Why USA’S Youth Development Continues To Stagnate

Cast your mind back to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Placed into the proverbial “Group of Death,” the United States Men’s National Team faced three difficult opponents: Germany, Portugal, and old foes Ghana. While many expected them to crash out at the group stage, the Stars and Stripes beat Ghana, tied Portugal, and lost to Germany. A solid, albeit unspectacular showing which saw the USMNT place second in the group, leading to a Round of 16 encounter with Belgium. We all know how that goes: Tim Howard made 15 saves, a World Cup record, Julian Green pulled one back for the United States, and while Belgium were thoroughly superior, had Chris Wondolowski not missed a sitter, USA could very well have advanced to the quarterfinals. Jürgen Klinsmann had done an excellent job, and there was a renewed sense of optimism amongst supporters; the nation would only improve from then on. Since then, they’ve participated in two Gold Cups, winning in 2017 and losing to Jamaica in the semi-finals in the 2015 edition. In the 2016 Copa América, they topped their group and defeated Ecuador in the quarterfinals, before getting thrashed by Argentina 4-0 in the semi-finals. Things were going steady, if normal, for the U.S. Men’s National Team, that is until October 10, 2017, when Trinidad knocked United States out of World Cup qualifying. Many supporters turned on the Sunil Gulati and the U.S. Soccer Federation, blaming them for the failures of the USMNT. They had a generally accurate idea of what the problem was and where it was emanating from, but they didn’t exactly know how to fix it.

Now bring yourself to the present: as of November 26, 2018, the United States Men’s National Team is still without a first-team coach. It has been 412 days since the disaster at Trinidad and Tobago, yet we’ve yet to hear anything other than Dave Sarachan continuing in his interim role, which he himself has confirmed, has run its course. There’s been promises of change. We’ve had it shoved down our throats by the USSF, Sunil Gulati, and now Carlos Cordeiro, that, as a nation, we will continue to grow and prosper. To an extent, they were correct. There has been some progress in the footballing culture in this country, but not enough to see us make wholesale improvements. The harsh reality is, we don’t produce top coaches or top players. People will point to Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic, but we are consistently failing to produce and nurture talent.

Compare the young Americans that stay in the MLS to develop to those that leave. Of Goal’s “Top 50 Americans in the 2022 World Cup player pool” published in September of 2018, just over half (27) of them play for foreign teams, either as full professionals or starlets in European academies. Of those 27 foreign-based players, 18 are technically gifted midfielders, wingers, or strikers.  So, 18 out of 50 of our top attack-minded prospects are leaving America’s youth academies to develop and improve their game. Why? The answer is, in the States, we prioritize physicality and athleticism over technical ability; we prioritize results over development.

As a youth football coach, I see this phenomenon all the time. When conducting tryouts, most coaches prefer players that boast speed and athleticism over intelligence and technical ability. The top youth teams usually have pure athletes in their ranks, allowing them to compete with other groups built similarly; not only quick athletes, but physically imposing ones as well. In my time coaching, whether it be 5v5, 9v9 or 11v11, I have struggled against teams that lump the ball upfield and chase after it. I encourage my teams to play a higher line and engage in a high press to win the ball back. When the press breaks down, the opposition tends to kick it over my defenders and run on to the ball. However, when those teams try to keep the ball and retain wave after wave of possession, they struggle to do so. They aren’t capable of stringing passes together, interchanging positions, or combination play. As physically impressive as they are, these players fail to take a secure first touch out from their feet, play a driven 20-yard pass on the ground, or properly defend using an angled stance. But, that doesn’t matter. Coaches and parents are more intent on winning than developing.

“Boot the ball!” “We don’t need to be playing possession!!” “This season sucks because we aren’t winning!” These are all common complaints a coach will hear from exasperated parents on the sidelines. As a third- or fourth-level team, there should be more of a focus on player development, which a majority of parents don’t understand. These types of coaches and parents have severely stunted the growth of some naturally gifted players as well. When they get older, they will get found out and fail to crack the top level. Because of their over-reliance on speed, they are one-dimensional. Any defender worth their salt will keep them quiet.

For ECNL (Elite Clubs National League), there has been a shift from athleticism to technical ability, but it is still flawed. ECNL teams are the best of the best for every age group; most go on to play collegiate football. Watching these teams practice, they are technically sound. They’re able to zip the ball to each other, but that’s about the extent of their ability. When you watch these teams aim to carry the ball out of the back, you realize that even they are struggling to free themselves of the chokehold America’s development priorities has festered upon teams. They struggle to dribble the ball, they are hesitant to use a shoulder drop or change of speed to beat the defender, and often, they fail to carve anything out in terms of associative play, instead relying on individuals. This is the different side of the coin as utilizing athleticism to win games; these players are one-dimensional as well. They’re neither creative nor exciting enough to break through to the top echelon of soccer: the European stage. That’s on the coaches, who, instead of focusing on winning, should be developing every aspect of a player’s game.

The top European teams and leagues focus not only on athleticism, but technique as well as creativity. These youngsters receive coaching from highly-skilled, highly-trained professionals who have a deep understanding of how to nurture talented players. Take note of  Gyasi Zardes for example. Physically imposing at 6’2, he possesses blistering pace, yet is technically poor, unable to cut the mustard at a time when, at 27, he should be entering his prime. Jordan Morris, though he has a more secure first touch, is a similar type of player. Both USMNT players spent their formative years in the United States and received the American version of football training.

Now take a look at Bobby Wood. In 2007, at the age of 15, he moved to Germany and joined the 1860 Munich Academy. Though now, at the age of 26, he isn’t a prolific goal scorer, he has superior technical ability than that of his aforementioned USMNT teammates; precisely, the way he can keep the ball glued to his foot and take players on. He does have an impressive turn of pace, but he isn’t overly reliant on it to beat defenders. Instead, he focuses on a quick burst of acceleration, coupled with close control and change of direction. If Wood had stayed in the United States, would he be the same player he is today? The same principle applies to Christian Pulisic. He moved to Dortmund at 16, and he has reaped the benefits. Watching him play, you can see the Dortmund and German influence in him. He is confident and comfortable on the ball, he knows when to carry the ball and when to play it, and he knows when to accelerate and take players on. Just by watching him play, you can see how his move to Europe has benefitted him. Even little things such as body posture, positioning, and shooting form, it’s clear that Pulisic’s talent could not have been maximized in the United States.

We need our coaches to step up to the plate and take responsibility for the development of youth soccer. Coaches play a massive role in developing young footballers, and the fact is, they aren’t getting the job done. They must accept some of the blame for the stagnation of youth development, but looking at the bigger picture, it boils down to the USSF and coaching education in the country. Germany, Italy, and Spain are three nations that not only produce top players, but top coaches as well. They each have vigorous coaching programs that, unlike America’s, prepare coaches for the highest level.

The Germans have a “coaching university” called Hennes-Weisweiler. Graduating from the school earns you a “degree” in coaching, for the lack of a better word, dubbing each graduate a “Fußball-Lehrer” (soccer teacher). To gain entrance into the school, one must already be coaching at least at an amateur or semi-pro level. There’s a 3-day assessment which includes a written exam about football logic, a 2-hour practical exam, and then another written exam. Only 24 coaches earn admission into the school. Graduating with the degree is equivalent of a UEFA Pro License. UEFA requires a minimum of 240 hours; in Germany, they need 815 hours of education. What’s unique about Germany is that even in the second and third divisions, coaches must hold this license to ensure professionalism, that they hold coaches to the highest standard possible.

Moving south, Italy has a very similar structure to Germany, with their “manager’s school” called Scuola Allenatori. Any aspiring manager in Italy must pass the course; it’s the only place in the country to get a UEFA, UEFA Pro and UEFA A license. The unique part of this school is that managers are expected to create training sessions without the aid of references, books, notes, or anything of the sort. This is to ensure that ideas are kept fresh, and the training sessions are unique. The aspiring coach must also write a thesis on the subject of their choosing.

Now, in Spain, the structure varies slightly. There’s a “Certification in Sports Technician in Football.” There are three levels, ranging from 1-3. The first level is a total of 455 hours, which includes physical tests, theoretical and practical hours, and practical training. Level two is a total of 565 hours of theoretical and practical hours and practical training. Level 3 increases to 800 hours total, then 75 hours for the final project.

As you can tell, football is the passion of the people; they can’t get enough of it. It’s so embedded in European culture that training to be a coach is a demanding task. If there is an aspiring coach in Europe, they have to be prepared to dedicate their entire life to the cause. This ensures that only the best of the best, and the most interested and dedicated candidates can apply and succeed in these courses.

Here in the States, we don’t have that passion. The primary money makers in this country regarding sports are the NFL and NBA. There isn’t enough monetary circulation to support those teams and the youth systems, and for this reason, youth football clubs around the nation rely on the “pay-to-play” system, which over-saturates the player pool and places less focus on quality coaches and quality players.

I have participated in coaching courses through the English FA and the USSF, and the difference is staggering. What stuck out like a sore thumb was that with the English FA, when we were creating training sessions, the rule was “start and end with the same number of players.” This statute supports a realistic simulation and prevents kids from standing around being bored. However, with the USSF licenses, I started with four or five kids with the warm-ups, added three more for the next couple of phases, then added three more to finish the session off with a game. From where do these players come? Are they standing around waiting for the coach to call on them? Another odd point: the instructors running the session discouraged us from using a rondo as a warm-up to train specific coaching points. There’s absolutely no logic to this suggestion. The best teams in the world continuously utilize rondos to improve awareness, touch, and spacing. Why shouldn’t we?

The bottom line is, we need to put our American pride away and emulate the countries that, unlike America, have actually built a successful footballing culture. Take a look at our domestic league and lack of international success; why should we continue in the same vein? Why should we not change our education system? Our best prospects are leaving our academies, because of the lack of technical and tactical training. Football in this country is growing in popularity by the day; there’s no reason that we shouldn’t be developing top coaches and players. We have the resources, we have the interest, and we have the people, but we need more support from the USSF and stricter regulations when it comes to youth coaching in order to give our youth development system the overhaul it needs.

By: Rahul Krishna

Photo: Mark Robinson/Getty Images