This winning vs development argument always seems to revolve around technique. I discussed a bit in part I of this series how a coach can only go so far in technical development. But people talk over and over again about how our professional player’s lack of technique is the biggest problem. Again, we’re missing over half the truth.
It’s the Soccer IQ, Stupid!
What we are very slow in grasping as a soccer culture is that lack of technique is currently NOT our biggest issue. In spite of our systemic problems at the youth level, there are loads of players that have developed tremendous technique – albeit of their own merit. Where we fail is in providing them with a deep and rich understanding of the game (ie Soccer IQ) – which is particularly important from U14 and up. Why? Well again, our coaches don’t have it themselves.
Our coaches have their teams play direct, not necessarily because they want to win, but because that’s the only thing they know how to do. That is the lens through which they see soccer – not possession. Again, attenuating the pressure to win ensures nothing if our coaches are complete amateurs.
Our international and domestic (MLS) quality suffers far more from lack of soccer understanding than from technical development in the pre-teen years. Our player’s decision-making on the field, which in large part comes from improper player selection and coaching instruction at the college and professional level, is among the worst in the world.
It is presumed in this country that there is no resort but to play vertical at the higher levels if you don’t have technique of the highest caliber. This is just wrong, and I’m very happy that Caleb Porter from Akron has shown the country what is possible. That coach and his team are a beacon of hope in an ocean of misguided ideas. And guess what? His players traversed the same youth system that favors winning. The difference is he knows something most everyone else doesn’t. He selects
“the right” good enough players and instructs them properly. He understands the value of possession, he understands quality, and he understands that it’s the Soccer IQ, stupid!
By contrast MLS and the NT’s are not representative of the best this country has to offer – neither in players nor in coaches. We continue to favor athletic capacity over Technical Quality and Soccer IQ.
We still can’t comprehend that at the highest levels this is a game of chess, not checkers. Consequently, our player identification, selections, and instruction at the higher levels reflect that.
So while the youth system is definitely part of the problem (winning being just a component), our college and pro ranks are just as culpable.
What do you think of this? Can we see there’s more than meets the eye here? That pointing the finger at winning doesn’t encapsulate our problem?
p.s. For those that don’t follow college soccer, I highly recommend watching the display Akron put on against Michigan in the college cup semifinal. You can find the December 10 replay online here. I think it’s the best performance I’ve seen by any American team.
Great article. I did see the Akron v Michigan game and I was also very much impressed by the Akron quality of play. I would like to add to the Akron style of success the other obvious team with the same style and success but on a much bigger stage. Of course, that would be the Spanish national team at the World Cup.
Possession soccer is here to stay (again) world wide. It’s the “new” old way, i.e. Brazil’s national teams of the past. I think the whole world got enamored by the vertical “action” in the more recent past and thought that it is the new, better and more exciting way to play. While that is partially true, it is only true to the untrained eye of soccer novices. The aficionados of the game appreciate the dominance of an Akron, a Spanish national team this year, and a Barcelona team (slaughtering Real Madrid recently with 67% possession and five goals to show for it).
We all need to wake up and smell the coffee with the recent successes of these teams at all levels of play world wide, whether they be at the college level in the US, the professional club level or the professional national level. I, for one, am very excited that true soccer (futbol) is making a comeback showing us once again how the “Beautiful Game” should be played. Lastly, thank you for this blog site keeping the fire lit.
Milk Cup final this year with u-20s was better. But still, very good.
I was at that final game and it was a great game but it was definitely not better. The US team had way too much fire power for Northern Ireland and that’s why they won. It wasn’t the possession game I was talking about in my comment above. It was still a lot of individual plays. The US team was bigger, faster, and stronger man for man and that was enough to win that tournament.
That advantage gets neutralized eventually when they play the World Cup caliber teams. The same thing happens to the African teams. They subscribe to the same theory as the US teams, i.e. bigger, faster, stronger. Although soccer is a physical sport, the mental part comes out on top more times than not at the highest levels. The World Cup final was the perfect example; the Dutch (my former favorite team) resorted to the physical, rough game whereas the Spanish played with a lot more smarts. This is the new/old soccer and it’s about time someone finally is going back to it. This might be the second coming of the golden age, I hope.
Although possestion soccer is great to watch nut not always the way to win it all.
I loved watching the finals becuase it the best of both worlds when in reference to soccer.
Spain played there norm but I think that if Holand had possibly one more Striker with the ability to finish that posses great speed that the score or the game may have been a bit different.
Holland kept it really close and at times almost had the spaniards on there heels.
Physical soccer with the right players in the right possitions sometime pays off.
Look at Mourinho’s Inter of last year. how did they manage to beat Barcelona and Bayern in the champions league? By playing the same soccer that Holand played in the finals.
By the way does anyone remeber the Spain – Portugal game from a few months back.
great example on how to stop and play against possesion soccer.
With portugal having a new coachand new approach with the team can have posotive results . Yes it was friendly but both teams were at full strength. Both spain and portugal had their full squads.
Rafael, it looked like a possession game to me. Northern Ireland was outmatched as you say, but that doesn’t negate what was a good performance at moving the ball around and leveraging the creativity they had.
A few points:
1. To me the big question is how to move soccer in the USA in the direction where quality development is viewed as a success at the youth level. It seems that the reward system in youth soccer is skewed toward the things that produce problems in our competitiveness at an adult level. As long as a youth coach can be “successful” doing the wrong things, the wrong things will continue to dominate. Education can only do so much, in the end most people in athletics are highly success oriented. Players and parents are much the same, and will gravitate toward those who look successful.
2. In looking at talent it seems to me that we need to have a more expansive view of what constitutes talent. Size and speed are the archetypical talents for American sporting eyes. Soccer values these, but reaction time, intelligence, creativity and mental strength all have massive importance in Soccer. The importance of these characteristics is ignored by all of those who think NFL players would make great soccer players. The NFL would suit someone with the attention span of a ferret! Three seconds of action and then new orders to execute. Most positions are intelligence and creativity optional too. This is mostly for the coaches to provide.
I remember a tryout my son went to (for a well-ranked local U-14 side). All they were interested in was players over 5’7” with speed. My son did not go through any activities that would have revealed anything about those other talents, and he being younger and short was dismissed in 15 minutes. This seems to be a typical attitude and this team is one of top three local sides in their age group.
3. I loved the recent comment about “EPL goggles”. For most Americans the EPL looks fantastic and anything English has instant credibility as soccer excellence. Too bad this doesn’t hold much water. Having read the deluge of angst after the World Cup from the English, Americans would be ill-served by following the English lead on Soccer development, tactics or style. We adopt their worst practices and at least some in England are doing soul-searching.
Gary Kleiban says
Hi Bill. Another great contribution by you.
Let’s see, on your first point:
First I’ll say that yes, our reward system is skewed and does hurt development. I’m not refuting that.
But allow me to go out of my element and ask: “Why is the US so successful in so many of the other sports?” Are the reward systems there different? For instance, is winning not an issue with basketball at the youth level?
This in no way is the crux of my argument, but simply a thought exercise from a different angle. Maybe we’re successful elsewhere because kids, parents, coaches, scouts, etc … are far more literate in their respective sport. And as a result proper instruction is given and proper player identification and selections occur.
Lebron & Kobe being identified as Michael Jordan level caliber i guess was on the money. By contrast when Freddy Adu was proclaimed as the next Pele, I laughed my ass off. In my eyes, that’s how low level we are at identifying true quality at the higher levels. Not only that, but I’m sure Lebron & Kobe had to be further developed and polished when they became pro. Something which I believe our coaches don’t have the capacity for.
Anyways, like I said just a thought exercise.
The basketball development system is very bad. There are a lot of dads and coaches out there who know basketball so kids can pick up something. Also, lots of pick up games where kids can learn themselves what works. But the AAU system both discourages the elites from working on skills and has so many games kids don’t have the time to work on skills. Most scouts feel the level of fundamentals and commitment to skills in the U.S. has declined a great deal. Bball is different than soccer in that pure physical talent can carry a player to the NBA, but there is no mistaking the broken U.S. system.
I agree with the point on basketball although the edge the USA has on the rest of the World is eroding fast. I believe Europe and Spain in particular is beginning to catch up. In a sense the USA has a youth basketball culture analogous to Brazil’s in soccer. The Spanish have done something different with youth development across the board in the last 20-30 years that is now paying off in many sports. It is worth paying some attention to. I believe a great deal of the focus is merely on resources at a local level for sports with both good facilities and good training for the adults supervising the kids. It provides a steady stream of talent downstream in the teen to adult elite level.
I do think the tide for soccer in the USA is turning slowly due to the larger population of adults that played as children and the influx of immigrants. They will begin to slowly create a smarter brand of parent and a more “natural” culture over time. Whether the USA wants to fix something sooner is another matter. We should, but the current USA power structure is probably interested in keeping things more-or-less as it is.
We have to define something that works with the culture in the United States. We cannot replicate the culture elsewhere for good or ill. As an example, we could look at modifying how the laws of the game are implemented. The USA tends to view contact and physicality much like England. These views are to the detriment of skill in both countries. The way the game is implemented tilts the balance toward more direct play, and shifts the competitive balance to the favor of size and speed from the pros all the way to the U-littles.
In both cases, the development of players suffers, but the culture of each country is squarely opposed to any moderation. English reaction is much like the NFL’s conservative elements with respect to contact. In both cases horrific injuries have been met with defense of the conditions leading to the problem rather than support for improvements. In England, it’s a man’s game after all and changes are viewed as wimpy (goes for the NFL too!). In the USA, the issue is combating the “grass-fairy” charge. In both cases, the negative impact on skill as an element of the game is sacrificed to a bit of blood lust. Of course beyond this, the practical problem is implementing changes, as the powers that be tend to be conservative. Change has the potential to upset their apple carts, no matter how much it is needed.
Watched a professional soccer game on a Spanish-speaking network last night (Galavision???) and was impressed by how much I learned without even understanding the language. The commentators expertly utilized instant replay and computer overlays to stop the action, circle the key players, then restart the action demonstrating what has just happened… and HOW IT DEVELOPED.
It is a good sign that MLS is getting the attention of NBC. It would be a nice bonus to introduce a “John Madden of Soccer” type of commentator simultaneously. This is an opportunity for someone to use technology to spoon feed us HOW a good soccer play develops… like the Spanish-speaking network game…
The NFL IQ is certainly much higher thanks to the colorful and creative comments of Jo hn Madden stopping action and scribbling stuff on our screens as he did back in the day. “Stop it right there!”, he’d yell and scribble digitized lines and circles and say things like “Boom! Right there!!! Right there, he breaks through!” Our National Soccer IQ might move higher faster with similar inspiration.
Just imagine the recent USMNT versus Panama in the Gold Cup elimination game… Dempsey scores on a picture perfect far post pass. Yeah, but a quickly queued replayed shows Freddy Adu and Landon Donovan in the mid-field highlighted in computerized color-coordinated halos, Adu gets a quick drop pass, looks up field and “Stop it right there!”, a big circle is drawn around Donovan on the right in an improbable position to get a pass, we see a colorful box highlighting all the open space up the right corner, we see Freddy’s head up making a decision, “Ok let it roll…”, then we see Freddy make a feather light pass around the defender to the open space that gets picked up only by speed the likes of Donavan, then we see the classy far post pass, and Dempsey’s in-your-face slam dunk. The ending framed this way seems like the only rightful conclusion to what is a masterfully orchestrated play starting with a simple shovel pass to the USMNT play maker in the middle.
Tick, tick, tick… the national Soccer IQ goes up en masse.
I hope more people read this blog and get a clue too…
Gary Kleiban says
I like it jesran … but I get concerned.
While you described the scenario, I couldn’t help but visualize some donkeys doing the breaking down. Oh I don’t know, let’s say Harkes, Lalas, Twellman, Cobi Jones … you know that whole entourage. I just cringe at the thought. Didn’t Warren Barton or some other dude do some of this stuff during the World Cup? Or was it Champion’s League? I don’t know.
The real interesting, rich, and powerful stuff lies with the interpretation/analysis of what’s going on inside player’s heads during the run of play. I think there’s very few people capable of that with any kind of precision, and even less willing to point out all the negatives along with the positives. Even if one get’s many things wrong on this front, the audience starts understanding what to look for when making player/coaching judgements.
Does any of that make sense?
Did Adu know about Donovan before he received?
Why did Brek Shea turn at midfield and try to take on 2 guys down the wing when he had a simple play to his center mid?
How come Bornstein is caught so high and centrally in Mexico’s goal?
What is instinct versus premeditated?
I think these are the things that ultimately give people some serious tools.
But we have to start somewhere, and I think your John Madden is good if it’s someone knowledgeable.
I think it can be done.
My 65 year old American mother can tune into a baseball game and quickly assess the situation… bottom of the 8th, home team at bat, down by 1 run in a low scoring game, man on 2nd and 3rd, 1 out, 3 balls 1 strike count, clean up hitter at the plate. She knows enough about baseball, as almost all American do, to pay attention because something may happen right now that will change the ball game. She knows that an out is a really bad outcome for the hitter, a walk is likely outcome that is sort of neutral, a sacrifice fly is a good result and changes the game, a hit is an excellent result and a game changer, etc. Nobody from an unfamiliar culture can distinguish this intense baseball situation from any other, though, right?
Now to contrast, my Turkish mother-inlaw, like so many other ordinary folks from soccer cultures, can walk into a room with a soccer game on; tied 1-1 in the 75th minute with players flopping all over the field trying to cause a yellow or a free kick in a dangerous area every time they get the ball. She will immediately understand what they are doing and why. She will applaud them if they do it correctly to grab the initiative for their team and possibly take the lead… or she will complain when they overdo it, etc. Someone unfamiliar with soccer likely sees this situation as boring for its low scoring possibilities, it’s indirect approach, theatrics, and why are they all drinking so much water instead of trying? However, there are just as many nuances to this intense situation as with the above described baseball situation.
What is so fascinating statistically for baseball is equally as fascinating from a human interaction stand point in a soccer match. Everybody is playing everybody. It’s awesome!
That sort of leads to Gary’s above questions:
Did Freddy see Landon?
-Yes, I believe he did based upon his head being up just before the time of the pass. That can be illustrator by an astute TV commentator and a technology enhancement can show this to the audience quite easily.
Why did Brek Shea turn at midfield and try to take on 2 guys down the wing when he had a simple play to his center mid?
-I don’t recall exactly Brek’s posture, but I do remember him, unlike Adu, having his head down looking at his feet which to me seemed like either 1) nerves or )2 excellent defending. He is tall and Freddy is short. USMNT is relatively tall and World Champion Spain is short. Conclusion: playing possession may have something to do with height. See the fascinating nuances that arise with good questions like those you ask…
How come Bornstein is caught so high and centrally in Mexico’s goal?
-Bornstein’s performance should have been broken down analytically for all of USA to benefit from; how not to play defense. If you are slow to run and read a play you cannot play up so high. You could easily stop the action and demonstrate with technology the point where Bornstein realized he was in trouble.
If my mother, and any other average American, can do this level of analysis for baseball then I am sure we can find someone who can do it for soccer. We are sports nuts here. It’s true we are.
And actually, I think improvement of commentating is far more likely and effective than trying to up the level of competition among the 3 million registered soccer players in the US by following the old-by-now, new US soccer Curriculum:
The standard is so low and the number of people involved is so much fewer. Commentating i slow hanging fruit.
Jesran, great job. Keep going- you are onto something. I agree it can be done, and it might be easier than people think. Perhaps to change the culture in the announcer’s booth, you first have to change the culture in the producer’s office. Who are these guys (and their interns)? My favorite commentators are 1) Mario Kempes and 2: Eduardo Biscayart. They are so incisive, often opinionated, they teach you, and they help you to enjoy the game more. But they they do the games in Spanish. The ESPN guys make me want to cry, they are so bad. I even prefer the Univision announcers, who often “speak through their elbows”, to the guys who ESPN guys who were probably hired for name recognition and because they are telegenic. My conclusion: I’ll bet many of those competent Spanish (or German, or Brazilian….) commentators have English that is good enough to help out at ESPN, NBC, etc.
Gary Kleiban says
What did you think of Jorge Ramos in the US vs Mexico game?
I watched the Univision broadcast of the game. I read somewhere afterwards that worked the English language broadcast, is that right? The Univision guys were not offensive to me, but not brilliant, either. They tend to be a bit chatty. But they did a nice job containing there pro-Mexico sentiments (because you never know who is watching!). Do you like Ramos?
Gary Kleiban says
Yes, I think he would be valuable.
His vision of what was transpiring in the game was worlds apart from what Lalas, Twellman, & I don’t recall who else were saying. He “sees it” most of the time, while the others are on Jupiter.
His accent or domination of the language could be an obstacle though.
I like Kempes too!
I’m several months behind on this, but thought I’d share my thoughts.
First of all, we can’t develop world-class or even the next level down if we don’t have a world-class youth identification and development system. That includes every level of coach and club affiliated staff. This also means licensing requirements and continuing education of coaches.
If Messi, Xavi, Ronaldo, and yes G. Rossi were in USA system they wouldn’t be who they are. They are products of their environment. G. Rossi was smart to get out at young enough age.
In large part, our system stifles and lacks higher level incentives for ambitious young prodigies; whereas Europe enables, rewards and incentives it.
Second, we’re not developing soccer IQ at a high enough rate. The mind is #1 weapon of a footballer. Starting at about U12/U13, kids need to spend as much time (maybe more) honing their soccer IQ. Combine that with hard skills such as dribbling, shots, heading, passing. But I don’t see that. We spend an inordinate amount of time on team play and conditioning.
We completely miss the boat at U5-12. Ball mastery is critical. Many kids never develop soccer IQ because they can’t even master the ball. Need both for high level international level play. The USMNT is a perfect example.
Third, coaches need to be better mentors and teachers; not drill instructors. I only see a handful of coaches sit down with team to go into fairly good analysis of a recent game. More coaches need to do that. Not scolding; rather, teaching and sharing knowledge. Incorporation of chalk-talk and video analysis goes a long way.
Fourth, we’re not pushing the development S-Curve. In this case I’m talking about the relation of overall ability (hard / soft skills and soccer IQ) as a function of age. U13 is approximately the point where ability should begin a steep climb. By about U18, it starts to levels off and flatten by mid-20s. For whatever reason, kids in Europe and South America, develop along or above the curve.
American kids seem to be at or above the curve in terms of size, power, and speed. Of course it’s not like all non-American kids are world beaters. We shouldn’t go from specific to generalize all European and South American kids. Only a small percentage will ever play at a high level. So I’m only focusing on those who make it to top leagues / teams as compared to our top players.
One key difference is Europe and South America has a larger pool of dedicated players who desire to become pro. College isn’t an option / interest for vast majority of them.
In America, it’s still a direct path to college (USDA, ODP, id2, and so on). That doesn’t come remotely close to a kid being picked up by 2nd division Spanish, English, or Italian pro teams. Our entire system is based on the college model. Generation Adidas, MLS Academy, and USDDA are still small in comparison and lack deep experience.
In most countries, high school ends at sixteen. You take national exams and your future is determined. Football is a legitimate “trade”. There are pro clubs several levels deep who can add you to their academy. How do we realistically compete with that? Is USA really a false hope, only able to push the curve marginally due to your “upside down system”?
When we select players for ODP or national pools, I would expect those kids to be at, above, or very near the development curve in overall ability. Are they? Or are they there for a subset (i.e., size, power, speed)? Do we consider long-term ability? In observing ODP over the years, I think it’s about getting players into college as opposed to top prospects for national team or European leagues. Almost every Academy Club’s website has a College Identification Program of some sorts. I want to see a club promote developing players to play in Europe. What a thought!
Fifth, we don’t have enough professional level affiliated youth identification development. IMG is our closest thing to the residency model other countries have. In Spain for example, a prodigious kid will be picked up by any dozens of clubs, not just La Masia as we hear about. Even a small club like Sporting Lisbon picked up a young Cristiano Ronaldo at about 12. Until MLS more closely mimics European model and/or we have 20 regional IMGs, how can be push the curve anything beyond a millimeter?
Lastly, we aren’t allowing kids to develop thinking skills. In Europe and South America, kids play football daily for hours at a time (American basketball comes to mind). They learn hard and soft skills and gain soccer IQ through countless hours of trial and error. We don’t have that in USA. Coaching can help fill the void. However, most American coaches have very rigid, structured practices. No free, open play to learn on your own. We develop a lot of robots, which is why American players (national teams / MLS) lack creativity, vision, panache, flair.
I could go on, but this is already a very long post . . . .