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How better coaching in club soccer can help the USMNT (and the USWNT)

Everyone has ideas or answers for the questions surrounding the USMNT’s failure to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in almost 30 years. There are questions around financial access to club soccer and the pay-to-play system but I personally don’t see that changing anytime soon, so it’s a tough one to address. One of the biggest factors that needs to be addressed immediately is coach education, especially at the younger age groups.

Development of technical skills at very young ages is also a big issue and Tom Byer, a renowned US coach who works primarily in Asia, has talked a lot recently about the importance of kids picking up technical skills between the vital ages of 2-6 years old; that’s certainly not something that happens on a large scale here in the US.

It’s an issue that will hopefully improve as the culture here matures in regards to the approach to soccer and hopefully more kids are taught to manipulate the ball at very young ages, instead of picking it up or just kicking it anywhere.

Manipulation of the ball involves learning how to control it, move it back and forth, side to side and basically having a fundamental grasp of how to keep it at your feet when dribbling or when challenged by another player. Something not enough young kids are able to do here.

The young ages 2-6 is something that parents have to help with rather than coaches. After that, we have to address club soccer and the coaching that kids receive from approximately age six upwards.

I’ve lived in LA for five years and have watched hundreds of AYSO, recreational and club games. I haven’t seen the Development Academy level so can’t refer to that. I know that’s the top level of soccer in this country and I would expect it to be high quality, both from a coaching and playing perspective. I’ll find out more as I watch Galaxy and LAFC DA games over the coming months so will be able to see where it’s at in comparison to European professional academies.

In terms of club soccer here in the US though; it isn’t as good as it could and should be. Who is responsible for that? Coaches, pretty much. Parents do also play a part and I’ll get to that later.

There is a huge emphasis on winning that I struggle to accept based on my own knowledge of youth athlete development (soccer specifically) but I completely understand why coaches, players and parents are sucked into this relentless hunt for the big ‘W’.

Everyone wants to be on a winning team. Kids want to be winning constantly because they are not taught that defeat is a learning opportunity instead of a negative thing. Parents want their kids to be on the gold or elite team, regardless of whether that is the best thing for their level of play and development. Coaches want to win every game to enhance their Resume and reputation, even if this means that players don’t improve.

Coach gets the W; everyone goes home happy and enjoys the weekend. That’s how it goes, right? Sorry but no, I can’t accept that and neither should parents.

The general level and quality of coaching in club soccer is average at best. Some of it is truly shocking and leaves me shaking my head in absolute disbelief before, during and after some of the games I either watch or am involved in as a coach.

One of my club teams’ recent games left me totally bewildered, after the opposing coach did something I’ve never seen before in youth soccer. We were trailing 1-0 and the opposing coach made a couple of substitutions in the first few minutes of the 2nd half. It seemed strange to do it so quickly but it became clear what was happening in the next few minutes as every time the ball went out of play, the opposing coach made a substitution and had her girls stroll off the field as slowly as possible, wasting at least a minute each time. This continued every single time the ball went out of play as the game descended into farce and almost became a comedy show.

Time wasting is normal in professional soccer (where winning equals $$ and I understand that) and to an extent, it’s accepted in youth soccer but what happened in this game was just outrageous. It was the ultimate act of selfishness on the part of the coach who was going in search of the big ‘W’ at the expense of her players (and mine) basically not even playing the game for the 2nd half. Talk about an ego.

What the opposing coach did was criminal and I don’t use that word lightly. People like this (and there are way too many of them based on what I’ve seen) should not be involved in club soccer in any capacity, let alone as a coach (certainly not without additional coach education). She is a good example of why young players in club soccer are not learning the game; certainly not in a way that is beneficial for them and for the general standard of youth soccer in this country.

Unsurprisingly, her team understood little more than how to boot the ball in the air or up the field. Literally not one instance of more than two consecutive passes for the entire game. Poor kids; they deserve better.

The big ‘W’ is one of the biggest problems in youth soccer and until more clubs and coaches truly prioritize development over winning, individual player improvement will continue to suffer. Almost every club website I read and every coach I speak to espouses the “development over winning” spiel but hardly any of them (and I mean a handful out of hundreds I’ve seen) actually practice this when it comes to game time. Talk is cheap.

True player development is tough and means sometimes accepting defeat to help individuals improve. This is too much for most clubs and coaches to handle. The big W flashes in front of their eyes and they follow the herd like sheep. Win at all costs. Win at all costs. Win, win, win.

The attitude of most players and coaches is telling. “How did you do?” I’ll often ask a kid or another coach about their game. Their immediate answer is always directly about the result.”Oh, we lost 2-1, it was bad” or “Great game, we won 12-0.”

My answer to the same question is always related to how our team played. “How did your team get on this weekend, Paul?”

“We did really well. The players worked hard and played some really nice stuff; pretty much what we’ve been working on in practice.”

I’m usually then asked, “Yeah but what was the score?” and I’ll reply something like, “Oh, we lost 2-1 to a team who just smashed it long but that’s not a big deal; the performance is what I care about and I’m delighted with how we played.”

I saw another example of the insane focus on winning at a local game between two ‘Premier’ girls clubs recently. One of the teams tried to play a possession style of soccer and looked very easy on the eye. I enjoyed watching them play and it was obvious that their players were technically very good and had developed good decision making skills, almost certainly because their coach has allowed them to play this way for some time.

This style is the best way for young players to learn the game, make no mistake about that.

Their opponents, who I know, just booted the ball long for the entire first half to get it out of ‘danger’. I know that’s how coaches and players look at it. “Kick it away, then it’s out of danger and they can’t score.”

In the second half, they tried to at least play a bit more soccer but it was obvious that the coaching they have received simply wasn’t good enough to allow them to develop and master a possession style of soccer. Because of that, many of their players looked technically poor, at the same level I would expect from lower level bronze/flight 3 teams. They had a few very strong, fast girls and ultimately that made the difference as they won the game 2-1, which surprised me.

Then came the embarrassing part.

I watched as parents from the winning team literally ran up and down the sideline, high fiving each other and whooping with delight. I shook my head and almost had to shield my eyes. I wanted to get them all in a huddle and say, “Do you have any idea that winning 2-1 means nothing at all if your girls are not learning the game, progressing technically and improving their decision making?”

Of course, I’d be wasting my time because it would fall on deaf ears anyway. I’d get laughed at by the parents and their response would be something like, “Yeah whatever, we won so shut up.” Sad but true.

It’s not an exaggeration when I say that 90% of teams I watch or we play against, just hammer it long and get the ball out of danger as quickly as possible. This isn’t a lower level thing; I’ve watched plenty of gold, premier and high school teams do exactly the same thing. It’s effective, especially on some of the poor fields that games are played on.

But the kids learn nothing by doing it. Let me repeat that; the kids learn nothing by doing it. One final time; the kids learn absolutely nothing by playing this way.

Would parents keep sending their kid to the same school/teacher if they were learning nothing? Probably not. Then why keep them with a club/coach who isn’t teaching them the actual game but is just trying to win?

It doesn’t make any sense but I guess if parents don’t really understand the difference between truly learning the game and doing whatever it takes to win (and how these vastly differing approaches affect their kids’ development), it makes sense that nobody challenges the clubs and coaches who play this way.

What would happen if all youth clubs encouraged coaches (and therefore players) to adopt a possession oriented approach, with the focus moved away from winning and onto development? Quite simply, the quality of players (and therefore the level of competition) would increase rapidly over the course of a few years. This would lift the game up from the bottom and enable better quality individuals to come out at the top. That maybe sounds too simple but it’s true.

Sure, improving the bottom level won’t directly help create world class players, but it’s a big factor in helping create a bigger pool of quality players at young ages. That is a building block for the development of more technically skilled, advanced decision makers with the potential to become world class further down the line.

I want the US to be successful and I want to do my part to ensure that every kid I work with has the best possible opportunity to develop their skills and decision making (and therefore their overall game) to a level as high as their genetics will allow. Genetics is a story for another time but it’s certainly another factor in the development of world class players.

Coach education, like I mentioned at the start of this article, is absolutely vital as it allows coaches who perhaps don’t appreciate or understand soccer player development to start doing the best thing for their players, rather than for themselves. If coaches can see that they are a key ingredient to helping this country produce world class players, they might be a bit more unselfish in their approach to it.

Education is a key factor in getting coaches to understand the process and how their coaching impacts young players for the rest of their careers.

It’s not that difficult either, although the cost of coach education can be prohibitive for some people (in much the same way as club soccer’s pay-to-play model is prohibitive for some lower income families).

You don’t necessarily need to go through lots of licensing to learn how to coach kids the fundamentals of the game, though. You only need a handful of different exercises to work on (something I could teach most youth coaches in the space of a couple of days) and you have enough to help develop technically competent, intelligent decision making young players.

Of course, to coach players at a higher level (the level that ultimately develops world class talent), you need to understand, in detail, the nuances and minutiae of the game and know how to get every last inch of quality out of the players you work with. This requires either an extensive soccer background (playing at a good level helps, there’s no doubt about that) and deep knowledge of the game (including how to mentally develop young athletes) or an extensive coaching education. Ideally, all of them.

Right now, it seems that not enough coaches involved in club soccer have either the background, the knowledge or the coaching education.

But the women are doing it at the elite level and so how can we blame the coaching? Surely the men’s team should be able to dominate on the world stage as well? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

“Why can’t the men’s team be successful like the women’s team are?” someone asked me the other day.

The answer is something that many people either don’t understand or aren’t prepared to accept. The US has been ahead of the curve in the women’s game for a long time. Very few nations have put substantial time, effort and money into women’s soccer until the last 5 years or so and we’re only now seeing the gap at the top of the women’s game get narrower and games become more competitive. Added to that, the technical component isn’t anywhere near as high as the men’s game and so the physical side of things (size, speed fitness) is more vital and influences which teams are successful.

The USWNT will be caught up in the next few years and will find it more difficult to dominate at the elite level and so will need to keep evolving, technically and tactically.

On the men’s side, the game is much more competitive at the elite level and so the USMNT find it extremely difficult to compete with the top teams. That will continue to be the case until this country can produce world class players on a regular basis.

Christian Pulisic aside, the US doesn’t really have any world class players on its roster right now. It’s telling that Pulisic has a father who played soccer with him all the time growing up and he also spent time in Europe, being exposed to the different soccer culture there. Interestingly, he played for the junior team of Brackley Town in England, a club where I played for two years in my late twenties.

One of the ingredients for the development of world class players is good quality coaching at the younger ages. ‘Free play’ is also a massive factor and that’s another big issue here in the US. Very few kids play daily for hours on end in unorganized settings, like Pulisic did as a kid and just like all kids do in most European and South American countries. Again, that’s an issue for another time as it is complex and wide-ranging.

Let’s start improving club soccer by improving the coaching. There are plenty of people like me who are willing to help in any way they can.

If we can make the necessary improvements to coaching standards, the US national teams (men and women) will thank us in years to come.

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