Interview by Mike Woitalla
Jurgen Klinsmann, whose playing career included winning the 1990 World Cup title with Germany, took a keen interest in American youth soccer when he moved to California upon his retirement in 1998. He became head coach of the U.S. national team in July and took time before the USA's November friendlies against France and Slovenia to discuss American youth soccer issues, including the parents' role, pay-to-play, differences between European and American youth clubs, college ball -- and he offers some advice to youth coaches.
SOCCER AMERICA: You have spoken often about the value of unorganized soccer for children -- and you helped found an initiative (FD21) to promote that in Germany. Is there a way to increase the amount of soccer children play in the USA outside the club structure?
JURGEN KLINSMANN: The keys for soccer development are for children to enjoy kicking a ball and enjoy playing soccer types of games. It does not take a soccer field or an organized team training to do this. But we may need to help our children learn what they can do on their own or with a few friends to enjoy kicking a ball and playing soccer.
In other words, youth soccer training should include lots of fun -- “you can do this on your own” -- activities, including showing examples of how to have soccer-related fun in a backyard, the driveway, the schoolyard, a park, against a wall, or anywhere there is a small amount of space and a ball -- any kind of ball.
In the USA, basketball is part of the culture. So young basketball players grow up learning how to play types of basketball games -- like 1-on-1, 21, H-O-R-S-E --- on their own and with small groups. We need to help our young soccer players to be able to do the same thing -- play on their own or with their friends or with their parents wherever they are with whatever ball is available.
SOCCER AMERICA: A big change in children's sports is the declining role of schools' physical education and sports programs. Can you speak to that issue?
JURGEN KLINSMANN: Of course I think it is too bad that physical education and sports programs are declining in schools. And I understand though do not necessarily agree with some of the reasons, primarily around setting priorities and budget cuts. So, as parents, we have a choice -- sit back and do nothing in the face of this decline or create alternative opportunities for our children.
Actually, I do not think that we do have a choice. I think we have to create alternative opportunities for our children. It is part of their life-long education. We hear constantly about the problems of obesity and other health-related issues arising from a lack of exercise. What can we -- as parents -- do about it?
Set an example. Be active with our children. Don’t let them automatically watch TV or go into their rooms to play video games or go online. Encourage outdoor activities year round. Kick a ball in the backyard. Walk or ride a bike to the store instead of driving.
Participate in a local community event instead of going to the movies. There are many active things we can do with our children and that they can do on their own, if we make this type of active lifestyle a family priority.
SA: One of the huge flaws in American youth soccer is the high cost. (The more talented you are, the more it costs.) Why is this not the case in other countries, such as Germany, and do you see any solutions to the problem in the USA?
JURGEN KLINSMANN: In European countries, there are two types of clubs: local soccer/sports clubs and professional soccer clubs, which may also include other sports. The local soccer/sports clubs usually serve people from youth through adulthood. So, there is a lifelong opportunity to participate and adult fees are helping reduce (though not eliminate) youth fees.
Plus, the local soccer/sports clubs tend to play 10-month seasons based on local travel and local leagues, not regional leagues and big tournaments with high fees and long-distance travel as is common in the USA.
Also, in Europe, the professional clubs have youth programs and they start signing up promising players at young ages and pay for their costs of training. So, the culture of sports participation and the professional club influence are much different and much stronger in Europe than currently in the USA.
Going forward, MLS clubs will have more influence in the USA, including providing free opportunities to play for talented players. Plus, we may see more American youth clubs partnering with international clubs, which will pay for the training costs of talented young American players. Chelsea, for instance, is experimenting with this right now.
Obviously, a big difference between the USA and European countries is that most promising young American soccer players will end up playing college soccer, while promising young European players have the goal of being professional players. There are many, many more college soccer programs in the USA than there are professional clubs in any European country.
But colleges cannot pay for youth development programs like professional clubs can. So, in summary, there are significant differences between the European sports culture and the American sports culture, which will not dramatically change anytime soon and which do impact the costs associated with youth soccer.
SA: Is the enormous geographic size of the USA a problem for the national team program as it scouts for talent and develops it? And if so, what are the solutions to overcoming the challenge?
JURGEN KLINSMANN: I look at the size and diversity of the USA as providing us with a tremendous opportunity, not a problem. We are blessed with a large, relatively wealthy, sports-oriented population that has invested in soccer facilities and organizing soccer so that millions of youngsters are playing soccer year-round. And, more attention is now being paid to developing soccer programs for underserved populations and geographic areas.
While we may have different and sometimes competing youth development soccer organizations, there are certainly opportunities for children to develop and play. In terms of scouting for talented players, youth clubs are doing it, youth organizations are doing it, colleges are doing it, professional teams are doing it, and our U.S. Soccer scouts are doing it.
So, I think we are probably able to identify most of the very talented young players. There are also more comprehensive and more consistent training programs being made available across the country, for example the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and MLS academies.
One trend I encourage, which has been successful in other large countries such as France and Germany that committed to youth development and which can now also be seen here in the USA, is to regionalize programs. This will cut down on costs, allow the youth players and their families to have more normal lifestyles, and provide for more development opportunities.
SA: If a coach of an under-8 team came to you for advice, how would you respond?
JURGEN KLINSMANN: Have fun! Let the children enjoy themselves! Help them learn the excitement they can experience kicking a ball and playing soccer-type games on their own, with their friends, and with their parents wherever they are with whatever ball they have available.
(Part 2 of this interview will appear in Monday's Youth Soccer Insider.)
(Mike Woitalla is the executive editor of Soccer America. His youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)