Playing Up

One of the most frequently asked questions I field concerns the appropriateness of young players playing up an age group or two.  I do not have a standard pat response because it really does depend on the individual and the specific circumstances of the situation .There are some guidelines that can help the player and his family make this important decision.  These we will explore in today's writings.

There are four areas of development that must be considered, evaluated and continually re-evaluated in the course of a players development; Technical, Tactical, Physical and Psychological.

A players Technical ability is often the eye candy that prompts talk of moving a player up an age group.  Technically dominant players "need more of a challenge" than their age appropriate peers can provide them is often a keyconsideration.

Tactical development is tied directly to the development of critical thinking skills in the player. We seldom hear of moving a player up because he is tactically advanced of his age appropriate peers.  I have seen a few young players who would meet this criteria, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

A player who is physically dominant - bigger, stronger, faster - always seems to be a primary candidate for being moved up. A player who dominates at his own age group based on physical ability is not a good candidate for promotion unless technical (and tactical) ability is also advanced.

Psychological considerations I will restrict to ideas about how the young athlete will fit in socially with older players. This is an important consideration as the player needs to feel accepted and part of the team both on and off the field.

Freddy Adu is an example of a recent phenom in America.  Adu was promoted through the ranks at a rapid pace and was generally regarded as this countries best soccer prodigy... ever.  Before just reading his name here, when was the last time you heard about Freddy Adu? His is a cautionary tale when it comes to consideration of moving a player up. 

For the record, my sons all played up an age group as youth players. Sometimes it was because we had no choice. For example, two age groups were often combined to make a single team.  U11 & U12 would play together as a U12 team.  Other times they did truly play up an age group or two.  I relate this to make a point that competitive level is also a consideration whether to play up or not.  It is far easier and perhaps more appropriate to play up at a recreational level than it is to do so a Premier competitive level. That said, the more competitive organizations and levels of play are usually more receptive to allowing individuals to play up.

Finally, I want you to consider what has been lamented as the lack of creativity in American soccer players. The eye candy mentioned in the third paragraph of this article is often punctuated by clever on-the-ball problem solving skills that leave age appropriate peers dumbfounded while the young "star" maneuvers to goal seemingly at will.  In my opinion, it is critically important the candidate for promotion retain a strong measure of the ability to problem solve in this manner. To diminish this advantage often equates to stunting the development of creativity in young players. 

Think of it in this manner - promotion to an advanced age group will undoubtedly force the development of team tactical considerations but this cannot come at the expense of individual in-game problem solving or what we call creativity. You want a well-rounded player and so it is important not to promote the young player based on a single or even a couple considerations.  All, or at least a preponderance of the considerations outlined here need to be met before a player should be allowed to play up.

You dissed me!

When I hold a “parents meeting” in preparation for a season one of the things covered is consequences for misconduct on the field and on the parent’s sideline. I do often wonder why it has become necessary to even do so. It is a bit discouraging to realize how often our young people use the word “disrespect” as a verb and to justify their own disrespectful actions toward the perpetrator of this crime.

Yes, I am old and very definitely old school as the kids would say.

I believe sports teach life lessons and one of the most important of those is to respect one another. In the context of a sporting event, players, coaches, referees, parents and spectators as well as organizers and hosts must operate with a healthy measure of respect for one another for the event to be a success.                        

PLAYERS are the focal point of sporting contests. Whether you are a starter, a substitute or even a seldom used bench warmer the respect you give towards all others in attendance sets the standard. On match day the expectation is for you to work with your coaches and captains to allow the referee to perform their role as managers of the game without the abuse of dissent.

You have a duty to respect the game you play and all of its participants. We have a severe shortage of referees and the primary reason for this is the abuse players, coaches, parents and spectators subject them to. Protect the game you love by showing respect for the referee crew and all participants.

COACHES have the most important role in establishing a healthy level of respect in the game. They are not only responsible for themselves, but also for their players and the spectators present to cheer the team on.

On game day, it is a responsibility of the coaches to work with their players, the players parents and all spectators to insure the referees can fulfill their role in the contest without be subjected to abuse.

By setting the example in demonstrating respect for all other participants coaches can insure the overall success of the sporting event.

REFEREES have the most difficult job on game day. Players, coaches, parents and spectators all expect perfection from the referees. It can be difficult to maintain respect for people who dispute your judgment and constantly heap verbal abuse on you. Nonetheless, this is what the referees must do.  

Referees who manage the game with respect for both the game and its participants can diffuse tensions and keep the game on course toward a successful conclusion.

Referees can also provide a valuable service to coaches and organizations by providing feedback on player and spectator behavior during matches. It is not only a sign or respect to listen to referee feedback but vitally important to address their legitimate concerns if securing high quality officiating for future matches is important to you.

PARENTS AND SPECTATORS cheering in a respectful manner goes a long ways towards an enjoyable experience for all. Unfortunately, sometimes the competition along the parents sidelines or in the stands is as fierce as it is on the pitch.

Our league requires parents to sign a Code of Conduct. There are severe repercussions for violating this Code of Conduct that extend to the teams coaches as well. Obviously there was a need to implement these measures. This is not only a shame but a disgrace to youth sports.

Parents need to set a proper example for their children. Verbal abuse to an extent a referee removes a parent from a venue sets a horrible example. In my opinion, it is worse even than a coach or player being dismissed from the contest. Respect starts at home.

Verbal abuse of players by parents / spectators amounts to nothing short of bullying. Shameful behavior that should not and will not be tolerated on my watch. Respect starts at home, but unfortunately disrespect starts at home as well. I applaud the commercials on TV encouraging kids to make a stand against bullying. We should all heed the message.

HOSTS AND ORGANIZERS show respect by taking care of the details and being prepared to host the event. The field is properly marked. Corner flags are in place. Restroom facilities are open and clean. Concessions are available. Ball boys are available. All the details that go into hosting a contest are readied in advance. 

In the unfortunate advent of an uncooperative participant they are prepared and ready to support the referee’s decisions, handle the situation and diffuse tensions.

MY FINAL THOUGHTS on Respect and Disrespect: If you want respect, you earn it. You earn respect by following the golden rule. Matthew 7:12, So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. It really is that simple. If you would not want someone to come to your place of work and verbally abuse you, do not verbally abuse the referees, coaches, players or other spectators. If you do not like being disrespected, do not disrespect others. And when you witness disrespect or bullying, make a stand!

Spirit of the Game.

Play the game in a manner
that you are proud of the person you see
in the mirror after the game is over.

Eleven Part Harmony

One of our favorite training games is a simple game involving a ball, a wall and 1 or more players. Our kids call it Slam! We use benches laid on their sides as a surface to pass the ball against. It can be a competitive game or a nice training tool that sees individuals setting personal records for consecutive touches. When playing as an individual I encourage players to listen to music, sing, hum or play a song “in their heads” to help establish a rhythm in their play. When harmony is established between body, ball and bench the number of consecutive touches add up quickly.

Great Question about Great Players

I awoke this morning to an email asking me about my favorite and least favorite players I have ever coached.  The questioner was not asking for names as these would mean little to him.  Rather he was inquiring about characteristics or traits that made players stand out.

Two players immediately came to mind; Terry and Steve.  Both of these players were gifted athletes and looked upon as the best on their respective teams. Terry's teams had great success while Steve's teams were successful.  There is a difference and it was found in what set the two players apart from one another.

It's easy to lead when all is going well.

It's easy to be out in front when the skies are clear.

It's easy to be first in line when there are no obstacles to overcome.

When Terry arrived at the field the atmosphere changed. It became charged with energy and expectations. You knew Terry was bringing his "A" game and quite honestly, no one wanted to let Terry down. His energy, enthusiasm and determination to succeed were unmatched. 

As Terry went, so went the team.

Terry's teams were ultra successful in large part because Terry would have it no other way.  He was confident in his ability and that somehow made those around him confident in their own (supporting?) abilities.  He brought out the best in those around him because he always gave his best. There was never a moment too big for Terry.

Steve was similarly the undisputed leader of his team. It can also be said that as Steve went, so too did his team go.  The difference was Steve often shrunk in the big moments.  I wouldn't say he froze up or shied away from big moments, but Steve also did not elevate his game. Steve was not capable of putting a team on his back and elevating everyone's game around him. So when Steve did not rise to the occasion, neither did his teams.

Interestingly enough, Terry was a quiet guy. He didn't talk much at all. He didn't have to. A true leader by example.  Steve on the other hand was a talker, kind of a rah rah guy. As I reminisce about these two this morning I find myself considering this.  Terry said little and so had little to back up or prove.  Steve talked a good game but faltered in the big moments. Steve talked the talk but failed to walk the walk when it was most important to do so. With each big moment success that Terry delivered, confidence, energy and enthusiasm soared throughout the team.  With each big moment failure to deliver on Steve's part, confidence, energy and enthusiasm were drained from the team. 

In the end, Terry is one of my favorite, if not my favorite player, I have coached.  I'm not sure it is fair to say Steve is my least favorite player.  It has more to do with disappointment with Steve. It's always about what might have been with Steve whereas with Terry it's always about the challenges met and obstacles overcome.


It is a wonder I have survived as a soccer coach.

The very first soccer team I coached was a group of U6 boys known as The Raptors who went undefeated in their recreational league.   

My training in soccer consisted of a brief lecture given by the local high school coach and a few handouts explaining basic rules and restarts. We were given 4 practices before a season of 10 games began and were told it would be a good idea to hold a pizza party at the end of the season to pass out trophies.

I used the four practices to teach kickoffs, throw-ins, goal kicks and corner kicks. 

On the first game day, I put the players in a 1-3-3-2 formation for no other reason than that is what the high school coach recommended. We proceeded to thrash the opponents and a budding career as a soccer coach began. 

What a train wreck.

When your team forces you to change.

We were recently asked a great question by one of our readers and friendly rivals; "How did you successfully coach two teams last spring with two completely different formations and systems of play?"  The questioner was referring to the fact we fielded two U19 nebs teams last spring. The "A" team played a 4-2-3-1 while the "B" team played from a 4-4-2 formation.

The phrase "system of play" is rather a generic one. It is commonly used to define the number of forwards used in a formation. The positional responsibilities of forwards can be different dependent on whether one, two or three forwards are deployed.  And there is a trickle down effect to the midfielders, back line and even the goalkeeper.  System of play can also apply to the teams general attacking philosophy. Does the team wish to counter attack?  Do they seek to play directly? Will the team be more of a build & probe team? 

With the personnel available on our "A" team the 4-2-3-1 was an easy choice.  Lot's of good center midfielders, speed galore on the wings and a couple of strong, fast, physical forwards who could alternate up top.  To be perfectly honest we started the "B" team playing in the same 4-2-3-1 formation for sake of continuity within the program and between the two teams. It quickly became apparent the "B" team lacked the type of forward to effectively run the 4-2-3-1 so I made the decision to switch them to a 4-4-2 where two forwards share the workload and play off one another. However, this did not significantly change our system of play in the broader and general sense of how we wanted to attack opponents.

The single forward in our 4-2-3-1 was responsible for both the initial penetration of a defense and also for being a target player. As such he drew attention from the opponents back line wherever he was positioned in the middle third of the field - usually pushed forward on ball side. One of the three midfielders served as his direct support when he was played as a target. The two forwards employed in the 4-4-2 served the same purpose as they were deployed in a "stack" with one pushed against the opponents backs as a target and the other slightly withdrawn to be in support position of the target.  If not caught up in the numerical alignment of formations the actual system of play in the broader sense was basically the same. 

The real difference between the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-4-2 was found in how we covered defensive width in the defending third. In the former we played as a 5-4-1 defensively while in the latter it often looked more like a 5-3-1-1. Again, subtle differences with the defensive system of playing remaining largely the same.

I think it is important to note the phrase "system of play" as used by the questioner isolated the transitioning phase from defending to attack.  That is, with both teams, as we entered the attacking third of the field we attempted to do so with numbers up and little regard to formational alignment. We sought to create and utilize space by manipulating the defense with player movement and ball movement.  The only variable of priority concern was whether the opponent man marked or played a zonal defense. 

So, my answer to the question is we played the same system from both formations.

To further illustrate this point, the "A" team was capable of playing multiple formations while our system of play never changed.  4-2-3-1 was our preferred choice, but at times we looked to be in a 5-4-1 or a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3 or even  2-3-2-3.  The point being, we look at a formation as our defensive set and our system of play as our attacking philosophy which after the initial transition phase from defending to attack is not predicated on a formational alignment so much as it is on space, support and pace.


Ted. No, not the movie. Ted, A soccer coach.

I received a call from Ted recently. He was down in the dumps and thinking of getting out of coaching.  I had been expecting this, but still wasn't fully prepared to discuss this with Ted.  A little background may serve to bring things into focus for the purpose of this article. 

I have known Ted for years. He was a very good high school player who went on to play in college.  He was hired into a  good school system, but one that did not allow first year teachers to coach. They wanted their teachers to get a foundation in the classroom before branching out into extra curricular activities. When the head soccer coach position came open a couple of years later Ted applied and ultimately was awarded the job.

Now, Ted is one of the most enthusiastic people I know. To say he was excited about this opportunity would be an understatement.  He knew how he had been coached as a high school athlete and also how he had been coached at the college level.  His intentions were to bring what he had learned as a college athlete to the high school level.  He wanted to reverse engineer the college athlete and bridge the gap between levels of play. This is a notion I highly applauded as I believe too often high school athletes are under-coached in the sense that too little is asked of or expected from them. Even so, I cautioned Ted to be realistic.  I counseled Ted to take stock of where the athletes were and then look to the vision he had for how they could play.  In between the starting point and his vision was where all the work would need to take place. 

All these grand ideas and an overflowing fountain of practical knowledge Ted wanted to share with the high school players never really came to fruition. Ted came away convinced high school players were incapable of what he was asking of them.  In fact, Ted called because he was thinking of resigning from the high school position. He thought maybe he would be better at coaching college athletes.  I called B.S. on this entire idea.

Let's back track just a bit.  When Ted was contemplating becoming a high school coach and sharing his collegiate experience with younger players I applauded the notion.  I also suggested Ted evaluate where the high school athletes were and where he wanted to take them.  The process of progressing from point A to point B could then be defined.  I think what happened with Ted was he noted what he wanted to change but didn't take into account all of the details of process that would be necessary to effect that change. 

Another young high school coach told me last fall that my approach with club athletes would not work with a typical high school team.  Again, I called B.S. on this theory.  It has worked with a high school team. In fact, a high school team were my original "guinea pigs" for our current coaching methodology and system of play. I took a team that in 11 years had never had a winning season, was a sieve on defense and dominated on offensive by one player and turned them into a regional qualifier behind a strong defense and balanced scoring in our second season.

I did so in part by defining where the program / team / players were while knowing where I wanted to take them.  From our starting point we built a foundation in all aspects of the game that allowed the transformation to take place. We worked on changing a losing culture into a winning one while simultaneously implementing gradual changes to how we played the game and most importantly how the game was thought.  The critical element to this was empowering the athletes to make mistakes ... and learn from them. We did not pick apart their decision making process that led to mistakes. Rather, we challenged them to think differently, to find alternate solutions to the problems they encounter.  And maybe most importantly in this regard was the possibility of redefining the problem or obstacle they encountered to allow for a broader spectrum of solutions to be entertained.

That first year was brutal for me as a coach. We lost games we should not of lost. Or more precisely, we lost games that first year that we easily won the second year.  I was confident the transformation would take place while knowing the learning curve would be steep.  This is where Ted is at this moment. His season was a difficult one for him.  Progress did not come quickly enough.  There was resistance to some of the changes he implemented.  I don't think Ted realizes how close to a break through he might actually be with this high school team. I encouraged Ted to once again evaluate where the program is and where he wants to take it.  Could he identify progress?  Then once again identify a process to take the team from current point A to the point B he envisions for them.  

When a process breaks down I have found one of the best solutions is to back track a bit. Identify the problem and then identify the problem for the team. Discuss it with the team. Break it down to the smallest detail and begin reconstructing what it is you want them to achieve. Build understanding right along side of technique and tactical application.  Give them the small picture - all the little details - so they gain a fuller appreciation of the large picture or grand scheme of things through poise and confidence in the smaller setting.

For my teams, learning patience when playing out of pressure that we might be able to then counter with speed has been a focal point.  When I first introduce the idea of being a counter attacking team everyone thinks "win the ball and go!" when there is actually so much more involved if it is to be done effectively and efficiently.

I think Ted is going to give it another go with the high school team.  As we talked I could sense Ted beginning to understand he needed to define the process better not only for himself, but for the players as well.  The proverbial wheels were churning and enthusiasm seemed to be creeping back in as well.  For Ted the process seems back on track with a better appreciation or perhaps a deeper understanding of the necessity to TEACH the process of how to get from point A to point B.  I am confident that should Ted stick with it, he will guide the program ever closer to his vision for it.


Take Standard Training Exercises and Repurpose them.

I have been reviewing video from past NSCAA convention sessions looking for different ideas.  One thing I have noticed is many of the clinicians use generally accepted exercises or drills for their demonstrations. I have no problem with this. In fact, when addressing a coaching audience at a coaching clinic it can be good to utilize activities most might be familiar with to build a foundation from which you can teach to explore other options.

This morning I reviewed a session on Speed of Play and Speed of Thought presented by Ian Barker from the 2014 NSCAA convention.  Far be it for me to criticize an established talent like Ian Barker. He presented a solid session working through a progression of activities focusing on combinations and patterns to increase speed of play. In approximately 50 minutes there was marked improvement in the demonstration team.

Now, 50 minutes is a limited amount of time. It would not be realistic to expect every aspect of Pace of Play to be covered in the allotted time.  That said, the one thought that kept running through my mind while watching this session is "if all we ever do, is all we've ever done. All we'll ever be is what we've always been."  I had been using the same progression of activities with teams for well over a decade.  It wasn't until I modified the activities and more importantly the points of emphasis within the activities that my teams made real progress with pace of play.

As you watch the video look for opportunities to make some of the following coaching points or points of emphasis.

1) Know your next play before your first touch on the ball.

* This involves preparing to play the ball.
     Off the ball movement
     Properly positioning the body to receive the ball
     First touch being in the direction of your play or even being your play.

2)  Receive across the body whenever possible so the hips remain open to the field and you have options for play.

3)  Intentionally engage a defender as the ball carrier to create numbers up situations to exploit.

4) Efficiency and Economy of touches.

5) Ball movement is predicated on player movement.

*  Intentional movement to
     Create space for a teammate
     Into space created by a teammate
     To intentionally and purposefully move one or more defenders.

6) Know and utilize the Cues for Combination Passing

7)  Possession is not about moving the ball. Possession is about moving opponents so the ball may be moved more easily. We call it manipulating a defender or the defense.

8) Effective Communication.  Clear and concise.  Give a pass, Give information.  Be your teammates eyes when his are focused on the ball.

 9) If a teammate is under pressure move towards him to get in his vision and do so at appropriate angles for making / receiving a pass.

10) If a teammate is not under pressure clear the space around him so he make select a defender to engage OR better yet, clear the space around your teammate to intentionally isolate a defender to be engaged by positioning yourself to begin a combination passing sequence.

These are but 10 areas not (specifically) emphasized in the video presentation linked above.  It might be taken for granted that players already possess these tools in their tool belts, but in watching the video we see that is not necessarily so.  We often refer to items like the 10 listed above as the details of the process.  And it is important to remember that success is found in the smallest of details. 

Want to learn more?  Search this sight for any of the key phrases listed above OR if you want to see this in action, contact us a 567-204-6083 or and make arrangements for us to come do a camp for you and your team.  Thanks for reading! 


Confidence is
Belief in
your Technique

By Invitation Only?

Today I wish to share one small secret about youth soccer with you. It is a proven truth with me and I believe it can be for you as well. Let me know what you think.

When I worked with local soccer associations there were always an abundance of players at the U6 and U8 ages.  Enough so that in-house leagues could be held at those ages.  By U10 and U12 the number of participants were in decline and a league with surrounding communities was needed for matches. By U14 the local associations were down to one team in each gender.  Why do so many players leave the youth game?

There are actually a lot of reasons why kids leave the game. Today, I want to discuss one reason only. They do not feel like they belong. They do not feel appreciated, valued, wanted.  While I believe this holds true for both genders it might be particularly true of boys. Allow me to illustrate with a story.

For as long as I can remember our club struggled to field quality teams in the U16 through U19  age groups. Some years it was an issue just to secure enough players to field a team let alone a quality side. The club ran the usual publicized tryouts and as a coach I would scout and recruit for the team with only marginal success. Finally in utter exasperation at attempting to field a U15 team I turned to the core group of players and announced "If we are going to have a team, you will need to find players. And the competitive level we will play at will be determined by the players you bring to the team."  


With the kids recruiting the players we fielded a full team and a decent side. With each succeeding year we had a larger player pool and played at a higher level of play.  The difference was found in the players asking others to join them.  Kids who were not inclined to just show up for open tryouts came when they were invited by their peers. Word spread through the player grapevine to the point where we had nearly 50 U19 players last spring. That is simply an unheard of number for rural west-central Ohio.  There was competition for roster spots and some ended up self selecting when they realized they would not make the "A" team. We ended up with 38 players overall divided amongst two teams.

When a coach with a rival area club asked how we were getting so many players while they struggled to field a lone age appropriate team my answer was simple - our players reached out to others and asked them to join up. I did absolutely nothing aside from close the deal with a few parents in terms of explaining philosophy, expectations and costs.

And I think it significant enough to point out the players themselves were selective. They did not invite just anyone. If they felt a player would not be a good fit for the program, they did not talk with them about playing together. In fact, more than once they selected what many would consider personality or character over talent.

The result was a tight knit group that strung together a 47-8-5 (?) record with league titles, showcase and tournament championships. All the credit goes to the players making others feel welcomed.

Thinking back to those middle school years I remember how everything around me was constantly changing.  From our bodies hitting puberty to who we hung around with. Everyone was seeking places to fit in and even more importantly no one wanted to feel rejected.  Remember being afraid to ask a girl to go out with you?  Or how about those school dances where everyone hung out along a wall because they were afraid they would make a fool of themselves if they danced? I remember our eldest son being a bit reserved until a girl from our church invited him to join a group that hung out together.  That invitation was all it took for him to begin spreading his wings. It gave him confidence in himself knowing he was accepted and wanted as part of that group. It didn't hurt any that the girl was a couple of years older and pretty as well!

I believe our core group of players addressed the insecurities many teen aged boys have when they approached others and asked them to join us. This eliminated the fear of rejection that can be associated with "trying out" and is in general so prevalent in young people.

So what do you think?

Instead of open tryouts would tryouts by invitation only bring out better numbers?  

I know it did for us, but are we an isolated example?

Keep Your Shape vs. Crossing Lines

"Keep your shape" or utterances to that effect are common calls from coaches in youth soccer competitions. Most of the time, especially at younger ages, this implies staying in the teams formational shape; 1-4-3-3 or 1-4-4-2 as examples. In the older age groups the word shape becomes more synonymous with the word support.  Support (and balance) takes priority over formational shape as the latter becomes a bit more fluid.

Typically a formation will have three lines; backs, midfielders, forwards.  Dependent on how each line is employed there might be what we shall call "sub-lines" within each line.  For instance, in a 4-3-3 the midfield might be deployed in a triangle as 2 holding midfielders with an attacking midfielder in front of them.  The triangle shape might shift to one holding midfielder and two attacking midfielders but the players manning these positions stay with their "line."

The same is true of the back line where two center backs are often found flanked by two advanced wing backs.  In this case, the two advanced wing backs might appear to form a line with the holding midfielder(s), but their roles and responsibilities are still associated with the back line.  Similarly if two or more forwards are deployed one might be pushed forward as a target while another is slightly withdrawn.

"Stay in your position" is another call often heard at youth soccer contests.  It can mean the same thing as "keep your shape."  Often times when I watch youth soccer matches I see two teams in rigid formation moving up and down the pitch in synchronization. A picture of armies of the 1700's facing one another in rank and file across a battlefield comes to mind.

Now, I think shape or more specifically support is a critical element to team defending. The system employed behind the support strives to make an attack(er) predictable and therefore more easily defended.  This is sound soccer at any age or competition level.

If predictability of attack is a desired result of properly supported defending, then unpredictability is paramount to effective attacking.  This is where crossing lines comes into play.

In review, formations deploy 3 basic lines with possible sub-lines fielded within any or all lines.  Backs, midfielders, forwards.  When defending these lines define the teams formation.  All too often in the youth ranks they also define a teams attacking shape.  However, this makes the attack very predictable.

Crossing lines simply means a player moves from one line to or even better through another line.  The easiest way to depict this scenario is to picture a wing back moving up the field through the midfield line and into an attacking position abreast of the forward line.  The wing defender has crossed lines and therefore fundamentally changed the shape (or formation) that his team will attack in. If the responsibility for crossing lines from back to front in the formation / shape is shared amongst all backs this movement can prove to be unpredictable and extremely disruptive to the opponents maintaining their own shape or support system.

This movement is commonly defined as mobility, the fourth element to the game of soccer. In previous writings we have discussed the first three elements of the game of soccer; penetration, depth and width.  It is the mobility used to establish these elements that help define a teams attacking shape and the support within that shape.  More precisely it should be mobility between lines that defines a teams attacking shape and manipulates the defending shape of the opponent.

Crossing lines brings a fluidity to the game that rigid deployment in formation shape does not allow for.  In military terms it is akin to defending in a castle while an opponent uses speed and mobility to bypass the castle. In soccer terms, crossing lines adds another dimension to a teams ability to create numbers up situations to attack with. Think again of the wing defender. In front of him a midfielder engages a defender. The wing defender moves forward on the flank isolating that defender in a 2 v 1 situation.  Now the overlap combination passing sequence might be on or the defender might be set up to execute a wall pass / give and go sequence against. But the real value of mobility and crossing lines might be what is occurring on the backside of the opponents formation where your other wing defender might have freedom to run the flank all the way into the final third. Now, the opponents defense is stressed and under pressure of attack from both on-ball and off-the-ball threats on different fronts.

Crossing lines brings with it an element of danger when the ball is lost.  You will find teams that are adept at crossing lines when attacking filling their defensive shape from back to front regardless of originally assigned positions.  This is where pressing defenses come into play.  Upon losing the ball the nearest three defenders press to either win the ball back or slow the counter attack allowing teammates to reestablish shape behind the ball. Six seconds.  That is how long those pressing have to win the ball back. That is also how long teammates have to regain defensive shape behind the ball. 

In conclusion, one of the games within the game of soccer is the battle of Keeping your shape vs Crossing lines and the transitional phases of going from one to the other. 


Random Thoughts on a Cold Winters Morning.

* Parents spend a LOT of money sending their kids to soccer camps.   I sometimes wonder if that money wouldn't be better spent sending their child's coaches to a coaching camp?

*  A school with a brilliant academic reputation routinely struggles to play smart in any team sport?

* If we prize athletes who are creative problem solvers why do we seek to limit the decisions we allow them to make?

*  Shooter!  I hear this called out in girls basketball all the time in regards to a particular player.  Shouldn't all players be considered shooters? 

*  Coaches have a responsibility to prepare a player for success. Then place them in positions where a reasonable expectation for success exists.

*  Next Play!

*  Soccer referees need a mentoring program. Something more than read the material, do the on-line stuff, sit in a class reviewing the material, take a test and Voila! you're a soccer referee!  There should be a program to gain practical experience under the supervision and tutelage of experienced referees.

*  Surround yourself with people who will challenge you.   So many administrators and coaches view people as smart or smarter than they are as threats.  The most successful coaching staffs are filled to the brim with past, present and future head coaches.

* Communication is the life line of relationships.  Healthy productive relationships are the foundation successful teams are built upon. Perhaps even more so than talent.

*  Mistakes?   Certainly don't go looking for them, but when you make one?  Embrace it. Own it. Learn from it!  Move on from it smarter and more experienced than you were before!


Passion for the Task

Just because you are a leader
in one aspect of your life
doesn't mean you are a leader
in every aspect of your life
Passion for the task
is a key ingredient of Leadership
I recall a high school soccer player who was among the very best team captains I have seen in nearly 4 decades of participation in team sports. Everyone assumed he was headed for greatness in life based on the leadership abilities he displayed in a soccer team environment. The age old saying "to assume makes an ass out of u and me" comes to mind. While the former player is making a positive impact on society it is not in the role of a soccer coach as many, myself included and perhaps especially so, anticipated it would be. He's dabbled a bit in coaching off and on for a few years, but always seemed (to me) reluctant to do so.  I suppose he caved to expectations for him to be a coach when the passion to be one wasn't present.  And that one word, passion, is what all great leaders in their field have. 
I have seen this throughout the years in the context of captains for teams. Players with great passion for their sport and their team are often overlooked in favor of athletes who display leadership ability elsewhere in their lives. In recent years, I had a young man on our club soccer team who I suspected would make a good captain.  The trouble was, he was on a team comprised of players over half of whom were captains for their respective high school teams.  This particular player was among those who were not a captain for his high school team. Although he was largely overshadowed as a leader on the club team, his light did shine through on occasion. It took fielding two club teams last spring and placing him on the second squad for his leadership skills to come to the fore and really blossom.  As a senior, he should have been one of the three captains for his high school team.
That leads into the final point I wish to make today - A title does not make someone a leader.  The title of head coach did not make Ryan a good leader as a coach nor did the lack of a title prevent Matthew from being a leader on his high school team.  Leadership is an action word, but only when actions are passion driven can effective leadership be a positive difference maker for a team.  Ryan obviously had a passion for playing the game but this has yet to transform itself into a passion for coaching the game. In Matthew's case, he simply needed the correct environment to allow the embers of his passion to flame to life. 

As powerful an influence as leadership can be, ineffective leadership in any endeavor can actually be a hindrance to achieving to potential. So, select your captains carefully.  Select your assistant coach carefully. If you are an athletic director or club director of coaching, select the head coach carefully.  Select for any leadership position carefully with passion for the task being a primary consideration.


Referee decides to play with a team?

Too  funny!


Still the most misunderstood Law of the Game. 

Be sure to watch the video linked at the end of the article!  It contains the best, most simple explanation of offside I have found.

Law #11 Offside

First of all a clarification for American's. The correct term is offside, with no "s" on the end. Offsides occurs in American football, not soccer. Offside is probably the most difficult LOTG of soccer for spectators to understand and interpret.

1) An attacking player must be behind the ball OR have two defending players between him and the goal when the ball is played to him.

2) A player cannot be offside on his own half of the field.

That's the simplest explanation I can give.


Offside does not have to be called on a player in an offside position. A determination is made by the referee crew if that player is involved with play.

The call of offside is NOT always made immediately upon the ball being played forward to a teammate. The proper technique for the AR and CR is to wait until a play is made on the ball by a player in an offside position. If no play is made on the ball by an atacking player in an offside position, play is not stopped and continues with a defender playing the ball.

Furthermore, you cannot be offside when receiving the ball directly from a thrown-in , on a goal kick in your favor or if you receive a ball directly from a corner kick.

This is a link to an excellent animated explanation of offside. It does a far better job than my written word can do.

Soccer Opposites

Was Sir Isaac Newton a football enthusiast?

Newton's Third Law for Motion is that, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
This law states that in every interaction, there exists a pair of forces. These forces always come in equal and opposite action-reaction pairs.

Kind of sounds like two teams playing soccer, eh?

Counter Attack                      Defending the Counter Attack
Safe pass                              Pressing Defense
Establishing Rhythm             Disrupting Rhythm
Transitioning to Attack          6 seconds to regain shape behind ball
Building from the Back          Defending at Line of Confrontation
Building in Attacking Half      Bunkering in
Attacking Restarts                 Defending Restarts
Only in soccer, while there are draws, more often than not there is a winner and a loser.  The outcome of the match does lie in the battle of opposites. Above we have identified 7 basic opposites in the game of soccer. Perhaps you can identify others?  It seems fair to say the team who wins the majority of the battles of opposites has the best chance at winning the match, yes?

Experience is the hardest teacher
because it gives first the test
then the lesson.

How do I get players to stop diving in?

In recent high school games I have watched there seems to be a pandemic of missed tackles as a result of over running plays, stabbing at the ball and diving in when patience is required so I thought I would repost this for the benefit of coaches and players alike.

Diving in or stabbing at the ball is a common mistake made by young or inexperienced soccer players. The defending player, in an attempt to tackle the ball away from an opposing ball carrier, will lunge at the ball. Bad, bad things can happen when defenders do this,

1) They dead leg themselves.  That is, when the foot they lunged with hits the ground that leg becomes exploitable by the carrier.

2) The defender turns himself sideways presenting a far smaller obstacle to the ball carrier to deal with.

The Circle Game

I have had a request to share one of the exercises we use in camps settings.  I have never given it a proper name usually referring to it simply as The Circle Game.  This is an intensely demanding game on every level.  With this in mind a proper Introduction is in order.
The genesis of this exercise grew from a need to increase the pace or speed of play. I noticed that many of the players we work with play “one decision soccer”.  That is, the focus is on gaining possession of the ball either by receiving it from a teammate, intercepting a pass or winning what we call a 50/50 ball.  My observation was little thought being given towards what to do with the ball until after possession was secured. I wanted a training game that would force players to plan ahead what they would do with the ball before they received it.

As coaches are want to do, I poached the general idea behind this game from something I saw presented at a coaching clinic.  The premise of the clinic presentation was increasing the speed of play by forcing players out of their comfort zone.  The clinician speeded up the physical aspects of play under the assumption the mental, psychological, technical and tactical facets of play would follow along.


The Process

The process of reaching our goals takes place every day.

The process is taking place when working on your own,
in every practice and during every game.

The process is taking place at every meal 
and in the amount of rest we get each night.

We cannot allow ourselves to become bored with the process.

Ultimately the quality of our performance, 
our ability to achieve the goals we have set,
will be determined by
the attention paid to the details within the process.

Why Effective Communication is Important.

Communication is a process through which information is exchanged between individuals or a group of individuals. In order for communication to be effective the thoughts, intentions and objectives must be conveyed in as accurate, clear and concise manner as possible. Communication can be considered effective or successful only when both the sender and the receiver understand the information exchanged in a like manner.

I recall an instance a few years back when an assistant coach of mine decided he wanted to be the head coach.  His message to me was that he wanted to be head coach of "a" team. What he really wanted was to be the head coach of  "our" team.  I knew, or at least strongly suspected, what his true intentions were but responded to the information he actually conveyed and offered to help find him a team for which he could be head coach.  His entire message was open to misinterpretation due to his choice of a single word.  There was an error in his message that led to frustration, distrust and relative disaster in terms of a team being split up.

When I first began coaching the Internet did not exist. When organizing a team there would be a lot of preliminary telephoning to relay information.  I learned to provide clear concise information on a limited basis when speaking on the phone.  I then followed up with written information passed along in a group setting. If the information was distributed to players instead of parents, I required a parental signature on a perforated piece attached to the paper holding the information be returned to me.  It was a bit cumbersome process on the whole, but effective and meaningful nonetheless.

With the advent of email, communication became much more efficient and timely.  I asked for "read receipts" and if I did not get one I followed up with a phone call. In effect, I trained non-responsive parents and players to respond as I wished them to insuring the messages I sent were at least received.

In a strange twist of fate the very tool that sped up effective communication has now come to hinder the process. There are available Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Hula and any number of other social media sites that can be used to convey information between parties. Most of these medias are limited in some fashion.  For example, 140 characters maximum on Twitter.

In recent months one of my sons was looking for a team to play for this spring.  Coincidentally, a number of players from a team he has guest played for in the past reached out to him via Twitter at about the same time.  I encouraged my son to explore the opportunity with the caveat of determining costs before fully accepting any offer to play.  It seems the teams head coach then began communicating directly with my son via Twitter as well.  Mutual interest was expressed in continuing to explore the possibility of my son joining the team.

This process began to drag on and despite both the coach and team manager having my email address from previous correspondence neither communicated directly with me by this means. I did initiate contact with both the coach and team manager in an attempt to establish written lines of communication. After a couple of months I had still not received written notification of actual final costs involved with my son joining the team.  Everything received concerning financial and time obligations came to me by third party either through my son or parents of other prospective players.  And the numbers I did finally begin to receive from the coach and or team mangager varied substantially from those provided by third parties.   It was only after declining the opportunity to join the team that more effective written communication began to take place.

There are many lessons to be learned from this most recent debacle.

1) Do not assume anything.  I expected to be communicated with in written form. That is, I expected an exchange of information via email.  The head coach, team manager, players and parents of this team evidently use Twitter as a primary means to communicate.  I did not know this. No one associated with the team "followed" me or asked me to "follow" them on Twitter. 

2) Know what you want to communicate.  I asked for specific and final costs for participating.  What I received were wide ranging estimates.  To date, I still do not know what the final costs owed to club / team would have been.

3) Know your audience and how to effectively communicate to them.  I asked for specific information to be provided in a written format (email).  Email has been the established means of communication between the head coach, the team administrator and myself for several years now.  This is how we communicated concerning league matters, directions and acquiring guest players. For whatever reason that form of communication suffered a serious breakdown.

4) Listen (or comprehend what is written) to the reply.   I looked for clues that my message had been comprehended. I saw nebulous signs of comprehension in the fact general estimates were provided without explanation as to why specifics were not given.  I tried again to communicate my desire and need for full disclosure of costs associated with participating in the club and on the team to no avail. Again, to this date I still do not know what these might have been.

5) Effective communication results in an agreement being reached that information shared has been received and understood.  The agreement might come in part or in whole. There might be full agreement and compliance or there might exist a general understanding or even a consensus understanding with specific details yet to be worked out. In these cases, effective communication might well result in a compromise.

6) Even ineffective communication, or no communication at all, will result in an agreement be it stated or implied. As it pertains to the situation being discussed here, because the two parties involved were unable to effectively communicate with one another an opportunity was lost and a friendship damaged, perhaps irreparably so.  This was the agreement reached because we could not find common ground in communicating with one another. I insisted on written communication so as to have a record.  There was reluctance to convey specific information to me which led to suspicions arising on my part.  The resulting impasse is the agreement by default that was reached.

Guidelines for Effective Communication

* Know who your target audience is and how they best receive or are most receptive to receiving information.

* Establish clear guidelines for how exchanges of information will be communicated.

* Know what you wish to communicate and be accurate, clear and concise in doing so.

* Communicate with clear and intended purpose. Stay focused on the information or the message you wish to convey.

* Know how to best communicate the desired information to your intended audience.

* Be proactive, or at least prompt, in communicating.

Effective Communication

Poor construct and poor delivery in  communication
can lead to
misinterpretations and misunderstandings.
Ineffective communication,
can turn well intentioned effort into
even disaster.

Efficiency is doing things right;
effectiveness is doing the right things


The coach's foremost responsibility to the TEAM is...

In a world where professional and high profile sports dominate one might think guiding a team to wins is a coach's first priority.  In a bottom line economic sense this is probably true. However, I challenge this assumption in the context of the wider world of sports.  Here it is the coach's responsibility to properly prepare the team to put its collective best foot forward. 

Putting your best foot forward is not about winning every game.  It is not about playing mistake free soccer.  It is all about placing your team in position to give their best effort possible on a given day. Putting your best foot forward should be a steady march of improvement from day to day with recognition adversity will be encountered along the way. Positioning your team to put its best foot forward very much depends on how you teach them to react to adversity. Do you allow for excuses thereby empowering the adversity to determine your teams effort?  Or do you embrace adversity as an opportunity?

Properly identifying adversity is also an important aspect of allowing your team to put its best foot forward.  If your team will be facing a far superior opponent and you set the goal as upsetting them it will be difficult for your team to its best foot forward that day. If you identify obtainable in-game goals that could lead to an upset of a superior opponent chances of your team putting it's best foot forward increases against even the best of opponents.

In a sense, putting your best foot forward is about persevering along the road to success. Continuous Progress Improvement is a term that was used in schools when my sons were of that age. As coaches we are charged with preparing and positioning our team to constantly put their best foot forward and in doing so grow the program, the team and its individuals. 

Another way to look at this is to say we should never be satisfied.  Complacency is destructive to progress and greatly hinders the ability to put our best foot forward. Keeping a team hungry and focused can be a challenge and is a primary reason coaches work so hard to limit distractions, utilize team bonding exercises and preach "The TEAM!"  

Putting our best foot forward requires having a season-long plan for how to advance the team from it's starting point to a vision you have for them.  A firm hand on the rudder following a well charted course is paramount to helping your team put its best foot forward on a consistent basis. If you do not have a season-long plan but jump around from one topic to another attempting to fill each new leak in the dam your team is likely never to achieve full potential in any one area.  To put it another way, you are unlikely to establish a foundation strong enough to sustain real growth. 


The value of small-sided games is found in the details of the process.

I considered titling this article "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing" or something to that effect. The prompt for this article comes from a question recently posed to me; What are some good small sided games for teaching zonal defending?  I knew what the questioner wanted to hear, but I also knew what she needed to hear. 

Let's set the background before diving head first into the question.  The high school program I began with has been playing zonal defense for a couple of decades. They were the zonal defending pioneers in our area.  Great attention to the details within the process were stressed in those early days of defending zonally. At a time when Pressure, Cover, Balance were stressed as the pillars of defending we focused on Pressure and Cover.  Balance was a consideration for sure, but not emphasized as strongly.  There was implied necessity for balance and a general understanding of what it entailed through nomenclature such as (hockey) Stick and Arrow (head) whose descriptive qualities included both cover and balance positioning.

Small sided games seek to isolate specific game situations with a phase of play and train players decision-making abilities within that context. To this day, most of the zonal defending exercises and small sided games focus on pressure and cover with an implied consideration for balance. I stress this because when a team is just learning to defend zonally the breakdowns occur in two generally areas. One is balance. The other is secondary or high cover. 

As an old basketball coach I realized early on many players of the 1990's were well versed in on-the-ball man to man defense and cover,but balance was somewhat nebulous at best.  I began teaching the basketball concepts of back to goal Ball / You / Man and Man-and-a-half defending to soccer players.  This served to address overall defensive team shape including balancing the shape. This allowed our teams to define with purpose what the roles were within our zonal defending scheme. We added a better defined structure to the nomenclature of stick and arrow. 

That's all fine and dandy, but how does a team set about training to play in such a manner?

First and foremost the coach must define the defensive system the team will employ.  This goes much further than simply saying "we are going to defend zonally" and introducing any of the regular staple of drills and exercises for zonal defending one can find in books or on videos / YouTube. 

1) Select the shape or formation you wish to defend in.  Four in the back or three in the back are common.  There is a bit of a trend developing to play 5 in the back and I have even seen some alignments utilizing 2 in the back. 

2) Where on the pitch do you want to win the ball.  This can be "geographic" location and involve establishing a line of confrontation or it can be position / player specific within a teams shape and specific player positioning.

3) Design a small-sided game that focuses on the area where and the timing of when you wish to regain possession of the ball. These conditions will differ when focus is on regaining position in your attacking third as opposed to the middle third of the field to the defending third of the field.

4) Although utilizing a small-sided approach be sure to incorporate emphasis on team wide play related to the moment in lay you are directly coaching.

For instance, if I were training the outside backs to pressure in our zonal system while defending in the final third, I would utilize a small sided game with a strong focus on opponent flank play.  When an outside back moves to pressure the ball carrier what do we specifically task him with doing?

1) Stop or delay the advance of the ball.
2) Make the ball carrier predictable by channeling or forcing him in a certain direction.

Our general rule of thumb for the outside back is to force the ball carrier inside towards the help waiting in the form of a center back in  (hockey) Stick! positioning. There is "Balance" implied with the correct position of a second center back and / or remaining outside back.

For most coaches, this is where the thought process stops.

There are other considerations. 

For instance, if the midfielder assigned to provide high cover to the inside and in front of the center back providing coverage is not in place, forcing the ball inside might be an extremely dangerous thing to do in allowing the ball carrier to "load up" for a shot while moving centrally toward goal or allowing for a cross to the back post. 

So, if high cover is not available, then the ball should be forced outside. This presents an entirely different set of circumstances that must be dealt with. A tactical decision must be made on how to support the pressure defender (outside back) to the outside.  The easiest solution is bring the nearest center back further outside to be available in support or to double team.  However, in doing so this will stretch the back line and open areas in front of the goal.  So, a second tactical decision must be made on who will drop back into the back line to fill the gap in front of the goal or on the backside.

A good small-sided game to train the outside back will cover all these situations and more. It is why small side games or situational training remains an effective way of teaching the game to players. While the primary focus is on training the outside backs, the secondary considerations pertaining to nearest teammates and the team at large are just as important.  The point is simply if a small-sided game viewed in a book or on video / YouTube or perhaps witnessed at a coaching convention or course is just rolled out there for the kids to play it will at best only be marginally effective.  It is all the other details of the process that hold the true value of using small-sided games to train decision making in specific game situations.


How does one go about changing a culture of losing?

Over the years I have developed a loose set of guidelines I follow each time I take over a team. This is what I want to share with you today. I cannot claim it is foolproof, but I have had success with this method. Take it for what it is worth. Adapt it to fit your own personality and the needs of the program.

1) Identify the problem.

If you have experience in a successful program and have now taken on a struggling program you will be able to identify some areas that need to be addressed, but do not go it alone.  Ask people who have been around the program for their input and in doing so, remember not to shoot the messenger. You need their honesty to fully understand and appreciate the depth of the issues preventing the program from being successful. You may well need them to buy into the changes you will eventually decide to implement. Most especially, listen to the athletes who have been / are in the program.

2) Accept the situation you find yourself in.

The issues you face may not be of your making but they are yours now. Own them. In doing so you are accepting the responsibility to change it and will hold yourself accountable for doing so.

3) Seek solutions.

If all we've ever done is all we ever do then all we'll ever be is what we have always been.  In order to change the culture we will need to learn to approach things differently, expand our realm of thought.  It can help to have players and coaches self-evaluate the program by asking members to individually write their answers to 3 simple questions.

Note: there will be no wrong answers.

1) Describe the current status of the program.
2) Where do you want to help take the program?
3) What needs to change to get the program moving in the right direction?

What we are looking for is commonality. What can be agreed upon? Themes.

4) Begin to implement the necessary changes.

To be completely honest, this is where the stress begins.  You need to have buy-in and not everyone will. There will be resistance from some quarters. Typically resistance comes from those who have been dominant personalities in the old culture. They have enjoyed success. They now feel threatened by the changes you are about to institute.

Changes in approach.

I often bring a new "break" or team cheer to a program. Something geared to improve attitude by changing the way members see themselves and their teammates.

Prepare like ...........  Champions!
Play like ................  Champions!
Become .................  Champions!

Sometimes it is necessary to institute a standard for appearances to help facilitate an atmosphere of "team".  Everyone is required to wear the same color of t-shirt for practice. Maybe even have a team t-shirt for practice.  All shirts must be properly tucked it.  The idea here is, in order to act like a team we must look the part. If we want to be champions, we need to look like champions.

Attire is often one of the first places rebelling against change can be seen.  Purposely wearing inappropriate attire either to draw attention to themselves or to simply thumb their nose at proposed changes ... and the people instituting them.

Changes in the way a team practices / trains / prepares can also be instituted. Many times these are more readily accepted. Compromises sometimes must be made as we bridge the gap from old to new. I do not like static stretching at the beginning of practice. My teams use dynamic stretching. However, I am willing to compromise on stretching routines.

Change is about taking individuals and a team out of its established comfort zones and challenging them to learn new things, expand their way of thinking and playing. Sometimes we need to allow them to maintain part of their old comfort zone while we establish the foundations of a new one. Stretching is a rather easy area to compromise on.

5) Establish high (er) expectations and mutual responsibility and accountability.  All teams condition and train. It is the standards that they set and are held to in conditioning and training that separates the great teams from all others. People and teams tend to underachieve when no one asks them to do more than "just enough to get by".  Standards for dress, code of behavior, core values of the program we want to be - all of these can be used to raise expectations. Hold one another accountable - positive peer pressure enforcing individual responsibility to self and team. Establish the belief that we can be and will become more than we have been.

6) Troubled programs with a culture of losing are often overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness and negativity.  Immediately begin a transition towards establishing a nurturing and positive atmosphere.  One of the first things I implement with new teams is the abolishment of saying "my bad" after a mistake is made.  Instead we say, "Next play!".

Mistakes are negatives. "My bad" reinforces the idea that a negative has occurred. Now we have two negatives in a row and a trend beginning.  Break the chain of negativity at the earliest opportunity to do so. You make a mistake on the pitch and chances are everyone knows it anyway. No need to own up to it. It is not the first nor the last you will make. What is important is to stay focused on the task at hand, the game. "Next play!" tells us to move on. To play in the present instead of dwelling on the past.

Encourage one another.
Help one another.
Coach one another.

Any criticism must be constructive in nature.  A lesson must be received and accepted when criticism is given. The tone of voice and wording of the message must not be harsh, critical, negative.

7) Changing personnel may be necessary.

In (1) above I discussed the necessity of learning from those that have been in the program in order to discover what issues are present that have prevented the program from achieving to potential. In (3) above I discussed how some individuals may be resistant and reluctant to change. It may become necessary to dismiss staff or even cut players in order to move forward.

When people who do not buy in cannot be removed from the program or at the very least be pushed to the background, progress will stall until they are lost to attrition or retirement. In today's instant gratification environment the "problem people" can and unfortunately do at times outlast the coach / change of culture.

*** Changing a culture is a process with buy-in as a critical ingredient. Those involved must recognize change is needed and be willing to embrace change. Sometimes, as bad as a culture might be, those in and around the program just are not ready to change it.  You must attempt to make this determination as part of (1) above. 

Position #6 The Holding or Defensive Midfielder

When I first began coaching soccer 20 years ago I learned the basics of a 4-3-3 formation from the local high school coach.  I conscientiously took copious notes and recently came across them while searching for other documents. Times have certainly changed. The high school program still has the same coach but their formation has gone from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 and back to 4-3-3 over those 20 years.  The word Libero lept off the page at me along with brief comments about needing to put your best player in the center of the formation and therefore the center of the field.

Now, I know today that libero refers to a sweeper and I identify the position with German great Franz Beckenbauer. Back in the day I thought of the libero as more of the stopper or holding midfielder in the 4-3-3 tasked with disrupting the opponents attack and rhythm of play. The advent of the modern offside rule has seen man marking systems give way to zonal defending and hybrid systems. The sweeper position of Beckenbauer's era is all but gone with the role of the libero shifting to the defensive or holding midfielder.

In today's game the backs in zonal systems share the workload of Beckenbauer's libero in covering deep for one another. It actually is the holding mid or defensive mid that is tasked with a proactive sweeping of opposition breakthroughs as they patrol in front of center backs "protecting" against the generation of through balls on the ground or in the air as well as against long shots being taken. In this sense they are free or libero.

In bringing together players from multiple high schools and differing systems one challenge I face is in defining positions in a manner all can understand. Understandably every coach and system have their own terminology. I suppose I compound the problem even as I attempt to simplify things for the players on my club team.  For our purposes the holding midfielder is designated as position #6 and tasked as follows:

The primary responsibilities of the holding midfielder are to protect the center defenders and to be the link between the backs and the attackers. He will serve as a pivot when the team wants to switch the point of attack. 

This player will remain central most of the time. He must read the movement of his attackers recognizing when his centralized support role is redundant thereby opening opportunity for him to move into the attack himself. 

When the goalkeeper is in possession of the ball they must present the initial penetration option.  Because this option presents itself centrally he must realize it is more often than not a decoy option, a very important decoy option as he occupies defenders allowing other options to be open. 

More importantly the Holding Midfielder becomes a prominent option to the player who receives the goalkeeper’s distributions.  He must always make himself available and present himself for the ball.  

The Holding Midfielders first option is always to look to make a penetrating pass or facilitate a penetrating combination pass sequence playing a teammate forward. 

The second option is to switch the field of attack. The Holding Midfielder is both an anchor and a pivot player. It may help to consider him as a linking player. Consider the pivot player role as one that links wide players on one side of the field to wide players on the other side of the field. 

The third option is to play the ball back to a supporting player, either a defender or the goalkeeper.
Clearly, just as it was in Beckenbauer's day, the position calls for one of the teams best overall players.  It demands the ball hawking presence of football's  "free safety" or baseball's "center fielder" be combined with the traditional facilitator responsibility of basketball's "point guard". It is a demanding role to be sure requiring an ability to read the game from both defensive and attacking perspectives. In many regards the Holding Midfielder is the linchpin of our system.  As such organization and communication skills are critical to effective play in this role.


Sun Tzu's Keys to Effective Soccer.

"Invincibility lies in the defense."   Today's translation is "Defense wins Championships."  If you doubt me look no further than the New England Patriots Super Bowl win.  It was a defensive stand at the goal line that won them the game.

"The possibility of victory lies in the attack."  Today's translation is "Offense wins games."  Look again to New England's Super Bowl win for confirmation as the Tom Brady offense made winning the game a possibility.

Now, let's address soccer.

"For should the enemy strengthen his van, he will weaken his rear;"  This has been very much on my mind as I have watched recent matches involving the USMNT. The team has played very direct soccer often utilizing the long ball in counter attacking to play in a forward.  The whole premise of the attack seems to be of a blitzkrieg mentality. 

This also applies to how Michael Bradley is being deployed.  Because of his incredible fitness level, Jurgeon Klinsman has chosen to play Bradley in an advanced attacking midfielder role.  It is not coincidence the USMNT defending has suffered without Bradley in his customary holding defensive mid role.

What I have also noticed is the gaps between the forward line and that of the rest of the team that occurs when the USMNT attacks in this manner. It's no secret the US back line has struggled mightily in recent matches. Sun Tzu's words ring clear here - the rear of the US formation is weakened by the direct dump and run play of its attack.

"should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his van;"

The trendy formation for years was the 4-4-2.  The USWNT played a 4-4-2 against France this past weekend... and lost 0-2 to a talented French side. While the defense was solid except or a two minute span in the second half missing from the US play was the accustomed counter attacks and build ups to probing attacks that have defined USWNT soccer for years.

"should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left."   Remember the commentators for the USWNT match with France commenting how Carly Lloyd had been switched from the right to the left side of the formation? Ostensibly this was to strength the defense against France's Elodie Thomis who was giving the USA's Lori Chalupny fits.  In moving to strengthen the left side, the US weakened its attacking right side. 

Both our USMNT and USWNT have been caught in reactive modes to the perceived strengths of their opponents.  Yet, this is not entirely about playing to your own strengths.  Rather, this is about forcing your opponents to respect the possibility of attack coming from any point along the front.

If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.  Numerical weakness comes from having to prepare against possible attacks;"

This is what the USWNT succumbed to against France.  It is also what the USMNT has been battling in recent friendlies.  And, if you will remember, this is what I have written about concerning our Grand Lake United teams success last spring and summer.  One coach commented to me,  "We played you 3 times this season and watched you several more. Your team is impossible to scout.  It's a different player having a big game every time we watch. You generate goals differently every time we watch."

"numerical strength, from compelling our adversary to make these preparations against us."

I also referenced playing a team in a tournament shortly after having faced them in a league match. Our foreign exchange student had wrecked their defense in scoring a hat trick and leading us to victory in the league game.  We knew he would be double teamed by the opponent in the tournament. So, I didn't even start Calo against them. We scored early and were up 2-0 before Calo ever took the field. I left the early goal scorers in the game when I sent Calo on.  Think of the conundrum facing the opponents at this point. 

It's not a great secret that successful soccer revolves around creating numbers up situations both when attacking and when defending. If you strengthen your ability to be numbers up in all phases of play, you can diminish an opponents ability to do so and chances are good the run of the game will be in your favor.