Winning vs Development: Really? That’s the problem?

Get rid of trophies and out will pop an Andres Iniesta! Ok, sure, whatever you say buddy!

I’ve said it before and will say it again:
We have only just begun the discussion on what’s wrong with soccer in the States.

This discussion always surfaces, and rightly so, when we flounder on the international stage. Perhaps most recently when the US women lost to a lowly Mexico side, and subsequently limped in to the 2011 World Cup.

The concrete and overarching diagnosis?

“The youth system here puts an undue emphasis on winning at the expense of individual player development.”

No! This is just one issue in a systemic disease that is yet to be fully characterized.

No one has completely outlined the issues; and as a result, we get hung up on just a couple mainstream ones, like “winning vs development” and “pay to play”. Are these problems? Absolutely! But they only scratch the surface.

Hell people use to talk all day about how the biggest problem was lack of athletic depth since kids opted to play the other big sports instead. Such stupidities like; “Imagine if Lebron James played soccer instead” were commonplace. Yes this argument continues to circulate and is still reflected in our player identification and selection, but more and more people are coming around and beginning to understand this is a non-issue.

The same will happen with other soups du jour.

You see, implicit in this argument is that if winning and competition were placed in the back seat, or even abolished, that would solve our big development problem.

Ok, so let’s just suppose for a moment that winning was erased from the equation and coaches could focus on development. What makes you think that our coaches can develop technical ability?

Here’s a little secret. There’s only so much a coach can do to develop technique (especially with just 2 to 3 team sessions per week). The biggest responsibility is on the player to live with the ball 24/7 on the streets trying to mimic his footballing idols. What a coach could be helpful with is in live demonstrations of quality. Guess what; chances are your coach has horrific technique. And even if a kid had a world class coach, with world class drills, that alone can not manufacture world class technique.

This direct causal effect being attributed between competition and development in our youth ranks is not black and white, and it is most certainly not the fundamental reason for our international failure.

The superficial or the obvious, not the underlying pathology, is usually the first thing that crops up. That’s what we have here folks – America’s most recent soup du jour.

I know you must have some objections or comments, I can feel it! Please share your thoughts …

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  1. Ben R says

    I agree that part of it is that kids that play soccer do not watch professional soccer. Simply loving and watching the professional game gives youth an idea of how the sport is supposed to be played. Yes, it is important to have the ball at a kids feet 24/7 as you say as well as keep them into soccer after they go to high school and feel the pull of “bigger” sports. However our coaching system can’t address those issues very well as they are cultural and social.

    I think European youth academies are teaching us something about player development in an organized structure. NY Times Magazine had this great article on the Ajax system:

    I do believe that there is definitely something to be said about playing youth soccer to develop skill vs. win a variety of games and tournaments, especially anyone playing under U-13 levels. Kids aren’t playing soccer every day on the streets nor watching the game. Because of that I think it makes sense to push coaches to develop skill rather than rack of wins at that age. Place less emphasis on winning or more emphasis on development. Perhaps that will help motivate children more when they get more positive reinforcement and guidance for technical growth and less for winning any number of arbitrary games.

    Prioritizing winning over development isn’t the problem, but switching that priority does address the reality and issues of American youth soccer.

    • Gary Kleiban says

      Hi Ben and thanks for the response!

      “Our coaching system can’t address those issues [ie playing and watching 24/7] very well as they are cultural and social”

      Agreed. And that’s part of the point. Eliminating our “winning ways” won’t address this requirement.

      But I will say there are tons of kids who do watch and play 24/7. And as a result we do have youth players leading up to U14 with exceptional technique in spite of our system. What I want to explain in my next post is that “lack of technique” is NOT our country’s biggest problem. This is yet another misguided notion being propagated that does not get to the root of the matter.

      Far, far, far more important is our failure to:
      1) Develop Soccer IQ at the youth, amateur, and pro level
      2) Correctly identify and select the truly talented at the collegiate and professional level
      3) Implement a style of play at all levels consistent with what the world has shown us to be successful. Currently we have nothing.

      And why can’t we do these things? Well it’s definitely not because we want to win a retarded U12 trophy!

      The real reason is because we don’t know how. Barring very few exceptions, our coaches AT ALL LEVELS are complete amateurs.

  2. Alberto says

    I would add to this, that the lack of soccer IQ seemingly is reinforced by parents. For example, today I was as my older son’s high school game, and at one point, a player attempted to dribble the ball against three defenders in the transition area, ignoring the options to his side and back. His teammates behind and beside him stood still, maintaining their space, and thus giving him options to play back (he had put himself in a situation where there were no forward options, except to dribble around the three defenders in front of him).

    What happened? Well, the dribbler lost the ball, whence his mother yelled to the teammates, “what are you doing just standing there?!”

    This, to me, is American soccer in a nutshell. Decision making takes a back seat to testosterone. Wisdom is seen as laziness. American football and basketball analogies prevail. It is difficult for a player to evolve in such a culture.

  3. Bill says

    Gary, Another interesting article on the issues facing us here in the USA!

    I think the topic of development versus winning is subtle, and the consequences are seen indirectly. My perspective comes from a decade watching the youth game through my son and daughter’s experiences. I grew up playing American football and ended up coaching soccer long enough to realize that they deserved better than I could give. Now, I support the game through refereeing and volunteering management to my son’s team. I’ve also come to absolutely love the game, follow teams all over World and watch professional games every weekend.

    I think the focus on winning undermines development in a couple of indirect ways. First, you have to recognize what it takes to win with developing players. Great soccer will always do well, but can be undone by good soccer and great physicality particularly with young kids through puberty. The easiest way to win is to pick the biggest, fastest kids in the available pool, then play a direct style. When you face others playing the same way, defense is enabled by more of the same. Add poor refereeing and/or permissive standards for fouls and this approach leads to victories. For parents it looks like success, especially for parents without any soccer knowledge. For the good of the game, it is abject failure. By the time the kids are teenagers, the damage to their development has happened.

    Our problem is that physicality requires little developmental effort, while skill is time-consuming and difficult. It’s rarely a sure thing. Often skill development will lead to competitive failure before it rises above the purely physical approach. It takes years before skill development overcomes the easy road to victory. Coaches, players and parents get lots of positive feedback from the system taking the easy road, and lots of negative feedback from the difficult path.

    Generally, the style of the game in the USA gravitates toward physicality especially starting in the teen years. Right now, the college and professional game in the USA is as physical as any leagues in the World. The physicality influences the choice of players causing the bias of youth selection to continue. Skill is always valued where it exists, but physicality can trump skill. Did you see the MLS final? it was a hack-fest. Dallas was a more technical team, but was undone by the more physical team and a big dose of luck. For teenage youth teams, the objectives of high-level soccer are college scholarships, and the demands of college soccer are big and fast over smart and skillful. We simply have very few players who are smart and skillful enough to overcome the big, fast players using their physicality to get an advantage because of the value system emphasized in the youth ranks.

    The best question might be “could the USA develop talents like Messi, Xavi or Iniesta?” Right now, I think the answer is no. They would face a number of barriers that the Spanish game does not have. Because of their lack of size or speed, elite teams would discount their skill. They would be kicked out of the games if they tried to use their skill too much. The things that make them special would not be prized, and their teams would play a style that would minimize their impact.

    I think that things are improving, but we still have a long way to go. Creating an environment that could develop players like this should be our goal for youth development. It is holding the game back from the youth ranks all the way to the pros. We need to take some steps that will bias the “success” in the youth game toward skill and intelligent play, and penalize the physically oriented easy road.

    Winning is a fine and appropriate objective as long as it is put in perspective. Right now, soccer in the USA does not have the perspective.

    • Gary Kleiban says

      Everything you’ve written is right. Of particular note I really like how concise you encapsulated the argument:
      “Coaches, players and parents get lots of positive feedback from the system taking the easy road, and lots of negative feedback from the difficult path.”

      There is no doubt that the winning culture in youth soccer is a problem. I don’t refute that.

      What I would like to point out is my post’s thesis. Specifically, I am countering the verdict that this nation’s international failure is due to a single point failure. This is simply not true. The notion that somehow eliminating winning in the early years will translate to our national teams having international level quality is simply wrong. Truthfully, it’s almost laughable. What it could do is potentially raise the quality of our average player, but Iniesta’s are not going to start popping out.

      There are dozens of changes, including this one, that must take place. One of which is having the right people, with the right expertise, in the right positions. You mentioned Akron to me in an email. How is it that they can play fantastic soccer with players who were subjected to our youth system?
      I’ll tell you: Caleb Porter.

      I will definitely be following up with other posts. This one is only setting the stage.

    • dave says

      “Physicality trumps skill”

      WHAT?????? ARE YOU SERIOUS??? When did you start watching soccer? If physicality trumps skill, then why did Spain win the world cup over the physical dutch??? Why has Brazil won 5 world cups despite facing teams like the Italians that wanted to kick them off the pitch?

      If soccer were about physicality, then the English would win the world cup every time (the only one they even won was through dubious circumstances anyway). Please watch more football before jumping to conclusions like this.

      • CarlosT says

        Hi Dave,

        If you read the article and the rest of Gary’s postings, then you’d know that he means that in the current system here in the US, many players are advanced over their more skilled counterparts because they are more physically developed. It’s the whole “you can’t teach height” mentality. The vast majority of coaches in the system don’t have the tools to recognize and/or develop the kind of soccer IQ required for a player to be world class.

        The example that’s seared into my memory is an exchange I had with a friend who was coaching his son’s U14 team. We got to the field as a girls’ match was finishing up. We stood and watched a little bit and I was impressed when a girl anticipated and intercepted a pass, dribbled the intended recipient, and took off down the sideline, head up, looking for the next pass. I mentioned this to my friend, and the first thing out of his mouth was “But she’s so small.”

        Now, the sum total of my qualifications is that I’ve watched a lot of soccer. I’m not remotely qualified to teach anyone anything about actually playing, particularly since I’m incredibly bad at the game. Even so, somehow I was able to see something that my friend was not, because all he saw was how small this little girl was. Multiply that mentality by the thousands of coaches in the youth programs in the US, and you have a big component of the problem the US faces.

  4. CarlosT says

    I think Bill is correct about perspective. Specifically, the perspective required is who does the winning. If the youth teams, then you’re going to see that familiar pattern. However, if the win is from the perspective of a professional team looking for the best soccer players they can find, that changes things quite a bit.

    Since we seem to be looking at examples from Barça here, let’s think about what winning on the youth level means to them. It’s not about the teams, or about if they win a game or trophy or whatever. That can be a barometer, because a good crop of players shouldn’t be losing games left and right, but it’s by no means the yardstick by which they measure success. No, a win for Barça in the youth system comes when a Messi, Xavi, or Iniesta step on to the field to win games for the the first team.

    The true underlying problem with player development here is that it’s almost entirely in the hands of amateurs who have no perspective outside of their own level. Here a U-14 coach whose teams are always winning is a successful coach. If it happens that all his players end up washing about by the time they’re 18, that’s no reflection on him. If he follows his former players’ careers, he probably wonders what those other coaches are doing wrong, but his reputation is safe. In the Barça system, coaches are part of a larger whole that takes it’s goals from the needs of the club. Sacrificing quality to win games at the U-14 level, or any youth level, is simply unthinkable.

    Things are looking up a little bit though. MLS is starting up its academy programs and they will be looking to develop individual player who they can sign to their teams, which will lead them to the kind of player development that teams like Barça practice.

    • Gary Kleiban says

      Hi Carlos, excellent contribution!

      It is indeed difficult to characterize youth coaches (what they know, what they don’t know, their capacity to develop players, etc …) simply from their records. It could mean nothing or it could mean everything.

      Looking at where their former players end up when they age out can also mean nothing or everything. Maybe they end up with a college/pro coach that does or doesn’t value said player’s attributes and subsequently excel or “wash out”.

      You see it’s like you reference … we don’t have a self-contained pipeline from youth to pro. Instead it’s a distributed system with countless variables in play.

      So what’s one to do? All you can rely on is your core philosophy to judge what’s what. I might have developed a Xavi, but he end’s up washing out…

      Our first crop of players were 90/91′s. We know this age group extremely well along with their youth coaches. And we’re tracking all of them.

      Finally it’s fantastic that you guys are getting your Academy off the ground. But if you don’t have the coaching …

  5. Rivelino says

    Cruyff is on the outs with Barcelona, right? Why doesn’t someone check if maybe for his curtain call he’d like to build a real academy system somewhere in the U.S. if Cosmos has the cash to build a new stadium in NYC, than what a couple of extra million to entice Cruyff?

    probably just a pipe dream, but it would be pretty exciting. They could at least bring him in for a consulting visit and to evaluate coaches.

  6. Uscoach says

    Personally I believe it’s all about “culture”, it comes down to the “bond” between the ball and the player, yes coaching, academies, level of play, big name clubs…etc. some how matters, but it really comes down to that passion of the player to posses the ball. Argentina has its “El Patrero” culture, Brazil its “street” and “beach” soccer culture, Italy has its “alley” culture; and all of these soccer cultures are passionate about winning and develop world class technical players.

    To keep it simple Winning and Development don’t conflict it’s all about the culture. Until you see our kids kick the ball at any surface at any time (waiting for a school buss, after school in the park or empty parking lot, infront of a shop, a dad and his kids play 1v1,..etc).

    Culture breeds passion and influence to win.

    This just an opinion from an individual that still has his soccer rough and small space at heart.

  7. says

    I did post before but it must have been lost. Anyway, to summarise – I find it interesting that England and America are worrying about the same fundamental problems when it comes to grassroots football. That is, a concern that winning is placed above player development.

    The FA are very focussed on turning this around and this focus has intensified since our appalling show at the World Cup, but it’s going to be a long long process.


    • Gary Kleiban says

      Hi Simon, glad to have you here!

      The US has what I like to call “EPL goggles”.
      We will blindly follow the English into mediocrity …

  8. SLBpedro says

    Hi all,
    I just want to leave a few remarks about the development of soccer in this country as a whole.
    The worst thing that I could of experienced as a coach in school soccer happened this past year. I coach at a private school but live in a town who has absolutley no understanding of soccer and where american football rules.
    They have placed a coach into the varsity program that knows nothing of soccer. he tells his players at the end of the season that they must attend his weight lifting seesions during the winter and spring if they want to play for him in the fall. This is the biggest joke I have ever heard.
    The parents of one of the students approached me to ask if I could possibly start a team with some of the players from highschool and enter an indoor league so they could get some actuall playing time and true coaching. I said sure.
    I played for many years at very competative levels, was even asked to tryout for a youth program over seas at the age of 14 in lisbon portugal (but Mom said no becuase i was too young to move away from home & never the less over seas.) But i could not believe that the coach threatend the players by telling them that if they organized this without his approval or that if he found out that any of his players played in that league that they would not play for him the following fall….
    What kind of coach is this??
    This is the problem with soccer as a whole in the US. We have incompatent coaches who don’t know the game but are power hungry. Who live off of calling themselves the head varsity coach at a school program and have no knowledge of how to build a player or a team. Coaches that want your 6 foot tall player that can run up and down the field and tackle other players and that have strength to punt a ball down the field but not know how to put 5 passes together as whole.
    We need to stop this now………………………………
    Do people know that the US had world class players who played in the US, where turned away by other MLS teams or 1 div schools and now played in europe at the highest levels.

    Rossi- Jersye native who was offered by his late father to play for the US and turned down by Bruce Arena at the age of 17. who now plains for Villareal in spain and represents the Italian National team.
    Funes Mori – Tryed out for Dallas MLS team, turned down and now plays for River plate in Argentina, Did I forget to mention now being seeked by Eauropean teams on a transfer fee of close to 12 million euros. ( a little over 15 million dollars)
    Santiago Solari – A great player who was turned down by University of Norht Carolina who ended up playin for River plate, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, and has won a UEFA Champions League with Real.

    And the list goes on.
    Can some one please explain to us why this continues to happen ?
    Can’t someone in the US soccer organization realize that the system here sucks?
    We need to change this NOW!!!

    Thats all i have to say to that.
    I love Futebol..
    sad to see so much talent in this country going to waste.

    • Gary Kleiban says

      Your passion comes through in you comments SLBpedro!
      I didn’t know about the Rossi and Solari rejections, but I’m not at all surprised.

      People like to say it is a gross exaggeration and ridiculous to state things like Xavi or Iniesta would not have made it here. The opinion is fine, but it just comes out of ignorance. The Funes Mori story is but one example – there are players of similar or superior caliber right now in this country who are not recognized, underutilized, or improperly utilized. True phenoms simply do not fit here.

      As for your question: “Why does this continue to happen?”
      The answer is simply people don’t know. They don’t know. Coaches, scouts, etc, are incapable of recognizing brilliance. Even if they do – and select said player – they are incapable of harnessing that brilliance.

  9. Jason says

    Brilliant blog guys. I couldn’t agree more. Seems to me the greatest of the greats learned all their skills and soccer IQ away from the traditional coaching methods and in an arena where they felt comfortable expressing themselves….street soccer, pick up games and so on.
    I agree “pay to play” and “Win at all costs” does affect development but its indirectly affecting the players development. The direct issues are in that the kids don’t watch the game and they don’t play enough.
    I read once that the Ajax scouts look for players that have skill but more importantly are they smiling while they play. They knew that if they were having fun then they would last cause they love the game. When you love the game you do what it takes to get better. Our kids don’t love the game because compared to other sports in the US its not high scoring or insert excuse here_______. This is where street soccer can be the answer. (not to be confused with freestyle) The tricks and moves these kids in Holland come up with blow your mind and there seems to be no end to the creativity. I showed my kids simple move and my teams parents are asking me who hi-jacked their kids cause instead of playing xbox they are out trying new moves and making their own up.
    The game has to become fun again and their is a coaching method to create that atmosphere….it just takes longer to develop but the results are pure and natural. Then and only then will we see a group of players growing up that can play a great possession game mixed with the individualism of a messi, ronaldo or kaka.

    • Gary Kleiban says

      Great to have you here Jason!

      You’re right. The biggest component for development fall squarely on the player himself. He must live, eat, breath, and shit soccer for years. On his own! Obviously an authentic passion for the game is required.

      That is how a player can achieve quality. But that quality is RAW!

      And as such, it needs to be polished. Details, details, and more details. And that’s where proper training / coaching comes in.

  10. lalo says

    Michael Jackson and his brothers were made to practice daily. May have been overkill, but it paid off. Same can be said for Williams’ sisters in tennis. Tiger Woods is same. The 10,000 hour rule is good, but I think 7,000 (just a SWAG) of those are individual time . . . like Michael Jordan supposedly taking 1,000 free throws (or something like that) at end of each practice. I think (no, I know for a fact . . . .) we have players in USA who are this committed and have the natural talent. My fear (very big fear), is USSF and ODP wouldn’t know these kids if they fell on them. They go for the 5’9” man-child at U12 (size over skill) or the overly aggressive kid who over dribbles and scores (offensive aggressiveness over possession and team play).
    Here’s what I believe are Top things we need to work on:
    1) Somehow motivate kids to devote more time to personal development. Difficult I know. I practice with my son 3 – 5 time a week for about an hour on top of his team practice. And yes, it’s paying off. We can institutionalize as much as we want but nothing will change. Until soccer burns in the heart of kids . . . not just desire to play for a team as diversion . . . but deep, love and long-term desire . . . we can never compete against world powers. So what can we do? Support MLS, PDL, USL, Academies, etc. Outlets like Fox Soccer can ask for better product. Money talks!
    2) Centers of Excellence (COEs) in key markets. One Academy in Bradenton is too limiting. Asking a lot for sixteen year old to move off and live there. Say what! Start with SoCal, the hotbed of soccer in USA. Germany did this and it seemed to work. USSF needs to open aperture wider, much wider. It’s a numbers game. Like a salesperson knows, you are superstar if 10% of your sales calls turn into a cash transaction. Soccer is not different, but odds are even smaller.
    3) MLS needs to get more active in youth development. They have vested interest. They’re getting better. The league is slowly growing, but at some point they need to step up investment in youth or they will stagnate (plateau) as 3rd tier league. Seems to me that’s their business model (i.e., provide low quality product . . . that’s their niche market). This goes back to my #1 above. If MLS isn’t producing or importing role models, I’m not sure we can ever get kids motivated. And going to Europe (to be like Messi) is a pipe dream. Almost better changes winning lottery. And without strong support of PDL and USL, promising players a U16 and above have limited options. So chicken and egg problem.
    Everything has a life cycle. I put US soccer as a pre-teen. Old enough to sort of understand where they need to go, but too immature to know how to get there. They need help. So one of best things that could happen is getting a top-notch, proven international coach. A mentor. He would have the clout and admiration to force change in USSF. Pin-head Sunil Gulati would have to stop his part-time college lectures and sit up and take note. An activist coach demanding USSF to improve quality of his player pipeline. Force Academies and MLS (via influence) to give him better raw product. Of course, this is more of a fantasy because I’m not sure why any sane, world class coach would want to take over USMNT. But on other hand, if he did slightly better than Bradley, he’d be a hero. I say take a chance Sunil.

    • Gary Kleiban says

      Thank you Lalo. I am a believer in the “10,00″ hour rule and that the vast majority of that comes on your own time.

      Now let me play the contrarian to your 3 good points.
      1) There is a huge talent pool of kids who don’t need the motivation you suggest. The problem is they are latinos. And that means players with “flavor”, technique, and brains in their game – something the American coach has a difficult time identifying and even worse time leveraging. In addition, most these players don’t possess the physical attributes that American coaches look for. So your point is really to get the Caucasian pool motivated.

      2) I think the federation’s stance is that the “academies” around the country are now the “centers of excellence”.

      3) It does not matter how much MLS invests in youth. Because as long as:
      a) their concept of what is a quality player remains the same and
      b) the capacity of the coaches they hire is minimal.
      … their end product will continue to be garbage.

  11. says

    Couldn’t agree more Gary, I’m African-Amer. and the best players ive found have been latinos at 7 or 8 playing with their dad’s, uncles etc, and immediately are at the top of any soccer program. Ha, and most teams in the U.S. have no flavor or thought process they run hard, fast, and everyone believes that’s the way. I even talk to African players that come here for youth and college soccer and admit they get worse after being coached here, the technical side is totally bypassed, and because they are fast and strong let’s make him a forward. Trust me I was that same black kid your fast and strong,play forward, until i met my Dutch Coach who said “you have a brain” .

    On point number 3 I went to DC United Academy tryouts out here and these coaches are not even caring about noticing talent, just have tryouts and that’s it. They don’t focus on finding talent at all. I speak regularly with the head scout of FC Groningen and he has 45 scouts in one area in Holland!! He’s at U8 matches, checking on players its essential to their game to find and develop players. DC United just want to say hey we take your to overseas tourney’s and maybe you will do something.

    The Mentality of the club plays a lot in development of the player as well, what is preached and focused on. DC United is kind of like oh if a good player comes along ok, not thirsting for it, searching for it. Did you notice after Barca starting destroying everybody not academies were all the rage, but like u stated if the focus is not on making great players everything will stay the same.

  12. says

    Agree that development is largely responsibility of player. However, as all slogans go, “development over winning” generalizes feeling of many. Coaches spend majority of time in the two, 90-minute sessions per week to prepare for for a match or tournament. Focus is on physical and tactical. I’m talking U10 – U14 ages. This is done at expense of technique. I’ve lived it as a U13 parent. It’s like 90% of “development” is done by player (or supplemented by me, the dad). This is where I think the player development equation is wrong. Many parents never played soccer or wasn’t at a high enough level to impart meaningful development on their child. So asking a lot for a 8, 9, 10 or 11-year old to develop technical skills on his own. Camps are few and far between. And they’re expensive (pay to develop comes to mind). When my son was about U8, I realized youth clubs didn’t develop. Was confirmed by Academy level coaches I spoke with. In my son’s case, I’m happy to have stepped in and work with him at least 3 times a week (and yes it’s paying off). He has come to see practice with his team as more tactical work as a team and opportunity to work on physical side. But working technical (ball) skills and developing soccer IQ (moving, body position, angles, etc) comes from personal time with me and watching many games in person or on TV.

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