Sunday, September 23, 2007

ATH: US Youth Soccer

Youth Soccer: What Is To Be Done?
By Ken Pendleton, 09/20/2007 8:00 AM

CORVALLIS, OR (September 20, 2007) USSoccerPlayers -- The United Sates Soccer Federation, under the direction of DC United President Kevin Payne, is currently in the process of conducting a technical review of Player Development in the United States. The outline of the preliminary findings, which includes one really important policy decision, makes for interesting reading.

The first page of the document, entitled Change, accurately cuts right to the chase: “The problem -- our players are not good enough at the highest levels. We need to get better.” This failure is occurring because of two related reasons. The environment for elite youth players is not good enough. “Youth players are stretched too thin,” they have too few practices, too few quality matches, and too many (up to 100) poor quality ones per year. The result is that these players enter the international arena behind their peers from other countries. They are not as comfortable on the ball, have less tactical acumen, are not as disciplined or committed, and often lack ideal soccer specific physical characteristics.

The report also acknowledged that there are some larger challenges that must be overcome that are, on the whole, unique to the United States: geography, climate, lack of professional infrastructure, the focus on winning at an early age, the fact that the majority of the players are under ten and are recreational level players, the lack of economic incentives compared with other sports, the fact that education is a priority, and the wide-range of opportunities that soccer must compete with, such as music and video games.

Given all this, the report concludes that the focus should be finding solutions that impact thousands of players, rather than hundreds, although improving the everyday environment for elite players should also be a priority. Furthermore, although the report did list the different problems faced by different age groups, they decided to focus on 13-17 year-olds rather than on the 6-12s, or older players.

The best way to achieve this, the report claims, is to focus on clubs, which is how soccer players are nurtured in all the developed nations, and to replicate the Bradenton model “across the country on an everyday basis.” To that end, last month the USSF announced the formation the US Soccer Development Academy (USSDA), which will be comprised of 64 teams.

This preliminary report has some real positives. First of all, the authors deserve credit for acknowledging the fundamental problem -- the fact that our players are not good enough at the highest level -- and identified many of the reasons for these shortcomings. Second, the USSF is wise to set up the USSDA rather relying on the free market (that is, the clubs left to their own devices) to evangelize the sport. And the Bradenton program, which began in 1999, is the best model we currently have. Of the 192 players who have participated, five played in the 2006 World Cup, 48 have become professionals in MLS or Europe, and every player who sought a college scholarship was offered one.

There are, however, some major problems with the report.

First of all, the focus needs to be on 6-12 age bracket at least as much as, if not more than, on the 13-17 bracket. The report outline does identify many of the problems faced by what they call Base Level players: there is a shortage of qualified coaches, games tend be dominated by more physically mature players, and there is too much emphasis on winning. What’s more, the proposed solutions -- more free play, encouraging more experimentation and passion, and more technical training -- make good sense. But, for reasons that were never explained, the authors decided that the focus should be on what they call the Growth Level.

This is a huge mistake. The Maradonas and Zidanes are formed from an early age, long before they start playing for clubs in organized leagues. There is a common perception that American players fall behind because they do not receive proper coaching during adolescence, but the bigger problem, by far, is that they do not develop a passion for soccer until they are already well behind.

I realize that trying to impact this age group presents deep difficulties, because the US does not have a mainstream soccer culture. Most boys grow up dreaming of becoming the next Peyton Manning, Alex Rodriguez, or Lebron James, not the next Ronaldinho or Landon Donovan. Most Base Levels start playing soccer because their parents sign them up for leagues, not because they have a deeply seeded passion for the sport. They want to throw a football, swing a bat, or shoot jumpers a lot more than they want to juggle a soccer ball. It’s easy to suggest that the US would produce busloads of world-class players if kids would just play! play! play! But figuring out how to instill that desire in them is far more complicated.

Yet it is imperative. The US will never be able to consistently compete with the best nations unless this changes.

What’s needed is experimentation, good old fashioned trial and error. Why not send the coaches, the ones with “limited knowledge,” training DVDs, free of charge, that emphasize technical training and 1 vs1 and 2 vs 2 situations? Why not create more spaces where kids can play with limited supervision, where there is little if any stress placed on winning? This won’t happen without a conscious effort. Maybe the 68 USSDA coaches should be instructed to work extensively with the local Base Level coaches to help foster such environments. There are no simple solutions, so the USSF has to seek out more complicated, creative ones.

My second misgiving about the preliminary report is the lack of any mention of Latinos. I realize that the purpose of this report outline is to examine the state of the youth structure in the most general terms, and that the USSF is making a real effort to reach out to Latino and immigrant cultures, but the problems these communities face are so different that they need to be identified and addressed separately. These kids have ball skills and a passion for the sport. The challenge is to find ways to integrate them into the mainstream structure. There should have been a list of the problems they face -- language barriers, the fact that their playing style is at odds with the Northern European paradigm that dominates American coaching, educational barriers, and financial issues all spring to mind -- and a set of specific recommendations.

My biggest fear is that Latino players will be marginalized by the USSDA project, just like they have been, by and large, by the National Team and the Olympic Development Program. The report outline should have indicated what steps are going to be taken to identify the best players, how financial issues are going to be addressed, and expressed an explicit commitment to integrating Latinos into the USSDA power structure at every level. Task forces and advisory committees are all well and good, but the best way to guarantee that a marginalized group’s voice is taken seriously is to give it votes and power.

The financial barriers to participation are especially troubling. One of the problems that the report outline did not identify was the fact that many qualified coaches spend a lot of time working with less talented prospects. One of the main reasons, of course, is that many of the less talented kids have the wealthy parents, while many of the most talented ones come from poor families. This is another huge problem because of the acute shortage of qualified coaches. The USSF, MLS, the USL, Nike, adidas, and the other corporations who have a vested interest in soccer, need to spend far more money subsidizing these coaches so that they can spend their time working with the best prospects.

Finally, I am also worried that Latino views about how soccer should be played, which put far more of a premium on developing balls skills, will remain largely ignored. The report indicates that the Bradenton model will be used at the other 64 clubs. These clubs will all use the same core curriculum. They will be monitored by National Team coaches and scouts. And the coaches will meet once or twice a year to hold “best practice discussions.”

Why does the USSDA want to use just one core curriculum? Bradenton has been successful, but the academy still has not produced a single world-class outfield player. The 64 clubs should be run by coaches who have diverse views about how soccer should be played, and they should be allowed to experiment with different core curricula.

The greatest strength the United States has is its ethnic diversity, but its greatest weakness has been its tendency to force everyone to adopt Northern European values. This is especially true of soccer. English views about how the game should be played have held sway, and, as Paul Gardner has argued for years, this has not been good for the development of the sport here. The report outline should have identified this as a core problem, and made suggestions about what steps can be taken to promote more pluralism. Soccer is not going to reach its full potential in the US until it pays equal attention to all of its voices.

Ken Pendleton has a Ph.D. in philosophy and currently teaches at Oregon State University. But his first love, though he should know better, is soccer.

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