Prior installments: Part One | Part Two
Wrapping up our examination of the state of soccer development in the United States with four final notes.
Younger ages are just as important
While much has been discussed on this site about the 15-22 age range, the Pre-Academy age groups are the next level that needs to be reached. Claudio Reyna intended for his coaching curriculum to be specifically targeted to that 8-14 age group, and that stretch remains just as crucial as the Academy ages.
It’s during this time where a player can be shaped in terms of his technical ability, and the right habits can develop. Specific tactics might not be as important, but if a player doesn’t establish a certain level of comfort on the ball during this stretch, it can be harder to achieve when those players are older.
Tactical knowledge and other skills can always be worked on, but if the foundation isn’t properly laid at the right time, it can drastically alter a player’s ceiling.
While a number of MLS Academies are slowly adding youth teams at those younger levels, it should be noted that the country is far too large – not to mention lacking the resources required – to rely on MLS clubs identifying talent when kids are in their pre-teen years.
Of course, you don’t want to get too carried away or make things too serious at too young of an age, as it is still largely about having fun and playing a game. Most youth soccer players won’t go on to be professionals, and that’s ok. But what about those who are? That's yet another complicated aspect of trying to identify and improve player development here.
Let’s play like Spain
Whenever a club or country dominates at the international level, the smart soccer minds across the globe take notice, and many start to imitate what is going on at the youth ranks, in hopes of duplicating success.
And as Reyna appears to have done, drawing heavily from the influence of both Barcelona and the Spanish national team in his youth curriculum (not to mention a Spanish coach helping write the thing), he’s unlocked something that should continue to take root at the youth levels.
This isn’t to say that every single youth team should play in a 4-3-3 – it’s less about the formation than it is the style of play. Possessing the ball and dictating the pace and tempo of the game is what’s most important when referring to duplicating style. The hope is, by encouraging teams at young ages to pass the ball out of the back, keep it on the ground and value possession, players will become much more technically savvy and sound.
Naturally, the counterargument to this point is that Spain has Barcelona and Real Madrid, two of the world’s biggest and best academies, producing its top level players. And while that carries plenty of weight, it’s more about trying to value what those programs take stock in, as opposed to just hoofing the ball forward. It’s the decision to teach players how to pass and move, be calm and confident on the ball, and look to value players for their skillset as opposed to size and athletic ability.
By developing players this way, it gives them the tools and platform needed to plug into various formations, and most importantly provides them the technical skills that can hopefully allow the U.S. men to compete at the highest level one day. It doesn’t have to be an exact copy of tactics and passing – and shouldn’t – but emulating and trying to play like the best international side in the world isn’t a bad idea.
Examples of this could be seen at the Academy Playoffs, as teams were playing the ball out of the back, lining up in a 4-3-3, and while it wasn’t always perfect, was a bit more enthralling for this reporter to watch.
Proper coaching education is essential
As U.S. Soccer continues to place a strong emphasis on youth development, it’s just as important to maintain a high level of coaching education.
During the Academy Playoffs, the U.S. youth national team coaches gave presentations, as did Director of Coaching Dave Chesler, ensuring that the emphasis remains on style of play, and trying to create as much transparency as possible to what national team coaches are looking for.
Knowing what youth national teams is only a tiny fraction of a coach’s responsibility. Being able to create the right training environments, run players through the right drills, coach players in an ideal style that facilities development, and who approaches the game in the right way are just some of many characteristics and traits coaches should ideally possess.
Then there’s also the issue of identifying the right players. It’s one thing that the FC Dallas Academy, rated as one of the best in the country, appears to be doing right, and is one of many keys to succeeding in development.
Of course, there shouldn’t be one bland, static and unique approach that every single coach should follow, as that would create a dull and uninteresting landscape of youth soccer. U.S. Soccer has an intense coaching license system, running at several levels and requiring extensive hours in order to reach the highest “A” license.
Regardless, if a high level isn’t also maintained at the coaching levels, all the money spent on the Academy won’t push development in the right way.
There’s no magic bullet or obvious blueprint
Sorry to disappoint.
If you’ve been reading and following along the past few days and were hoping to come to this point expecting to see an outlined, point-by-point blueprint detailing exactly how we can become an international soccer powerhouse, I believe that I’m about to fail to live up to those expectations.
As far as I can tell, there’s no secret to “fix” American soccer. At least not overnight. But things have been changing and happening the last few years that at least appear to shift things in an improved direction.
But it’s only the beginning. It’s going to take a great deal of time still, and patience is necessary. It’s too soon to know if the Development Academy is the best thing for the U.S. I’ve had conversations with those connected to the game that think that other options could work better.
Because the United States trails the world by some distance, methods of development need to be continually evaluated and examined in order to maximize potential amongst the nation’s elite players. It’s a long and exhausting process.
Continuing to place an emphasis on playing style, technical development, in game intelligence, tactical knowledge – the list is endless – are some of the on field issues I’ve discussed that constantly need to be reviewed.
And who knows, maybe 10 years from now U.S. Soccer will be in a much better spot, with MLS Academies developing high quality players who excel both at home and abroad, while the U.S. men’s national team has become a much improved entity in international competition.
Until then, all we can do is work at it, watch and continue to try and find that elusive formula.