Organizations and TechniciansPosted: April 8, 2014
After a fall-winter hibernation, the Soccer Yoda has awaken and has begun writing once again. This is an exciting time in world soccer; the World Cup is approaching, Europe is host to a couple of very tight league races, Euro Champions League has more teams capable of winning than in any recent year and the MLS has begun a new season with more quality players and ever-increasing interest. There is much to keep the soccer enthusiast happy, interested and deeply engulfed in the sport. Of course, there is controversy. FIFA is embroiled in the usual pre-World Cup craziness concerning the readiness of the host country stadiums and therefore the accompanying “how did this place get picked for this?” question/accusation is making the rounds. This time however, that query is being leveled at the next next venue also as inquiring minds are looking to 2022 and wondering how Qatar, yes- Qatar, is ever going to pull off hosting a World Cup with all that entails , while somehow lowering summer temperatures about 30 degrees from normal. All this activity has provided lots of inspiration for me to put the pen to paper again ( ok- the fingers to touch pad). But the final push to post this blog again was provided by recent comments from perhaps the greatest soccer player of all time and a small article about my newest favorite coach.
Last week, Pele was interviewed by the Associated Press. He has a book coming out and since the interest in Brazil ( the World Cup host) is growing every day, his views are interesting to hear. He spoke on a variety of topics, one of which was the growth of the game in the USA. “People should be careful, because I think that here in the United States today, they play more soccer than they play in Brazil. Its important that American kids know that. We don’t have the same support they have in college, university. Soccer is becoming very, very, big in the United States. The base, with the kids, is more organized than in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay. No doubt.” This sounds extremely favorable……arguably the greatest player ever says the USA is the coming power in soccer. Now, I think Pele is a very special person. I have been fortunate enough to meet him and discuss the game with him for a few moments. I found him to be gracious and personable. He wasn’t into himself at all and was genuinely interested in what I had to say. But, his view of the present situation in this country, while not exactly wrong- is ……..incomplete. There is more involved if we are ever going to get to the “watch out Brazil!” stage. And I was lucky enough to have had a first hand lesson as to the reason.
During my first couple of seasons as originator and head coach of the Laurel (Md) High School soccer team I had zero players with prior soccer experience. There was no youth program in the area ( or virtually anywhere else in the nation at that time) and I did not have the benefit of students raised in other countries. We managed winning records in those seasons, but no championships. One day, three of my graduating players came to me and with big smiles announced that,” coach, we are setting you up for the future!” I inquired as to how they were “setting me up”? ” We got little kids playing!” “Yeah, little kids!” “yeah, playing soccer!” It seems that they were kicking a ball around the street and a number of 9-10 year old boys came up and joined them. “They have been playing every day ….even without us!” “They love playing soccer….cool huh?” “When they get here, you will be set!” Four years later, my situation hadn’t changed much…..no youth club kids, no foreign-born players, a string of winning seasons but no trophies. There was one major difference though – me. I had spent the years learning everything I could about the game. Books, clinics, playing myself, watching every game I could. I grabbed every article in sight, especially if it discussed the Dutch and their “total football” philosophy of play. And then, during my first day of practice for the 1975 season, a group of new students showed up and after about two minutes of watching them knock around the soccer ball , I knew — the “little kids” had arrived.
The timing was perfect, I was ready to teach my new learnings and install a system which stressed possession and ball control. A philosophy in which concepts were more important than positions, which resulted in a free-flowing offense style. The “little kids” ( who weren’t very little anymore) took to it with open minds and able skills. In the next 3 years we went 37-6, won several county and regional championships and reached the state finals. After high school, the group had representatives in many college programs of all sizes including a captaincy of a national Division 1 finalist team. They were represented on the USA under-19 team , the US Olympic team and even had a member reach professional status. It cannot be emphasized enough; until high school they had limited experience playing with uniforms and referees, goals and scoreboards. They were a very rare group in the United States, then AND now, players who grew up playing soccer in the street and backyard, not on the club field.
Last week, Omar Saleem published an article titled,” What Youth Coaches Can Learn From Brendan Rodgers”. Mr. Saleem lives and coaches in the United Kingdom and edits, publishes and occasionally contributes to a newsletter – These Football Times. The article immediately caught my attention. You see- the Soccer Yoda is a Liverpool fan! And not just a casual fan either. I have gotten up at ridiculously early hours to watch the Reds on tv, have several Liverpool jerseys and T shirts, and have been seen dancing wildly around our loft after Liverpool scores. The reason for this loyalty goes back a few years and will be discussed in a future post. But it is a passion has been growing with time and has received a boost with Liverpool”s recent success. That success has been largely attributed to Brendan Rodgers, who is in his second year as Liverpool’s manager. He has introduced a philosophy based on possession and ball control, one where concepts take precedence over positions, resulting in a free-flowing offensive style (sound familiar?). The Soccer Yoda loves this kind of play and has ever since,.. well….those ” little kids” of Laurel High School played it in their less-skilled than Liverpool but not less enthusiastic manner. The article discusses how Brendan ( I’ve never met him, but I feel like we are on a first name basis) uses the ball in every training exercise, from warm-ups to cool-downs. He has increased his teams technical ability as he has developed their style and the results have produced a jump in their place in the English Premier League and an offense that is scoring goals at an unheard-of pace. The article goes on to say that if more youth coaches would also use the ball for all their training, perhaps their players would also increase their technical ability and , given their age, at a greater percent of increase than Liverpool’s players, who were already pretty proficient when Brendan arrived. This is something that the USSF coaching schools have been preaching for decades with some success, but recent observations show that there are still many coaches in the US that like to have their players run laps, do conditioning exercises, build their “toughness” by doing whatever “guts” exercises those coaches can think of. Given the location of the article, the English must have that problem also.
But I know this……the little kids of Laurel ran no laps or did any conditioning exercises while playing and loving to play their sport in the street. Brazil’s players are world-famous for their ability to work magic with the ball, that proficiency is gained in the streets and on the beaches. They, perhaps more than any other group, take joy in playing with ball, in becoming the world’s master technicians. I suspect that while developing this ability, they do not run laps or do conditioning exercises or have to listen to coaches screaming at them to “want it more”. Pele is correct in this- the USA has a large soccer organization, and it’s getting larger. But for us to threaten the likes of Brazil or Spain or Argentina or Germany on a regular basis, either we need lots more street soccer or lots more coaches emulating Brendan Rodgers. We need our youth to love the game and love to play the game, wherever they are- street , backyard or club field. Even a large well-run organization will not do it simply because it exists.