Single-Digit Soccer: Sharks, minnows and reasonable goals

I’ve been writing about soccer on a steady basis for 12 years and irregularly before that. I’m deeply immersed in the issues of the sport in the USA from the national team through the pro leagues down to the youth level.

Now I’ve got another perspective on the game. I have been an assistant coach for two years at the U6 and U7 level. This fall, I’ll be an assistant on a U6 team and the head coach on a U8 team.

Single-Digit Soccer will be a regular SportsMyriad feature in which I talk about some of the issues I have encountered and will encounter. I’ll talk about striking a balance between those who consider soccer at the U5-U9 level a critical development period and those who consider it a glorified play date. It’s the balance of teaching one-touch skills to kids who can’t tie their shoes.

The issues and debates over youth soccer in the teen years are fairly well-documented. Club vs. school.* Club vs. ODP. Perhaps letting kids take a break from overly complicated drills to shoot the ball at those odd objects with netting at either end of the field.

Continue reading Single-Digit Soccer: Sharks, minnows and reasonable goals

Style points: Why everything you think about the present or future U.S. soccer mentality is wrong

Soccer America’s Best of American Soccer 2010 has a terrific profile of FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman, whose breakout year in 2010 is just a small part of his compelling story.

His background is one reason why I’ve found the stereotypes of U.S. soccer in this otherwise interesting BigSoccer thread, which popped up in response to my ESPN piece on Claudio Reyna’s quest to overhaul U.S. youth development, so frustrating. The stereotypes say U.S. coaches are all about finding athletic players and aren’t interested in having decent touch on the ball or other soccer skills. If players have creative flair, it’s coached out of them.

Sure, you could find plenty of examples in which that’s true. But you can also find plenty of counterexamples.

In the 1990s, before and just after MLS launched, the most influential coaches in the USA were college coaches. And if you look at that group, you see so many exceptions that you start to wonder about the rule.

Start with Hyndman (SMU 1984-2008), who came to this country from China via Macau. He is a martial arts master who applies that discipline and focus (but not its kicks and punches) to the possession style he learned on a long sojourn to Brazil.

Then you have Argentina-bred George Tarantini (N.C. State 1985-2010), who recruited playmakers such as Tab Ramos but surrounded him with bruisers who were masters at off-the-ball, away-from-ref’s-eyes physicality. (Tarantini also coached a Cuban refugee named Albertin Montoya, who is also featured in the Soccer America year in review after coaching FC Gold Pride to fleeting glory.)

U.S. coach Bob Bradley (Princeton 1984-95) works far harder at building ties within his team than he does at winning over fans with bravado on the field or in press conferences. That gives him a reputation of being a prototypical overcontrolling U.S. coach. Yet he’s sensitive to overcoaching — check this funny anecdote from Time magazine (HT: Stan Collins) in which Bradley suggests to his daughter’s coach that he tone down the yelling, and the coach smacks him down because he’s just a “parent.”

We haven’t even mentioned yet that two of the most successful MLS coaches are Bruce Arena (Virginia 1978-95) and Sigi Schmid (UCLA 1980-99), neither of whom fits the mold. And their thoughts on soccer aren’t similar to those of Steve Sampson (Santa Clara 1986-93), who unleashed the 3-6-1 on the World Cup in 1998 for better or for worse.

Not all of these coaches are popular among the hard-core fans who want to see the USA play like Spain. Some of them have used negative tactics from time to time. But they’re hardly a group that can be painted with one brush.

Neither are the players they’ve developed. For all the talk of U.S. coaches focusing on big galoots, the prototype for ball-winning defensive midfielders was Richie Williams, who is roughly 10 inches tall.

Perry Kitchen was a highly sought-after prospect from Akron, where Caleb Porter is the latest “it” guy in the college ranks whose team plays the “right” way, and yet he walked straight from the MLS draft podium to a grilling from Paul Gardner over how often he fouls. Which mold does he fit?

The U.S. player who drew the most attention over the past 10 years has been Freddy Adu. He’s not big. He’s not even fast, though Cobi Jones memorably suggested that he try to use his speed rather than tricks.

Some people claim Adu was never that good, though everyone from Ray Hudson to European clubs to the U-17 defenses he shredded may differ. Some say Peter Nowak, not exactly a “U.S. coach” at that point in his career, coached his improvisational flair out of him and undermined his confidence.

Not I’m surprised to see BigSoccer conventional wisdom contradict itself. Despite evidence to the contrary, BigSoccer posters are convinced U.S. coaches prefer the big brutes. Another BigSoccer meme suggests the U.S. would be much better if it could convince its athletes to choose soccer over football and basketball. Most of those “athletes” are considerably bigger than the typical soccer team.

The overriding point is this: The USA is a large, diverse country. Its coaches and players come from different backgrounds and offer different talents.

That explains Arena’s skepticism in the most pointed quote in my ESPN story. He says this country is simply too big and too diverse to develop one particular style that fits all.

And so it surely must be folly to suggest that the USA already has one particular mindset without even trying to impose one. Right?