What's this? Soccer 101 at the National Team Camp?

By Paul Gardner

Among the more curious revelations to surface during the lead up to the USA's recent game with Chile were those attributed to defender Omar Gonzalez. Talking of Bob Bradley's training sessions during the pre-game camp, Gonzalez had this to say:

“The sessions are very high-paced, and [Bradley] has been sending home messages -- movement off the ball, once you give it, you keep moving to find new angles," Gonzalez said. "And he relates a lot back to Barcelona, just watching them play, how their midfield is always moving around and they always find ways out of pressure. I think that’s been one of the main things.”

There is really nothing to disagree with in that -- after all, High pace? Movement off the ball? Using Barcelona as a model? -- it all sounds great. But at the same time it is, all of it, utterly wrong.

This is a national team camp we’re talking about. It ought to be safe to assume that the players called in by Bradley know a thing or two about playing soccer. Yet here is Gonzalez describing two things that ought already to be second-nature to these players.

Are Bradley’s sessions faster-paced than the ones that Gonzalez undergoes with Bruce Arena at the Galaxy, then? If so, why would that be? And who is getting it right? I suppose it might be argued that Bradley needs to give a quick crash course to players who probably haven’t played competitively for two or three months. But there seems to be another side to that approach -- I have heard more than one complaint from MLS coaches that their players who get called into the January camps return either injured or injury-prone.

As for that movement off the ball ... again, are these players not encouraged to do that with their clubs -- have they not been doing it for years? If they haven’t, if Bradley is really having to teach them such a fundamental, then I’d say there must be huge doubts whether they can ever be good enough to play at the international level.

A lot of what I’m querying is, of course, the standard coaching voodoo. The coach’s role is quite similar to that of the witch doctor -- in particular, the necessity that he be seen to be doing something. Anything. We now know a great deal about the witch doctor’s activities and whether they are helpful or, more likely, harmful. We know much less about the effects of a coach’s activities.

We can only base our judgments on what we see from the coach’s team in action. So, with Bradley having had the highly original idea of holding up Barcelona as a role model, what did his team look like against Chile? Did it look like Barcelona?

Not quite. (Let me make it clear -- I’m not criticizing Bradley for using Barcelona as the paradigm -- this does appear to be a massive advance from the formulaic dreariness of the Dutch, that he has so often favored in the past). That movement off the ball stuff could hardly have better demonstrators than Iniesta, Xavi, Messi & Co. -- but you can be sure that Bradley never expected instant Barca.

Bradley may have seen it otherwise, but I did not see anything particularly brilliant or alarmingly bad about his players’ off-the-ball movement during the Chile game.

There is a problem here that no amount of coaching will ever solve. In fact, it is really coaching that creates the problem in the first place. If off-the-ball movement is to work the sort of wonders that it does for Barcelona, it needs two elements.

Firstly: it needs to be intelligent movement. If it is merely movement for the sake of movement, it is not likely to accomplish too much. Intelligent movement involves timing and subtlety -- both things that coaching has never been good at eliciting from players. Because these are instinctive qualities that come into play as though a magic lantern knows just when to produce them -- they are unlikely to be summoned up by the hopelessly ponderous mental processes imparted by coaching.

Can those instincts be learned?  Oh, I think so. Learned, not taught (there is a world of difference) -- but not at a national team camp. If you start at age 9 or 10 -- as the Barcelona kids do -- with the sort of thing described by Omar Gonzalez, maybe by age 12 or 13 you have what you want. Either no more learning is necessary, or you know that the learning capability just isn’t there.

Secondly: the movement has to be made meaningful by sharp, quick, super-accurate passing. Without that lovely spider’s web of passing to tie it all together, the movement means nothing. In other words, surprise, surprise, it is ultimately ball skills that matter most.

Teaching players the subtleties of accurate passing cannot be done in five minutes at a national team camp. If the players don’t have that skill when they arrive, they’re not going to have it when they leave.

As for off-the-ball movement ... if Bradley is right in his feeling that he has to be teaching something as basic as that  -- which really means teaching his players how to play -- that is pretty clear evidence that he is either selecting the wrong players, or -- if he is selecting the best -- then our best are nowhere near good enough.

28 comments about "What's this? Soccer 101 at the National Team Camp?".
  1. James Froehlich, January 26, 2011 at 10:59 a.m.

    It is quite possible that Omar Gonzalez has provided US Soccer with the proverbial "AHA" moment. The question is whether US Soccer and US coaches specifically will respond to it. The fact that one of the brighter young lights in the US soccer future could comment in amazement at the concept of movement off the ball says much about the level of coaching that he has experienced. Remedying this is obviously not an overnight thing but Bradley could certainly help by commenting publicly on deficiencies such as this -- I doubt it will happen because Bob B would never, ever want to hurt the feelings of his coaching brothers !! It's really too bad because the answer is really quite simple -- scrap the tactics and formation fog and concentrate on juggling and small-sided games. Of course that would mean that coaches would have to take off their cloaks and wizard's pointed hats!!! It will never happen too much money to be made.

  2. Gak Foodsource, January 26, 2011 at 11:14 a.m.

    Paul - how could you leave out Bradley's faithful assistant, Jesse Marsch, and his brilliant analysis from camp: "Literally, you can almost see the wheels spinning, the lightbulb going on...At the beginning of the week, what looked like a bunch of guys running around, now it starts to look a little more like soccer in terms of the movements and connections and ideas. They're starting to grasp it." Did he just return from a local u-11 team practice in Carson, California or is he really describing our U.S. men's national team? The embarassing display of technical ability in the Chile match, in conjunction with the elementary, but necessary, focus on fundamentals being offered by Bradley and Marsch at training camp, indicates to me who the most important coach in the US really is. No, it's not Bob Bradley, Thomas Rongen, Wilmer Cabrera or the IMG - Bradenton bunch. It's the guy who teaches our kids to pass and receive the ball before the age of 12. We need to figure out how to put better coaches in front of our 12 year old kids, and we have to figure out how to better train the coaches that are currently there. If Bradley's comments weren't sufficient in ringing the alarm bell, the underwhelming impressions left by McCarty, Gonzalez, Bedoya and Shea on Saturday night should be. The clock is ticking - Donovan and Dempsey won't be around to bail us out much longer.

  3. Leland Price, January 26, 2011 at 1:06 p.m.

    Let's not forget the college coaches who coach such a slow-paced, conservative game ("hold the ball, defenders never make runs, let the other team make a mistake") that one wants to find a razor blade during a match. It's a wonder any creative players emerge from the college ranks.

  4. Frank Fonte, January 26, 2011 at 1:21 p.m.

    on this one, paul gardner couldnt be more correct. i would say the same is true on the womens side. pia sundhage says the same things about her players; lack of intelligence and skills.

  5. Kenneth Elliott, January 26, 2011 at 1:57 p.m.

    So, the kids now coming into National Team age are all kids that have been part of the American soccer culture, the American soccer systems in place throughout our country, so that everyone has learned the same methods, are at the same stage, have the same understandings, and play pretty much the same way. These kids all started playing early, perhaps joining competitive teams after age 11, perhaps even playing soccer exclusively, or at least as the first priority sport. They’ve had training from professionals for years and years and yet we are all in agreement that these kids aren’t quite to a level they need to be to realistically compete for the top prize, a World Cup Championship. So, what's in place isn't working. But it isn't working in Scotland, England, or Ireland either, whatever ‘it’ those countries employ. It's not working in Portugal or even Brazil anymore, apparently. It's not even working in our country anymore in basketball, either, which is a whole different 'it', but still not quite right at the fundamental level. 'It' is, as everyone has explained ad nauseum, the methods by which our children learn the game, from the beginning when they first kick a ball, to early adulthood when maybe they can play professionally as one of the lucky few. What's the fix? Better recognition of what 'it' should be, perhaps, but in addition to that, better motivation to play the ‘right’ way by those kids. What motivates them to play the game the way it should be played? That's a multi-layered answer, to be sure: coaches that know and can demonstrate the correctness of play in all situations, exposure to proper technique through games the kids watch, whether it be their older sister playing for her high school, or the pros they see on TV, especially those that make the Top 10 Plays of the Day on ESPN, among many other things I'm sure. How do we get there? I don't know that we ever do. I don't know that anything is staged for ‘it’ to occur, or ever will be. Perhaps a National Team in which several members could play for Barcelona and Arsenal and having a great run in not one, but a series of World Cups. The biggest dream, even bigger than World Cup glory, would be for several MLS teams to be fielded by Barca and Gunner type players (not all of which would need to be from the U.S.), who could dominate the Americas in club play and perhaps do more than hold their own against championship teams from Europe on a consistent basis. That's a long, long way off, though, and perhaps never attainable.

  6. Gak Foodsource, January 26, 2011 at 2:39 p.m.

    Ken, I agree that our collective dream for a national team full of Iniesta's and an MLS full of Champions League beaters is a long, long way off. And if it was true that England, Portugal, and Brazil couldn't develop players with any regularity or predictability I would agree that it might even be impossible. But the fact that countries like Brazil and clubs like Barcelona are minting players like our government prints money has to suggest this is not an impossible dream. Barcelona have created a comprehensive youth development environment that can churn out international star after international star. They are so successful at producing talented players, they don't even have enough room on their own club team to put them all (Pique, Fabregas.) Why can't we create that environment here? In 2003, Arsene Wenger took a young Virginian high school player looking for a d1 college scholarship and turned him, albeit briefly, into a starter for Arsenal at left back. Why did Daniel Karbassiyoon make it? The same reason Athletic Bilbao can field a competitive team in La Liga with only Bilbao players. The same reason Barcelona could field a B team of all Barca born players and finish in the top 5 in La Liga. With the right environment, players who possess a few inherent qualities can become great.

  7. Brian Something, January 26, 2011 at 2:53 p.m.

    The difficult of replicating the model is that Barcelona is not a team but a club. You can’t build a team as brilliant and intuitively, smoothly functioning as Barca in a few weeks or even a year or two. It’s a long process. Even a side with huge money and highly talented players like Real Madrid don’t play anything like this. Most of Barca’s players, certainly their key players, have been playing this style for ten or more years. Even aside from the notoriously counterproductive win at all costs mentality, the highly de-centralized US soccer youth system simply cannot produce these types of players. Changing to a more Barca-like model here is impossible because extreme parochialism obstructs it.

  8. Brian Herbert, January 26, 2011 at 3 p.m.

    There is one more element here that has not been mentioned: yes, player without ball must move well: with intent and urgency yet without telegraphing ideas to the opponent. Yes, passing and receiving skills must be spot-on. But here's a big, third piece to it: players take time to get that telepathic sense of each other's movement, which is why a Barca will always look better than a pulled-together national team. In a Real Madrid match I watched the other day, this telepathy was way off: through passes with no one there to receive it, players off the ball finding space but ignored by the player with posession. If this is the type of thing the USMNT is trying to improve upon, I think its worthwhile and not a black mark on either coach or player.

  9. Scott Baxter, January 26, 2011 at 3:22 p.m.

    Why would Paul discourage smart ball play at the national team level? Bradley seems to be trying to instill in his players the notion that the ball can move faster than the player , so let the ball make the moves and the players make smaller quicker runs to space. Much of what the USA plays is kick and run, hoping for the athleticism of our players run the ball down from behind and hope there are numbers up for an attack at the goal. What did this give us previously? NADA! Remember when Phil Jackson brought the Triangle Offense to the Chicago Bulls? 6 Championships later.... Soccer is taught at the youth level to play in a triangle, and along the way to the High School and College we change it up to run and gun. Getting back to fundamentals is a great sign for the coaching staff at national. Here's hoping for some JINGA as well!

  10. Paul Lorinczi, January 26, 2011 at 3:42 p.m.

    How can anyone not be surprised by this? The first step is get rid of the English influence in our game. As a player, my introduction to English coaching was to learn how to cheat in a game. After watching "Damned United", I get it. Organizationally, we need to model the German Federation by introducing the game into the school system in this country, not pay to play clubs. For true player development, we should start getting our training from Brazil and Argentina - soccer players are their biggest export. They must know something about how to do it. We have the school right here in the US - Bfut Academy in Boca Raton.

  11. Rick Figueiredo, January 26, 2011 at 3:54 p.m.

    I watched 20 minutes of the game from minute 20-40 then changed the channel. It was one of the least interesting games I have ever seen the U.S. play since, well, back in somewhere in the 1970's. It was disorganized and very random. Random by the way is the complete opposite of Barcelona's style of play. But a word on the article above: no. The article was a little pointless in the sense that unfortunately Bradley does have to tacticalize the overall theme of how these guys will play. I have no problem with that. Even Brasil has been guilty of NOT MOVING OFF THE BALL. It is a sign of mental fatigue and/or laziness. Not moving off the ball is a tactic the opposing coach tries to create in his oppositon by forcing something we call RANDOM on to the other team. It happens to all of us. Even Barcelona. Even Real Madrid. The 4-0 game! So again Bradley is the best the U.S. has had to offer and he is dealing with average players at best. And Paul Gardner: lately your articles have been slipping, dude! ya losing ya touch!

  12. Loren C. Klein, January 26, 2011 at 4:12 p.m.

    It's taken 30 years, but Paul Gardner has finally discovered that US players are not technically brilliant. In his next column, his shocking revelation that Italian clubs like to defend!

  13. Andres Yturralde, January 26, 2011 at 5:07 p.m.

    Gotta love Ric: "come now, pilgrim, where are you coming from?" By most accounts, soccer instinct and soccer IQ come from the very first 10 years of life. The best way to nurture development might be to allow kids to set up shop amongst themselves, under very little guidance from coaches and parents. Let kids create games and have fun on their own-- juggling, dribbling, passing, scoring, goal-tending-- as they see fit. To use James' words, "scrap the tactics and formation fog." But once instinct and IQ are reasonably developed, coaches and parents can step in and do all the training, and run all the drills, and talk all the noise they want. And then maybe, just maybe, there's a realistic chance of kids growing up and performing well at the pro and national levels. But if Paul is right, I'm afraid there isn't much hope. The more I see and the more I hear, USA soccer keeps working backwards-- trying to teach tactics to kids and technique to adults. And then we get all mad if they can't learn it.

  14. James Froehlich, January 26, 2011 at 6:19 p.m.

    Great comments but what is missing is someone actually trying to make the case for the current coaching environment. If everyone agrees then who are these people who are coaching our kids, grandkids , and collegians??? Maybe they just stopped reading Paul's columns ? BTW-Andres to turn the tables on you I loved your summary of our problem: "working backwards-- trying to teach tactics to kids and technique to adults"

  15. Walt Pericciuoli, January 26, 2011 at 6:51 p.m.

    The fix will not come from within. US Soccer must hire and then give the resources to the trainers and organizers who have put together programs like Barca. Then they must be given the power and freedom to implement them nationwide through the Academy or club program begining at age 9-10. It will take years and may never produce a WC victory for the USA., but it may eventually provide us, the fans, something worth watching.

  16. James Froehlich, January 26, 2011 at 8:10 p.m.

    Forget US Soccer, the colleges and the current US coaching establishment, here is what the future will look like:

  17. Kevin Leahy, January 26, 2011 at 8:38 p.m.

    My very first soccer coach stood there with his foot on a ball. The first words out of his mouth were, you can not do anything in this game if you can not control the ball. That was in 1965 and nothing has changed. Barcelona players do what they do because they can control the ball. Our players consistently show a lack of control compared to the top 10 or so teams. Chile played high pressure the whole match and everyone that plays the U.S. should do the same.

  18. James Visser, January 26, 2011 at 9:58 p.m.

    Come on Paul
    " Barcelona as the paradigm -- this does appear to be a massive advance from the formulaic dreariness of the Dutch, that he has so often favored in the past"
    You're a historian of the game. A couple of fairly well known Dutch guys, Michels and Cruyff, were the architects of the foundation for present Barcelona. Just ask Pep.
    Have the Dutch strayed? You'll point to the finals of the World Cup or have another Dejonge diatribe? But that of course is simplistic. Does Ramos alone represent Spain or Gatuso Italy?
    Sneijder was the Maestro of Inter's run in CL last year, VanderVaart with Bale have brought excitement to White Hart lane, a healthy Robben gives Bayern hope, RVP is scoring now and coming into form and watch the new kid in Barcelona, Afellay.
    The small country of 13 million has turned out world class soccer players for the past 4 decades and its based on their youth system success that started with Ajax. Barcelona is a Southern extension. The US could only hope to emulate.

  19. James Madison, January 26, 2011 at 11:34 p.m.

    It is tragic that Pual did not see the best thing to be said about the Chile match which is that, instead of the classic American "over the top and hope or chase" men's style, which recently has come to infect also the women, Bradley had the players actually trying to keep the ball on the ground. For a variety of reasons, too many passes went directly to players in blue shirts, but at least you could see the beginnings of what hopefully will be a permanent change in philosophy.

  20. Joseph Pratt, January 27, 2011 at 10:40 a.m.

    The comments attributed to Bradley and those of Marsch are troublesome indeed! As the coach of a competitive U11 boys team, this is the sort of thing that I occasionally get to say to the parents! "Look, they are getting more comfortable on the ball, moving, creating and finding space." This is the stuff that makes a coach like me really excited. It shocks me that this would be perceived as somehow a novel idea at the National Team level! Ball skills, movement after a pass, all these are fundamentals, and we work on them constantly. Real comfort on the ball takes a LONG TIME to learn, and unless a kid is going home and practicing the skills on their own, two practices and one game per week during the season just won't put our players on a par with those of other countries. The boys on my team love soccer...but they also love hockey, basketball, baseball, etc. The one or two kids on the team who really love only to play soccer are the ones with the better ball skills.
    So, yes, as one commenter said, the current crop of US players have grown up in the same US Soccer system that I coach in. And if they are anything like my players, they did not spend every athletic moment getting touches on a soccer ball.

    I think a big part of the problem is that youth coaches and clubs talk about PLAYER development, but they actually focus on TEAM development. If a youth coach is focused on attaining a winning record, then he is going to do things that help the team, but don't necessarily help his players develop. For instance, he will play certain players only at back, or on the right side, because that's where they're strongest. At age 10, if you want to develop players, you have to move them around in where they play, get them out of their comfort zone so they learn. If all they do is what they are good at, they will not address their weaknesses and really develop as players. Would it be better for my TEAM if the right-footers only played on the right side? Sure...but then the players don't develop. In my case if all I wanted was for my team to win, then I'd put our two fastest players up top, and have everyone else just boot the ball upfield to them in hopes of a breakaway. This might actually help the team, but is the worst thing possible for player development.
    And yet, this is what I see with other teams. Look at any club website: the emphasis is on TEAM results, TEAM rankings. They attract the attention of parents by showing how well their teams have done. Hey, great. But, where are the mentions of players going on to play in high school or college? Players making it to state or regional ODP programs? Isn't the point of a kid playing club soccer to become a better soccer player?
    If we can get clubs and youth programs in the US to practice what they preach, meaning REALLY emphasize player development and treat the team's results as secondary, then over the long term the benefits will show up at the National Team level.

  21. Mark Ellis, January 27, 2011 at 10:53 a.m.

    I gotta agree with most of you, especially Kevin. Controlling the ball is the single most important thing. One touch passes, receiving and controlling passes, dribbling to open up space and eventually finishing for goals is definitely lacking in the US players. As many of you stated, I also believe it comes from our kids (10 and under) never learning techniques. Simple touch drills with the ball and as Andres stated, encouraging kids to create games and have fun with the ball. It doesn't have to be on a soccer pitch every time and it doesn't have to be only by match rules. Kids in other countries play anywhere; driveways, parking lots, alleys, basketball courts, parks. The point is that they "play" with the ball for hours each day. In other countries, I've seen a goalkeeper on one side of a road, with a friend on the other side, shooting at an imaginary goal. When a car came, they would stop and then resume their game as soon as the car(s) had passed. That's an example, not an endorsement to have our children play in the street. ;-)
    As for the positive from the Chile match, I totally agree with James Madison. I appreciated that the players tried to keep the ball on the ground and control the ball. As James stated, many passes went to opposition, first touches allowed the ball to bounce away and no one dribbled through the Chilean team from one end to the other, but it's a great start. I also hope there will be a permanent change in philosophy, and what better model than Barcelona's current team of masters. I for one hope we never again see "dump and chase" tactics used in American soccer, from our children up to the National team.

  22. Brian Herbert, January 27, 2011 at 12:34 p.m.

    The awareness of all those making comments, particularly those involved with youth players, gives me optimism. We do have young players and coaches who get it. I have a U11 son who I've encouraged to try other sports, but he'll have none of it- he just wants to be around a soccer ball! My only worry, when these kids get to 16-20 years old will they have similarly enlightened coaches? I hope so.

  23. Daniel Smith, January 27, 2011 at 5:10 p.m.

    A great discussion from all... however, no one is discussing one of the underlying issues behind all this... ECONOMICS! It starts at the youth level where guess-who is in charge of the $ (parents) and shops around for the winningest or current-favorite coach. In foreign countries the youth are part of their local club PERIOD. where it is an honor to play for the better teams and they don't have to pay (much) for this coaching/play. Until we break the current daddy-mommy pushing their kids to various clubs to chase the perceived advantage, we will never have clubs focused on developing players/skills versus results. Follow the line of argument all the way up to the collegiate (which cannot compete with the psuedo-professional NCAA sports of football and basketball) and MLS opportunities. At 18 our kids are rushing off to college to study, play soccer, and party (not in that order usually) while 18 year olds in Netherlands and Spain are playing soccer hours a day...

  24. Paul Bryant, January 27, 2011 at 5:40 p.m.

    Let's not forget that this was the "B" team playing against Chile. Less than a handful of these players will be on the next world cup team. Why does Bob B. keep bringing Wynne back to USMNT camp? With regards to high school and college, this is where soccer dreams go to die. In high school, you get what you pay for. In college, teams are prohibited from playing and practicing together for four of the eight months of the academic year. Over four years that's 16 months on non-competitive soccer. You cannot make up for lost time.

  25. ferdie Adoboe, January 27, 2011 at 6:54 p.m.

    No philosophy, no style of play, no models, no curriculum, No national identity. what do we expect? It is a case of trial and error. When you are a farmer who grows corn, and all of a sudden you see corn prices fall, and rice prices go up, you can't ask your corn to look like rice. If you want rice,You have to go cultivate rice. And i mean CULTIVATE not buy. Bob does not cultivate.
    But Bobs job is to go to the farmers and tell them what crop to grow. It will help if he can provide seeds.

  26. Oz LatinAmerican, January 28, 2011 at 1:01 a.m.

    Until we get rid off the youth system in every state that exist and with their monopoly over youth soccer, we will never see the type of soccer players like the ones in Argentina or Brasil. The culture for soccer is not here, therefore we need a grass root movement with a soccer club in every hamlet, small town, and city just like every country in the world. Each club with their own youth systems and it's OK if it is just amateur clubs, that's how all started. That's the only solution that I can see, so the kids can can come and be part of something and ultimately they don't have to pay to play. I will love to change this and I will be working at it in creating one. The youth soccer clubs where I live charge a lot of money to the kids to play soccer and some of this kids are unable to play because of this. And It must change!

  27. beautiful game, January 28, 2011 at 5:19 p.m.

    The U.S. Youth Soccer programs are cash cows for their coaches and their must win mentality does not lend to the full development process of players with potential, i.e., Giuseppe Rossi left for the Parma Academy at 13...he was a NJ phenom in youth ball and his coach let every player on the squad perform...Rossi stood out and his teammates complemented him with sound play. Could he have made it to the euro-leagues from NJ; I certainly doubt it. Rossi has superb technical skills which he honed in Parma and he has that extra quality, namely, a sense of the pitch which makes him a quality player.

  28. Brian Something, January 31, 2011 at 12:46 p.m.

    "Why would Paul discourage smart ball play at the national team level? "

    He's not discouraging it. He's just saying that it can only be truly effective if it's ingrained well before players get to the senior national team. That it should be being taught to players much earlier.

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