By Mike Woitalla
The USA has long made a habit of looking abroad for formulas to successful soccer. But which nations are really worth emulating?
Brazil and Argentina are the most impressive perennial producers of soccer talent. Italy’s not too shabby. Spain is for good reason the main focus right now. Playing wonderful soccer, it won the last World Cup and is two-time defending European Champion. Spain is home to the world’s best club team of the last half-decade, Barcelona, whose tiny trio of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi were in 2010 declared the world’s top three players. Sending a powerful message to American coaches about valuing skill over size and athleticism.
Germany now provides an intriguing model because its revamp of youth player development a decade ago, which coincided with an embrace of its immigrant player pool, has produced the most entertaining German soccer in its history (besides perhaps its 1972 European Championship squad).
The Dutch continue to be a favorite because: The brilliant Johan Cruyff-led 1970s teams inspired a generation of American coaches; such a small country produces so many world-class players; and the Dutch coaching gurus speak such excellent English.
Speaking of speaking English, the English have had by far the most influence on the U.S. game. But England hasn’t won a major title since it hosted the 1966 World Cup; the top EPL teams have few English players and opt for non-English coaches; and while we may share a language, U.S. demographics match many successful soccer countries much more closely than England’s.
There has finally been a bit of attention paid to Mexico, which besides winning the Olympic (U-23) gold medal and two recent U-17 World Cups, is discovering players on our side of the border we somehow didn’t realize we had.
In February, MLS announced an ambitious coaching education partnership for its youth academy coaches with the French soccer federation (FFF). A youth academy coach from each of MLS’s 19 clubs will undergo 320 hours of FFF field and classroom instruction.
France’s 1998 World Cup and 2000 Euro titles, and the success of French players abroad, were attributed in large part to its youth development program, a collaboration of the FFF, the French government and French clubs, headquartered in Clairefontaine.
We spoke with Tim Bezbatchenko, MLS’s Senior Director of Player Relations and Competition, about MLS's French partnership …
SOCCER AMERICA: What was the impetus for the partnership?
TIM BEZBATCHENKO: Over the past two years, we did a strategic overview on the league that created a vision: To be among the best leagues in the world by 2022. Each department stepped back and decided to look at how we’re going to achieve that vision and created goals.
Our department, Player Competition, created five specific goals. One of those goals is to be a world leader in youth player development.
For our players to reach the highest level, we need to be a leader in youth development. We don’t think we can achieve our vision unless we do that.
SA: So why the French?
TIM BEZBATCHENKO: What does it mean to be a world leader in player development? Obviously, you need to have educational resources to take a player from rec soccer to a world-class level. We looked around the world, and the French federation has been one of the most successful in developing the young players, as evidenced by the number of their players playing around the world as well as the reputation. Right now, everybody is looking at Germany as a model, but the Germans actually, a decade or so ago, looked at the Clairefontaine model.
SA: What are the components of the partnership?
TIM BEZBATCHENKO: There are three main components.
The first is the classroom instruction and fieldwork at Clairefontaine.
The second is visiting foreign clubs. We realize we’re learning from the French, but we also want to see how they do it in other places in Europe and around the world. The visits are to Paris St. Germain, Lyon, Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and VfB Stuttgart.
The third component is integrating this methodology and pedagogy that’s learned in Clairefontaine in our academies.
SA: American soccer has a very long history of studying the methods in other countries and an expansive coaching education network. Is there still really something out there to enlighten us?
TIM BEZBATCHENKO: Right, they go over and might say, “A lot of this is similar.” Dave Chesler [U.S. Soccer's Director of Coaching Education, who’s taking part in the program] will say it’s not dramatically different.
But in some ways it is, in important ways, and that’s the way they look at their role as an educator. They use the word pedagogy – the art and science of teaching. I’m not saying people in the United States don’t view it this way, but they [French] truly see it as an art form. Not just the science of you can trap and strike a ball this way, you need to make runs, checking back …
They look at it as an art form of teaching the individual. So one player might be a visual learner and another needs to be practically doing things. You have to take that in account when educating a player. Not just use a directive approach.
You look at the player and judge, how does he learn? And you go from there.
That’s not to say we don’t do that in U.S. soccer, but I think it’s stressed more there. It is a different style.
The soft skills are important. How to motivate. How to allow a player and encourage a player to reach his full potential.
Further Reading: Soccer America spoke with Roger Lemerre about French coaching and player development after he guided France to the Euro 2000 title. Read the article HERE.
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United/Bay Oaks in Oakland, Calif. He is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)