Player development stumbling along the wrong path?
Player development stumbling along the wrong path? avatar

Kansas City, Kansas. Olympic Qualifyers:
Sitting in the beautiful Livestrong Park in KC on Saturday evening watching a gallant El Salvador fall in extra time to Honduras before Mexico dismantled the game, but badly overmatched Canada in the nightcap, all I could think of was the opportunity missed by US soccer.

After all, it was so well set up for the US team to make it here to KC and to play their way on to London, that you would almost think the fix was in.

Remember when you first saw the groups.The US would play Cuba, Canada, and El Salvador. In Nashville, trying to get the home field, send Mexico and the rest to LA.

Which of those teams posed threat to the American’s. El Salvador can play, but not many thought they could knock off the US on home soil. That it took a calamitous error by the keeper in the 94th minute is beside the point, the game should have been wrapped up by then.

With Mexico on the other side of the draw, a final in Kansas between the giants of the region was all set up, with the Olympics already assured for both sides.

We all know how that turned out. So here we are in KC with Honduras taking on Mexico. Mexico look scary good. Scary that is for US Soccer, who are chasing Mexico again. The tide seems to have turned back Mexico’s way and in the youth ranks in particular, the US looks well behind.

So now we add this debacle to last year’s U20 failure. Two highly touted youth teams in a row have fallen badly. Thomas Rongen was fired after the U20 mess, and some are calling for Caleb Porter to be sacrificed this time around.

That seems unlikely. I agree with those that say we have to nurture coaches as well as players, but maybe with the Olympics at stake Porter should have served a more experienced manager as his second in command.

But what about the players? Are we developing the next group of senior players? Who from this U23 side is pushing for a place at the 2014 World Cup? Not too many of them. Maybe the wrong players were in Nashville, but the goalkeepers look over-rated and the defense shaky. People love Diskerud, I’m not sold. Freddy Adu has something, we saw it at the Gold Cup, but can he perform consistently enough to make an impact. Joe Gyau excited with his pace, but we need to see more. And Brek Shea? He has talent, but he has to make that step up in class. Does he need the challenge of fighting for his place everyday in Europe? I think he does.

Oddly for an American side, our future looks brightest up front, where Juan Agudelo and Terrence Boyd may be for real.

The reality is that Olympic soccer is not the be all and end all. But for the US, this performance is a blow to both our soccer pride, and a warning sign that we are not getting it right when it comes to player development.

Peter Nolan

About Peter Nolan

Peter Nolan is a staff writer for the GotSoccer Magazine, covering MLS and other US leagues, He's GotSoccer's chief National Team Correspondent.
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21 Responses to Player development stumbling along the wrong path?
Player development stumbling along the wrong path? avatar

  1. jdot says:

    Is this a sign of a bigger problem? One that points to either poor scouting/selection for our ODP program, poor training and development in ODP, or a combination of both? I believe it is a combination of both, I do not believe we are bringing up all of our best competitors. I am reminded of the “Miracle on Ice” Gold Medal Hockey team, coach brooks was initially scrutinized for his player selections as several players with better “stats” were left off the team. His quote “I am not looking for the best players, I am looking for the right players.”

  2. greg says:

    The system is broken, plenty of people know that it is broken, but nobody wants to make the fixes. ODP was supposed to be the way to scout out the young talent in the US, but parents and kids are staying away from the system more and more. Why you ask? besides needing to be rich to participate, it is to political. I am not saying that there isn’t any good talent in the system, because there is. What I am saying is that the coaches at the state level pick kids that they already know. It is hard for a coach to look at 90 kids over 2 days and find all of the players that will develope over the next few years into serious soccer players. If a kid got into the system at 14 it is hard to get them dislodged by a new kid that may have developed later. This starts at the club level in many cases when the coaches are taking kids that are not always skilful, but are just big. Once they get on a team it doesn’t matter that another kid comes along who last year may not have been that big or skilful but has progressed much further than others. This goes all the way up to the senior team. I don’t know how many times I watched a game on TV and said that there has got to be better defenders in the US than Gouch and Beasely, and yet they kept playing. I think I have seen better in the local Sunday league. Look at the players that keep starting for the national team that have moved from team to team in Europe because they just aren’t that good. The new thing is the US Development Academy, great players, great teams, but these are not the only good players in the US. It seems that now these are the only players that are getting looked at either by the national team or by colleges. Now the thing is don’t let them play high school soccer, why? Is this really going to help develope players, past national team players played high school. Playing high school sports is part of who we are as americans, I am not sure that keeping kids from playing it is really going to help them that much to get to that next level. This is just something the club coaches hate, they do not like their players going off to school and playing at that level where they may not get great training for 2 months. It isn’t going to change anything about how we are as a nation when it comes to our performance against the world.

    • Roger says:

      Well Said!!

    • Therer is obviously a big problem with Youth Football in the United States. The ODP program is rife with favoritism, coaching cliques that only pick players in their state or area and the youth talent pool is seriously depleted. The problem with football in the US now is that it has become a rich man’s sport. Premier Soccer and at the academy level the price to pay is exhorbitant and out of reach for more ethnic kids. I think right now if Pele was 14years old and poor he would not be selected for a State Team or a Premier team. Also a lot of coaches at the State and Regional level have a “know it all approach” and rarely would they select a player based solely on talent. One cannot place dollar value on: passion, creativity, natural love for the game and natural instinct. These players are so systemized that there is no creative play and if you play creatively certain coaches have never played like that so these kids are ostracized. Like Mr. Klinsmann has stated the”Pay to Play philosophy” focuses on rich kids and everyone knows who these kids are. Also, the USSF has a problem to identify sheer, natural talented players we are headed for “mechanical robot_type soccer players who cannot think out of the box. Based on the Coerver method how did all these players create their own moves? Obviously, by practicing on their own, how many young players go out and practice on their own? Unless mentors, ex-national players, coaches, start conducting clinics in the inner cities to popularize the game and find new talent we are doomed. The ethnic kids in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and all over the US play soccer with passion, joy, creativity, energy and enthususiam. Is there a master plan to keep them out of the loop? How come we dont have a poor Inner city Academy team? And how come we do not yet have a true International US Soccer star? Clint Demspey is the closest, why? look at his background,He is probably from a middle class home, humbling beginnings. How ever, very driven, very-passionate. He has fire in his belly, some of these players from wealthy homes, without being steretypical do not have this. They know when its all said and done they can fall back on inherited wealth. US Football officials need to wake up, there is a wealth of talent in the inner cities of America. However, like everything else, the mentality is let the poor stay poor with no opportunities and let the rich keep on keeping on. For Instance, the MLS, is it only for College graduates, there are so many ethnic players that cannot even get a trial. They have made it so hard and inaccessible for other young players outside of college to get a tryout. Normally, you are good, you get a trial, What’s all the red tape about, so my point is the system is set up to identify “White collar soccer palyers”. Until then, we cannot even claim to have a proven definitive style of soccer. What is the American style a hybrid of European, English style? Where is the flair, creativity, ability to poblem solve on the spur of the moment? Whatever happened to all the players that seemed to possess a modicum of creativity initially in The US system, will not name players, but they are gone. There creative juices beaten out of them by coaches who never had the skill or the ability to work these players into their system.” A people shall perish for lack of vision.” America’s only savior is to harness and pool the talent of natural soccer players, not 6 foot giants that have no touch and cannot beat a player 1v1. Blessings, The Touchmaster.

  3. Odir says:

    To much politics in USA soccer,youth ,travel, premier you name it.

  4. Rick Carrizales says:

    How can the US advance in skill level if the same people who have been messing up the game keep running it? You hear it all the time from club level trainers/parents, “we play old English style of physical soccer.” So you are telling me, Mexican by origin, that Chelsea, Man U., and Man City play long ball/boom soccer/kick and run? When will it end??? Soccer is just like any other sport, where you don’t need exprofessionals from 3 div. European leagues or 1st division third world countries (in soccer terms) tell you how to best develop players. I can almost guarantee you that, any Mexican from the street can develop better/more skill players than any of these so called “professional coaches” that all they do is collect a nice pay check. I’ve heard it many times from other Hispanic coaches, “you can’t beat these guys, all they care is their paycheck, and to outmuscle everyone because it’s easier and most parents can’t tell/know what works best. It is very unfortunate that these joker “top level” clubs keep lying to parents, equally sad is that the average American parent cannot distinguish between a good quality coach and a jack ass who likes to call himself a professional trainer.
    Until the US admits the drug addiction that is bringing reject Euro coaches to pick up a check, this approach will never change.
    You can knock possession type soccer all you want but in the end, boom soccer will never teach as good of a technique, skill, and smarts as possession type Football can.
    As for me, I will keep training my kids’ different, swimming against the current, and teaching these so called “professional” trainers a good lesson every weekend of how is done…

    • Ernesto says:

      Yes, parents do love the English accent guy and they are willing to pay big $$. Jordan and Lebron never needed a professional trainer. I agree with you. I also coach against the current, possession, creativity, and technique. I think there is a rise in Latino coaches in the USA and that is going to change the development. Keep coaching possession.

      • Jaime says:

        Get off the Latino/Hispanic/Mexican prejudice trip. There’s as many bad/wannabe/unskilled coaches in Hispanic leagues. I see it every weekend. Ethnic prejudice under any guise is embarrassing and typifies an uneducated understanding of soccer or any other discipline.

    • Maxx says:

      The problem is that to many coaches are all about the winning!! We play 8v8 suppsedly to develop players, all I see are coaches getting the biggest, fastest players and driving the ball up the field! Can’t wait to go 11v11 to possess and let thyeball beat these ignorant coaches!

  5. Roger says:

    Its funny you said that!!! here in Nj Some of the ODP coaches dont even speak English….

    • Maxx says:

      They may not speak English but the know somebody to get that cushy job and make tons of money off of the kids! I have wathced some of the ODP coaches in NJ they suck! But somebody owes them a favor, mopstly they are ignorant college coaches who know nothing about the game. The majority of college coaches are just used car salesmen! They just sell you a bunch of nothing!

  6. Maxwellian_Tactics says:

    I would be curious to get a commentary on youth teams (U13-U16) at the recently completed Dallas Cup.

  7. Jose says:

    I think it safe to say that America has the greatest soccer team, it’s just that the play other sports. All other countries, the best athletes play soccer and here in the states, they play football, basketball, and baseball…Imagine if Calvin Johnson played forward, D-wade played centerback, Alex Rodrigez played midfielder,etc. Selfishly, (and I love college and pro football) American soccer needs to make soccer more attractive to these star athletes. Many variables are required to change but the obvious is revenue. Pro-Teams simply need to make money to provide lucrative contracts…great news is that I can see things changing. I play adult league(which was not here in MS 5 years ago) and so many young guys play and have a keen interest in soccer. A change is on the horizon but still may take a decade or so for the quality to be quite noticable, as compared to world competition.—We have goalkeepers, just need to work on the others!

    • Ernesto says:

      What about baseball? Why do the Latinos dominate it? And in basketball more and more Europeans are starting in the NBA, so you can’t use that excuse anymore, because soccer would use the same excuse, what if Drogba was a linebacker and ronaldo a wide receiver?

      • Juan says:

        I believe he can use that argument. Although you are very correct that more and more Latinos dominate in baseball and Europeans are playing in the NBA, the Latinos that are dominating in baseball mostly originate in countries where soccer is popular but not dominant (i.e. Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Cuba which account for almost 50% of MLB Latinos). As far as Europe is concerned with basketball, this is rapidly gaining strengh but European players are , generally, not even close in talent as the American counterpart. In this country we are bombarded with multiple sports, by and far more than any other nation. Like it ……don’t like…..don’t care…..these are facts. Nobody is making excuses because we have failed and as was stated by others “Why are the same people that failed still in charge?”. I agree the politics is worse that a Chicago politician (no offense to my friends in Chi-Town) The U-14 Boys ODP team in NJ is not good. There is a player (I know the parents) on the team that is not capable of making my u-14 MAPS team. I really can’t figure out why he is on the team but I have very little respect for those that operate the NJ ODP operation.

  8. Robert says:

    You all have good points, but I think the problem it starts even earlier than you have addressed. I think that the system for developing youth U7-U10 players is very much at fault. Clubs, at least in CO, frequently rely on volunteer parent coaches at this age who are not given much guidance or supervision. The majority of the time these parents don’t understand what needs to be taught. Technique, technique, technique. But that is too boring and doesn’t provide wins so it is largely ignored and the kids are encouraged to boot the ball towards the goal. As a result, you have kids starting competitive/ODP/High School without a good foundation. Quality coaching needs to start at a early age.

    • Billy says:


    • Jose says:

      you are right on.

    • Jochito says:

      I also think you all have made good points, but I believe that Robert comes to the source of the problem. I agree with you, Robert: technique is the key, but for technique to become automatic, spontaneous and fluid it presupposes a prior development phase – what I call incubation. I don’t know about you in CO but here in CT our 5,6, and 7 year-olds incubate with “swarmball”.
      Picture a bright Saturday morning and 14 five-year-olds, all in formation, lost on a field five times larger than needed. The whistle blows and little bodies explode toward the ball, pushing and shoving and scrambling to take one hard kick – regardless of team, direction or target. Is it any wonder that when American players reach high school, their play resembles a demolition derby on grass?
      The formative experiences in any sport determine the trajectory of player development. You can put kids in development academies; you can put them in Premier, you can put them on the National Team if you want. But no matter how talented the kids may be, you don’t start with “swarm ball” and end up with the best players in the world.
      Player development isn’t an event; it’s a process. Each phase is crucial to the next; a flaw in one invariably compromises subsequent ones. In soccer-playing countries, this process occurs naturally. Kids incubate on what’s already there. However, when a country’s youth system has no incubation phase because its soccer history is a 150-year void – when a child imprints on something so primitive, so crude, as swarm ball – a flat trajectory is inevitable.
      American player development breaks down at the initial phase, incubation. Our kids lack a key ingredient from that phase. This is the reason their play is so “green.”
      You’re absolutely correct, Robert, for 22 years I’ve watched Premier clubs skim “green” talent off the top of recreational programs for the U.S. Soccer cognoscenti. We have a word in Spanish, desabrido: if you pluck fruit too soon, it will taste bland, even after it ripens. To compete with the world’s best you must raise the bottom before you can skim from the top.
      So what is the missing ingredient from this incubations phase? The answer is simple: intuitive knowledge of the game. In developmental psychology we call it schemata – the unconscious picture in a child’s mind, which he or she will spend hours upon hours attempting to emulate in his or her play. This is what allows for what we call automatic thinking. This is what allows the Messi’s and Iniestas to develop the kind of technique that makes magic on the field possible.
      Where does the picture come from? It comes from the child’s environment and the existing soccer culture (in Brazil, in Mexico, in Argentina, in Spain, in Germany). Up to now it is the only way that the picture has been provided to children. That is why everyone has tried so hard to import a soccer culture into the U.S. But here is the rub. You can’t import culture because the existing culture will reject it.
      So what is the solution? How do we make up for 150 years of history that never happened? How do three million American kids discover what they and their communities never had – or even knew was missing? The solution is not particularly convenient. It’s not what anybody wants to hear but here it is. Since the ingredient doesn’t occur naturally in the U.S. we must “seed the experience our children with it.” It is tantamount to performing artificial insemination. It has taken me 22 years to cobble it together and while I have been very successful, few in this pay-for-play culture have the stomach to embrace it – each for their own reasons. For example, those who know the game can’t bare the thought of dissecting street soccer to distill the seed component. In fact my good friend and soccer mentor, Leonidas Tsantiris, has told me flat out that it is impossible. It is not impossible here is the recipe that has taken me 22 years to figure out.
      Picture a three dimensional, wood puzzle; it resembles a knot. Remove one key piece and the knot comes apart with ease. Replace the piece and the rest hold fast as one. Likewise, soccer is a game of angles, but one angle matters most – the angle to the goal. Goalkeepers constantly train on how to cover it and call it the ball line (BL): the imaginary line from the ball to the center of the goal. It just so happens that this one idea contains the essence of soccer play everywhere on the field; it allows you to dismantle and assemble the game from the perspective of the players. Attackers will do anything to open the ball line and defenders will take a yellow or even a red to close it. It is the still point of the turning universe of play on a soccer field. Control the access to the ball line and you control the game. If you apply the idea to field players as well as keepers, create a language by which every aspect of play relates back to it – take the BL, face up on the BL, pressure the BL, cut on your BL, cover the BL – introduce it into play and let the children imprint on it, you will be stunned at what you witness, when it becomes the true North of every single player on the field. When sufficiently mastered, this idea allows a player to stay constantly connected in the game at the highest level of play and provides the mental conditions for developing the technique that we all yearn for.
      The eternal dance of penetration never varies. What varies is the infinite ways of penetrating. For me, how a player opens or closes the ball line constitutes the mysterious high art of soccer.

  9. Julio says:

    Simply put, There will always be a close duel between an individual’s liberty/freedom on the field and the collective team play, between talent and muscle, between the system and the instinct, between the smile and the lack of fantasy when coaches say that soccer is a very serious thing.
    No order, tactics, system or what ever you may want to call it can destroy/kill creativity, the touch that unbalances, the dribbling that thrills you, the movement of the body that lies so that the opponent/defender eats the lie or the goalie moves but stay motionless. US soccer needs to think in these terms if we are to compete at the world level.

  10. Rudy says:

    What is going to kill soccer in the US is hubris. Parents want their children to play in flights that they are not capable of because it is a pride thing. The rest want to change football …sorry, soccer to fit a norm they may have about sports. Most treat it like a playtime occupier, and most clubs and programs are run by well meaning people/parents who have very little capacity, experience or knowledge of the game or to run a soccer development program. Some training programs are run by people who read about the game in books! But above all the biggest challenges come from parenting that has driven children to look at the game in vary odd ways, parents who do not care about the rules, referees who have no clue and clubs which are also little business ventures sprouting up everywhere to take advantage of the volume and make some money. There is a lot wrong and it has been this way from when Pele and Chinaglia came here and it is here as Henry and Beckam are here and will be here when little Joey …or Jose winds up breaking out and playing in another country …but there is no system in the US to grow soccer until there is a way for somebody to make millions off it. When the MISL takes charge of the development of young players, across the nation, there will be a difference how they do that? It is not clear to me even as I write this critique but it will take a lot of focused work and a driver and in the US most things are driven by immediate profit.

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