New England Soccer Today

Technically Speaking: The State of the USMNT

Photo credit: Chris Aduama/aduamaphotography/.com

With over 50 years of playing and coaching experience, few people can speak to the state of American soccer with as much breadth and depth as our very own Rick Sewall.

In the wake of the U.S. Men’s National Team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986, we reached out to Rick on his thoughts on where the program – as well as American soccer as a whole – goes from here.

NESoccerToday: Now that we’ve had a little bit of time to digest the shock of the U.S. failing to qualify for the World Cup, what, if anything, should be done at the youth level with respect to coaching and developing talent?

Rick: Soccer is not a classic, homegrown sport in American culture. Football, basketball, and baseball are. The consequences of this bare fact for the state of soccer in the US can almost not be overstated. For the purposes of this question, though, I will limit my observations to two particular ramifications:

A) Homegrown sports are the ones that get played the most on sandlots, which in turn are the most essential training grounds for youth sports.

The position of soccer in American culture is reflected by the relative rarity of pick-up, or sandlot games – in contrast with European and South American countries, among others, where pick-up soccer (from relative mobs on down to 1 v 1 match-ups) seems almost continuous whenever kids are not sitting in school.

This is the way baseball got played in the US from the Depression through the 40’s and 50’s when I was a kid – all day long till it was time to go home to dinner, then out again till your parents called you to bed. To me, much of the decline in American baseball today can be traced to the decline in this sandlot ethic. Put less politely, pin it on Little League! In fact, Dizzy Dean, one of the greatest pitchers ever in baseball, played on his first official team at the age of 17. Before that, only informal sandlot play.

Looking around me today, the sports I see kids playing on their own time are primarily touch-football and (more than anything) basketball. In recent years, some soccer at recess, but still less visible than football.

In general, I think of redundant sandlot activity as a necessary pre-condition for kids’ development of technique and individual tactics. Sandlot allows kids to play over long periods of time (much more time than is had in a coach- controlled team practice). The combination of far more touches on the ball, the constant laboratory of technical practice and tactical practice through small scrimmages or players constantly challenging each other in 1v1 battles, and the unbridled opportunity for creativity have big advantages over the drills that all too often absorb coach-led practices even for our youngest players.

B) Homegrown sports are also the ones that kids tend to watch, whether live or on TV. And watching is a vital (though sometimes underrated) element in skill development, because a big part of learning how to do a skill is simply knowing what it looks like when it’s done right.

A significant part of the American technical deficit in soccer over the past fifty years has resulted from youth players having no visual imprint of what good shooting, controlling, or dribbling – or, for that matter, a controlled possession attack from the back – looks like.

Young soccer players in other countries have much more desire and opportunity to watch live local games and big TV games than we do here. Here, the attendance at some well-played D1 soccer games, even in the ACC (our most competitive college league) is little short of embarrassing. Fair-sized crowds are a rarity.

A few weeks ago I turned on a televised midweek Harvard-Boston College game. The fans in the stands were so sparse that I found myself questioning whether even the players’ parents were all in attendance.

In default of this visual imprint and intensive sandlot laboratory experience, the American youth player grows up at a technical and tactical disadvantage. Add that there are more youth coaches in the US even today who have not played soccer than who have (no visual imprint available there!), and that deficit gets bigger.

And as icing on the cake, most American coaches – even the ones who have played soccer themselves – lack the profound knowledge of the techniques needed to impart them to their players through a step-by-step breakdown of the associated foot and body positions.

In sports like golf, tennis, baseball, and basketball, technical instruction is lifeblood, just as it is for a violin or clarinet player, and technical improvement becomes an obsession throughout the player’s career. Tournament golfers practice their swing before teeing off. Tennis players review their stroke after every unforced error. Basketball players are constantly focusing on their shooting technique, foul shots included. Do you think Tom Brady doesn’t continue to work daily on his pass release?

In American soccer, activities revolve way too heavily around team practice and play. Coaches and teachers scope out and apply drills to team practices in the hope that practicing in and of itself will result in technical success. This does not work because too often the players are simply practicing their bad techniques, uncorrected, and thereby reinforcing bad habits. This happens especially often with the power shot during shooting drills.

Beyond this, the drills chosen by the coaches are frequently too difficult to execute from a technical standpoint, resulting in player confusion and frustration. So where does this leave American youth soccer?

Well, soccer here in the States has come a long way over the past fifty years.

If we continue on the path presently charted, we can expect it to make similar strides over the next fifty, as the sport gains more and more of a toehold in the American homegrown sports culture.

But if we want to significantly accelerate this very gradual progress, we need to make a sea-change in our approach to youth instruction, focusing heavily on continuous step-by-step technical instruction with the same sort of mindset we already have in golf, tennis, basketball and baseball, in order to prepare our players to be competitive at the national level.

In other words, to compete with the informal soccer self-learning that happens from the earliest ages in most other countries – including, embarrassingly, third-world ones with populations, wealth, facilities, and organizations far inferior to ours, that nonetheless eliminate us from world-cup play – the USSF has to move to a teaching philosophy focused heavily on formal instruction in technique, especially in the ODP programs.

What, if anything, do you think the MLS should do, either at the senior team level or at the academy level, to address the situation?

Rick: American soccer fans are justifiably frustrated by the USMNT’s inability to get out of the CONCACAF qualifying section. American players are just as able physically as their European, African, or South American counterparts. Forget the arguments that all our best athletes are playing football or basketball. We have a large enough population to compensate for the loss of large numbers of players to other sports.

In fact, many of the athletes who opt to play football and basketball very likely wouldn’t do well in soccer anyway. They are too big and/or tall, causing them problems in terms of quickness. A low center of gravity helps a lot in soccer.

If Lionel Messi were 6 foot 7 inches tall, he’d hardly be the player he is now. At 6’5”, Swedish forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic (presently playing for Manchester United) is the extraordinary exception that proves the rule.

I might also add that there are only a few tall and competent ice hockey players. (And tall guys, please note that I say this as a 6’3” defender known in the ethnic semi-pro leagues of my youth as ‘El Girafa.’)

The advantage foreign players have over Americans is their technical abilities, and this is the primary reason why they tend to be better players than we are.

I understand that MLS academy programs are operated by their respective MLS teams. If I were the Revs, or any other team, I would introduce the philosophical change described above to their academy operation, rearranging the curriculum to base it more heavily on formal technical instruction in kicking, dribbling, and ball control.

For 14-year-old players, I would devote 60% of all instruction to technical development; for the 16’s, at least 45%; and at least 30% for the 18’s.

Getting coaches who both know the techniques and are good enough teachers to break the skills and associated body positions down to their essential elements should be an organizational priority. A technically proficient player becomes ‘free of the ball’ and thereby gains increased field vision and awareness. Then, in turn, he or she becomes better poised to master team tactics and strategies.

I fervently hope that all MLS teams are aware (or become so), that the biggest technical weakness among soccer players worldwide – and at all levels of play, including international, is the power kick. This essential truth should provide them with special motivation to install an academy curriculum based on technique.

I’ll never forget a moment I witnessed at an Under-16 ODP practice. As players were practicing shooting on goal, a top-level forward on the team came up to the coach saying, “There’s something off in my shot. Can you help me figure it out?” The highly-credentialed coach replied, “You’re fine, just go back and practice some more.” I’m betting that’s all he could say, because he himself, despite his licenses and experience, had very limited ability to detect and diagnose technical flaws in front of him.

As for the senior level of MLS soccer:

It might be to the advantage of the MLS to go with the August to June schedule and promotion-relegation format, though a number of factors get in the way of this happening. First, would the winter weather in the USA make it feasible? A six-week winter break could help, but might not be enough. In any case, having a season schedule in sync with Europe would, I think, give added stature to the US league.

As to promotion-relegation, it could happen in about ten years. Overcoming owners’ resistance to a change like this is probably the main roadblock, but another constraint is that the level of play in the lower leagues is suspect. They need time to develop to be competitive with MLS teams on a consistent basis.

Soccer players are exposed to heavy-duty pressure with the promotion-relegation format, as playing to be promoted or relegated means gaining or losing serious money and prestige. This is tougher emotionally on the players than merely competing for a championship. In any case, the pressure cooker of pro-rel may be another factor that is presently giving European players a competitive advantage over MLS players.

With Bruce Arena out as manager, if you could pick anyone in the world to take the reins, who would it be, and why?

Rick: I hope that the next national coach has the following qualities:

• The ability to negotiate amicable agreements among the USSF brass, the MLS owners, and himself as national team coach – no easy task;

• Deep experience as a coach and thorough knowledge of the game and how it is played and taught in all areas of the world;

• Recognition that continuous technical instruction is vital at the highest levels of play and commitment to both providing this instruction and inculcating an ethic of continuous self-improvement in his players;

• The talent to develop interesting and creative practices that players look forward to attending;

• The ability to strike a balance between strong discipline and being the type of coach his players really want to play for;

• Impeccable sportsmanship.

I’d say take a close look at Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp.


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