Thursday, February 5, 2015

The State of United States Soccer - Thoughts from a "Eurosnob"

A great guest take on the State of Soccer in the United States by John Babbitt (Follow him on Twitter @BabbittCGroup )

The State of United States Soccer - Thoughts from a “Eurosnob”

First, allow me to get a few things out of the way. I am biased and I don’t care about your view. Don’t like mine, start your own blog. I am a “Eurosnob”. BUT, and stay with me. I wish I wasn’t, and it shouldn’t be like this.
I’m an American but I REALLY like the English Premier League as well as the UEFA Champions League. I find every Major League Soccer game not involving the Seattle Sounders quite boring. My wife complains that I yell, “Too slow!” at the TV too much. She’ll do an impression of it sometimes. It’s kind of funny. I’m sick and tired of watching the Sounders lose to a Mexican or Costa Rican team in CONCACAF Champions League. I’m tired of our National Team losing to countries we should beat. I’m tired of our “best” national team players moving back to Major League Soccer. 

I’m tired of MLS spending obscene amounts of money on washed-up players. If you’re going to have a Designated Player Rule, go after someone truly world class AND in their prime like Wayne Rooney or a Ronaldo.

OK, opening rant over. 

I was raised in the Pacific Northwest in Seattle, Washington. I went to my first Sounders game in 1995 at Federal Way Memorial Stadium vs SV Transvaal. Yes, that also makes me a better MLS fan than most of you. How did I become so unique in my worldly views? Simple, I was raised around the game. Seattle has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to soccer in the United States. The evidence to support this statement is clear: Seattle is home to numerous club teams going to the nationals each year—my own school, Bellarmine Preparatory School won the high school 4A Title my freshman year. Additionally, Pete Fewing’s multiple Seattle University D2 national championships; the University of Washington consistently frequents the NCAA tourney and has done so for as long as I can remember. In the professional game, the Sounders and their A-league (USL) titles. Since the Sounders joined MLS, they have developed multiple youth academies in Seattle, and are starting to bear the fruits of their labor with players like Yedlin signing for Tottenham Hotspur. 

As great as Seattle is, and as right as they have it, there is a lot fundamentally wrong with soccer in the United States, including Seattle, and it starts with the way our players are being developed. I will try to leave opinions about promotion and relegation and MLS (and everything that’s wrong with the league and its structure) for another day.

The United States club system is fantastic. There is a deep player pool with over three million officially registered players (source US Soccer Federation). From the age of 13, millions of American youth routinely make the decision to exclusively play the world’s game and how can you blame them? It’s a beautiful sport that combines fitness, technical ability, speed, and brain power. If a player does well at the club level they are called up to the Olympic Development Program’s (ODP) district squad. Players are called up to ODP depending on the club they play for or the city they live in. The best players from each district make up the state team. The best of those players are then called up to the national team.

As great as club soccer is, it’s not an academy. In Arizona (where I currently reside), we’re lucky enough to have one of the finest academies in the land, Arizona Soccer Academy, home to Real Salt Lake-Arizona which has produced two national championships and countless college recruits since its inception in 2011. Academies are how EVERYWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD builds world class soccer players and as a result world class leagues. 

Players eat, sleep, live, breathe, and learn the game of soccer. Academics are NOT the top priority for these fine physical specimens. Those who join these academies are there because their first focus is soccer as a potential profession and academics is secondary. 

In 1999 the USSF had the brilliant idea to start a national residency academy in Bradenton, Florida. The players this academy kicked out sparked a golden generation and a surge in US soccer talent. In 2005, one of my friends was selected to this same illustrious residency program which helped expedite the development of the likes of Kyle Beckerman and Damarcus Beasley. The program was a wonderful place to nurture these amazing athletes, but where were most of them to go when they graduated from college? There is nowhere else to go after in the U.S. but down. Playing for the national team is as high and as far as you can go. 

College is a step back. 

In America, we have the culture of thinking that in order to become a professional athlete a player must first complete at least some college before leaving to pursue their dreams. As a former college athlete, my experience was there was a lack of emphasis on technical ability. College soccer was the most physically demanding years of soccer I’ve ever experienced. Players can’t back out of tackles and there is little emphasis on possession or movement. It’s the equivalent of watching or being a part of the Stoke City squad under Tony Pulis – a physical style of play with long throws and hoofing the ball up to the forwards and building off the forwards ability to hold the ball up. This is certainly not what they are trying to teach in any academy system leading up to college.
How does this compare to literally any other soccer country? In Europe, a player generally enters an academy between the ages 8-13. At 18 they have choices to make because they are then eligible to sign a professional contract. Are they good enough? Are they playing enough for the first team? Should they go on loan? Should they go to university because there isn't a future for them in soccer? At 18 the elite players, if they aren't good enough for the first team, go on loan to a lower level side for development. 

According to Jon Townsend, who played in Holland as a youth player, “Everything is technical-based. The shooting, passing, dribbling, everything is done with an emphasis on technique and clean touches...even if it means sacrificing a scrimmage or the fitness aspect of a training session.” In the States we do a lot of fitness that could be used for additional ball work. Progressions in Holland are Small-sided to Large-sided. Townsend goes on to state, “Start small, end medium is something I learned there.

It means we rarely played 11v11 in training. Usually 8v8 with ‘bumpers’ on wide channels was the largest we played.” Transition play in Holland is done without coaching interference, whereas in the United States coaches routinely pause the drills when players are perceived to be doing things incorrectly. Usually, nothing is wrong; it’s just not what the coach would have done in that situation. Dutch coaches model movements of everything then stand off to evaluate, usually in silence. They then take notes and drills are done for no more than 30 minutes”.
Iceland is going through a modern day footballing renaissance. They are producing match-fit starting caliber players for English Premier League teams. Iceland realized their training was not up to the level it should be, so they made their coaches to get UEFA A and UEFA B coaching certifications. The Icelandic FA has worked tirelessly to build indoor halls for players to train in to combat their inclement weather.

However, the most striking change, according to Icelandic soccer aficionado, Jim Hart, is that “Iceland has made training methods consistent across the entire island. No matter who is coaching the players all get the same training and the coaches are all UEFA licensed. For a youth coach U12 the coach must have a UEFA B license.”
The philosophy is that the best coaches are coaching in the youth system in the 12-18 year old age brackets. Coaching begins at U3/4 and that is not a misprint. According to Arnar Bill Gunnarrson, the Technical Director for the Icelandic FA, the training begins when players are just three and four years old. The players begin to learn how to train at that point, how to queue, how to huddle, how to listen to the coach. The system is built on more and more complexity being added as the youth players get older. The more precocious players get a chance to move up and play at a higher level and compete against older boys/girls.

In Australia, The National Soccer League stood from 1977-2004. In 2005, the A-League started came to fruition. Australia have qualified for the last three World Cups and just won their first Asian Cup trophy. How have they done this? The obvious answer would be that Tim Cahill is amazing. However, if you take an in depth look, and dare I say, their soccer has gotten significantly better over the last three years?

The Australian academy system has become established and players are getting quality first team action at a younger age. The pace and flow at which their games are played have become significantly quicker and players are putting more thought into their off the ball runs and have the technical ability to pick out a player making a good off the ball run.

In soccer a player peaks at 26-28 years of age. These are the prime years of a player’s career. In the United States, that is a player years removed from college and far away from being a figure in our national team or in MLS, which is why our nation’s best players are 33 and their legs have gone. I look at Robin Van Persie at Manchester United’s starting XI and I think to myself his pace is gone. In the U.S., at age 30-31, our players are considered to be entering the prime, not the twilight, of their careers. In Europe, these players have been playing professionally since 18 and are proven and tested by 23. By 23 most Europeans are first teamers or starting university because their playing career didn't pan out.

As Colin Cowherd once mentioned, more isn’t better, better is better. Players in Europe don’t practice harder or longer than in the United States. In fact, it’s easy to find videos of 5v2 drills where Cristiano Ronaldo or Juan Mata nutmegs one of the two players in the middle and then runs off smiling. Europeans train in small spaces, placing an emphasis on the first touch and thinking quickly. From an aesthetic standpoint, FC Barcelona grooms 8 and 9-year-old players to play its mesmerizing style of short, rhythmic passes. Especially for its younger players, learning to play with the ball is more important than winning. 

This is the opposite of the way many children in the United States learn soccer. Here, “the games are do or die,” said Claudio Reyna, a former captain of the United States Men’s National Team and is now the youth technical director for U.S. Soccer, the national governing body. “At Barcelona, they are about educating players, and winning takes care of itself. I believe it makes an impact when players can develop in a calm and proper environment, not being judged on whether you win games all the time. They are just looking for players with soccer brains.”

Reyna is right. I have coached my 8 year old daughter’s soccer team for the past two years. I just can’t say to the parents, “I’d rather lose and make sure your child knows the right techniques and is technically sound…the results will come in three years”. 

Sadly, no one in our overly competitive society wants to hear that. If the United States continues to put the emphasis on winning now and forcing players to spend time playing in college, we will continue to lose against teams like Chile (who we should beat) and Columbia (who we should beat). The USSF and MLS need to drop their egos and start doing what’s best for their youth and their players. The rest will fall into place.

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