I Aplogize to the Members of our U17 Team

Edit: This article was written last fall.  It is still relevant today as the number of views it has received in recent days attests to. I used to be a proponent of high school soccer over club soccer. That isn't the case anymore. The biggest difference is the collective level of game intelligence is far greater on the club level than it is in high school soccer.


There are words of caution about the word assume that state to do so will make an ass out of u and me. It has occurred to me that I am guilty of having assumed something has remained constant when in fact it has not. Shame on me. I can cope with having erred but it bothers me that others have been impacted by my mistake.

Let's start at the beginning. We live in fairly rural west central Ohio. We have a grass roots youth soccer association whose beginning can be traced back to the 1970's. It is a recreational league with mom and pop volunteer coaches that is largely responsible for the growth in popularity of soccer in our area. It wasn't until the early 1990's that club soccer officially arrived in our area. Up until that time youth (and /or their parents) seeking a high level of play had to travel an hour of more to find a team to play on. 

One club was formed and almost immediately split into two clubs as there were differences of opinion on the mission of club soccer in west central Ohio. One faction wanted to win and I remember going to an organizational meeting early on in the progress where there was abundant talk of winning but the word development was never spoken even once the entire meeting. Those who are regular readers will know I took my family to the other club, Grand Lake United. After all these years, the original club has folded and other clubs have come and gone, but Grand Lake United remains.

I firmly believe the main reason Grand Lake United has survived is because of the focus placed on developing players. Sure we want to win, but the foundational premise for the club has been to prepare athletes for play on their high school soccer teams. The very essence of the club has been to raise the level of play at the high school level. It worked early on because many of the local high school coaches volunteered as coaches for Grand Lake United. They recognized the benefit and  importance of helping each others high school program to succeed.

Fast forward to 2013 and we find far fewer current  high school coaches actively involved in club soccer in the area. I think this is where my mistake began. The 2013 Grand Lake United U17 team had a spectacularly successful spring season. It was hands down the best high school soccer aged soccer team I have ever been around.  I wrote elsewhere on the blog that I was anxious to see the kids return to their high school teams in the fall.  I assumed the level of play in the area was about to go up based on what we had accomplished during the spring. I really do know better than to assume.

Almost immediately coinciding with the official start of practice for the high school season red flags began to arise. Players and parents were constantly stating their anticipation ... not for the high school season but for spring soccer to start back up. I kept thinking to myself, what in the world is going on? It's August and everyone should be eagerly anticipating the high school season.  In all honesty, the attention our spring team and myself as their coach are receiving during the high school season has made me very uncomfortable.  A month and a half into the high school season and I am still not at all at ease with it.

In speaking with one our spring players recently the proverbial light bulb went off in my head when he stated, "Coach, it's like I have to dumb down my game just to get on the field."  There it was, the "Ah ha!" moment that brought things into focus for me.  I have long held the assumption that as club coaches we were to help raise the level of play in the high school ranks, but never considered if the way we have gone about doing so is what the current group of high school coaches want.

I was struggling to understand as I watched my son and a couple of his very talented Shawnee teammates, not all of whom play for Grand Lake in the spring, struggle for their high school team.  As the team stumbled out of the gate this season I kept asking myself, why are they underachieving? I just couldn't make sense of it from either the individual or collective team perspectives.

I understand now.  I think I did all along. It just took someone else to state it succinctly, to put together all the ideas rattling around in my mind into one cohesive thought. Basically, their spring soccer is a players game whereas their high school soccer is a coach driven game.

To illustrate, one of my son's high school coaches told us the reason Lance is constantly in and out of the starting lineup is  because the speed of the game is too fast for him.  This bothered me to no end for pace of play is all about the decision-making process.  From the stands we can hear Lance organize in anticipation of something yet to happen.  We see him make runs from a 3rd or 4th man running perspective. We hear him demand this type of movement from his teammates before he touches the ball he is about to pass to them. Being told the speed of the game was too fast for Lance made absolutely no sense.

I allow the players great freedom in their on-field decision making and movements on the pitch. We defend zonally from a base 4-4-2 formation, but I do not mandate a set formation on the attack. We usually settled into something approximating a 4-2-3-1, a variation of a 4-3-3, as our attacking shape. Players were free to move as the game indicated they should. When the time came to transition back to defending, the expectations were for the positions more so than a specific player manning a designated position. These are ideas, methodologies and strategies picked up from camps and clinics conducted by our NSCAA, USSF, USMNT and USWNT national staffs. It seemed like a like a good idea at the time to bring them to our kids.

Some of the high school coaches seek to define and restrict the on-field  decision making process of players. They seek to make the game simple for the players by limiting the decisions they have to make. They view deviation from specific patterns of play as inability to play. They have assumed things themselves that just are not so.

As Johan Cruyff stated' "the most difficult thing is to play simply"  Restrictions on play can actually make playing the game more difficult. This is what I am seeing. It's like trying to make a mustang into a plow horse. The mustang can probably do it, but it's not going to be pretty. It's going to be a struggle and it would just suck the joy right out of the mustangs life. That horse would constantly be looking for its freedom.

I have always encouraged the Grand Lake players to take what they learn from participating on our team back to their high school teams believing it would boost the overall level of play for their team and by extension the level of play in our area overall. But there needs to be a receptive audience in order for this to work - something I assumed was present.

What concerns me most is the players expressions of preferring club soccer over high school soccer. It bothers me when talented players are counting down the number of games left in their high school season in order to get back to club soccer. I am troubled by the numbers of players stating they do not intend to play high school soccer next year, that they will play academy or for one of the ever increasing number of  high school aged club teams playing year round. Or even worse, that they will not play at all.  This is not what I want. It is not what I intended. In fact, it is exactly opposite of what I wanted to see happen.

I apologize gentlemen. I am thrilled you enjoyed the club season, but regret that for some of you the high school season has not been what you hoped for. In a sense, I feel I have let you down. I prepared you for soccer, but perhaps not for high school soccer. I leave you with this thought though, you have proven yourselves to be very capable problem solvers on the pitch this past spring. Use these abilities to enhance the remainder of your high school season.  Regardless of what opportunity presents itself to you, make the most of it. Remember to find the proper balance between what you can do for your team and what your team needs you to do for it. 

With only the best of soccer wishes for each of you,

Coach Brown


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