The Starting Point for a New Development Model?

For those of you in the United States, have you ever seen a soccer scout?

Think about it for a minute.

Baseball scouts taking in a high school game?  Yes.

College football coaches coming to your local high school? Yes.

Basketball coaches coming to your school or watching AAU games? Yes.

A recent article about Boston Celtics assistant GM  Ryan McDonough details his contributions to their scouting department. Of note is his tracking 750 - 1000 professional, college and high school plaers at a time. The articles provides an example of a recent scouting trip where he takes in 4 games in 4 different cities in 4 days. Such are the lengths the Celtics go to in search of players.

In almost 15 years, I have seen exactly one college soccer coach at a high school match evaluating talent. This despite some excellent high school programs producing student ahletes who go on to play in college. I have never seen a "professiona" scout at a high school soccer match.  In nearly 20 years I have never seen a college or professional soccer coach evaluating talent at a club team league game. College coaches can be seen at a handful of major tournaments and at the popular showcase events where they invariably track the players on "elite" club teams.

For the most part, soccer clubs expect you to come to them. There is "poaching" of players from other clubs with each new tryout season, but even those players are usually identified by a team having played against them the prior year. I actively scouted nearly 100 players last fall for a spring roster of 18-20. I felt compelled to if I wanted to assemble a quality team.  I've been wondering for months why clubs, colleges and US Soccer does not scour the ranks of youth soccer to identify young players?

Let's pick on ODP for a minute.  If you coach or play club soccer ODP officials will use your contact information for a mass emailing announcing the ODP tryout and training schedules.  I do not know of anyone who has ever received a personal invitation to the initial process. They expect you to come to them. I have taken part in this process and it is ridiculous. Anyone from the lowest level of recreational play to eventual state or even national team players show up in droves. 

If we want to change the development model I feel strongly the place to start is with a scouting department in each "state."  We need scouts on the local level indentifying taent and reporting to a state level scout who comes out to the local pitches and scouts individuals more in depth. That state levl scouting director should be tracking a thousand student athletes each year in order to identify players with the potential to play on state and national teams. No stone should remain unturned in pursuit of talented players.

It's simply time for the tail (clubs) to stop wagging the dog.  Instead of parents paying for their children to play club soccer, clubs should be scouting / identifying players and then funding their development.  This is how it is done in baseball (college and minor leagues), in basketball  (college, D-League, overseas) and football (college). Youthful players are scouted, recruited and provided an education, room and board or are paid while they develop their game.  In soccer we expect people to pay to be developed. That's not working out real well for us, is it?


FINAL: US MNT 0 Mexico 0

Playing a lot of young kids and unfamilar faces the US MNT went into Azteca and stole a point on the road!

Beasley was a warrior tonight. Not his best game and he struggled at times but rose to meet every challenge.  Besler and Gonzaes were superb. Cameron held down his side as well.  Guzan was really solid, very calm in support of the backs.

Thought Bradley was the key. His play and organization from the DM position were keys to the game, imo. Zusi provided the strong physical presence in support.

I am unsure what Klinsman was thinking in replacing Altidore with Johnson. he corresponding switch from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2  was a bit curious as well.  Thought the US had controlled the center channels well up to that point. They struggled to get numbers around the ball when playing in the 4-4-2.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not criticizing Klinsman - just not understanding his thinking with that move.  Perhaps he will enlighten us in post match comments.

Mexico will complain of the two non-calls that could have resulted in PK opportunities for the home side.  That's just sour grapes because they left a half dozen other scoring chances on the field. Convert on any of those and the potential PK's are renderedfar less relevant. Sometimes a little luck is needed and this time it shined favorably on the US MNT. 

Haven't seen the stats yet, but Mexico had more shots, more shots on goal and a staggering number of corner kicks.  The US MNT stood strong.  Poise, composure... they just didn't buckle and that is very encouraging.

New faces are emerging as starters and contributors. Players missing due to injuries or sabaticals doesn't seem to phase Klinsman and this group.  He's used a different line up in each game with an astonishing 59 players receiving caps under his direction.  That is going to establish a much deeper pool of players than the US has been accustomed to.  I am really impressed by the "next man up" approach of the US team as exemplfied by the young center backs to tonight.

Point well earned!


US MNT @ Mexico 1st Half

After a slow start the US MNT  began to sustain possession better. Jose Altidore's back to goal target play was a huge factor in this as he linked with Bradley a number of times. Was very impressed with the US patience in building attacks and the change of pace displayed once they hit Altidore. The lay backs and returns worked well.

I am concerned about Beasley's play at the left back. He has struggled and Mexico smells blood there. The two young center backs, Besler and Gonzales have held up fairly well. Some textbook examples of zonal flat back play with both stick and arrow in evidence,

The strength of this team seems to be down the middle of the pitch and that is where much of the latter part of the first half was played after the Mexicans dominated flank play early on.

0 - 0 at Half.  The US MNT is probably happy with that. The Mexicans, not so much.


We need to develop a better development model.

I was listening to Bill Russell as he related being a 5'10" 150 pound high school player and the last man on his team. This is the same Bill Russell who grew to be 6'10" and went on to become a two time NCAA Champion, an Olympic Gold Medalist and win 11 NBA World Championships in 13 years with the Boston Celtics.

This set me to thinking about youth sports and soccer in particular. We've all heard stories of the great profssional player who was cut from travel or high school teams, but persevered to make it as a college and professional athlete. Those are inspiring and motivational stories to be sure. I found myself wondering who in their right mind would cut a future professional athlete from a travel team?

I have conducted tryouts in a couple of different sports either at the request or behest of others. I have watched my sons participate in other tryouts. I have heard the speeches of keeping only the "X number of" best players.  I know each time I walk off the field and am asked to identify the "best" players I find myself thinking a more appropriate categorizing would be "the least worst" players. At youth sport tryouts, they all stink. There's not a refined or polished player amongst the lot of them!

A lawn care specialist, a bank manager, an accountant, a school teacher.... these were among the people evaluating young athletes at a recent tryout. I looked around at the group and wondered what qualified them to judge the athletic ability of  6 - 14 year olds?  I know for a fact two of them never played the sport they were conducting tryouts for, yet there they were with clip boards and stop watches "evaluating talent". They held the athletic fate of these kids in their hands.

I then watched as tryouts concluded and discovered exactly what I thought I would - each of those conducting the tryouts had a son or daughter trying out.  Want your kid to make the travel all-star team? Become the coach of the team! Not about to cut the kid of your best friend or your childs best friend either are you? If your child is not part of the coach's inner circle, the chances of making the team go down dramatically unless your child is physically advanced. You know, big, strong, fast, but not necessarily skilled in a technical sense.

What is the motivation behind tryouts like those described?  To assemble the best team possible in pursuit of winning the travel league and tournaments while lining the mantle with trophies, correct? What about development of the individual players that comprise the team? 

Individual development takes places when the individual works on his game away from structured team practice. In team practice the emphasis is on training in groups, developing teamwork, establishing team chemsitry. There is shadow play and pattern play with lots of match related games played. Team activities take up the preponderance of time in team practices.

It might be helpful to consider a players decision-making abilities at this point. Individual skill sets are the tools a player uses to solve problems encountered in the game, so individual work will help develop a players 1 v 1 decision making ability. It is individual skills that are the foundation of any players success.

However, when we consider that a single soccer ball is shared by 22 individuals in a game of soccer we quickly realize how precious little time any given player will have with the ball during a game. That time can likely be measured in seconds.  I have seen estimates that the average time on the ball for a professional soccer player is less than 2 minutes in a 90 minute game, substantially less. Let that settle in for a minute.

It would stand to reason that a significant amount of time should therefore be spent in traning the soccer athlete on what to do without the ball.  All youth teams, be they of a recreational or travel club level should have this as the basis of their training. The decisions a soccer athlete makes without the ball are what elevates a teams play on the field.

Now, if we refer back to tryouts and the people who often conduct tryouts for the "elite" or "premier" club travel teams a clearer picture begins to emerge as to why the US soccer development model fails so miserably. We focus on team when we should focus on the individual. The short-comings of the many individuals becomes the focus only when the overlooked players at tryouts catch up and pass the physically advanced youth all-stars.

I think back to my own development as a basketball player (we did not have soccer when I was young.)  and what I remember is countless hours spent on my own in the driveway, at the park, in the gym, in the garage or basement developing individual skills. Testing myself in pickup games against any and all comers. It is rather enlightening how few organized basketball games I actually played as kid.  The ratio of individual work to work done with a team is staggering. 

Not so for most United States youth in soccer today.  There is this belief that kids need to play on a team year round, that more games is better.  I see academy and club teams demanding a 10 month committment from players 10 - 18 years of age  and watch as those teams play 80+ games of competitive soccer in those 10 months. Is this really the best developmental model we can come up with?  Factor in recovery time from all these matches and when does an athlete have time to work on individual skills?

The scary part is the people at the grass roots of soccer in this country seek to emulate what they see the "big boys" doing. And so we have the mechanic, the attorney, the laborer and the accountant wielding clipoards, stop watches and whistles at "tryouts" for travel and club teams. The focus on providing their son or daughter a winning experience by surrounding them with physically advanced athletes. The result is an installation of what I refer to as a false passion for the game. True passion is found in those who have a soccer ball at their feet when no one else is watching. All too often the player with true passion is too small or too slow to make the cut at tryouts for youth teams and doesn't emerge until later in adolescence.  I see this all the time. The youthful physically advanced player fades away as others who have worked on developing skills to solve the problems big, fast, strong but unskilled players present take center stage.  They are often asked, "why did you not play club or travel soccer?  The answer is, "because I was cut from the team" or was never asked to play.

I recently had to cut players from a team I was assembling for this spring.  My basic criteria for making the team were demonstrated passion for soccer and a willingness to be coached. Potential players who showed passion as demonstrated by working on their individual skill sets on their own had dramatically better chances of making the team.  Those who demonstrated a willingness to be coached had a leg up over those who demonstrated an unwillingness to correct repeated mistakes. As we progress with our season I still wonder if I was correct in every decision I made.  Did I overlook a kid with passion for the game and a willingness to learn in favor of another?  I don't know for sure. I did my best to select wisely, but there is certainly room to second guess. I already have and there will be more of these moments in the coming weeks.  I hope I didn't cut the next Pele or Ronaldo, but I might have.  I am secure in my knowledge I did the best I could within the goal of developing individual players and forming a winning team. Time will tell.


"I play very simply.

That's what it's all about.

Playing simple football is the hardest thing."

Johan Cruyff

SNOW doubt about it!

My U17 team played a college showcase event in temperatures that hovered around 30- 35 degrees last week and it actually wasn't too bad. Our league has been postponing matches because of cold weather and forecasted cold weather for days now. And then there was our United States Men's National Team playing a World Cup Qualifier against Costa Rica in Denver, Colorado during a blizzard!

I love the idea of home pitch advantage. We took the Costa Ricans to the Mile High City to play at altitude and seasonably chilly weather only to be blessed with blizzard conditions. And they played on!

Have to credit the Costa Ricans for playing through it all. Great effort by them!  They could have folded and just played it out, gotten on their flight home and cursed the soccer gods for such rotton luck, but they battled and were quite dangerous at times.  At the 55 minute mark when it looked like the game might be called, the Costa Ricans were standing side by side with the Americans extolling the referee to allow them to play on!  Gotta love it!  That spirit and their effort made this an epic match to watch!

That's not to discount the United States effort for it was superior as well. Dempsy slamming home the rebound for a goal will be frozen into US soccer lore for all time. The images of players and referees with snow accumulating and freezing in their hair. Snow crews shoveling lines, injured players lying in the snow... pretty sure no one was flopping last night.  All memorable and in front of a sold out stadium crowd whose numbers will go from 19,000+  to 190,000+ as the tale of this game is recounted through the ages.

An extraordinary effort by the referee crew as well.  How they could see the lines at times is beyond me. Did the CR miss a foul in the PA that would have given the US a penalty kick?  Who knows?  Sure looked like the player was inside where the PA was supposed to be, but who knows?  Just thankful the visibility was good enough for the AR to see the offside on the Costa Rican goal... and for the CR to see the AR's flag up although I imagine they had buzzers on the flag and a communications system for the referees per usual.

I found myself yelling at the TV for the US players to "Clear it!"  or "Just boot it down to the other end!".... lol.... normally sacrilege, but last nights game was anything but normal. Far, far from it.

At the final whistle, The United States had earned a much needed 3 points... and a huge amount of respect for fighting through a blizzard to secure them. Well done gentlemen!


It's a process.

We took our team to a college showcase tournament recently.  I admit to trepidation in taking a new team to such an event for their first games. I believe we have the makings of a very good team, but one just never knows how a new team will respond until they step onto the pitch against good opposition.  The weekend brought a package of mixed results - some good, some bad, some ugly. The bottom line is, the event was a learning experience as much for me as it was for the players. Probably more so for me.

In assembling the team I evaluated individual members and attempted to place them in formational positions and a system of play that seemed likely to fit skill sets and personalities. As coaches, sometimes we get it right and sometimes we need to take a step back, re-evaluate and reformulate plans. A review of the teams performance is in essence a review of my own performance. Did I have the pieces assembled properly? Had I chosen formation and systems of play wisely?

Observing and analyzing in-the-game play is essential to improving individual and team performance. I give players tremendous on-field freedom emphasizing maintaining team shape over strict holding of positions and using formational guidelines to determine what shape we will have when attacking or defending. I not only allow but rely on the athletes to make in-game adjustments based on the problems they encounter when playing. Our success is predicated largely on the players ability to solve the problems they encounter. Training provides us with the necessary tools to solve problems, aka pressure, on both an individual and collective basis.

There was a moment during our second match that encapsulates the current status of our team and has me pondering the course to chart from this point forward. We came out strong against a good opponent leading 2-1 at halftime. I knew from watching the opponents in an earlier match their coach was very good at making halftime adjustments. The opponent made a single tactical adjustment that changed the flow of the game. An adjustment on our part should not have been necessary. All that was required was a recommitment to positional integrity and team shape within our systems of play when defending.  Unfortunately those are the biggest areas of concern with this group. As a group, they do not possess a broad range of soccer experience and some have played one position for their entire soccer career. In short, our soccer IQ appears to be too limited to play as I have asked them to play.

From a coaching standpoint I must decide if more time will lead to the improvements we need to make in these areas or if a change in formation and system of play will better suit the personnel of this team. It is important to listen to the players when making this decision. I had discussions initiated by five different players concerning their roles. I initiated discussions with a few more.  Some sought clarification, some offered suggestions, others expressed concerns. Through these discussions a picture began to emerge.

For our third match we made a subtle change to formation and team shape.  These changes addressed defensive concerns but might have hampered our ability to attack. Nonetheless, as I have continued to analyze our individual and collective play I find my initial thoughts on formation for this group requires additional consideration and thought. The system of play less so, but with formational change there will be tweaks required here as well. I believe we may be able to better utilize existing skill as we strive to broaden their soccer perspective and raise their overall game intelligence.

And so the process for this team is now better defined. We will regroup, make a few adjustments and prepare for the opening of league play in a couple of weeks. I really like the potential of this group and feel better about how to fit the individual pieces together to form a cohesive picture.  Time will tell, but I think really good things are ahead for this team.


The Truth about Stretching

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know one of my favorite coaching phrases is “Failing to Prepare Properly is Preparing to Fail”. In today’s writing I will apply this message to stretching.

Most of us were taught the importance of warm-up exercises in elementary school and carried these lessons through high school, college and into adulthood.  These warm-up exercises likely consisted primarily of static stretching. It was accepted that “stretching” before hand warmed the body up, loosened muscles and tendons and not only prepared athletes for the more vigorous activity to follow but also prevented injuries. Studies conducted over the last several years have debunked much of this and proven many of the more entrenched ideas concerning warming up athletes are not only a waste of time, but are actually more harmful than helpful.

The generally accepted school of thought that holding a stretch for a count of 15 or 20 seconds readies muscles for practice or game has been proven false by modern science. In fact, recent studies prove muscles are actually weakened by such warm-up routines. Static stretching can temporarily reduce strength in the impacted muscle by as much as 30% with a recovery time of 30 minutes or more. This is hardly the way to “prime” muscles for athletic competition.

A proper warm-up needs to accomplish two basic things: increase body heat / blood flow throughout the body, and loosen muscles and tendons to attain full range of motion in the various joints. 

By warming the body and increasing the blood flow we allow our muscles to utilize their stored fuel and process the oxygen we take in more efficiently. Warm muscles are also able to withstand strenuous activity and increased workloads better.

My teams formally begin each training session or pre-game with light jogging for the purpose of raising the heart rate from a resting pace to approximately 50 – 60% of its maximum rate over the course of approximately 8 - 10 minutes.  A rule of thumb we use is to reach a point where the body is just approaching sweating.

Then it is time to further loosen muscles and tendons in preparation for the activities that lie ahead. This is where we move off the beaten past of static stretching and onto the new path of dynamic stretching.  We now know static stretching actually weakens the muscle and inhibits its ability to perform at peak levels for up to 30 minutes after completing a stretching regimen.  Numerous studies have demonstrated that stretching the muscles while moving, or dynamic stretching, does increase flexibility, range of motion and power in the impacted muscles.

Dynamic stretching is at its best when the regimen is sports specific. For soccer this means a high emphasis on the core muscles as well as the leg muscles.  Attention must also be given to the upper body and arm muscles, especially so for goalkeepers.

Some dynamic stretching suggestions for soccer:

High knees
Butt kicks
Walking lunges
In / outs
Out / ins
Straight leg march, raising a straight leg then touching toes with fingers of opposite hand
Straight leg march, heel in ground with toes raised, touch / pull toes back
Diagonal shuffles forward
Diagonal shuffles backward
Back pedal
Backwards run

What about static stretching?  

Does it hold no value at all?  

We use static stretching as part of our cool down phase at the end of training or post game.  We begin with a very light jog sans shin guards and often times barefooted if the weather and surface allows. We then “shake out our legs” to address the accumulation of lactic acid that forms from rigorous exercise. This involves lying on one’s back while a partner takes your heels in hands and shakes your legs for a count of 30. We repeat this 3 times. 

At this point we move on to static stretching.   This is basically what was once considered a warm up routine.  Formerly such routines were done with a level of intensity appropriate to preparing to play. Now, as a part of our cool down this routine is done at a more leisurely pace with post training or post game discussion amongst the players. 

The studies are inconclusive in regards to the preventative benefits of either dynamic or static stretching. My personal experience has seen us be free from strained or “pulled” muscles in the 10 + years since we began utilizing dynamic stretches at the beginning of a session and static stretching at the end of sessions. There have been a very limited sprains as well.  Of course, we have suffered he usual bruises, nicks and scratches associated with play, but our overall healthy has been quite remarkable.