Please note that the opinions expressed in this post, particularly in regard to training methods, are those of the Soccer Yoda, although many soccer institutions, agree wholeheartedly.
Well, it’s that time again…again. Each year around the end of May soccer clubs around the country have their tryouts. This year there is more expectation and more urgency as to how America’s children are coached, so that they can reach their maximum potential as soccer players. Why this year more than others? Because the USA men’s team did not qualify for the World Cup. Because the likes of Panama and Honduras finished above us in the 6 team playoff round. As a result there has been a huge amount of introspection as to the reasons this soccer-world catastrophe occurred. And our youth coaches have been among the most accused. And rightly so. The drive for most all American soccer clubs to grow manifests itself into a drive to attract parents with money to spend on their kid’s soccer. And that frequently means to shortcut the development of players in order to produce immediate victories that attract more players. Sometimes it means to use training methods like “speed and agility” or “strength and conditioning” training that forego the use of a ball but sound great to unaware parents. Sometimes it means small areas to train because of an over-sized club. Sometimes it means a coach who is also coaching 2 or 3 or even more other teams as a means of increasing income and therefore cannot provide the personal touch so important to youngsters. And sometimes the coach just doesn’t know any better. Last year at this time, I posted a well-received “here is what to look for” piece for parents who want their child to have the best soccer experience in terms of development and fun. In light of this past year’s disappointment and subsequent attention to youth soccer training methods, I am posting it again, with some additional up-to-date comments.
Success in soccer can be defined in many ways and is usually dependent upon the goals of the player and his/her parents. These goals can range from “be prepared for a pro career” to “have fun and don’t break anything!” We know that only a minuscule percentage of kids will play professionally and that, despite the dreams of so many families, only 5.6% of boys playing high school soccer will play in college (according to the NCAA). Statistics are about the same for girls, except the number playing pro is even less than the boys. We also know that not all youth players will even be proficient enough to play for their high school and even less will make those controversial high level programs that take the place of high school soccer for some of the very gifted. So, this means that we must recognize that life lessons that carry beyond soccer are extremely important for our young players if they are to carry benefits gained from their soccer experience for the rest of their lives.
But it is not the purpose of this post to discuss the non-soccer learnings that can be derived from the sport, as important as they may be. Here is why…..unless youngsters are having fun they tend to drop out within a comparatively short span of time. At that point they aren’t getting any life lessons from playing soccer anyway. Although other factors may drive a kid from the sport, failure to improve skills is a leading cause of the “this isn’t fun anymore” syndrome. After all, it is fun to learn and get better and often boring not to do so. And of course if a child does harbor dreams of advancement to higher levels, learning new skills is a must. It is possible, even if a child loves the game enough to keep playing for years, that skill development can be neglected by coaches. I have seen, not very long ago, youngsters who were veterans of a number of years of soccer and yet could not use their opposite foot, couldn’t use the outside of either foot, didn’t know the offside rule despite playing with it for years and whose tactical knowledge consisted of “the goal is down there, why don’t we just kick the ball down there?” Once upon a time that might have been expected, although not preferred, because so many youth coaches were moms and dads with little or no soccer experience who were volunteering so kids could play. Not today. Parents are spending good money and devoting more time to the demands of the soccer club than to be satisfied with a lack of soccer growth in their children. One problem is that, to less experienced parents who are paying so much attention to game action and scores, it is not easily apparent if their child is not advancing. If they spent money on a piano teacher for a couple years and their child was still playing the same songs as when they started, they would know something is wrong. But it is not nearly as obvious if their youngster is still playing the soccer equivalent of Chopsticks after years of soccer experience.
Other countries are not nearly as dependent on coaches to develop their soccer talent. Brazil, Italy, Argentina, Germany……these soccer powers have a culture to help produce talent. Kids play for hours a day in the streets or neighborhood fields in small groups, with makeshift goals, emulating their “football” heroes that they see on tv. There are no coaches, no parents, no recorded scores or tournament championships to be had. Just kids having fun playing the sport and trying new skills with no negative feedback if they mess up while learning. It has been said that the more our youth training is like playing in the streets the better our kids would learn.
Soccer is a sport played with the players feet, brain and heart. Although playing with lots of heart certainly helps achievement and is one of those “non-soccer” attributes parents want their children to develop, the deciding factor in the consideration of the achievement level of any player is far more often the players feet and brain than his/her heart. And it is in those areas, the feet and brain, that good coaches stand apart from the ordinary. So lets look at the methods used (or not to be used) in order to produce soccer players who are at the top of their potential and are having fun while constantly improving their game.
A. Minimum of activities without the ball
A top German professional coach said to me once,” You know what you get when you have your players run lots of laps? Good lap runners!” Youngsters need to touch the ball to develop ball skills. The more touches done right, the more proficient they become. Running done without a ball or not in a soccer situation does nothing to develop the ability of a soccer player. Of course, the “win” syndrome plays a part with coaches who run their players. Coaches may feel that they can make up for a lack of skill and tactics by being in “better shape” or “more aggressive”. But 1) just running is not fun to most kids and 2) eventually kids and teams who can use their feet and brains on the field pass those who can’t, no matter how much those latter teams can run or how fast they can get to the ball. For older kids cardio work may be needed, but it can be gained by exercises using a ball. Beware of “speed and agility” sessions that don’t use a ball. Last January Barcelona spent $190 million to acquire Philippe Coutinho, a player who is not fast or strong or big and, in the age of “all positions play defense”, plays virtually no defense at all. But he is a magician with the ball. Parents should remember that.
B. Practice should be efficient, lots of soccer and less of other things.
Take a look at the picture below:
Of the 10 young ladies in participating in this exercise, 1 is practicing soccer and 9 are practicing standing in line. If the drill lasts 20 minutes, that’s 2 minutes of soccer and 18 minutes of line waiting per player. Coaches should use drill structure that involves a high percentage of players in soccer activity and less involved in standing around. Here is an example:
This is a dribbling drill similar in structure to the picture above in that there are 2 players working while the others stand. But, the same work could be accomplished like this:
Now there are 3 times as many players involved. If the coach makes this a game condition drill by putting a time limit on the encounter in the middle , the work and rest times resemble those during a game where there is a period of high action followed by a period of less. In regards to methods #A and #B above, the USSF has long preached the no “L’s ” concept…..” no laps, no lines, no long lectures”.
C. Use the “teaching progression” to develop skills and concepts.
When introducing new skills and team play the use of this progression is the most effective means of developing talent:
- No pressure or opposition – players practice the move or skill without anything forcing the action. They can take it slow, practice by trying one step at a time, make sure of what they are doing.
- Passive pressure – when learning dribbling moves, a “defensive” player who does nothing but stand in the way is a good means to introduce opposition. Limiting space can also provide a limited obstacle for new players. For passing skills the clock provides an excellent form of pressure i.e.”how many passes can you complete in 15 seconds?”
3. Low pressure – use of numbers is a great way to introduce active pressure but still provide a transition from no active pressure to game conditions. 5 v 2; 4 v 1, etc. Introducing team shape with small numbers of opponents works well to familiarize kids with positional responsibility without discouraging them.
4. Increasing resistance to full and beyond – gradually making the numbers of the opposition more equal or limiting time and space to game conditions can prepare players for game action. For advanced teams adding even more opposition players ( 4 v 5; 8 v 9 to a goal) can make games seem easy.
D. Lots and lots of “rondos” – Rondos are drills in which one side outnumbers the opposition and the emphasis is ball possession. As noted above, these are great for building ability when used with youngsters, but even the best teams in the world practice using this concept. Lately the USSF training gurus have decided that rondos do not simulate the game enough and are not in favor of them. After talking to many experienced successful youth coaches, they and I strongly disagree. Repetition develops skill and these activities supply those reps better than other exercises. The individual drill can be modified to fit the learning objective desired. Touch limitations, single foot usage, dribble requirements…..if it is a part of the game it can be practiced in a rondo form of exercises. A form of rondo can even be used with a goal….ex: the offensive team must complete 5 passes consecutively before shooting. The German coach I quoted above finished his statement about laps with,” If you want good soccer players, they must play soccer!” Rondos and conditional scrimmages are the closest thing we have to the “street soccer” that international youth play and might even be more efficient due to the specific purpose of the play.
E. Make it competitive – kids love to play, but they also love to compete. Those Brazilian youngsters on the beach are always keeping score, even if the outcome is forgotten as soon as they go home. Coaches will keep the interest and the fun levels of their players high if they devise ways to keep score in their exercises. For instance: Passing: a point for every x number of passes ( depends on the skill of the players) Dribbling: a point for every stepover (or whatever move is being emphasized) accomplished in the rondo. Shooting: a point for every shot on goal and 5 points for scoring. The coaches imagination or a good practice manual can provide different scoring scenarios, but competition tends to drive practice energy upwards.
These methods will be very beneficial in making practice fun and improving the ability of players at a high rate. What skills should young players be developing?
Ball Control – Good soccer begins with good ball control. Players must be able to receive the ball and make it playable immediately. Young players learn to receive the ball with the inside of both feet (all skills should be learned with both feet) . Then with the outside of the foot. The ball should be put in front of the receiver just far enough to play it with the next touch. As kids learn, they should be able to move the ball away from defenders with their receiving touch. This leads to the ability to play 2 touch soccer, but the initial receiving touch is all important. Body surfaces should be used to cushion the ball for play. Thighs, midsection, chest ….youngsters need to develop the ability to use all surfaces. If one watches a mid-level ability professional team and compares that to the worlds best, the difference in ball control is very evident.
Passing – For youth players passing is the skill that starts them on the road to advancement. Inside foot ( both feet of course) is the basic and most used pass in the sport. Outside foot and laces passing adds the versatility and unpredictability of a players passes. To pass effectively players must have their heads up to see who should get the pass. This is an extremely important concept for young kids……getting their heads up with the ball is an absolute necessity. This skill must be practiced often and in different situations to develop proficiency.
Dribbling – Dribbling is a required skill for aspiring players. Youngsters should learn to move forward while keeping the ball close . Use of both inside and outside of the foot needs to be stressed. The ability to change direction with either surface accompanied with a feint to the opposite direction is an easily learned first “trick”. Then stepovers, cuts, pullbacks, etc can be added. Experience has shown that young players can develop these moves much earlier than many coaches believe. One point in regard to training dribbling moves: I have seen many drills in which the dribbling player gets 10 seconds, 15 seconds, even more time to try to beat a defender. This never happens in a game. Coaches need to keep to “game condition” exercises and with dribbling that means giving the offensive youth one quick try per attempt to make the move work successfully.
Receiving and Turning – turning as a part of receiving a pass is probably the most important skill in the game that is also the most neglected when it comes to training. The ability to receive a ball and turn 180 degrees quickly with it is very important. Kids can start with a basic inside of the foot 2 touch turn, but once that is mastered they should move on to one touch turns. These include outside of foot swivels, inside of foot hook turn, and the behind-the-heel ( also known as the Cruyff Turn). The ball should be ready to play as soon as the turn is completed. As players advance they should be able to confidently and quickly take a ball from the back, turn and play it to a teammate.
Shooting – Youngsters catch on to shooting fairly easily as far as form is concerned. However accuracy can be challenging to any age player and youth are no exception. The smaller goals now required by the USSF make training to shoot more productive than with adult goals. Keeping shots low and on goal is paramount. Shooting with the outside of the foot and putting spin and curve on shots are not above the level of experienced youth players. However, it takes many practice attempts to become a good shooter so kids need to get many repetitions to improve.
Heading – Due to the unknown potential of injury to still-developing skulls and brains, the USSF has banned all heading (practice or games) for youngsters age 10 and under and minimal heading for those 11 and 12 yrs old. If a parent has a teenager playing, expect basic heading exercises and heading in games gradually leading up to the expertise expected in advanced players.
Defending – By definition playing defense is not a ball skill. Still, youth players need to understand the basics of defense. Parents should expect their kids to know about position ( goal side), footwork, patience and proper tackling technique. As they get older youth should learn team defensive strategies such as sheparding and maintaining shape.
Team Play – Once it was said that younger players could not understand team tactics and therefore only technical skill should be taught to kids. It is my belief that is absolutely wrong. Coaches should never underestimate the ability of youth to develop their feet AND their brains in regard to soccer. They can learn proper support moves, how to get to good angles, when to move to space, what their positional responsibilities are and those of their teammates. I have seen and coached u-10 and u-12 teams that play a high level of tactical soccer and they loved learning the game. In addition. it should not be a surprise that kids get better at things that they practice. By stressing and practicing team possession tactics, youth players also develop technical ball skills of control, passing, dribbling, etc. to accompany their always improving vision, movement and team concept. WARNING: while learning the “good game”, kids make mistakes and this can lead to losses on the field, especially to teams that are athletic and big and fast, even with the new rules that are designed to minimize those physical advantages. But, make no doubt about it, time spent developing these soccer skills…..the feet and brains of youth players, will pay off in the end.
It’s the lucky kids, those whose coaches teach them to know the game and love playing it, that will stick with it and experience those events that make for livelong memories, great friendships and personal traits that can lead to fulfilling lives in many diverse areas. And a few may even be a part of a USA team, of either gender, that can qualify and advance in the World Cup!
Soccer Yoda would like to thank the many readers of this blog. In the last couple months soccer fans from many countries around the world have become viewers. It is quite an honor to have an audience as widespread and diverse as this one has become. Thank you all!
This past week the European Champions League played it’s first leg of it’s quarterfinal matches. As expected, Barcelona did well against Roma, winning 4-1 and Bayern Munich downed a surprisingly stubborn Sevilla team 2-1, in Spain. This makes Bayern a large favorite for the overall result given the second leg will be at home. Liverpool astounded everyone, especially Manchester City, in thrashing them 3-0 at home. It remains to be seen if City can come back in Manchester this week. The big contest, pitting Real Madrid against Juventus in a repeat of last years final proved to be disappointing, unless one is a Real fan. Madrid rolled to a 3-0 win, and in Italy no less. In doing so, Real scored a terrific goal that caught the eye of the Soccer Yoda in it’s application of modern soccer tactics. And no, I don’t mean Ronaldo’s overhead scissors goal. That was an amazing display of technique and athletic ability. That kind of skill can decide matches regardless of whatever tactics are being applied.
The goal that impressed the Soccer Yoda so much was the third one, scored by Real’s left back Marcelo. It involved a fair amount of technical skill with the ball, mainly the ability to control a pass to feet and the ability to deliver an accurate pass under some pressure. But what it really demonstrated is that an understanding of space and movement can beat the best defense. And the fact is that this understanding can be taught to youth.
At the beginning of the move (above picture), Ronaldo has the ball in Real’s attacking third. He is moving with a deliberate slow pace. Marcelo has moved up the left side and is position to support Ronaldo. Farther away on the right Isco is literally in the picture but is a tough pass for Ronaldo. It should be noted that Juventus has 5 defenders in the area and another moving in from the far right. Real has 3 attackers against 5+ defenders of one of the best defensive teams in the world. This doesn’t look like a positive situation for the Spaniards.
With no penetrating move available and Juventus defenders closing in, Ronaldo makes a safe pass to Marcel0. Meanwhile Isco sees space open behind the 3 defenders marking Marcelo and Ronaldo. He starts a diagonal run into that space using the concept that attackers away from the ball should make runs into space left open by the defense.
Marcelo takes the ball inside toward the space while Isco continues his run across the defense. Isco’s run forces the Juventus defenders to decide whether to stay where they are or to follow him as he moves into an open area.
Isco’s run takes him into the space and the defenders decide to move with him to prevent him from getting the ball unmarked in a dangerous area.But diagonal runs that are properly made allow the receiving player to shield any following defender with his body and Isco can take a pass from Marcelo while shielding the defenders. So Marcelo slips Isco a short pass using the outside of his left foot. The diagonal run has taken 2 Juventus defenders out of crucial areas and now there is a large open space inside the Italian penalty area right at the penalty spot. But how to get the ball into that spot at a Real player’s feet and at the same time keep that space devoid of defenders?
Isco is receiving a pass with a defender on his back preventing him from turning with the ball. This is a classic “man on” situation in which the receiver being pressured passes the ball back to the original passer. In this case, the original passer has moved since making the first pass. The defender marking Marcelo has turned to watch the ball and lost sight of Marcelo who is now in a good position to receive Isco’s return pass.
Marcelo has the ball he obtained from Isco. That big open area at the penalty spot (opened by Isco’s run) is still there but Marcelo is surrounded by defenders and the chances of carrying the ball into that spot past all those defenders is slim. However, Ronaldo has followed one of the basic concepts of possession soccer. He has put himself into a position where his close teammate with the ball can reach him with a pass. Marcelo knows that although he would have trouble reaching the open space with the ball, there is another way.
Marcelo takes advantage of Ronaldo placing himself on a line with him. He passes the ball through the surrounding defenders to Ronaldo. But he knows the importance of that empty space in front of the goal and he continues his movement toward it after making the pass.
Ronaldo receives the pass from Marcelo and although he could shoot from where he is, he sees Marcelo making the run toward the penalty spot. Juventus defenders have been turned again as they follow the ball. Each turn costs them a couple steps and so they seem rooted to the ground while the Real players move around them. Ronaldo makes a “second side” pass to take advantage of the turn and cause the defenders to lose sight of Marcelo. A “second side” pass is made to the opposite side of a defender than the side that the offensive runner is on in respect to the defender. Since the ball and the runner are on opposite sides of the defender he will not be able to keep both of them in sight. In this case, the Juventus defenders are watching the ball and lose sight of Marcelo.
Marcelo is meeting the ball in open space with only the keeper to beat. The defenders are calling for offside, but Marcelo timed his run to coincide with Ronaldo’s pass and he is not offside. Ronaldo gets the assist for the prospective goal and the player who created the goal by his run is standing alone watching the culmination of his work. Isco knows that he played a crucial role in this score even though he neither scored nor assisted on it. In modern movement-oriented soccer, many times the player whose movement opened the defense is not part of the actual scoring of the goal.
Ironically, Marcelo fumbled the actual shot on goal, but the position and lack of defenders around him allowed him to stumble into the goal with the ball. Real was up 3-0, the game and likely the movement into the next round was settled.
Real scored with only 3 players against a number more defenders by using modern offensive concepts that involve possession by having close support, movement by players into space from off-the-ball locations, forcing defenders to make choices as to their position and then taking advantage of those decisions. This may seem like extremely high level play reserved for only the best of the best in the world. It is not. The basics of this style of play can be taught to single digit aged youngsters. As they become familiar with possession and simple movement they can learn more complex strategies like diagonal runs, second side passes, decoy runs designed to move defenders away from important areas and more. And while they play this type of offense they develop the technical skills of control, passing and vision that this style of play needs to be successful. If American youth coaches were tuned in to developing these ideas and skills in our youngsters, we would not be worrying about qualifying for the World Cup. It can be done, we just need to educate our coaches to teach our youth and eventually the USA will have our own Isco, Marcelo and Ronaldo scoring goals like this one.
There are many wonderful things about the holiday time each year. One of the best practices during late December is the telling of stories that carry a positive outcome and often offer a meaningful lesson to accompany the tale. We see uplifting movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Home Alone” that use the Christmas and New Year period to make us feel great and teach life lessons to boot. The Hallmark Channel devotes weeks to the telling of tales that end with problems that are solved through the learning of lessons that are important all year long.
In keeping with that tradition, the Soccer Yoda would like to tell a story, at this time of year, that like those mentioned above, has an important life lesson to teach and a positive outcome to make the reader smile. This tale is true and, of course, it’s a soccer story. What it isn’t- is a Christmas story- I decided to use the season as an excuse to relate a real-life happening that still reminds me of an important lesson I and a group of teen-age boys learned a long time ago.
In the summer of 1984 I was into my fourth year of coaching a team of boys living in Columbia,Md. The Soccer Association of Columbia was formed in 1971 and had grown into one of the stronger soccer clubs in the East, producing a number of Maryland State champion teams as well as several Eastern regional titleholders and a national championship team ( and more were to come in the near future). My team was a good team, we had risen from the Washington DC beltway league’s 3rd division all the way to the first and we were looking to continue that improvement. To that end, we decided that a trip overseas could have a great impact on the boys.
A word about team names – it is common practice here in the 20-teen years to name youth soccer teams by a specific process: the name of the club comes first, then the year of the players birth, then either a color or a level description (or both) or perhaps the coaches initials to indicate which particular team it is. So a team at the same level as our story team ( u-16, top team) would be named SAC 2002 Premier Blue at the present time. Under the present system we would have been SAC 1968 Premier Blue. But back in the 70’s and 80’s team names were different. There were fewer teams at that time and many clubs including ours used team names to inspire loyalty and pride. For while “SAC 1968 Premier Blue” might be descriptive, it certainly doesn’t raise any passion or identity. All SAC teams went by the name “Columbia” ( it helped that there were no competing soccer organizations in the city at that time) and had a nickname that was unique to that team in the organization. Therefore there were Columbia Eagles and Columbia Strikers and Columbia Comets and the like. We took the name of the top professional team in the country and thus were the Columbia Cosmos (it was a nice alliteration and the fact that I had an ex-player of mine on the actual Cosmos didn’t hurt the idea).
In that summer of ’84 our team went to Europe to play and learn from the best European soccer nations at that time , Holland and Germany. I had made this trip before with an older team and it was very worthwhile on many levels. We were going to travel through the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, play 8 games and learn as much about soccer and Europe as we could. Our first stop was at the Dutch National Training Center at Papendal which is located just outside of Arnhem. There we would train for a short week ,play a game against local competition and then head out to Germany. I had been at Papendal before, it was (and is) a terrific facility which is used by many teams and clubs for training purposes and in the summer it is especially busy. On this trip we were joined at the facility by a first division Greek squad and a Dutch soccer camp consisting of about 200 boys ages 8-16.
We stayed in dorms and ate meals at a cafeteria used by all those using the center. We arrived in the evening and the next morning went to breakfast before our first training session. During the meal one of the boys came to me and said,”Coach, is it just me or are those Dutch kids staring at us?”. I glanced around quickly and remarked that I didn’t see anything unusual. Our sessions went well, the fields were perfect, the weather was great. But as each meal occurred, the boys became more convinced that the camp kids were staring and laughing at them. This bothered them far more than it should have and began to have an effect on their overall experience at the center. I tried to assure the boys that being Americans, they would normally attract some degree of attention in Europe and these were youngsters who had probably never seen an American at all. “They know the USA isn’t very good at soccer and they are laughing at us” was the general thought of the team though. Given that all were there to play soccer everyone wore the same general apparel and hair styles were no different from each other, so that the only reason the Dutch boys gave our team extra attention was a perceived ineptness on the field, or so my kids surmised. “Coach, they haven’t even seen us practice, how do they know whether we are good or not? Just because our national team can’t make it to the World Cup?” I still wasn’t aware of any extreme behavior at meals but the kids insisted that they were being disrespected and I did notice some added attention paid to them at times. As they were itching to play a match on those grass-carpet fields I decided to talk to the camp coaches about a game between us and their best u-16 campers.
The camp coaches asked if I could wait a day for their answer as they needed to talk to their director. The next day they told me that the director had decided that if any of their campers were hurt in a match with us, they would be liable for damages and parents would be very upset if that were to happen. I understood the caution but the team wasn’t happy. “They laugh at us but they won’t give us a chance to prove we can play.” As I ran a soccer camp myself I understood the caution and explained the reasoning to the boys. They calmed down but it was evident that they really wanted to prove that they (and therefore Americans in general) could play the game at least as well as an assortment of camp kids. This was bothering them to no end.
Finally the last day of our stay arrived and in the evening we were matched up with the best u-16 team in the area. Our team was very ready to play and out-hustled the opposition during the first 5 minutes resulting in a scrappy goal for us. This fired the boys up even more but the Dutch team started putting together some good passing moves and held the ball in our half for a few minutes. Suddenly we took possession and then put together as fine a counter-attack as one would see at that level… a fast series of three balls down our flank followed by a centering pass to a late running central midfielder who found the net with one well placed touch. The boys went crazy, the opposition slumped….and then the kids noticed the campers watching the game from the hill overlooking the field. If anything they were now even more energized than before and by the time it was over we had decimated our foe 7-0.
As we walked back to our dorm we passed the building housing the campers. They had disappeared after the game and frankly the boys were basking in their performance rather than worrying about what a bunch of Dutch youngsters thought (finally!). As we walked past the camp dormitory, I saw a boy looking out from the front door. When he saw us he yelled out in English,”Here they come boys!” With that the door slammed open and at least a hundred campers of all ages came streaming out, running up to our team , all of them armed with paper and writing utensils. In broken English they asked every player on our team for their autograph. My kids were astonished, at first unsure of what to do and then signing with the most bemused looks on their faces. They laughed, they signed, they tried to converse, they shook hands, they even hugged the younger campers. Nothing could have topped off that match effort like this reception. After a long while the campers gradually returned to the dorm. I noticed that the “lookout” who had hailed our appearance was among the campers still lingering. I surmised that he spoke some English and went to him and asked,” This is very nice, but why do you want our autographs?” He looked at me and said incredulously,”you are Cosmos!”
It took me a second or two……and suddenly it all fell into place …and I felt somewhat ashamed. My team and myself among them had totally misinterpreted the campers. Our own doubts and insecurity had allowed us to completely misread these children. European professional clubs, especially the larger organizations , have youth teams to groom potential players for the senior team. Many of these youngsters end up as stars, others don’t pan out. At present MLS clubs are developing youth teams like their European counterparts. In 1984 the Cosmos were a world-famous team. They had brought world renown players like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, and others to New York in order to build a soccer organization that would provide a base for the growth of the game in the USA. Given the talent level of the team, any youth playing in the Cosmos organization would naturally be considered to be extremely talented and a probable future star. The campers were staring at the Columbia Cosmos in the mistaken belief that we were the NY Cosmos u-16 team ( which did not even exist at that time) and the rout of the local team that they had just witnessed convinced them that we were the real deal…..which we were not. A little communication during the week could have cleared up the confusion and perhaps forged some friendships, created some international understanding and, while costing my boys their moment of false celebrity, it could also have spared them their week-long anxiety. Communication can solve many misunderstandings, and once the barriers were broken down, even for just one short evening, we found that the love of soccer made for a great commonality.
During our trip we were treated like royalty by so many great people. I am happy to say that perhaps the experience at Papendal had an effect as the boys had a wonderful time, made many friends and found ways to communicate with citizens of three different countries. We also won almost every game , even defeating a German Regional Championship team who underestimated us badly. Our one loss was a fantastic game against a REAL professional u-16 team when we played Schalke 04. Schalke is a long time successful first-division German club and we were lucky enough to play their u-16’s in their former stadium, the Glückauf-Kampfbahn. The stadium held 34,000 people, we played before about 50. We lost 2-0, which sounds excellent considering the competition, but in all honesty, if we were awarded a goal for every time we got into Schalke’s defending third, we still would have probably lost. For a squad that considered itself a possession team, we learned what possession was truly all about. But that was fine, after all that kind of learning was the point of the trip.
Members of the Columbia Cosmos have done well. Many were the nucleus of an undefeated state championship high school team. Members of the team played in such diverse colleges as Catawba College, Jacksonville St, UMBC, Dartmouth, U of Maryland, US Naval Academy (captain!). While ex-Cosmos have succeeded in many different careers, there are some still attached to the game, coaching in places such as College of Charleston, LSU, U of Maryland, Loyola College, U of North Carolina Greensboro. The Soccer Yoda (that’s me) likes to think that the lessons learned through the sport of soccer contributed to the lives and successes of these men, for in the long run, for youth, that is the purpose of the game.
It has been a month since the USA was eliminated from the World Cup to be held in Russia next summer. At that time the soccer community mourned the loss of a great chance to further the growth of the sport here in the United States and also the loss of the excitement of competing in the world’s biggest sporting event. There is also the feeling that every decent soccer country on the planet is going to a big party and we are going to be left out while the rest of the world is having a great time. And while nothing can be done about missing the Cup next year, as it turns out we will not be alone in our absence from Russia.
In the last several weeks all qualification tournaments for the World Cup have concluded and rarely has as many consistent world powers and World Cup participants been eliminated from the championship. Perennial powers like Italy and the Netherlands will be missing. Usual participants like Chile and Ghana failed to make the cut. It will seem rather strange to long time fans of the sport to view a World Cup without these nations being represented, while Americans might take some solace in the fact that unexpected defeat is not something unique to us. Lets take a look on what happened to these teams in their failed attempts to qualify for Russia.
The European qualifying tournament had 54 nations participating and were awarded 13 places in Russia. Rather than enduring many preliminary rounds, the European Football Association (UEFA) took advantage of the fact that 54 can be evenly divided by 6. They seeded their countries into 9 groups of 6 teams each. Only the winners of each group were guaranteed a spot in the Cup.. The eight best second place finishers paired off to home and away playoffs with each other and the 4 winners also made it to Russia. The fact that there are far more than 9 strong sides in Europe assured the fact that some excellent teams would be looking at playoffs and that there was a definite possibility there would be some surprise omissions from Europe.
Italy – The Italians hadn’t missed a World Cup since 1958 and have won four of them altogether. Their defensive style always makes them tough to beat in a tournament and they were still blessed with Gigi Buffon in the goal. While aging gracefully at 39 yrs old, Buffon was in the nets when Italy won it all in 2006 and he is still considered one of the worlds best. What the Italians were not blessed with was a kind draw in the elimination. They were put into the same group as Spain and the Spanish are once again looking like the super team they were a few years ago.
The Spanish ran away with the group and as good as Italy was, they weren’t as successful as Spain. Nevertheless the playoff was with Sweden and the Italians were confident they would qualify without having to win their group. In Sweden a deflected shot beat Buffon and the Italians lost 1-0. However, the real shock came in the return match in Milan when the Swedes played defense like they were the Italians and kept the home team from scoring. So the Italians miss out for the first time in 60 years and Gigi’s last game for his country did not reflect the successful impact he has had on Italian soccer.
Netherlands – The Dutch have been World Cup contenders since the 1970’s and have also been credited for innovating the game to its present standards. They have been a strong presence in virtually every World Cup for the last 45 years despite failing to win one. They have been considered the littlest country with the best players. But in the last few years their results have not reached the levels of past decades and their reputation as the best small country developer of talent has been bequeathed to Belgium ( or maybe Iceland). In the qualifying round they were in the same group as France, which was the favorite and a Sweden team that exceeded expectations. The Dutch had the same number of points as the Swedes but they failed to pour on the goals against the weaker teams in the same manner as Sweden did. As a result they missed out on the playoff round by goal difference. Of course, Sweden went on to knock Italy out of the Cup.
Other European teams that that failed to qualify but have been in numerous Cups in the past include nations such as Greece, Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary. Despite 13 places from their continent, there are many sad fans in Europe.
South America has far fewer nations than Europe, but the region has produced some excellent teams, particularity Brazil and Argentina, having won 7 World Cups between them. But there are other strong teams also and with only 5 possible places the competition was fierce. The qualifying round was played between 10 teams and the top 4 automatically made it while the fifth team participated in a playoff with the Oceania champion. When it was all done most of the favorites were in with one notable exception – Chile.
Chile – Over the last several years Chile has established itself has a team to be feared if they are healthy and motivated. They have a number of world class players and when fired up to play their best they have accomplished much. They won the Copa America tournament which decides the best team in South America in both 2015 and 2016 while last summer they finished runner up to Germany in the Confederations Cup which is considered the warm-up to the World Cup. But in the qualifying round they were neither healthy nor motivated and their results showed it. However, were it not for an appeal the Chileans filed over an illegal player they would have qualified. Chile played to a draw with Bolivia but the Bolivians used a player who did not have the needed residential time in their country. Chile appealed and were awarded a win and the 3 points that go with it instead of the one they got for the draw. But Peru had also played Bolivia when the player in question was used and they had lost. The Peruvians were also awarded 3 points instead of the zero points that a loss earns. So Peru received one more point gained by the appeal than Chile did. Chile had one point from their game with Bolivia but ended up with three while Peru had none from their match with the Bolivians but were given three also. And going into the last game Chile and Peru were vying for the last playoff spot. That should have been enough motivation for the Chileans but they lost 3-0 to a Brazil squad that had nothing to gain having already qualified. Those goals cost Chile the spot as they lost to Peru by 2 in goal difference. In the playoff matches Peru defeated New Zealand to make it to their first World Cup in 36 years.
In Africa there were surprises also. World Cup regulars Cameroon and Ghana were eliminated while Senegal and Egypt qualified. Morocco and Tunisia made it while Nigeria might be ready to make a successful run in the senior cup after much success in the younger competitions.
While all these upsets might make Americans feel better about the failure of the USA to qualify, when one examines the job required to make it to Russia in these other competitions compared to the needed finish in CONCACAF, well, it’s not so comforting. European teams needed to win a group of six or finish second and win a playoff. South Americans needed to finish fourth out of ten, fifth earned a playoff. But the USA only had to finish third of six or fourth to get a playoff and in a weak region at that. Yet the Americans couldn’t manage the comparatively easy task.
But wait! Perhaps all is not lost in regards to the USA playing against good teams from around the world next summer. No, not the World Cup……that experience is gone….. for this time anyway. One aspect of American sports is inclusion in “big win” events, even if the participants aren’t good enough for the main event. College football has enough bowl games to include most any team that can win as many games as they lose. Professional playoff systems have grown to include more and more teams as the years go by ( example:once the only teams that played in baseball’s post season were the two league winners). And college basketball has a secondary tournament – the National Invitational Tournament – for teams that missed out on the big prize NCAA tournament. So, with so many quality sides sitting it out next summer…..how about a soccer version of the NIT? We could call it the WIT (World Invitational Tournament) and host it right here in the USA. Imagine an event with Italy, Holland, Chile , Cameroon, Ghana (and the USA, of course). In order to include nations from all over the globe, New Zealand, the Oceania champion, could be invited and perhaps Canada or Honduras or Greece could make it to fill out an eight team tournament. There are certainly enough good teams left over from World Cup qualifying to make for some very interesting matches if the entrants took the tournament seriously and fielded their best teams. Rumor has it that the USSF is actually looking into such a competition. But even if that hypothetical tournament doesn’t happen, soccer fans from the USA can join fans from so many other nations in watching the World Cup and thinking, “we would have beaten THAT team! ”
In 2013 the USA men’s national team worked hard to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. When the job was accomplished, the American soccer community adopted the mantra “We’re Going to Brazil!”, well… except for Landon Donovan who was famously cut from the squad by then-coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Donovan was cast in a well watched commercial in which he slyly mumbled,”I’m not going to Brazil.”
After last weeks incredulous series of events the entire USA soccer community now must join Landon in not going to Russia. It’s the first time since 1986 that the USA will not play in the world’s most watched athletic event and the lack of numbers of soccer participants in the country cannot be used as an excuse any more as it was during the mid 20th century. Actually, if one were to DOUBLE the ENTIRE population of Trinidad and Tobago and then give EVERY single citizen a soccer ball, there would still be 400,000 MORE YOUTH soccer players in the USA than ALL of the soccer players there. And we still couldn’t find 11 players who could defeat Trinidad’s 11 when it counted.
Of course the fallout has been enormous, thousands have opinions as to the causes of the debacle. Among knowledgeable comments the range runs from Coach Bruce Arena’s “there’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing” to many calling for complete replacement of every person attached to the USSF . While it is true that while Omar Gonzelez’ misplay of a Trinidad cross was an error that a 10 yr old would be ashamed of, the way it managed to loop just over keeper Tim Howard’s outstretched hands and into the USA goal was rather shocking. Add Alvin Jones shot that he has never hit before and never will again AND both Honduras and Panama defeating Mexico and Costa Rica at the same time…..and the proverbial cold day in hell would be a common occurrence compared to the odds of all these events conspiring to knock the USA out of the cup.
But the problems leading to this failure of American soccer have been noted by many long before this past week. While many critics are just jumping on the bandwagon now, others , including the Soccer Yoda, have been discussing issues that hurt our soccer performance for many months. So….rather than add to the new uproar, here are a number of problems that I have noted before in this blog, some going back a few years. These are issues in my opinion, many will not consider some of these to be problems at all…..others will say that some are so minor as to not to be worth discussing. But, after watching and participating in soccer in this country for decades and observing the sport at all levels first hand in more successful countries like Belgium and Germany, I believe I have legitimate insight into concerns ranging from very major problems to admittedly very minor ones. But they all add up to the failure of USA soccer to provide 15 players who could finish above Panama and Honduras, much less Mexico and Costa Rica while losing to the worst team in the tournament to drive the final nail in the American coffin. So here goes … from very large to very small…the Soccer Yoda’s major issues with USA soccer…all having been talked about in this blog previously:
Pay to Play – In order for developing American soccer players to join large clubs and experience the game in an organized manner plus gain experienced coaching ( more about the coaching later), parents must hand over thousands of dollars to those clubs. I do not have anything against club directors for wanting to make soccer into a full-time job. I would have loved to have been able to support my family with soccer back in my employment days. But, there are a couple problems with this setup that combine to limit the development of youth players as the clubs drive to increase income. 1) What happens to the youth whose parents cannot afford to place their kids in these programs? Some clubs have scholarships but many have no form of financial assistance and others offer only token aid. This leaves tens of thousands of potential superstars without the means to develop their game. 2) In the attempt to increase the income gained from the sport, it is common for club coaches to work with two, three or even more teams at the same time. Coaching multiple teams absolutely diminishes the personal attention needed by coaches to bring each player to his/her full potential. If a club can’t find enough coaches for a “one coach – one team” philosophy, that club could reduce it’s number of players. Of course, that would decrease the total financial income and THAT would strain the full-time adults in the club. 3) In order to attract more families, clubs adopt a win-at-all-cost-now philosophy since unknowing parents don’t understand that developing players to top levels takes time and the willingness to endure possibly poor win-loss records while the caliber of play gets better.
Coaching Knowledge and Practices – Despite the increasing number of youth coaches who have played the game, the training practices of a major number of those coaches fails to provide their players with the means to become better players, both in their ball skills and in their tactical knowledge. Too many coaches employ practices like “agility training sessions” in which players don’t even touch a ball. Running laps does nothing to increase a player’s development…..also the amount of time spent waiting in line during practice is often is much greater than the time spent with a ball.
Other countries find players who have developed their craft in the streets, USA soccer hasn’t developed a “street game” similar to other countries or to our own basketball culture, but we could imitate it and even improve on it in our formal training. At this time though, the number of coaches who understand that players must have the ball at their feet and in situations that simulate the game is far too small to build a base of young quality players. Our organization itself hindered youth development for years with it’s idea that technical ball skills must be developed before youngsters learn tactics. This failed to promote the learning of either in our kids. The fact is that young players can learn where to be and where to play the ball at very young ages and as they play with those “tactics” they repeat the needed ball skills over and over. Repetition is the means to ability and to confidence in that ability and it can be gained at surprisingly young ages. And speaking of tactics:
The game is played in more than one direction – American youth soccer generally neglects to teach youngsters the value of possession, of vision, of movement to support teammates and confuse defenders. Defenders tend to lack the knowledge to cover each other and to anticipate offensive play. The American game is often an exercise in tunnel vision and as players get older it becomes more difficult to change habits formed as youth. One bit of good news is that last year the USSF changed the rules and field sizes of our youth up to age 12 to encourage tactical awareness and play. Hopefully in the coming years we will see players who have learned to be as subtle as they are now direct.
The MLS – our adult players need to play…that is true. But, when capable, they need to stretch themselves and play at the highest caliber possible. Too many of our better players are in the MLS and not in Europe. Without a doubt, if Christian Pulisic had stayed in the US he wouldn’t be the player he is now and will be in the future. Our national organization needs to encourage our developing players to take advantage of any offers to play for European teams.
Minor Issues – Pride in Our National Jersey…..what National Jersey? – Germany, France, Italy, Argentina, Brazil….all major international powers….all with an identifying jersey that inspires pride in the national team….both in their followers and in their players. The USA seems unique too….in our constantly changing uniform for our national team. Yes, the USSF and Nike like to sell jerseys….but other nations manage to sell their wares while keeping a traditional look. Brazil is immediately identifiable by its yellow jersey and blue pants, Argentina has its sky blue stripes and of course Germany’s white and black strikes immediate recognition ( and fear?) among it’s foes. When does the USA decide adopt a look that we all recognize as our own?
We aren’t English – ok, this is really nitpicking……but, it has been said that only when the USA puts it’s own stamp on the game will we truly become the respected international soccer nation that we would like to become. Anybody in this nation watching footy on the goggle box whilst eating crisps? No? Then why do we play football on the pitch in our kits and boots? Nothing against the English, but why do we think we must talk UK when referring to the sport? We play soccer on the field in our uniforms and soccer shoes. We still carry an inferiority complex about our soccer ( of course, failing to make the World Cup won’t help) but at least using our own terms in regards to SOCCER could help establish pride in our ability to play and impact the world’s game.
It’s a long way to 2022, hopefully all the discussion will prompt changes, both big and small, to the game in the United States so that we never miss out on this great event again.
The Soccer Yoda constantly observes many soccer matches of differing levels and ages, males and females…..in person, streaming through the internet and on television. But as for being a fan of any team or teams, there are very few sides that spark my emotions. Among those that do, there are two teams in particular in which I invest large amounts of time and energy. I follow their activities whether they are playing or not and enjoy periods of elation or endure times of depression depending upon their results. One such team is the United States Men’s National Team. Actually, being the patriotic person that I am and considering that I have personally coached 8 youngsters who have reached this level, I cheer for any team representing our country. But since the senior men’s team tends to represent all of American soccer (correctly or not), there is extra emotional involvement with them. The other team is Liverpool. Rooting for the Reds lately is an exercise guaranteed to produce bipolar behavior. Just in the last two weeks in two consecutive games against high level competition, they went from a very impressive 4-0 walloping of Arsenal to a 5-0 disaster against Manchester City. But, win or lose, they have my club team loyalty and my bucket list includes someday singing You’ll Never Walk Alone while watching the Reds at their home field of Anfield.
Last week both my teams were involved in important matches and they resembled each other in eerily similar ways. Unfortunately those similarities were not welcome by their followers and certainly not by me.
Soccer is, by nature, a defensive game. Scoring goals is not easy and enormous amounts of physical and mental energy is spent on devising ways to score and then on putting those strategies into practice. Teams that give up goals easily have difficulty winning because outscoring opponents on a regular basis is very difficult. There are basic methods of individual and team defense that, if practiced proficiently and consistently, can make it very tough on offenses. One of those strategies is the concept that individual defenders must keep track of offensive players as they move into positions in attack and especially if they get near the goal in onside positions. Defenders must know where the ball is, but they also must know where attackers are and they must limit the distance between those attacking players and themselves. The act of “ball-watching” at the expense of keeping track of opponent forwards often results in attacking players getting the ball with space between themselves and the defense. If those offensive players can shoot accurately…. goals result. No defender wants to commit the error of ball-watching and it is considered a basic mistake in defensive soccer.
At national team levels such basic errors as ball-watching are considered major mistakes and decent players know better than to lose attacking opponents anywhere, much less near the goal. So , last week , when the USA played Costa Rica in an important World Cup qualifying match in New Jersey, solid defense by the Americans was expected.The game started on a positive note for the home team. Possession and probing offense seemed to indicate that the USA understood the importance of the game and had a good plan to attack the visitors. Then, at the 30 minute mark, Costa Rica’s Marco Urena managed to get between the two USA center backs Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream without either one providing an obstacle to his receiving a pass. Now Urena is not an international star. He plays in the MLS for the San Jose Earthquakes and, while scoring a few times this season, he is not considered a major danger to opponents goals. Perhaps he would have been noticed more quickly if he did have a greater reputation. As it was, Cameron looked to have his attention upfield and Ream let Urena get inside him. When the pass came, the USA defense was in trouble.
Although Ream recovered to cut off Urena’s direct path to the goal, the Costa Rican still managed to get off a shot around him which beat American goalkeeper Tim Howard and the USA was behind. The visitors played solid defense after that and late in the game Cameron compounded his mistake by giving up the ball deep in American territory and Urena scored again. The 2-0 defeat put the USA in a poor position, needing some kind of a result in the next match against Honduras in order to keep World Cup hopes alive.
The next game was in Honduras and the hosts scheduled the match in the middle of the day to take advantage of the heat and then the government declared a national holiday so the crowd would be large and intimidating. In addition, the grass on the field was left fairly long to slow down the American game. Such is life competing with Central American countries in soccer. Not surprisingly, USA coach Bruce Arena replaced Cameron and Ream at center back positions with Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler. These two have played together many times for the American team and seemed to be a good choice for this match. Arena also decided to use a long ball attack to counter the heat and grass. The game mimicked volleyball without any particular advantage to either side. Then, at 27 minutes, the American defense fumbled again. The Hondurans had the ball on their left, about 30 yards from the USA goal. But the situation seemed well covered. One attacking player, Romell Quioto , was in an outside position, however he was covered by Graham Zusi with Gonzalez backing him up.
The pass was an attempted through ball to Quioto, Gonzalez was retreating and appeared to have the Honduran in his sights. But, as the ball approached him, he let it roll past instead of playing it….seemingly not seeing the danger presented by Quioto, who broke past Zusi.
The ball went past Gonzalez, who then realized that Quioto was breaking on the ball. He chose to slide in order to knock the ball away before the Honduran could get to it. But he botched the slide, and instead, put the ball right in front of the grateful Quioto.
The Honduran placed a perfect shot past goalkeeper Brad Guzan and the USA was behind. Ball-watching had again struck the Red, White and Blue and our World Cup hopes hung by the proverbial thread. Luckily the USA’s Bobby Wood found an equalizer late in the game and a draw was the result. So our chance to play in Russia next summer now rides on a huge home game with Panama followed by an away match against Trinidad and Tobago, both in October. Hopefully the American defense will be better in those matches.
While the USA was giving the Soccer Yoda a series of heart palpitations, my Liverpool team was all fun. A roaring attack led by Sadio Mane was tearing up English and European opposition and while the Reds also had some defensive problems, mistakes like the Americans were making just don’t happen at the higher level of play that Liverpool represents. Or so I thought.
The big game was Liverpool versus Manchester City. Although early in the season, Manchester City is a major threat to take the English Premier League title so a match between these two championship challengers represented a chance for the winner to get a jump on that prize. And the game started well for my guys. Passing was brisk, possession was ours, early threats on goal were one-sided in Liverpool’s favor. I should have learned to look away from the tv screen at the 25 minute mark from the recent USA matches, but this was Liverpool…..this was different. As the 25th minute started the ball was being bounced around by each team’s midfielders who were playing their version of soccer tennis. Neither team put the ball on the ground at that moment and it was getting headed back and forth in the middle of the field. While that was happening City forward Sergio Aguero literally WALKED ( yes, CAPITAL letters ) from behind Liverpool’s two centerbacks into a position between them and neither saw him as they were watching the midfield volleyball antics. Then City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne spotted Aguero in his advantageous position.
De Bruyne brought the ball down and, for the Soccer Yoda, it was deja vu all over again. Another defender-splitting pass to a forward who gained his position unseen until it was too late. Aguero dribbled around stranded goalkeeper Simon Mignolet and City had the lead. 10 minutes later Mane was red-carded for a controversial foul and the rout was on. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was concerned about the upcoming Champions League match with Sevilla 4 days later and made changes at halftime to rest many of his most important players. It ended up 5-0 Manchester City.
So what did we learn from these events? We learned that, even at the highest levels, fundamentals are still fundamental. Basic mistakes like defensive ball-watching can occur in any game, from the youngest kids to the most experienced professionals, if the players are not constantly alert to their surroundings. And the Soccer Yoda learned that, for now at least, he should cross his fingers very hard and be very afraid during the 25 – 30 minute mark of his favorite teams games!
Recently the Soccer Yoda came across an article about the USSF attempting to standardize the manner in which player positions are referred to in this country. After checking with an instructor for the USSF coaching courses I discovered that, yes, standard position references are preferred and are being used in class and that numbers are considered superior to position names in this regard. To understand the use of numbers for positions, one must be familiar with the history of soccer development, especially considering historical formations and substitution rules.
In the 1920’s and early 1930’s , the most popular formation in use was the 2-3-5.
As seen above , the formation has 2 defenders with 3 midfielders and 5 forwards. Sometimes, like in Italy, the 5 forwards were staggered to add depth. During this time, the use of numbers on the players jerseys began to become popular, not having been used during the first 50 years or so of the sports formal development. There is a reason that this custom, of such obvious need to modern sports fans, was slow to come into use. It was the substitution rules……or actually the lack of them. In most competitions there were no substitutions allowed until the mid 1960’s and not in the World Cup until 1970. The starting 11 players were the only 11 players to participate in a game, therefore there was no need to differentiate starting players from substitutes by using unique jersey numbers. In the 1930’s player numbers did finally became fashionable, but there was a need for only 11 of them. The numbers were used to indicate the players position for each game, not the individual player himself. So the number 2 (right fullback) might be worn by one individual in one match and different person in the next. Remember, the non-playing members of the team did not need numbers (or uniforms for that matter) since they weren’t going to participate at all in that game.
The numbers were labeled defense to offense, right to left, starting with the goalkeeper as #1 and going from there. So the numbers could be used to describe player positions just as well as the names of the positions.
During that decade (1930’s) Arsenal started using a variation of the 2-3-5, and since they had become one of the most winning clubs of the time, the formation was copied by many (of course).
The center halfback was moved back to increase the defensive strength of the formation and the insides were also moved back to increase depth on offense. Although the center half was no longer a “halfback” and the position became a primarily defensive one, the name stuck and even today some commentators refer to central defensive players as “center halves”. The insides job was to feed the outside players or the center forward. The formation became known as the WM from the letters which can made by drawing lines from one position to the next among the top half of the team and among the bottom half. Each position became associated with each number and the physical traits needed in each position became attached to the number describing the position. A #9 was a big player, very good with headers and possessing a powerful shot. #7’s and #11’s were fast, very good 1 on 1 dribblers and defense was not a needed skill for them. 8 and 10’s had excellent passing skills, great vision and the ability to construct offense moves and so on with the rest of the 11 players on the field. The number described the position in a quick easily understood manner.
Then in the late 1960’s, substitution became a part of the game. Players needed numbers in excess of 2-11 and when a new player entered the game wearing a larger number than 11 he could go to whatever position for which he was needed, unrestricted by the number on his shirt. As the game changed and players became more mobile in their duties on the field, their shirt numbers grew less and less attached to their starting positions. Larger squads required larger numbers and today it is not uncommon for players wearing numbers in the twenties or even higher to start games. However, as mentioned in earlier posts, soccer is a game with a deep attachment to tradition. Even today, many forwards have numbers 7-11, often defenders wear low numbers, etc. As for positions, the number attachment still remains to a large extent. When Messi started games for Barcelona in an advanced central position and then moved backwards towards the middle of the field, the system was called a “false 9”, in that Messi gave the appearance of a traditional center forward, but then moved back in a move designed to pull defenders out of the middle to open up space for other players. The fact that Messi wore #10 while playing a position known universally as a “false nine” shows the lack of connection between shirt number and position number. But the use of the number 9, false or not, shows the long-standing attachment of number to position.
In modern times we have many formations and variations on those formations. As a result, the names used to describe various positions vary depending on the formation, the role of the player, the person describing the position and other variables. For instance, a defender playing in the back outside of a formation might be called a “wingback”, an “outside back” or a “fullback”. Given the multiple names for various positions, it seems logical for the USSF to attempt to establish some uniformity in our country’s soccer terminology. They are using the 4-3-3 as a basic formation and encouraging numbers to be used in place of names to refer to player roles.
Notice in the above , that the numbers used for each position are very similar to those used 80 years ago. 9 is still the center forward, 7 and 11 are still wings. The playmaking midfielder is 10, reminiscent of the “inside” who wore number 10 and fulfilled the same role in those days. 5 is still a central defender, now joined by 4 in the four back lineup. 2 and 3 have moved outside but are still defenders and referring to a player as a “3” certainly does reduce the variety of names that outside defenders have for their position at present.
However, the 4-3-3 is only one formation of play and there are others that don’t fit the USSF numbering system so well. The 4-4-2 diamond is one such formation. It has been used by many teams, including the USA men’s national team. While some of the numbers do fit the USSF designations, others do not. The back line’s 2 thru 5 numbers still describe their roles as does the defensive midfielder #6. And, there is a center forward that #9 can represent. But then we get problems.
There are two “center forwards” in this system, both interchangeable with each other, which is one of the attributes of formations that use two forwards…..they are difficult to defend against given the unpredictable movements of those forwards. Now, if numbers are supposed to represent roles as in #9 is an up-front forward…..then there are two 9’s in this formation (at least to the Soccer Yoda). Similarly if #8 is a central midfielder playing equal parts offense and defense…..then there are two 8’s as well. #10 is an attacking midfielder in the 4-3-3 and in the 4-4-2 diamond as well. So the numbers should look like this……simple:
As we can see, 9 is a still a central forward and 8 is still a central midfielder. As to 7 and 11, well they are wings who play wide and are largely attack oriented. And there aren’t any players in this system with those roles so there isn’t a 7 or an 11. But the USSF doesn’t see it that way. They want one player with each number, not multiples. So in the 4-4-2 formation this becomes the numbers used to describe the positions and roles:
This seems to contradict the concept that numbers describe roles on the field so that there is no confusion when discussing the players and their duties. Now a 10 is a central forward just like a 9. 7 and 11 are no longer right and left wings, they are central midfielders. and 8 has become an attacking midfielder instead of being balanced between offense and defense. The roles of the numbers have changed in order to fit the “one unique number for each player” mantra. Therefore, according to the USSF, when talking about roles on the team, we must also refer to the formation being referenced. “The 10 in the 4-4-2 diamond” becomes necessary because the “10 in the 4-3-3” has a distinctly different job. There are lots of formations with many differing roles for players and many do not fit the designated numbers of the USSF 4-3-3 outline. The necessity of referring to which system is being discussed seemingly contradicts the stated objective of simplifying and standardizing the position references. And, unless the USSF comes out with a chart of numbers for each and every formation, the use of which numbers for which position in each different system is left up to the individual and there is no standardization anyway.
“OK” the reader might ask, what’s the big deal? It’s just numbers. But there is an issue….at least to me. Recently I saw a tape of an excellent youth girls team. This team was very well coached, had a great possession game with loads of control, movement and a terrific combination of thoughtful and skillful play. They were good enough to win the national championship in their age group. They played a unique 4-1-4-1 system with a holding midfielder who controlled the game and a central forward who moved laterally as well as forward and set up her attacking midfielders (all 4 of them). But I was informed that actually, in reference to the USSF numbering system, the team used a 4-3-3 with very withdrawn wings and a deep holding midfielder. You see, there is no argument about numbers and roles if every team is using a 4-3-3. Now in this case the deference to the 4-3-3 doesn’t make much difference anyway. The numbers and roles fit the 4-1-4-1 fairly well compared to some other formations. But here is the problem: our youth system lacks in the development of short game mental and physical skills. Our kids can generally kick the heck out of the ball and can run like crazy to get to it, they can win 50-50 balls and can “be aggressive”. But when it comes to checking back, to providing short support for teammates, to running as a means of creating space for themselves AND for others, to making the simple possession-keeping pass……well, not so much. The USSF recognized this in their new youth rules. While the 4-3-3 can be a formation in which all these techniques are used, far too often in this country it is not. The insistence that numbers following the 4-3-3 are used in all discussions of the game could turn into a lack of variety in formations used by our already imagination-lacking coaches. It is a worry that the ease of using 4-3-3 numbers and the difficulty in transferring those numbers to other systems will stifle creativity in our youth coaches. Of course, for kids under the age of twelve ( under the new youth rules) there are not 11 players on the field and numbers might not be best for describing the roles of those players anyway. One thing is true, however. With standardization comes the risk of conformity and in a sport where imagination can be the best attribute, that is a worry.