Playing in 'small spaces' and speaking of Barcelona

By Mike Woitalla

“I think we really need to get better in small spaces,” said Claudio Reyna, U.S. Soccer’s Youth Technical Director, in the wake of the U.S. men’s failure to qualify for the Olympics.

In an interview with Jimmy Conrad on "The Mixer," Reyna spoke of American youth teams relying on “running and overpowering teams and being physical” when where “we have to really improve as a soccer-playing nation is playing in the small, tight spaces throughout the field.”

To Arch Bell of, Reyna said, "I think the winning aspect is what has caused some really ugly youth soccer. Now we're trying to play more out of the back and through the midfield.”

Reyna added, "I think kids should be doing pickup or futsal all the time. I think it's very important for technique. In Argentina, futsal is what kids play growing up. They get very comfortable in small spaces with the ball. It's usually less pressure, so they can try things."

Seems to me that too much American youth soccer is played on huge fields, which rewards athleticism more than skill.

Teale Matteson, a coaching colleague of mine in Northern California – where 12-year-olds routinely play on 120-yard long fields – recently visited Barcelona. Matteson noted that:

“The youth programs play all games 7v7 until age 12, age 14 for the girls. The field is 44 yards wide (the width of a penalty box), 54 yards long with 10-yard box, a 12-yard offside line in lieu of the halfway line and one referee.”

SPEAKING OF BARCA. Spanish journalist Marti Perarnau, author of “Senda de Campeones” (Path of Champions), also offers insight into Barca’s youth program, La Masia. Perarnau was interviewed at “Blueprint for Football.”

Asked what qualities Barcelona looks for in young recruits, Perarnau said: “Technique, tactical intelligence and mental speed. These three traits are the ones that matter. Players with very good technique, who are able to understand the game (not just play, but also understand it) and speed of mind.”

On whether physical strength and height are given much importance: “None. Barca does not care about the size of the player. The three parameters I mentioned are the only ones that matter. Not even if you stand out during a tournament. Indeed, Barcelona often signs kids that have gone unnoticed in a tournament, but have those three potential features.”

On youth programs aiming to emulate Barcelona, Perarnau said: “The basic aspects of Barca’s system was to have an idea of how to play the game, create a training model, find the type of player who adapts to it and spend many years and energies in this operation. But each club should put in the pot their own ingredients, no doubt.”

Barcelona’s youth coaches train players arriving with extraordinary skill spotted by the club’s scores of scouts who scour the region, nation and world (e.g., Argentine Lionel Messi arrived at age 13) for talent.

I imagine most American youth coaches could look quite brilliant if they had the luxury of training players of the quality that Barcelona recruits into its ranks. And I bet Barca coaches might not look so genius if they had to the cope with the challenges American youth coaches face. But what really matters about the Barcelona model is how it plays the game -- attack-minded, entertaining and high-scoring -- and that emphasizing skills and smarts is at the root of that style. That's what all youth coaches should strive for, whether they’re coaching at La Masia or in the USA.

MORE FROM AROUND THE NET. Marca reported Barcelona started 10 players who came out of its youth program in a 4-0 La Liga win over Getafe on April 10. One week earlier, in Barca’s 3-1 Champions League win over AC Milan, Coach Pep Guardiola started nine. (Argentine Javier Mascherano and Brazilian Dani Alves were the two “imports.”). Seven starters in Wednesday Champions League semifinal vs. Chelsea joined Barca as youths. ...

Gabriele Marcotti of the Wall Street Journal reports on what age Barca stars joined La Masia in "Soccer's Nature vs. Nurture Debate: What Distinguishes Barcelona's La Masia From Other Youth Academies?" HERE. ...

Diane Scavuzzo of interviewed Christian Lavers, the president of the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL). Founded in 2009 by U.S. Club Soccer, the ECNL serves as the girls version of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Read the Q&A HERE. ...

Edwin Torres
lists “Ten Ways You Know You Are a Bad Soccer Parent” HERE ...

A $440,000 youth soccer embezzlement case HERE.

WORTH A VIEW: Nkosi Burgess of the Dix Hill Heat scored a stunning goal in U-15 action on Long Island. Burgess set himself up for an overhead volley with a back heel in game against Hauppauge Brazil. Check out the video HERE.

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches at Bay Oaks/East Bay United SC in Oakland, Calif.
Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at

8 comments about "Playing in 'small spaces' and speaking of Barcelona".
  1. Lou vulovich, April 19, 2012 at 9:53 a.m.

    Marty Perarnau, his comments about American coaches not having the luxury of training youth players of the quality of Barcelona, is completely inaccurate us players from 9years to 12 years old are as good as any. The difference is the quality of coaching and refereeing as well as the emphasis, on playing style is what separates the us and most soccer advanced countries. Way too much emphasis on the team way too early. 90 percent of good 12 year olds are already better soccer players than their coaches. All the emphasis is put on speed and strength, referees allow wrestling in the middle of a soccer field.(look at MLS, college soccer) it is borderline Rugby. There is no individual focus, because the coaches lack the knowledge and the parents control the team, and for the good of the team you can not let a couple of exceptional players do as they will with the ball even if they are only 8 or 10 or 12. The team comes first. The problem is you can not have a great team without the great individuals.???? Quality coaches, refer

  2. R2 Dad, April 19, 2012 at 10:50 a.m.

    Good roundup. Would have to agree on the coaching weakness, followed by parent ignorance and scouting ineptitude. So here's the litmus test for decent coaching: Does your keeper play out of the back, why and how often? Seems that if the coach understands why this is done (and actually does it vs saying they do it) they'll also understand and implement the skills needed to make that a successful strategy and more good things will follow. re: scouting, seriously, dozens of Messi's have fallen through the cracks here in the US because no one knew what to look for. "emphasizing skills and smarts is at the root of (Barca) style"--maybe we're beginning to look for skills here in the US but smarts is a big black box no one is interested in opening, hence all the robots.

  3. Daniel Clifton, April 19, 2012 at 1:43 p.m.

    It seems to me that we need to confront the biggest issue, which I see as pay to play at the competitive level. This is what leads to ignorant parents having too much control. Somehow we have to get children involved whose parents can't afford pay to play at the competitive level. We are missing out on a tremendous amount of talent, particularly in the US Hispanic community. Until we make big changes in our youth soccer structure economically, I don't see much changing. I don't know if it needs to be the MLS clubs or what. We need a different model.

  4. cony konstin, April 19, 2012 at 2:14 p.m.

    REVOLUTION!!!!!! The US needs a soccer revolution. It is not going to happen through Barcelona, Brazil or even from the people who run soccer in the US today. We need new Leadership that can create a new Vision, a new Plan and a new Infrastructure. We need to throw out the old and start a new. It happened in 1990. The old was thrown out and a new way was started. Well we are now in 2012 and we need to throw out the old and start with something new and refreshing. Futsal, small sided, 7v7 and other concepts are wonderful but you need a lot more than that to shake up the foundations of soccer in America. The first thing that must happened is that we must get rid of all of these adult and youth associations. There must be one FA and that is US Soccer so everything can mandated from the TOP. This helter skelter approach to soccer is devisive and childish. There should not be adult soccer or youth soccer. It should be US Soccer. We need to get rid of the alphabet soup bowl so we can have direction from the top. As long as US Soccer does their own thing and the rest of the alphabet does its own thing we will never become a great soccer nation. Soccer in the US must become a way of life and not a hobby or instrument in making money. US Soccer needs to get into the business of winning but it must start by creating one way and one voice.

  5. ferdie Adoboe, April 19, 2012 at 3:38 p.m.

    I think, i think, i think. I want to hear I do, i am doing, i did. Actions not thoughts. We are all thinking already.

  6. Jack Niner, April 19, 2012 at 3:52 p.m.

    I'm perplexed - Reyna has been part of the very effort and system in place today that is obsessed with size and physicality more than technique and IQ - While I am thrilled he has FINALLY seen the light, the havoc he has wrecked will take untold years to change. How many great youth players in America have been spurned by the system with it's bias that Reyna has helped create - it's unbelievable. The multitude of idiot youth and college coaches in America which have promoted this failed notion of soccer cannot be gotten rid of.

    No, to correct soccer in America first the Hucksters like Reyna and USSF need to be gotten rid of - then the rebuilding can begin with folks who really know the game and are not primarily in it for $$$. Unbelieveable.

  7. R2 Dad, April 19, 2012 at 11:37 p.m.

    Ferdie, everyone here feels like the tail trying to wag the dog, which is why cony wants to start a war to overthrow the entrenched soccer despots. Evolution won't work, but how does revolution begin? In this country, it starts by hiring big, expensive stars who we feel have the gravitas to effect change--like Klinsmann. Personally I don't agree with that strategy, but hiring someone like Cruyff to replace our US Soccer president/economist would be the standard way forward.

  8. Lou vulovich, April 21, 2012 at 7:45 p.m.

    I disagree with the Reyna, critiques he has not been in charge that long, it takes a long time to change Soccer in the US. He has the right idea what He needs to do is revolutionize Us soccer by continuing to hire youg guys with International experience. Tab Ramos, Greg Vanney, and others who not only played abroad but are young enough to understand the modern game and young players. Bring coaches from Argentina,Brazil, Spain, Portugal, experienced youth coaches that will work with US coaches side by side, create a head youth coach for every state, preferably a young one who will be evaluated every year, not every ten years. Do away with ODP pay to play, and create a system where the best kids are showcased once a year with no or minimal expense.

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