worst problem with these youth clubs. The worst and perhaps the only significant problem here is that coaches at these small clubs don’t know and don’t want to know the game. Teaching basic skills is considered anachronistic despite the fact that the club players have little previous experience. This “coaching” – and I am using the term loosely – involves dropping the ball on the (rented) grass field and telling the young players to have a good time running around. No tactical and technical training takes place. If the same principle applied to assembling an orchestra, a resulting cacophony would be put down by a riot police with water hoses and tear gas. Yet, what one sees on the soccer fields across America is precisely that type of cacophony that knowledgeable sport fans would fine nauseating.

Other clubs/coaches are motivated solely by winning. That’s what gets the parents to cough up that needed dough. But that leads to an unsophisticated game approach where a couple of the fastest kids keep chasing long ball, with the rest of their team mates aimlessly booting them up the pitch. Any desire to teach actual skills is put on the back burner because it doesn’t gel with the long ball and takes too much time where none is really available anyway.

There are exceptions to the rule, clearly. There are a few former European and South American pros employed by a few respected clubs who teach as good a game as their own teachers once did. Alas, with millions of youth soccer players in the US, the professionals only reach a minuscule portion of the American soccer universe. The rest of the prospects is idiotized and taught, to be blunt, garbage.

Even the Bradenton Academy in Florida – formed to develop the most elite US soccer athletes up to the U-17 World Cup – has suffered from inept coaching and a selection process that depended on the early bloomers who matured earlier than their peers and thus were physically dominant. Subsequently, those early bloomers’ star power proved to be short-lived. Freddy Adu, a poster child of all early bloomers, was deemed a future superstar at thirteen and is now firmly tucked away on the bench at Benfica. All 5’6″ of him.

But the above is only the tip of the iceberg.

The US soccer development system is governed by the United States Soccer Federation. The Federation itself consists of the representatives from both the various soccer groups – amateur, college and pros. All of these groups have opposing interests – youth clubs are more concerned with milking the well heeled parents for their kids’ membership fees. Colleges want free student-athletes, who are limited by its regulations not only to the compensation they could receive (none) but to the amount of hours they could spend practicing under supervision. Pros – MLS and USL – ideally want well trained 18-23 year old prospects but are unwilling and often unable to offer them a salary commensurable with the one they’d get in a business world with their college degrees.

NCAA soccer has another conundrum. It has different rules and not different in some insignificant unimportant miniscule way – it has unlimited number of substitutions. (though the re-entry in the same half is largely prohibited: 2007 NCAA Men’s and Women’s Soccer Rules and Interpretations )

That leads to a ping-pong type of action with a lot of running – the US soccer player is very fit – but not much skill on the ball. This doesn’t bother NCAA, as it looks at soccer in more recreational than competitive terms.

Which brings us to the pros.

MLS coaches are hired to win games. They are not hired to raise and educate 20-23 year old rookies. If it can be done concurrently, the best of them do what they can within a limited time allowed.

But most have taken to understand the system for what it can give them. In an annual MLS draft, the few players with skills – who may have come from the rare ex-pro schooled clubs or are simply uniquely gifted individuals – are picked early. The raw athletes are picked next. Then the coaches divide the team between the “piano players” (skill) and the “piano movers” (no skill, never heard of skill).

When a squad is short of the “piano players”, its management goes outside of the country and brings in the likes of Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Juan Pablo Angel, Marcelo Gallardo, Guillermo Barros Schelotto and David Beckham.

There’s never a shortage of the “piano movers” – American kids can indeed run all day long.

So how does an average American player learn the game?

By osmosis.

Occasionally by practice.

But mostly he never learns much and leaves the game as bereft of skill and knowledge as he came into the game with.

The luckiest ones get competent coaches with a European or South American background – Juan Carlos Osorio with New York, Ruud Gullit with the LA Galaxy, Preki with the Chivas USA. The most athletically talented of the lucky ones may even get interests of the European clubs and are given a chance to develop there.

The bulk of the MLS’ers, however, is out of luck.

It’ll stick around for a few years but eventually will have to go back and rely on their college degree to make a real living. Their pro years will be memories saved on their VCR’s.

PS. Some loyal followers of the American soccer are placing considerable amount of hope on the various non-profit youth academies that are being set up across the country. If one adopts a principle that something is better than nothing, then it’s a step in the right direction. But quantity is easier to define than quality and that leaves the only important variable – coaching – still up in the air. If these new and newly affiliated academies – rumored to number over sixty – feature the necessary “quality control”, then the up-and-coming American talent should see a noticeable improvement in tactical and technical knowledge. If, and this may end up being the case, it’s the old faces with new uniforms and barely reformulated slogans, the status quo will likely prevail.

NCAA is a drain and will remain so.

MLS keeps on improving but it must hire more coaches like Gullit and Osorio, who won’t stand for the same old football that has been an MLS staple since its inception. It may count half a dozen of coaches with similar ideas among its fourteen member base. But it needs one for every team pronto. It needed them before yesterday too.

Also See: Youth Development in the MLS: The Promise and the Problems.