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"In any language, the whole world is united by a ball." --- Steve Amoia, Publisher, November 2006.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

On American Soccer, Culture and Best Practices by Ken Sweda

by Ken Sweda for World Football Commentaries



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There has been much discussion since the 2010 World Cup on the exact state of the game of soccer in the U.S. chatboards are full of both praise and condemnation of the performance of our men in South Africa—praise for their effort, competitiveness and spirit (our usual attributes) and condemnation of our lack of ingenuity, soccer IQ and special quality (our classic shortcomings.)

US men’s national team coach, Bob Bradley, proved during the World Cup that he was uncomfortable turning over the reins to those few players who actually showed a spark of originality, preferring to play a tactical system that forced the side into early deficits, ironically creating a situation which required the very traits we are typically known for. And US Soccer proved it is uncomfortable with change by denying Juergen Klinsmann the authority to reinvent the entire program and instead renewing Bradley’s contract for another 4 years.

US Women Struggled to Qualify for 2011 World Cup

Further, the discussion of our program as a whole took on a brand new tone recently, as it surely must, given our women’s national team’s struggles to simply qualify for next summer’s 2011 Women’s World Cup. Our once-proud soccer jersey clad women scuffled their way into the final tournament on the back of two utterly listless and vapid performances against Italy, the second of which I was unfortunately present to witness in Chicago. But unlike Bradley, Pia Sundhage, the USWNT coach, finally remarked that the US does, in fact, need better players. Unfortunately, US Soccer seems unlikely to accommodate her, especially as they provide no indication that the full national team coach should have much, if any, contact with the lower levels of the national program.

As we ready ourselves for the next competition, let this, then, be my State of the Union message, as it relates to the beautiful game in our nation.

Dutch Perspective on Best Practices

As a fan, trainer and parent of a young lady player, I have occasion to get many perspectives on soccer in this country. As the son of a Dutch immigrant, I also have had the privilege of being introduced to the sport in my youth through my attachment to a country that arguably produces more world class footballers per capita than any nation on earth (or, at the very least, per square centimeter of land). So it intrigued me when I was recently reminded on a national soccer forum that US Soccer has adopted a “Best Practices” approach to development, using the KNVB (Dutch soccer association) as a foundation.

Well, maybe intrigued isn’t exactly the word. Bewildered, perhaps.

You see, as a near 20-year inmate, um, member, of corporate America, I had seen the concept of Best Practices developed and implemented. Repeatedly. As in, on average, every two years. Which begs the obvious question, so obvious, in fact, that I don’t feel it even necessary to state here. I will say, however, that in reality Best Practices proved to be more about giving glory-starved middle managers something to do to justify their bonuses. Not exactly the kind of thing that ever made for meaningful change and progress.

So while I don’t necessarily buy the idea that adopting a Best Practices approach to soccer in this country will do anything more than make for a few more meaningless business meetings, the idea of patterning the US program off the Dutch model did strike me as an eminently noble and intelligent pursuit and I was interested to see if I noticed anything changing in my local soccer community along the lines of what I knew about Dutch soccer. My exposure to Dutch youth soccer initially came from playing with cousins, in the old school pick-up game fashion. My knowledge of the official Dutch program is gleaned from several books and training DVD’s, and the comments of individuals within the system, including famed former Ajax and national team manager, Rinus Michels (Who also coached in the old NASL.)
Michels has explained that the Dutch developmental system is designed to mimic and enhance informal play with myriad variations of small-sided games, much like what I experienced with my cousins and grew to love.
Model Not Yet Implemented

Unfortunately, the reality I have seen, and still see, is not what was suggested by the Dutch model, at least not yet, or at least not on the girls’ side of the program. Our focus, even at U10, remains on developing a system of play, (over)coaching progressions, and ultimately, winning. Teams practice, say, 3 times a week, usually with no dedicated skills work. Nearly all touches come in the context of a strict and confining team drill (you can imagine how quickly such a drill comes to a halt when only 1 in 4 players can properly maneuver the ball.) And yet, clubs think nothing of putting these so-called “abilities” on broad display by asking their players and parents to travel hundreds of miles round-trip to play in a tournament against obscure opponents from other states, in what is nothing more than a bizarre marketing effort.
And thus we arrive at the two things that drive all of this American soccer lunacy—lack of a soccer culture, and, of course, money.
Street Soccer: An Alien Concept in North America

Around the world, soccer is the number one, and often, only, sport. Children play in the streets and parks, informally, often with older friends or siblings, imitating and learning from those around them and the stars they see on TV and in the stadia. If they can “hang”, they are accepted, and improve through constant challenge. This is how unique and special talent is born, exactly as it is in our American sports like basketball and football. But the difference is that when the time is right, say age 10 or 11, a local club coach might drive by and see the talent on display, and ask to speak to the child’s parents about joining the club. From there, the talent is nurtured, at the cost of the club, on the expectation that if their scouting and training are good, they might make a return on their investment at the professional level.

That’s right. The club invests in the player, not the other way around. And it was none other than Juergen Klinsmann, former Germany star and national team coach, who reminded us of this after the US lost to Ghana in their semifinal game at the World Cup by brazenly stating that America’s soccer developmental system is completely upside down.

"You are the only country in the world that has the pyramid upside down. That means you pay for having your kid play soccer. Because your goal is not that your kid becomes a professional soccer player because your goal is that your kid gets a scholarship in high school or college. Which is completely opposite from the rest of the world."

--- Juergen Klinsmann on ESPN from Johannesburg, South Africa.

Paying to Play is not Common Elsewhere


In the US, we pay thousands of dollars for our children to be “taught” soccer, as if they are learning math or our favorite sport, American football, with its 47 independent position coaches and obsessively concocted and rehearsed plays. And of course, when we pay, we expect results. As in, “you better win that tournament, coach, considering I’m paying your club $2,000 a year and the club down the street just won their tournament. Know what I’m saying, coach?” And winning the quick and easy way involves our traditional American model of athletic, over-coached, robotic players playing in a simple, direct way. It doesn’t allow for development of true insightful talent.

Wins also mean recruiting, which means scholarships, which means free college, which means saving lots of…..wait for it…..MONEY. Let me be clear—the Dutch, and the footballing world at large, do not do this. Soccer is separate from high school, separate from college. For American sports, kids move from pee-wee leagues to high school and college, which are the incubators of the talent and the only route to the pros. And we adopt that model for soccer because it’s what we know—we know how to teach and coach and motivate and direct, because that is what “our” sports require. But what do the other nations actually do? The answer gets to the heart of what it means to have a true soccer culture.

A True Soccer Culture

The problem is that soccer is fundamentally an interactive game, a creative game, a fluid game, and one in which the most important qualities, the ones that separate the best players and best nations, cannot be taught, only “learned”. Through self-practice, informal play, and a passion for the game. Precisely the things that we are lacking in when it comes to soccer. We have it in our American sports, but we then corral it. In soccer, we never develop it in the first place because we lack a passion for it, and our developmental system doesn’t allow for it once our kids have “signed on” to a club.

Around the world, this passion, this “need” to play, arises from the fact that the game itself is a representation of the philosophy of the individual nations that play it. It is truly a passion play, carried out on a sporting field. Countries’ histories and cultures are woven into the style of soccer they play. There are nations on this earth that have been around in one form or another for centuries, and their longevity is revealed in their approach to the game—patience, celebrating the moment, the inevitable cycle of life itself. However, in this country, we are obsessed with moving forward—GDP must increase every year, sales figures must go up, he who dies with the most stuff wins. This unsophisticated view is even reflected in our most popular sport, where if forward progress is not maintained, the ball must be returned to the other team. Admittedly, by world standards the US is a very young nation, a headstrong teenager, all bravado, bluster and blunt force; not ignoble qualities, but ones that alone will not bring us success on the national soccer stage.

Players Own the Game, Not the Coaches

The nations we hope to rival in soccer have known for centuries that economies grow and weaken, governments are established and overthrown, monuments erected and toppled. And it’s reflected in the game—the players are the owners and executors of the game. They aren’t reliant on the coach for every last detail, because they realize that coaches and philosophies change but fundamental skill survives it all. Great coaches expect true greatness to come from the players themselves, on the field, in the moment. And the best players know that greatness can often best be shown by knowing when to withdraw and gather a new perspective. Indeed, many passes during a match are sideways or lateral, and yet players, coaches and fans long ago learned that in the big picture, progress is being made. The 25-pass scoring sequence by Argentina in the 2006 World Cup is something we cannot even dream of in this country, because it is anathema to us. Best Practices is no substitute for being steeped in culture.


So what are we left with? A decidedly lacking soccer culture that produces unsophisticated soccer parents, parents who, because they didn’t play the game (or are themselves products of our archaic system), are left to equate success with winning rather than development. And the winning mentality is adopted by the clubs because without results-based success, the parents will surely take their money elsewhere. And so the cycle continues.
Can We Build a Soccer Culture?

Can we develop a soccer culture here? A culture of great players? A culture of informed coaching and development? Probably not to the extent that other nations have, but it’s certainly possible to improve on what we have and add to our existing strengths. And still, I frankly don’t see any real proof that US Soccer is trying to promote the idea of a cultural shift. Maybe in its marketing of soccer as an activity and fan attraction, but certainly not in terms of its approach to identifying and developing talent.

It should be said, however, that even nations like England have struggled with the specific problem of developing true difference-making players even in the presence of a real soccer culture. Around 1998, England went to the Academy system as a way of nurturing talent, arguing that the younger a player is when introduced to the game, the more skilled they will be at each subsequent level. However, an interesting thing happened. This “nurturing” at the young ages actually caused a massive drop in informal play, as coaching (teaching) replaced learning, and as the Academy system became even more of a definitive avenue to a professional career. And let’s recall that even Dutch legend Michels acknowledges that the KNVB has had to reinvent its youth program to accommodate a similar reduction in informal play among Dutch youth, though more likely a general result of an increasingly distracted and fractured technological society.

Could this be the way the US finally makes a run at true soccer dominance—by finally adding just enough sophistication to our game while the rest of the world struggles with problems we have already dealt with? Perhaps. But first we actually need to see true and real change at our youngest levels, and that has yet to happen based on my observations.

Thomas Rongen: "Project Reclamation"

One of the few people, indeed perhaps the only one, in the US system who seems like they have started to break free from the old habits is, fittingly, himself a Dutchman, Thomas Rongen. Rongen, the coach of our U20 men’s side, has made immense progress in reaching beyond the traditional men’s pool and “reclaiming” American players who have left the traditional Olympic Development Program (ODP)and college track to start their careers abroad. You have to ask, though, why Rongen felt he needed to look outside the system for better talent, and why he seems like he’s gone “off the reservation” compared to the rest of the staid US staff. If US Soccer is using Rongen as a test case, bravo, but when will they allow his ideas to truly start trickling down?
And isn’t it telling that we have let our women’s program tread water while the rest of the world catches up precisely by utilizing their own men’s skill-based model instead of the US women’s athlete-and-system model?
Perhaps today’s announcement that US Soccer has appointed April Henrichs as the Technical Director and Jill Ellis as the Development Director of the US Women’s National Teams indicates a change of course, as the hirings mark the first time US Soccer has appointed full-time positions to oversee the women’s youth national team program and the programs’ overall development. Then again, it might just be more Best Practices folly.

About the Author

Ken Sweda was born and raised in the Chicago area. He played soccer in his youth after being introduced to the sport through Dutch cousins in 1974. Ken now runs his own private skills training business called Precision Soccer Skills LLC. He has two young daughters that are following in his footsteps by playing the beautiful game themselves.

Ken also writes freelance soccer articles and is currently affiliated with Soccerpro.com. He is also available for direct assignments as well.

Ken gets his soccer coaching equipment from soccerpro.com.

Please check out SoccerProse: A soccer blog for soccer players, fans, parents and coaches.

Ken Sweda's Article Archive


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