World Cup Musings, by Klaas De Boer
With the disappointing results of the US national team at the recent World Cup I'm sure there will be plenty of pundits analyzing the experience. I'm sure the US Soccer Federation will do the same.
Sometimes it is interesting to look back a few years in order to get a clear picture of where we are today. The United States of course had a great performance during the 2002 World Cup, when they advanced to the last eight teams. A phenomenal result any way you look at it. But of course there is a downside to success as well and that is that expectations rise commensurately. In 2002 we overachieved and this year we underachieved. Because of our performance in 2002, no-one took the United States lightly this year, which they might have done in 2002.
In 1998 the US Soccer Federation commissioned coaches Carlos Queiroz and Dan Gasper to research soccer in the United States and make recommendations to help the USA reach a goal of making the US National Team an honest competitor for the championship of World Cup 2010. Carlos Queiroz at the time was coach of the MLS New York-New Jersey Metro Stars. He is currently assisting Alex Ferguson at Manchester United after a brief but unsuccessful stint at Real Madrid. A Portuguese by birth he developed a reputation as an expert in player development having achieved great success with the Portuguese national youth teams.
The purpose of the study was to review all levels of soccer in the United States, compare it to other successful soccer countries in the world, and chart a course for the future of soccer in the United States. The report was called WE CAN FLY, PROJECT 2010.
I'm sure it is collecting dust on the shelves at the US Soccer Federation, but when it was first published it received considerable attention and gave the American soccer community hope that this might be a revolutionary soccer developmental plan that would put in place a structured program with the aim of at some point winning the World Cup.
An ambitious goal to say the least and judging by the results of the 2002 World Cup, experts might have pointed to this report as one of the primary reasons the United States performed as well as it did. I'm sure the report had some impact but one byproduct of success is that it can camouflage problems and act as reinforcement that we are on the right track. The 2006 experience will undoubtedly make that kind of thinking come crashing down to earth. As Carlos Queiroz notes in his report, having success at the World Cup, like we had in 2002, might not be the best indicator of whether or not we are progressing in the right direction at all levels at home.
I never felt the reason the United States performed as well as it did during World Cup 2002 was a result of a structured player development program. Obviously great strides have been made. We have a U-17 Residential Program for top players as well as Project 40. MLS is starting with developmental teams but much more must be done with that. More and more players are turning pro right out of high school. Our better players are now playing abroad. All of that is good and is partially responsible for past and current successes.
But I have often felt it has just as much to do with numbers. We have a population of almost 300 million and I believe over 3 million registered soccer players. Out of that many players there are bound to be players that rise to the top. In that respect quantity will result in quality, even though perhaps not in large numbers.
A country like Holland for example, one I'm very familiar with, has a population of 16 million people. They have no where near the number of registered players the United States has. For a country like Holland to do well internationally they need to have a very structured national player developmental system, and they do. All coaches are on the same page; they all adhere to the same philosophy. Coaches attend the same coaching courses and, if you were to attend a training session of youth players, or amateur players or professional players, you would see many similarities in terms of content of session, what is stressed, progression, coaching, playing style, etc. etc. That is the reason for THEIR success.
Our success is to a smaller extent based on a successful national player developmental program. To a larger extent it is based on the fact that we have huge numbers of youth soccer players and despite the fact we do not have a real soccer environment in this country, lack of quality coaching for example, still when this many kids are playing some are going to rise to the top.
I fully realize you can not compare a small country like Holland with the United States. Just from a logistics standpoint, shorter distances for example, means we can not duplicate their environment but we can certainly adapt aspects of their youth development system to American conditions.
The problems facing development of soccer in this country does not lie so much at the top, although much remains to be done to foster a competitive environment for talented players. But with a viable professional league in place I think it is only a matter of time before MLS clubs get into the business of player development for younger players. The logistics have to be worked out and money has to be appropriated.
I've been involved in soccer for many years in this country at all levels from youth to collegiate to professional. Many things have changed, but also many things have not changed.
Take the Olympic Development Program, for example. This is still the basis of how talented players in the United States are identified (please note I said identified, not developed). I believe in California they have instituted a scouting system as the way to identify talented players. However most states still go through annual tryouts where everybody and their brother (or sister) can try out. Even players who are on existing teams must try out again. Of course there is a simple explanation why this system is in place. Most state ODP programs are self supporting. The state associations by and large do not appropriate any monies for ODP. Tryout participants are charged a fee and this is the primary financial foundation of ODP. This money goes to pay for coaches, field rental, equipment rental, attire, etc. When the best players are selected to the state team they get to pay an additional fee to attend the regional camp. Too ludicrous for words.
Anyway, there is very little development going on in ODP. Only in a few states is there a year around program with professional coaching and competition. How come the Federation does not appropriate funding for this. How come the Federation does not name the state coaches? Why is every state not doing the same thing and why is every state coach involved with ODP not appointed by the national body and answer to a regional and national Youth Technical Director who operates under the national coach?
Instead you have state coaches appointed by state Board of Directors who often have no clue about the game and are not even interested in funding programs for a small number of players. They get their money from the rank and file and that is recreational players.
Carlos Queiroz feels we put all our eggs into one basket by investing time and energy and money into preparation of the youth national teams, but do nothing to improve the competitive system that provides player development. Queiroz again: "We need to set up a competitive infrastructure, with heavy involvement from state associations, enabling the game to grow at the local level. This is extremely important, because if the game is not strong at the local level and isnít pushing everything from the grass roots, then any success we experience at the national team level would have to be considered artificial." Only when we improve all competition at the state and local levels will we raise the level of play throughout the United States.
Because the US Soccer Federation either is incapable of instituting a national youth plan from the top, or is stymied from doing so because of constitutional issues with state associations, the result is that soccer entrepreneurs will jump into the void. A good example is the USL under the direction of Francisco Marcos, the ultimate soccer free market enterpriser. He came up with the idea of the Super Y League where the elite clubs in the country would play against each other, even if it means teams have to travel all over creation to find competition. There are many elite clubs that are members of Super Y. But there are also many mediocre clubs in Super Y. Why are mediocre clubs admitted in the league? The answer is simple: Money! It costs a club $1500 per team to belong to Super Y (+ additional fees). Let me give you an example of how Super Y works. I reside in Western Michigan. A club I used to be Director of Coaching of the Grand Valley Premier Soccer Club, which was a member of Super Y. Last year they informed the administrator of the league they could field only five or six competitive teams. Super Y had a problem with that. They wanted a commitment of minimum ten teams, no matter whether they were competitive or not. When Grand Valley insisted on having only six of their teams compete, Super Y took their (franchise) away and gave it to a competing club in the same area; a club that was willing to commit ten teams. Did they have ten competitive teams? Not even close. Recently two of their teams got beaten by scores of 17-0 and 12-0. No matter. Super Y has their money and the respective players of the teams can look upon this as a "learning moment." The hypocrisy of it all!
But if US Soccer cannot provide the leadership, organizations like SYL, US Club Soccer and others will. What we have in this country is soccer capitalism running wild, like the Old Wild West. What we need in its place is a form of soccer socialism where there is a national organization overseeing all aspects of competitive soccer. Let's take High School soccer for example. Most players age 14 - 18 play for their high school teams in the Fall. Everyone with even a cursory knowledge of the game knows this is soccer played at a very low level with poor coaching and quite often different rules. Yet, this phenomenon persists because US Soccer and or state Associations have not been able to convince players it is much better for their individual development to play for a club team year around, provided it is a competitive team with good coaching.
Clubs of course play a large part in this. There is big money in soccer. Coaches by and large do quite well financially. But where does the money come from? From player dues which, at many clubs, can be $2000 - $4000 per year! One reason parents choose high school soccer is because it does not cost anything. So, an argument can be made that clubs, because they charge high fees, are in effect encouraging players to play high school soccer. Same is true of course in colleges, where players play three months of competitive soccer. The rest of the time is spent doing weight training or just training. In the summer they can than play competitively for a club. Again, Francisco Marcos, ever the entrepreneur saw a marketing opportunity and came up with the Premier Development League. A nice idea but the criteria for running a club in the league are so poorly enforced the word "Development" is a by-product. Again, the question comes up why does US Soccer forfeit this to entrepreneurs? Why don't they devise their own programs?
Quoting again from Project 2000: "The correct vision is not about identifying a single star once in a while (like Freddie Adu), but building from the grass roots level until the USA is producing a much higher skilled and competition wise average player." Queiroz recommends the model of local training centers that provide quality and intensive training. It is much better for players to be able to train at a high level in their home environment rather than going to a regional or national center which means they must leave their parents and friends. Seems to me this is where it all starts. The primary ages for learning technique are between the ages of 9 and 12. Technique must be the basis. When I watch MLS games or watch our players perform in the World Cup my primary observation is that we are deficient in technique, primarily dribbling skills, first touch and passing and receiving. These skills must be taught and perfected before age 12. The reason they are not is that the average youth coach does not have a clue about teaching technique, therefore the need for local training centers under the direction of US Soccer.
The average youth coach has taken a state "E" or "D" coaching licensing course, but this does not make them teachers of the game. Technique training must be performed by ex players who have played at a high level and have received instruction in how to properly teach technique at a national coaching school. This way we can be assured all teaching is done the same way, same syllabus, same program, etc.
Queiroz talks about an "Ambassador Coach", a talented coach who travels from community to community to work with gifted players. This might be a good preliminary step before setting up local training centers. For sure, every major metropolitan area should have a local training center directed and staffed by US Soccer staff coaches.
Queiroz also talks about an International coaching Program. In Holland for example, coaching taking the highest coaching course must go for a brief internship with a professional club where they observe a professional coach at work and also get involved in training. He cites how basketball people in the rest of the world come to the United States to learn about basketball. Our coaches must learn the nuances in a "real" soccer environment where they will learn the most sensitive technical and tactical points.
A government program, called "Partners of the Americas" had a coaching exchange program in the seventies. I had the privilege of going to Brazil with several other American coaches and study Brazilian training methods at pro club Flamengo. I later hosted several Brazilian coaches at my house when I was coaching at Cleveland State University. The Federation needs to institute more programs like this.
Project 2010 was written as a working blueprint for US Soccer to reach the 2010 goals. I have touched on just a few points. The failure of the US national team in this year's World Cup has little to do with Bruce Arena even though the Federation has decided not to renew his contract. He's done a phenomenal job over the years. The failure has everything to do with our lack of adequate infrastructure and lack of a national youth plan implemented and directed by the US Soccer Federation. National team coaches do not develop players. They deal with the end product. You can question Arena's player selection, tactics, team management, etc. That's all fair game. But the fact that he has a ridiculously small national pool from which to select players is an indictment of our system of developing players. To give an example, John O'Brien had not played one game in over 2 years in Holland due to injuries. Yet he was named to the national pool. Why? He has certain specific talents most players do not have and Arena took a chance with him even though he was not fit or in form. As it turned out of course he never used him. But the fact O'Brien was selected says less about O'Brien than the overall level of talented players in this country. So even though Arena can be criticized for the disappointing results at this year's World Cup, the fact that our players are technically deficient is not something he can do anything about. He only sees the players a few times a year. If anything, I would have liked to see Arena more involved in our player development process, but that was probably not in his job description.
The Federation must either lead or get out of the way and have another body run with the ball. The problems of soccer in this country are not at the top (yes, there are problems, but they are being solved), the problem is at the bottom of the ladder. Either we come up with a structured national development system that mandates states adhere to the same philosophy and concept -- a system directed by US staff coaches, or we leave soccer development up to the soccer entrepreneurs, who have their own agenda.
Hopefully when wise heads get together to analyze this World Cup they will analyze US Soccer from the bottom up and come up with the necessary changes, so future World Cup successes can be attributed to a successful national player developmental system, rather than to the fact that we have lots of kids playing here.
As Queiroz states in his report, we do not need to reinvent the game of soccer in the United States. There is one game played around the world. I would urge US Soccer to revisit the Project 2010 report. Obviously conditions continually change, but the environment has not changed a great deal. Take from it what is useful and discard what is not. At the very least it can serve as a basis for a discussion on what needs to be done in this country to take soccer to the next level.
Posted on 26 Dec 2006 by coachgianni