Voices from Ajax Amsterdam: 'Everyone here wants the ball'

By Mike Woitalla

Ajax Amsterdam, having produced players from Johan Cruyff to Wesley Sneijder, is considered by legions of American youth coaches as a model for youth development.

Much of what happens at Ajax would be impossible for a U.S. program to replicate. Ajax has the pick of the best young players from a soccer-rich nation. That it consistently promotes players to the senior level is to be expected. Lots of coaches -- and their clubs -- would look quite good if they only had to coach their country’s top youngsters.

Ajax covers all costs, so the academy isn’t limited to those who can afford it.

Still, checking out how top clubs around the world approach player development can provide some ideas on how we coach American children.

Last season, Ajax won its first Dutch league title in seven years, prompting Andy Murray of the British magazine FourFourTwo to visit the Ajax academy, which is called De Toekomst (The Future).

One of his impressions: “There’s no screaming coaches, pushy parents or berating of officials.”

“It’s not a crime to lose nor is it about being champions in your age group, but being in the first team, and winning trophies there. To be a star you must overcome disappointment,” Ajax general manager David Endt told FourFourTwo.

Jan Olde Riekerink, Ajax’s Head of Youth Development, said, “We always look for [soccer players] first, but to stay up with the modern game we must develop athletes to compete at the top international level. But enjoyment must come first. That’s the basis for all our coaching: if they don’t have fun, we don’t do it. We don’t make them run in mud just because it’ll make them stronger.”

Also quoted is 19-year-old Dane Christian Eriksen, a star on the current Eredivisie championship team: “[Soccer] is about more than running. Everyone here wants the ball.”

It needs be noted that Eriksen arrived at De Toekomst at age 16 when he was already a star on the Danish U-17 national team and was also being courted by several of Europe's top clubs, and that Ajax reportedly paid Odense BK more than $1 million for him.

Last year, Michael Sokolove wrote an in-depth article for New York Times Magazine on De Toekomst. He quoted youth coach Ronald de Jong:

“I am never looking for a result — for example, which boy is scoring the most goals or even who is running the fastest. That may be because of their size and stage of development. I want to notice how a boy runs. Is he on his forefeet, running lightly? Does he have creativity with the ball? Does he seem that he is really loving the game? I think these things are good at predicting how he’ll be when he is older.”

Sokolove reported that through age 12, players train three times a week and play one game on the weekend. “By age 15, the boys are practicing five times a week. In all age groups, training largely consists of small-sided games and drills in which players line up in various configurations, move quickly and kick the ball very hard to each other at close range. In many practice settings in the U.S., this kind of activity would be a warm-up, just to get loose, with the coach paying scant attention and maybe talking on a cell phone or chatting with parents. At the Ajax academy, these exercises -- designed to maximize touches, or contact with the ball -- are the main event.”

About 200 boys, from ages 7 to 19, train at De Toekomst. Some players at each age group are cut each year. They are said, writes Sokolove, to have been “sent away” -- and new prospects take their place.

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at

21 comments about "Voices from Ajax Amsterdam: 'Everyone here wants the ball'".
  1. Michael O'brien, July 29, 2011 at 11:18 a.m.

    Is the Dutch performance at last years World Cup an extention of "The Future"?

  2. Thomas Hosier, July 29, 2011 at 12:26 p.m.

    My opinion AJAX is a youth player development mill. They develop youth players ... pay all the costs to develop the players and then sell them to the highest bidder. My opinion nothing wrong with that .... as long as the cost to parents in the United States continues to escate too many really talented youth players are going to be left behind.

    Also true is the lack of effort by youth recreational soccer associations to promote youth recreational soccer in the US communities is leaving too many players behind.

    And finally lacking in the US is a street soccer community where kids gather in vacant lots and play soccer without direct adult involvement.

    I love youth recreational and advanced youth comepetitive soccer but too many adults who influence the youth soccer programs ... well quite frankly ... they suck!

  3. lorenzo murillo, July 29, 2011 at 12:38 p.m.

    You cannot compare a pro youth organization to the recreational clubs in the US. Ajax has professional working with their youth, that is not the case here in the US, even if the coaches are licensed. The USSF licenses are not professional licenses, in comparison to Holland, Spain, Argentina, Uruguay... that is the change we need in the US, for the coaching school to be at least 2 years, and cover topics such as biomechanics, exercise physiology, tactical theory.

  4. Luis Arreola, July 29, 2011 at 1:08 p.m.

    You guys missed the most important point. Ajax develops so many top players for the most important reason in all sports. Money. They buy talent and sell soccer players. They invest and profit. Its a business under different guidelines. USA can't do this because of laws. Therefore, Big Clubs will never hire top coaching or want to develop top talent into top soccer players. There's no money in it in the USA. The money here is In winning Championships and team and club rankings. This is so the "Top Academy Clubs" can justify their ridiculous prices or raise them. Ajax covers expenses because they want to fully groom a future good sell and profit.

  5. Thomas Hosier, July 29, 2011 at 2:08 p.m.

    @ lorenzo ... that is the point. The US needs to change it's model. And no there is no comparison with recreational soccer but it all starts with "street and recreational" soccer. No street soccer ... no strong recreational program ... no strong competitive program. I believe the US should move toward the Dutch Model at the upper end if we are to be competitive in the International Market, but if kids aren't playing on the streets and in recreational soccer ... there won't be any kids moving forward to competitive soccer.

  6. Luis Arreola, July 29, 2011 at 2:48 p.m.

    Thomas, kids get motivated looking at stars they can identify with that are usually their own countrymen that are exiting to watch. USA does not have much of that because there is not enough player development, hence my point. Just think about it, had Messi been born here and developed his initial talents till age 13 would he have turned into what he is now? The answer is hell no. Who here would have invested in his needed hormone treatment($1000 a week)? No one. No money in it for anyone. It is naive to think anyone in this country will contribute to the less fortunate on a large scale without taking in a profit.

  7. John Cassidy, July 29, 2011 at 2:58 p.m.

    Ajax receives a transfer fee for every player they develop and sell to another club. Player receives 10% and club 90%.
    Every country works this way.
    Professional retires starts a team, develops a player and sells them to local, regional or national clubs. This pays for their efforts and soccer continually grows and develops all over the world.
    There is abuse in the system as evidenced in underdeveloped countries where soccer is the only way out for the players. Players will do anything to get out of their situation. Clubs and agents take advantage.
    US Soccer receives all transfer fees and clubs are rewarded nothing for their efforts.
    Thus no focus on development.
    MLS has been the first to receive a small portion of transfer fee.
    Until this changes the US soccer federation will struggle in their development of players.

  8. Luis Arreola, July 29, 2011 at 8:38 p.m.

    John, how does Us youth soccer get the transfer fees? Wouldn't the players have to sign something first? I really appreciate this new piece of info. And you are right this is the only way development will start in USA.

  9. John Cassidy, July 29, 2011 at 9:18 p.m.

    Players are signed as professionals at a young age and a fee is paid for the transfer from one club to another.
    The club pays the USSF when they sign them.
    Check out past transfers from the MLS.
    Check out Adu, Altidore etc.
    This is why we keep getting international clubs investing in our club system.
    The initial fight is to sign the players first and negotiate their contract to the highest bidder.
    Beck ham signed at Manchester United and played for years while later being sold for millions. They did not have to buy him and when he left they made money.

  10. Luis Arreola, July 29, 2011 at 10:12 p.m.

    Ok but in the USA you can not sign a player under 18 years old correct? Therefore the Ussf can not profit from a contract to a younger player right?

  11. Luis Arreola, July 29, 2011 at 10:14 p.m.

    Are these young players signed as proffessionals to the USSF? What age? Do you mean fees get paid from a foreign club to a USA club?

  12. John Cassidy, July 29, 2011 at 10:20 p.m.

    Players are not signed in the US except for MLS development teams.
    Around the world that is not the case.
    You go to South America. Like a player and pay a transfer fee for him to the club that has him under contract.
    In the US there is no system of professional clubs except MLS.
    All transfer money from players signed in US that is from MLS is paid to USSF.
    No other country's federation collects the fees.
    Look at thecsigning of Tim Howard

  13. John Cassidy, July 29, 2011 at 10:24 p.m.

    his transfer fee went to the federation.
    All players are property of the USSF, not the club.
    We will not be able to begin to develop players until the clubs have a right to the transfer fees.
    Players around the world are developed as a business not volunteer not for profit.

  14. Luis Arreola, July 29, 2011 at 11:01 p.m.

    I agree 100% with you as I have always said the same thing. I did not know about this with USSF. I really appreciate it. Last question. Are MLS U15/U16 Academy players under contract with USSF if sold or does it start after 18? Are non MLS Academies like Chicago Magic under the same rules in player transfer to other clubs under contract?

  15. Luis Arreola, July 29, 2011 at 11:06 p.m.

    No wonder the USSF does not want to change the phylosophy. No wonder these MLS Academies could care less about player development. I thought no one profited at all in USA from players under age. This info is very valuable to me because Academies are after my U13 son. No way Jose. I will take him to Mexico Teams.

  16. Luis Arreola, July 29, 2011 at 11:25 p.m.

    Also what is the % that USSF gets and how much do they pay the club the player came from?

  17. John Cassidy, July 30, 2011 at 8:07 a.m.

    % is usually 90% and the transfer fee is always negotiated differently for a player's value to the team.
    If you sign a developmental contract you are their property.
    If you take your son to Mexico he will sign a contract and the club will own him.
    My point in all this is if you can make money the development is looked at as a profession and not a volunteer job.

  18. Luis Arreola, July 30, 2011 at 8:25 a.m.

    I agree. I own a club and do it to hopefully see one day my players make it pro or college. That will be my satisfaction. The problem for me has been losing top players to Academies that at first fully sponsored them and start to charge fees as they are less needed. The worst part is these players are not developed and my 3 years work with them go down the drain in 2 years. The Academy wins a lot of meaningless games and tournaments for players but very valuable competitions for their name and rankings.
    So these players are leagally bound to a contract at U16 in MLS Academy?

  19. John Cassidy, July 30, 2011 at 8:52 a.m.

    This is exactly why soccer does not grow in the US. You efforts are constantly undermined by the larger clubs. Eventually you get tired of it.
    Most clubs do not develop they just have tryouts each year and get better players. Slowly they condense they area players into one team, but at the same time push the players who do not make the tryout away from the sport.
    One solutio is that if you want to play soccer you can only play soccer for the club in your zip code as high school does.This would force the clubs to develop and nurture their players correctly.

  20. John Cassidy, July 30, 2011 at 8:57 a.m.

    I am not sure about the contract with the USSF academy system. MLS academy system yes.
    The academy system with youth soccer although originally created with good intentions has just become a way to keep more players from leaving the club, using less coaches to coach a larger group of kids and generate extra income.

  21. Jack vrankovic, August 1, 2011 at 9:07 p.m.

    Check out this link regarding youth development. Perhaps I am biased, but it is an interview with Dinamo Zagreb's youth development coach.

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