Saturday, August 23, 2008

Out of the gym, onto the field

Someone pointed out to me the moment he knew the U.S. was going to defeat Brazil for the gold medal.

It was during the break for the overtime periods, when Brazil's players fell to the ground to rest, exhausted. The U.S. players were obviously fitter, and a tired Brazilian defense would probably give up chances.

When I was watching Argentina versus Nigeria, I had a similar epiphany when the referee stopped play for a water break. Argentina had looked plodding, but as their players hydrated and received encouragement and instruction from their coach, I thought, "This break will save them. They get the water they need, they catch their breath against the athletic Nigerians, they get that little second wind they need to create something."

There's always that push-pull between athleticism and artistry. In the U.S., we're so competitive as a country that we push kids into formal soccer games as young as four. They're lugging around little trophies.

Though they're not on the exact same topic, I found these points of view interesting. The first is from an article on the Argentine team, which quotes their coach, Batista.

"In Argentina we are making some mistakes," he told me. "We are emulating things that take us further away from our football. And we are depriving children of their childhood. There is too much emphasis on work in the gym, on weight-training and speed. And too much pressure on kids as young as seven or eight to win. This is not good."

"The child is not treated as a child," Batista argues. "I believe strongly in respecting the stages - there is a time when you have to play for fun, enjoy the game. Argentina's strong point has always been technique. If you look at the best players in Europe, they are always the ones who are technically excellent. Gyms and machines can never give you what keepy-uppies and contact with the ball do for a child."

The other viewpoint arrived in my email inbox from a reader. If other readers have any thoughts on the merits of fitness and strength versus technique and the best balance, or if anyone wants to tackle the question this reader posits, post in the comments.

I just wanted to say that your article a few months back on college soccer hurting the development of our young players should be on the front of soccernet and required reading for everyone high up in the USSF and MLS. We have more and more people playing the game as soccer grows more popular, but we still will still have a serious lack of quality players unless our youth player development system is completely overhauled. We can't insist on following the high school-college-draft model we use for basketball and football. Soccer is a completely different game that relies much less on size and athleticism (which can be developed anywhere) than the other two.

We need to look towards Europe and Latin America for how to develop soccer players. They've been playing the sport longer than we've played anything, and they have it figured out. If we have any desires of turning into a powerful soccer nation we need to adopt the same system of youth teams owned by the professional clubs. There are innumerable problems with our current model, as I'm sure you're familiar with, so I'll just stick to the most obvious.

The first and most important is that the current model has our talent far too spread out over the country. There are thousands of high school soccer teams in America, so none of our young players are exposed to a really high level of competition. In other countries, it's centralized, so you have the top youth division, with 20 teams, followed by the next, followed by the next. Thus the best young players week in and week out get exposed to the highest level of competition and the best coaching available in the country. If a player isn't good enough, he's cut and a better one takes his place, so this elite level of play is maintained, and obviosuly every young player's dream is to be a part of these leagues. It is the most nurturing environment possible to create good soccer players. In the United States, we may have 12 year olds with the potential to be the next Zidane, but unlike their European and Latin American counterparts they will spend the ages of 12-22 unexposed to a high level play, not to mention very, very poorly coached (relatively speaking, let's face it, in the older generations soccer was much less popular, thus we have a smaller pool) by coaches who have the wrong objectives, which brings me to my next point.

The coaches of high school and college teams in the United States have one thing in mind: winning. That is how their success is measured and their only incentive. Youth teams in the rest of their world have one objective, and that is churning out top quality players for the parent club. The end product is not only technichally superior but far more creative and tactically aware than American soccer players, who may be just as athletic. No one cares if the youth team wins or loses, as long as it yields great players for the club. But in the US the youth teams only focus on winning, thus our prodigies spend their practices focusing on conditioning and learning how to play the American youth soccer game, aka running war. How on earth we decide our youth game to allow unlimited substitutions, I have no idea. It's barely soccer at that point.

There is also the issue of scouting, how do we expect ourselves to find talent (which evaluating is much more subjective than basketball and football, it's not just a matter of who's bigger and faster and who gets the best stats) when there are thousands of high schools spread out over this vast nation, and then come age 18 all of the players move to completely different systems? And I'm not even getting into how bad the youth programs in this country are, the profiteering, the poor coaching, etc. etc.

Though our current system may be decent for developing mid level talent, ie lots of pretty good high school soccer players, I am amazed that despite having to grow up playing their game in America we still have some decent players that can make mid level European leagues. But if the MLS is to survive (with it's rapid expansion, the talent pool is going to be spread very thin, and since the last draft was very weak, as well as the one before it with the exception of Edu, I fear things are only going to get worse) and if we are to have any real success on the international level, we need to adopt the European system as soon as possible.

It'll take a long time for the changes to come into effect as developing a good youth system takes years, not to mention it'll take 7 or 8 years before we have our first young ones who have made it all the way through the system. There need to be major incentives for MLS teams to create these systems, as well as funding from the MLS. Each MLS team needs to have sole access to the contract rights of its youth players (they cannot go to the draft, then there'd be no incentive), and I think players from a team's youth system, at least at the beginning, should have a portion of their salary not count toward's the team's salary cap. The youth teams need to get the best facilities and coaches and need to be exposed to the best competition. We need all of our young soccer players striving to play these teams so that our very best are all put together in the most nurturing environment possible.

Am I the only one that thinks this way? Is there any chance of the European system becoming the norm here? What can the average frustrated American soccer fan do to help bring about change?


MikeR said...

A minor quibble. Europe and South America have not been playing soccer longer than we (the US) have been playing anything. I think you'll find that we began playing professional baseball long before must of the world took up soccer. We don't have much history anyway; let's not concede some that we do have!

ghostwriter said...

Too big, too complex a question. The fact is that the USA is a far larger country than many of those your reader would have us model a program after. Too big I think for an exact copy to work.

USSF with it's development academy tries to collect top players from all over, but that system is not without its flaws too. We'll never have a perfect system.

It may be silly of me, but to some extent I trust the "marketplace". If, as you suggested, AC, the USMNT went to a coach of Pia Sudhage's mentality and general playing style preference then both top national teams would put a higher value on technical skills. If the way to top national success is thru technicality, as well as fitness and speed, then the system below it will (probably slowly) begin to produce players of higher technical capability. I think, too, that MLS and perhaps WPS are keys to any kind of "marketplace" solution.

And, while it's perhaps very conventional thinking, I do believe it will always remain an issue here that our very best athletes, even if they play youth soccer, gravitate away to other higher profile sports in this country, particularly basketball and football. Until some significant portion of our potential future Barry Sanders and Carmello Anthonys are learning their moves in street games, back lots, empty fields, and simply LIVING with a soccer ball at their feet not a football or basketball in their hands, we will not produce the next Messi.