The visibility of soccer to the American public is increasing every year. We’ve moved from Saturday morning games at the park and the occasional chance of seeing a professional game on TV to an entire culture of soccer mom armies traveling to competitive tournaments and entire TV networks devoted to professional soccer around the world and the expectation that the United States will be successful in any tournament it plays in — including the World Cup. Whether or not we are successful is different than what I’m saying. I’m saying the soccer audience ‘expects’ the teams to win. The tolerance for losing at high level tournaments is very low. Fortunately we have a great group of players on the men’s and women’s national soccer teams. Some of them actually compete at a very high level in Europe. But… how does the United States continue to raise its game so that the product on the field more often matches the expectations of the audience watching.
It’s a tough question.
My opinion is that once these players get to their late teens and early twenties they are who they are going to be for us. Certainly, getting to play professional soccer will polish the abilities of any player but the intangibles (the stuff you can’t coach) are already ingrained in them. Those intangibles are the love of the game, the desire to win, the concept of team-play, the willingness to get up when you’re knocked down and, most importantly, that the crest on the front of your jersey means more than the name on the back. So, the “US Youth System” is critical to the success of the USMNT and USWNT. From my perspective there is a lot of focus on improving the players in the youth leagues. I’ve seen more and more Academies pop up that will allow younger players a chance to get more advanced instruction on technique and game strategy. Certainly, some areas of the country are doing a better job than others. Some instructional philosophies are better than others. For example, there is a lot of discussion on whether futsal helps in the off-season or reducing the number of players on the field under the age of 12 benefits the players. Those are great discussions. But we’ve overlooked the most important aspect of teaching a child how to play the game — we need the teacher to be really good, too. We need to coach the coaches.
If a school teacher is engaging and loves the topic they are teaching and cares about the student sitting in front of them I guarantee that class will succeed far better than a room where the teacher is disengaged. Every student remembers great teachers. Every player remembers great coaches. A coach at the youth level can inspire players to find a love for the game and respect for the players around them. It’s more than ‘get your knee over the ball’ and ‘shoot with your instep not your toe’. A coach sets the foundation for those intangibles I mentioned earlier. Imagine a team of US players walking out on to the pitch in Rio next summer with the confidence that they can compete with any team in the world… not just because of technique or formation. They compete because of confidence, conviction and determination. Imagine if all of our players never stayed down when fouled. Imagine if they all used good ol’ American grit to find an advantage on the field instead of playing for the ref’s whistle. I believe we would shock a lot of teams because we would create chances that no other team in the world is trying to create. But, that isn’t something Jurgen Klinsmann can coach. It has to be done by the Saturday morning coach at the park with six and seven year old players.
I’ve taken a long road to get to the answer of how to improve the US Youth Soccer system. In short, let’s get the coaches at the youth level the confidence and support they need to start each practice with a plan that teaches both technical and ethical skills that benefit the player. Most of these coaches are dads and moms with little experience other than being a loving parent. Find the best coaches in the local youth programs and have them coach the coaches on how to keep players engaged and having fun. Every new coach stresses out about what drills to run and will get frustrated on how to handle a practice with other parents observing. Give these coaches the tools they need to easily deliver a constructive practice so they can relax and also motivate and inspire their players to love the game and play their hardest.
We don’t want a young soccer player to burn out on the sport before their 12th birthday because they aren’t having fun and the pressure to win seems to be too much of a burden. A young player who loves the game and has a competitive spirit will want to win more than any of the crazy parents cheering on the sideline. A coach who has prepared his team won’t have to push for success during the game… the player’s will push each other. They will want to make it happen all on their own if they are taught from an early age that soccer is more than technique. It’s about passion, and teamwork and determination, too.