By Paul Gardner
It is difficult to think of anyone involved in American soccer who is more fitted to a role in the game’s organization than Claudio Reyna. The top player of his generation, American born and trained, with full experience of the youth club, high school and college scenes, followed by a sparkling pro career in Germany, Scotland and England.
That record is enormously impressive, even more so than it first appears, because Reyna was a very special type of player, a creative ball artist with a soccer brain -- the sort of player we don’t produce very often, certainly not often enough.
Among the welter of physical midfielders and hard-nosed defenders who roll off the American production lines, Reyna was a rare jewel. Sadly, his MLS career was cut short by injury, so Americans saw little of him, and certainly never got to see him at his best.
So Reyna’s appointment as the U.S. Soccer Federation’s Youth Technical Director looks like the dream appointment. I would hail it as such were it not for some serious doubts -- not about Reyna, but about the nature of the job.
Youth development is a serious business these days -- and business is exactly the right word. There’s gold in them thar kids -- and just about everyone knows it. Because of that, we have a situation in the sport -- not just here, but worldwide -- in which the development of young soccer players cannot be left to chance or whim -- it must be carefully planned.
This is hardly the place to launch into a full-scale analysis of the mentality of planning; let me just say that I have lived through all of the post-war planning waves, and I have personally evolved -- though some might think of it as a regression, I suppose -- from a blind enthusiast to one who believes that planning is far from being the unalloyed benefit that I once considered it.
The best of planning unquestionably promotes efficiency along with a whole raft of other practical considerations, like saving time and money. But my feeling is that planning -- or more accurately, the planners -- need careful watching, and usually need to be reined in at some point.
Where planning invades human lives a close watch needs to be kept. Unless you’re absolutely certain that you know what you’re doing, it is sometimes better to let things run their course. And the problem with planners is precisely their damn cockiness in areas where they have no business being cocky at all. One of those areas, it seems to me, is the education of young soccer players. Possibly I’m talking about all areas of education, but I’ll stick with the narrow one that I know best.
To the key overall question -- which must be “Do we really know what we’re doing in the youth development area?” I must answer No, we do not. By “we” I mean the entire global soccer community, not just the USA.
I’m basing that opinion on decades of studying youth programs both here and overseas and on probably hundreds of interviews with youth coaches. Most of those coaches are committed people who deeply believe -- as they must do -- that they’ve got it right and that their methods are the correct ones. As no two methods are exactly alike, that raises some doubts.
Not necessarily about the various methods, but about the search for the “best” method. What if there is no best method? In anything that deals with young children, how likely is it that there is just one, best, method?
In short, I’m very suspicious of anything that poses as an “answer” to the player development problem. More -- I’m suspicious of the very idea that player development is a “problem.” It’s certainly linked to growing up, and we all know about problem ages and problem children, so the soccer pattern fits nicely into all those theories.
But those theories are part of a cloying network of adult control designed -- with the best of intentions -- to produce the “best” kids. In soccer we have managed, in short order, to create our own educational structure.
We have our coaching schools, we have our academies. I have watched these two areas grow and grow, looked on as they’ve quickly become substantial professional enterprises and now lucrative businesses.
While all that development has been going on, what has been happening to the development of the young players? Given the amount of time, money, and expertise now being poured into this area, the answer ought to be: a constant stream of much better players is now pouring out of the academies.
But that is not the case. The most elaborate and heavily financed academies belong to the top European clubs. The very clubs that are constantly buying African and South American (and occasionally U.S.) players -- for the simple reason that they are better than the European academy products. Even when an academy scores an occasional success with a Wayne Rooney or a Michael Owen, there is every reason to suspect that the academy had little to do with the formation of the player. I must make an exception -- a current exception -- of Barcelona here; but these success stories tend, in soccer, not to last. The triumphs of the Ajax youth program were loudly hailed in the 1970s, but those golden days are now a thing of the past.
What coaches who always feel they’re right, and academies whose job it is to produce certain types of players for their senior clubs, are quite likely to do is to distort the development of a player. I would say the “natural” development, but there can be no such thing in this day and age. But I believe that there is a development that is mercifully free of overbearing coaching influences -- that is the nearest we come to natural.
And I think a strong case can be made for insisting that a player so developed -- or allowed to develop - will be a rather different sort of product than an academy product.
For there is a clear danger that academy products will be stereotyped. And of all activities, soccer is surely one that needs variety. I think so, anyway. But I run into far too many coaches who clearly do not believe in that. They do not admit it, of course -- indeed are usually indignant at the very thought -- but their training methods and their drills and their exercises all tend, surreptitiously, subconsciously, stealthily, to bring about uniformity.
So when I hear Reyna and USSF President Sunil Gulati using the word “curriculum,” I do not feel encouraged. And I wonder what exactly Reyna will want to import from these far-from-successful European academies that will so improve things here.
After all, this is not a country where central dictation of ideas is exactly welcomed. Am I making a case for anarchy, then? No, I don’t think so. But what I am saying is that the alternative of careful planning has yet to prove itself. I cannot see that it has achieved much.
Of course, there is a widespread belief that planning ought to work. If it doesn’t, then maybe it’s the wrong sort of planning. But a retreat from planning is rarely considered these days. I myself find it difficult to envision. But I do have a strong suspicion that, particularly in this vast turbulent mish-mash of a country, we need to exercise restraint in imposing coaching standards and methods.
And my reason for feeling pretty certain about this is the contradictory situation we have created for ourselves over the Hispanic player. We have, in this country, a huge and growing goldmine of Hispanic talent. It is, at the moment, pathetically under-utilized, and to some extent not even recognized. There is a reason for that, of course.
It can be traced back to the early days of the USSF’s coaching schools, which were organized in 1970 by Dettmar Cramer, a methodical German whose speciality was physical training. That emphasis on the physical side of the game went down well with the American soccer community of that era, which was largely of European origin, or heavily European-influenced.
The coaching manual issued by the USSF at that time, bearing Cramer’s name, contained four pages on youth coaching -- virtually all of the information concerned itself with the various stages of physical development in growing children. The word “technique” appears but three times, and is never elaborated.
No doubt we’ve moved on -- but that physical bias is still very much with us. But now, it is extremely damaging, because the Hispanic influence has arrived, and it is very different. We have not dealt with this confrontation at all well. Too many of our senior coaches, from Bob Bradley and the majority of the MLS coaches on down, are still devotees of the physical game.
Add in the army of British coaches who have arrived to show us how to do things the primitive Brit way and you have an absurd situation where we are encouraging the best of our physical players (and I do not at all deny that some of them are very good indeed) while denying opportunities to the Hispanic players.
That situation has arisen because of planning -- because of a curriculum laid out by the USSF coaching schools. I recall then national team coach Walt Chyzowych in 1981 issuing ominous warnings to instructors in the coaching schools who did not stick religiously to the curriculum.
Rigidity of that sort belongs to those who want to mold players, who want to play Frankenstein or Svengali. It should have no place in any system that wants to develop young players.
Reyna can play a crucial role in opening up the American soccer establishment. But I don’t see his influence coming from talking to foreign coaches. I would hope that, right here on home ground, he can come to grips with an out-dated mindset in the American game. He is the man to do that -- his game was skill-based, he can speak with great authority.
So it is disappointing to hear him talking about youth development in this country as though its main aim is to prepare players for Europe, and to go on to mention, as a first priority, the need for greater physical strength.
Maybe that is something that is lacking, but it is hardly something that is difficult to correct. Indeed, it’s not a specific soccer area. But skill very definitely is, and any soccer development program that relegates it into second place is not much of a program at all.
I applaud Gulati for bringing Reyna into a USSF position. But I’m unclear what that position is, and what sort of authority Reyna will have. That may be a difficult one for Gulati to answer at this moment for fear of upsetting others who might suspect that Reyna will soon be giving them orders.
But it is a question that will need to be answered soon. I would like it to be answered in this way: Yes, Reyna will have considerable authority to affect the direction and content of the USSF’s coaching school and staff -- and not just in the youth area. I think his personality and his background as a player should give him the authority to break up the triple-S mindset that still has far too much influence in the American game -- speed, size and stamina -- when it is another S, for skill, that should be dominant.