Thursday, July 31, 2014

U.S. Soccer Success

"I don’t believe skill was, or ever will be, the result of coaches. It is a result of a love affair between the child and the ball."

-Manfred Schellscheidt

Welcome to The Golden Sense! If U.S. Soccer was a stock, I would buy it. Soccer in America is growing by the day and this trend is continuing to get stronger. 

Recently, ABC/ESPN and Univision had their best World Cup ever this year, with ESPN/ABC up 39% in viewership over the 2010 World Cup and up 96% over the 2006 World Cup. Worldwide roughly 1 billion people watched the World Cup final. 

Facebook says that 88 million people had more than 280 million interactions related to the World Cup final. The previous champ was Super Bowl XLVII on Feb 3, 2013 with 245 million interactions.

Elsewhere on social media, the final set a new Twitter record with 618,725 tweets per minute when the World Cup final whistle sounded. During the semifinal 35.6 million tweeted about the Germany-Brazil game which became the most-discussed sporting event in its history.

It is not just the World Cup; NBC paid broadcasting rights last year for the English Premier League that was in the multiple billion dollar range. Now, almost every premier league game can be viewed across America. Television exposure is helping Americans understand and take interest in the game.

The most telling metric is youth enrollment. Youth enrollment in soccer is higher than any other sport in the country and will contribute to producing future stars for the U.S. men's national team.

American fans crave success and that is the only thing holding back a full love affair with soccer in the United States. The men's national team is a powerhouse in North America, Central America, and Caribbean regions but not on the global scale. In the past two World Cups the United States reached the round of sixteen. In the recent World Cup the United States achieved this despite being in one the toughest groups in the tournament. Despite these respectable performances, United States soccer fans want more and they want to actually win a World Cup.

Unfortunately, tasting this success is going to be difficult. You don't just wake up one day and say "let's go win a World Cup". It doesn't work like that. It doesn't matter how athletic your players are or how much money you throw at the sport. Winning a World Cup takes infrastructure and generations of player development in the technical and tactical aspects of the game. The problem is that America is still relatively young in its development and seriously lacking in developing technical players with a creative vision.

U.S. soccer has some very strong features embedded in its culture. The men's national teams are typically very organized, athletic, and have a "never say die" attitude. These are great qualities to have, but in reality, every team that wins a World Cup has these qualities along with a few other very important qualities such as superior tactical and technical ability.

The U.S. desperately needs to improve on developing young players with technical ability that can go on and shine at the national team level.

Technical ability is defined as the ability to individually control and handle the ball. It is the ability to hold the ball under pressure and have confidence in tight spaces amongst oncoming defenders. It also means the ability of individual players to dribble with the ball at speed and find and connect passes that break apart opposing defenses. 

If you go back and watch the United States men's national team at the World Cup you will notice their lack of ability to sustain meaningful possession in the opposing teams half. The U.S. does not have the players with the technical and creative ability to pin back and cut through the top teams of the world. 

The question that arises is:

How do we develop technically gifted players in the U.S.?

There are three things the U.S. needs to do for the men's national team to find technical players and become a top team in the world. 

First, coaches at the youth levels need to stop coaching the "individual" out of the players. Too often I hear coaches criticize young players for dribbling too much or using their right foot when they should have used their left foot. Most often at the youth level, coaches choose and favor players because they are bigger and more athletic than other players. This is a very "American" mentality that is extremely counterproductive to producing technically gifted soccer players. You can put together a team of eleven of the most athletic men in the world and they would have no chance of winning a World Cup unless they actually had technical ball skills. The best player in the world, Lionel Messi, is only 5"6. Yet his ball control, passing ability, and shooting ability are second to none. Coaches need to allow players to go out and take risks and develop their own relationship with the soccer ball. Most of the best players in history had no access to coaching at a young age. They simply played obsessively in the streets or local parks. This is how unique individual skills are developed. 

Second, every MLS club needs to develop a youth program. This is already taking place. This means each team needs to have a youth program all the way from under 18 to under 10 age groups. These teams need to be free of charge to the players and paid for by the clubs. The clubs need to have the intent on developing young players to eventually play for the senior "professional" MLS team itself. By allowing the players to play for free it will help gain access to all classes of children and widen the pool of player development. Currently, young players have to pay to join a club team and for all the expensive travel that goes along with it. By eliminating the cost to the player the MLS teams will be able to discover talented players who currently don't have the resources to play in the expensive club system.

The MLS teams will benefit from this youth program by eventually "cashing in" on players who make it onto the professional teams. The MLS teams can provide further incentive by making connections with colleges to help youth players who don't make the professional team at the age of 18 to get college scholarships and play collegiate ball. This will add to the appeal and create an incentive for players to try out for a youth MLS team. If each MLS team invests in a youth program, the U.S. men's national team will eventually benefit. It is simple probability, the more players you develop the better chance you have at developing the next world superstar. 

Third, at the teenage level, a standardized approach needs to be established. The United States is so big that it is often a blessing and a curse. The curse that comes with soccer is that there are too many ideas on how to play the game. If MLS youth teams standardize an approach on coaching players an offensive and possession style game, more technically gifted players will thrive. 

In Holland, almost all teams use a 4-3-3 formation with emphasis on possession and attacking style. Holland is renowned for developing some of the best individual talent. The U.S. can learn from this approach and replicate it for our own benefit. 

United States soccer is constantly growing. By setting up a system that helps generate technically gifted players, the U.S. national team will improve dramatically. If the United States can integrate their ability to organize, their athleticism, winning attitude, and technically gifted players they will have every chance of winning multiple World Cups in the future. 

Pele once called futbol (soccer) "the beautiful game". It was the most accurate statement he ever muttered. Soccer is a direct reflection of life, culture, success, failure and deceit that happens every day in the world. The game itself serves as a lesson in life. Americans are beginning to discover the last piece of the puzzle: "individual technique".  When all the pieces come together "the beautiful game" will truly be enjoyed.

Over and Out,

T. Norman