By Ian Plenderleith
The setting is a "showcase" tournament featuring some of the top youth clubs in Region 1. College scouts are dotted around the field sitting in fold-up chairs, their clipboards on their knees, with pens poised to note the number of any outstanding players. The goalkeeper of a boys U19 team has the ball in his hands. I am standing in the middle of the field as the referee, and I know exactly where that ball is going. High in the air. Over my head.
Often, it goes straight through to the other goalkeeper, who will then gather it up and fire it back in the exact same English fourth division style. Sometimes it is headed by a defender back into the midfield melee, and there is an ensuing scrap for the ball. Occasionally, a forward will get a head on it, and even more occasionally he will find one of his own players. At least half the time, to the disbelieving despair of players, coaches and parents alike, I have to call a foul for pushing, holding or charging.
Over the course of six depressing games at U19 and U17 level, on only one single occasion did a goalkeeper throw the ball out to a teammate standing in space. Unsurprisingly, there were just five goals in the course of these six games, one of them a penalty kick. While there were high levels of fitness, aggression, speed and (inevitably) foul play, there was almost a complete lack of the one thing US soccer needs most -- imagination.
Fellow referee Randy Vogt pointed out in a piece this week at Soccer America that it’s laughable so many clubs have the word “Premier” in their titles. I have two more humorous and all too common monikers for youth soccer clubs -- Elite and Academy.
“Elite” should mean that these are the select few, the absolute cream of our flourishing young talent. Yet all you tend to see at the Elite level is the same replicated player type -- the disciplined hard worker who will run all day, but lacks any kind of composure on the ball, or in passing the ball. The player whose attacking repertoire consists of hopeful but aimless shots from 30 yards out, and predictable crosses that are easily snaffled by reliable goalkeepers.
Academy, meanwhile, implies something cerebral. Think Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klopp, think tactical systems, flexible positioning, and sophisticated ways of breaking down the opposition. Only think these things, though, because in real life you will most probably see an Academy coach screaming at a player for trying to dribble, or for getting caught in possession because he wasn’t quick enough to welt the ball 60 yards down the field.
It could be that I had an unlucky weekend, and just happened to come across 12 “elite” teams playing the most primitive brand of soccer. Teams containing stacks of fit and fairly strong soccer players. However, anyone can train a kid to run fast and fight hard and kick a ball a long way down a field, just as it doesn’t take much effort to train a dog to run and fetch a tennis ball. It takes a lot more time and patience, though, to train that dog to sit on its hind legs and balance the ball on its nose. (And when it drops the ball, don’t yell at the poor mutt.)
In the seventh and final game, I was relieved to come across a team whose goalkeeper threw the ball out to his defenders, who then constructed offensive moves by generally passing the ball along the ground. It was no coincidence that this game featured much less wasted possession, as well as five goals. There were still no phenomenal carriers of the ball, and precious little sign of improvisation, trickery, daring or flair, but at least the width of the field was properly used, and the coach’s instructions -- none of which were screamed -- were useful to his players. This team, sadly, was a conspicuous exception to the norm.
As the United States enters the 2014 World Cup having dropped the only attacker to have consistently shown off exciting, world-class play over the past decade, it’s difficult to imagine -- despite the millions of hard-running but over-coached players in this country -- where his successor will come from. Like those long punted balls, though, we remain full of hope.
(Ian Plenderleith is a Maryland-based soccer writer, coach and referee. His book "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League" will be published by Icon Books in September. He previously published two works of adult soccer fiction, "For Whom The Ball Rolls" and "The Chairman’s Daughter.")