A blog post making the rounds this week is the ambitiously headlined “A Treatise: The State of American Youth Soccer.” To underscore how serious an effort this post really is, The Shin Guardian presents it with an intro saying the author, Ryan McCormack, is a USC master’s candidate who “spent hours refining the piece with TSG’s US Youth expert Nick Sindt.”
Given that buildup, I was a little disappointed. The piece wasn’t terrible, but given that introduction, I guess I expected more novelty and perhaps less of a fixation on Jurgen Klinsmann. But this piece is far better researched and argued than a lot of what you’ll find on the Web and much more worthy of actual discussion. And the commenters have brought on that serious discussion.
My basic objections are that the treatise is big on unanswerable problems, and it doesn’t take into account what makes the USA unique, for better or for worse.
1. The United States Lacks A Soccer Culture
True, but what can be done about that? In the long run, it’ll improve. We still have kids who grow up playing youth soccer but not watching it. That’s changing over time. We now have many, many people who watch soccer in a given weekend — MLS, EPL, La Liga, Mexico, whatever. The key in the long run is for these people to reproduce. (Though that might mean giving the weekend soccer-viewing a rest long enough to be viable on the dating scene. And then convincing the kids to watch soccer with you.)
But the USA isn’t much of a “pickup game” country for youth sports of any kind, and it’s never going to be a monosport culture. Soccer fields aren’t going to replace playgrounds. No sense in wishing for that to change.
2. No Uniform, Identifable Style of Play
Bruce Arena has said this country is simply too big to have one style. And in the comments on the treatise, someone claiming to be former MLSer David Vaudreuil says Germany and Argentina have changed their styles fairly often with some success. (For that matter, so has Brazil, which isn’t always jogo bonito or bust.)
3. Pay for Play
The treatise articulates this issue pretty well. Rec soccer doesn’t cost much. But the better you get, the more you’re paying. That’s a problem. It’s changing slowly with academy programs that are trying to cover players’ costs and youth clubs that offer financial aid. The reason it’s changing slowly: It costs money.
Also worth mentioning: The USA has free soccer available for most teenagers who survive one tryout. It’s called high school soccer. While some people want to consign it to history’s dustbin, it should be at least be a good place to catch late bloomers or those who haven’t been able to pay up for local clubs that can’t offer financial aid.
4. Misplaced Focus on Winning Instead of Player Development
This is another issue that’s changing. MLS clubs want home-grown players more than they want youth trophies.
But the treatise here offers some solutions that are too heavy-handed. You can’t just “educate” the parents to make them understand that the goal is to get players to get better. The vast majority of them know their kids aren’t going to get a pro contract or a full-ride college scholarship. The teen years are their kids’ big chance to shine on an athletic stage. You have them let them celebrate a little.
Some coaches also can get too pedantic about what is and is not “development.” I saw Wake Forest coach Jay Vidovich’s NSCAA presentation on playing to win vs. playing to develop, and he cast a spotlight of shame on teams that were winning with long throw-ins. That’s not “development” — that’s athleticism. Sometime in the next couple of English Premier League games I saw, a team scored on a long throw-in. That wasn’t the first time I’ve seen it work at elite levels. If it’s a legal tactic that works at the EPL level, how is it anti-”development” to use it in a college game?
5. The US Lacks Opportunities for Self-Actualization
This was a case in which the treatise simply didn’t match my experience at all. Players are grouped by age level, we’re told, and not given opportunities to play with older kids. Where? I’ve seen kids “play up” everywhere from my current club to my Stone Age youth player days, when we moved up from U12 to U14 and took our underage goalkeeper with us.
The other part of the argument is a legitimate and difficult problem. If you’re a good player in an area that doesn’t have elite competition, you don’t have many options. Again, it’s slowly changing. But surely this is an issue all around the world. If you’re a good player in the Scottish Highlands, what are your development options? Commuting to Glasgow?
6. Too Much Red Tape in a Flawed System
Absolutely. We’ve all heard horror stories about kids who were supposed to be playing a big club game at the same time as an ODP tryout. The NCAA has asinine rules.
That said, the treatise has a contradictory argument here. It lauds “meaningful” games for promotion/relegation and Cup competitions. But wait — aren’t we supposed to be focusing on player development, not winning?
I don’t raise that contradiction to embarrass anyone. It simply shows the complexities at play here. Sometimes, the answer to a question like “Should we focus on winning or development?” is “Yes.”
The treatise is too grim here, saying the USA is doomed to more of the same in the World Cup if these six elements don’t change. And there’s too much emphasis on Klinsmann, who can’t do anything to make 6-year-olds watch Bundesliga games instead of Phineas and Ferb. (Hey, we parents need a break, too.)
And some of the recommendations were in motion long before Klinsmann finally signed on. We have an “entry level coaching class” for club youth coaches — we all need to get our F licenses at my club, even though we’re perpetually short on volunteers. And the F license workshops are all about fun ways to get kids to play, not drills (and certainly not tactics).
But the bottom line is that we can’t just expect the United States to become England or Germany. Those countries are compact, easily covered by mass transit and more tolerant of central organizations planning everything.
The USA is huge and diverse. To make any progress in youth soccer, we need to accept that. Players are going to take diverse paths to the pros — as mentioned in passing in the treatise, late bloomers have a tough time emerging in a rigid system.
We can’t simply wish the USA was something different. We have to play to our strengths.