Why MLS made a French Connection

By Mike Woitalla

The USA has long made a habit of looking abroad for formulas to successful soccer. But which nations are really worth emulating?

Brazil and Argentina are the most impressive perennial producers of soccer talent. Italy’s not too shabby. Spain is for good reason the main focus right now. Playing wonderful soccer, it won the last World Cup and is two-time defending European Champion. Spain is home to the world’s best club team of the last half-decade, Barcelona, whose tiny trio of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi were in 2010 declared the world’s top three players. Sending a powerful message to American coaches about valuing skill over size and athleticism.

Germany now provides an intriguing model because its revamp of youth player development a decade ago, which coincided with an embrace of its immigrant player pool, has produced the most entertaining German soccer in its history (besides perhaps its 1972 European Championship squad).

The Dutch continue to be a favorite because: The brilliant Johan Cruyff-led 1970s teams inspired a generation of American coaches; such a small country produces so many world-class players; and the Dutch coaching gurus speak such excellent English.

Speaking of speaking English, the English have had by far the most influence on the U.S. game. But England hasn’t won a major title since it hosted the 1966 World Cup; the top EPL teams have few English players and opt for non-English coaches; and while we may share a language, U.S. demographics match many successful soccer countries much more closely than England’s.

There has finally been a bit of attention paid to Mexico, which besides winning the Olympic (U-23) gold medal and two recent U-17 World Cups, is discovering players on our side of the border we somehow didn’t realize we had.

In February, MLS announced an ambitious coaching education partnership for its youth academy coaches with the French soccer federation (FFF). A youth academy coach from each of MLS’s 19 clubs will undergo 320 hours of FFF field and classroom instruction.

France’s 1998 World Cup and 2000 Euro titles, and the success of French players abroad, were attributed in large part to its youth development program, a collaboration of the FFF, the French government and French clubs, headquartered in Clairefontaine.

We spoke with Tim Bezbatchenko, MLS’s Senior Director of Player Relations and Competition, about MLS's French partnership

SOCCER AMERICA: What was the impetus for the partnership?

TIM BEZBATCHENKO: Over the past two years, we did a strategic overview on the league that created a vision: To be among the best leagues in the world by 2022. Each department stepped back and decided to look at how we’re going to achieve that vision and created goals.

Our department, Player Competition, created five specific goals. One of those goals is to be a world leader in youth player development.

For our players to reach the highest level, we need to be a leader in youth development. We don’t think we can achieve our vision unless we do that.

SA: So why the French?

TIM BEZBATCHENKO: What does it mean to be a world leader in player development? Obviously, you need to have educational resources to take a player from rec soccer to a world-class level. We looked around the world, and the French federation has been one of the most successful in developing the young players, as evidenced by the number of their players playing around the world as well as the reputation. Right now, everybody is looking at Germany as a model, but the Germans actually, a decade or so ago, looked at the Clairefontaine model.

SA: What are the components of the partnership?

TIM BEZBATCHENKO: There are three main components.

The first is the classroom instruction and fieldwork at Clairefontaine.

The second is visiting foreign clubs. We realize we’re learning from the French, but we also want to see how they do it in other places in Europe and around the world. The visits are to Paris St. Germain, Lyon, Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and VfB Stuttgart.

The third component is integrating this methodology and pedagogy that’s learned in Clairefontaine in our academies.

SA: American soccer has a very long history of studying the methods in other countries and an expansive coaching education network. Is there still really something out there to enlighten us?

TIM BEZBATCHENKO: Right, they go over and might say, “A lot of this is similar.” Dave Chesler [U.S. Soccer's Director of Coaching Education, who’s taking part in the program] will say it’s not dramatically different.

But in some ways it is, in important ways, and that’s the way they look at their role as an educator. They use the word pedagogy – the art and science of teaching. I’m not saying people in the United States don’t view it this way, but they [French] truly see it as an art form. Not just the science of you can trap and strike a ball this way, you need to make runs, checking back …

They look at it as an art form of teaching the individual. So one player might be a visual learner and another needs to be practically doing things. You have to take that in account when educating a player. Not just use a directive approach.

You look at the player and judge, how does he learn? And you go from there.

That’s not to say we don’t do that in U.S. soccer, but I think it’s stressed more there. It is a different style.

The soft skills are important. How to motivate. How to allow a player and encourage a player to reach his full potential.

Further Reading: Soccer America spoke with Roger Lemerre about French coaching and player development after he guided France to the Euro 2000 title. Read the article HERE.

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United/Bay Oaks in Oakland, Calif. He is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at

10 comments about "Why MLS made a French Connection".
  1. Luis Arreola, May 22, 2013 at 11:08 a.m.

    It really makes no sense as to why MLS picked France to learn from. It hasnt made any sense as to why we have followed the English model for this long as well. Tim didnt really explain why they thought France was a better idea than other proven countries like Brazil, Argentian. What better soccer player producing countries than those 2?? Mike, you hit it right on the head. U.S. Demographics do in fact many successful countries more so than France or England. It also seems much more cost effective to visit these other countries that we have on our side of the world.

  2. cony konstin, May 22, 2013 at 11:53 a.m.

    US Soccer needs radical change. We need to create our own way. I call it the Usonian Way. Definition of Usonian. A person from the United States of America. We are the melting pot of the world. It is time that we tap into our own resources and quit chasing other countries ways and styles. We need to create a 21st century master plan. We need new leadership and a new model. US soccer is all over the map. It is helter skelter at best. It is time for a soccer revolution in
    the USA. Again I ask Soccer America to step up in some level of leadership to create a symposium at the next NCAA convention dealing with the subject of creating a 21st century master plan towards the
    future of US Soccer. Talk is cheap. We need action. No more rhetoric and mumbo jumbo. Leadership, a new vision, a master plan, and finally a mandate/implementation.

  3. David Whitehouse, May 22, 2013 at 11:58 a.m.

    USSF needs to send the message loud and clear to the youth clubs. If you want to help produce professional and international players you must develop and value skill, not size and strength.
    The next step for USSF is to look at existing Academy clubs and weed out the ones who are not doing this.
    This should separate (literally) the men from the boys. The Clubs that are selling winning with 10 year olds to their parents will go on, but not as part of a system designed to produce high level players when they are adults.
    There are some hopeful signs from MLS Clubs but USSF has sadly not yet taken the necessary steps to eliminate the Academy Clubs who not doing what it takes.

  4. cony konstin, May 22, 2013 at 1:19 p.m.

    Hello Dave
    US youth soccer should be in the business of using soccer as a vehicle to make healthy and better citizens. The MLS should be in the business of making Pros. USSF should not be in the business of making Pros with the US Soccer Academy. It should be abolished and the MLS should be taking up the slack and needs to create a 21st century master plan in how they must develop Pros. The IMG u17 boys project needs to go away and in it's place the MLS needs to take up the slack. If the MLS doesn't step up to take up the slack. Then we will never have great US players. The MLS most likely will increase more foreign players as less Usonians will have the opportunity to be playing in the MLS. I am a nationalist. I believe in my people first and my neigherbors come secondly. I am not an isolationist but our Usonian kids must come first. Revolution!!!!

  5. Luis Arreola, May 22, 2013 at 4:18 p.m.

    Cony, I like your style. That is true National Pride. It is a wonder to me what the USSF is looking to achieve with this current Academy system. They can say "we need to play a creative style" all they want but it will never pick up unless these clubs are forced to do it by the very same USSF. But all of this falls back on money. MLS teams have little to gain from even attempting to develop players. Why would they prioritize development if their best players will be swept up by foreign clubs with nothing to tie them in with these clubs?? What we have all been seeing is clubs recruit alot harder at U15+ because they hope they will stick around for 3 years and hope they will then be good enough to sign with them. U12?? Too much of a risk. Winning at the highest level is where the money is at. You win. You attract many $$$ paying customers. You develop but lose?? That income drops dramatically. Unless MLS Academy clubs are able to sign players for and at least get a development fee this is a lost cause. No money in it leaves us with the very very few that can and will do it for the love of it. Not even close to enough to make a big impact. In the biggest league out from I am at you see the wierdest things when it comes to rivalries, players, winning, etc. Why?? $$$$ Business. Not players. Players are not products. They are tools.

  6. James Froehlich, May 22, 2013 at 5:44 p.m.

    Getting back to the topic of this article, I'm afraid that Tim B totally fails to make the case for selecting France for this partnership. This decision has the distinct "odor" of someone wanting to make a "unique" decision just for the sake of being different. As Mike W subtly makes the case there are at least 5 countries that have a much better resume for a partnership such as this. Since establishing "partnerships" usually involves some monetary exchange, it would be quite interesting to learn how expensive this project is. It would also be enlightening to learn whether the other options were cheaper or more expensive than France. The lead-in to the interview was fine but a few more hard-hitting questions would have been appreciated!!!!!!

  7. Luis Arreola, May 22, 2013 at 9:56 p.m.

    James, well said. I dont see how it would have been even close if MLS partnered with Brazilian or Argentinian clubs than Paris St. Germain. Mexico would probably be an even more obvious choice since they are taking all of our players.

  8. Robert Kiernan, May 23, 2013 at 12:46 p.m.

    I suppose the key problem with our "youth programs" is that unlike practically any other place on the planet, we are out to "develop" players to go and play at the COLLEGIATE level, and while that might be all very well and good, it will NEVER result in developing a large group of PROFESSIONAL caliber players. This is where the "Pay to Play" for profit Club system is such a bad joke that continues to keep us confused about our goals. Cony Konstin is dead on about who it should be that produces the likely young Professionals, simply it must be the Professional clubs just as it is done EVERYWHERE ELSE in the World.
    That said until MLS gets out of the paternalistic business of it's "Single Entity" structure and allows the individual clubs to run their own business, there is little real incentive for an MLS side to spend time or money of teenagers that they have no way of signing without getting the League's permission. As it is we see many of our top prospects looking understandably with a jaundices eye towards signing with a MLS team and instead try for the brass ring in Europe or Mexico... look at Xolos success in finding players HERE and signing them THERE... this is a trickle now but it can turn into a flood if MLS and the USSF do little or nothing to change their ways. A simple fact is that even when the IMG u17 side is given a a model, you must ask just who is it they compete against, they are better than their usual opponents so they rarely get pushed much, that is NOT the case for most Professional Sides youth programs, they play twice as much as your typical College program and they are doing it FULL TIME... it's simply, it's not about whether we look to France or to some other Country, it's that the vast bulk of our efforts are to get a kid into College, which is fine if that is his or her goal in life, but if you are out to produce PROFESSIONALS, well it is a rather expensive and Bassackwards way of doing things. ... (ICE)

  9. Robert Kiernan, May 23, 2013 at 12:49 p.m.

    Sorry for the typos... but this stuff matters

  10. Luis Arreola, May 23, 2013 at 2:46 p.m.

    Robert, I dont beleive we are out to develop the collegiate level players. I dont beleive it is too hard to develop that type of player. I believe the college player is more looked at physically than technically. Do top clubs and Academies promote it as their goal?? Sure, its not hard to do. Easy to promote. Cony and you are correct that it should be the Proffessional clubs that produce the young pros but it all comes down to money. If MLS continue to lose players at 17 years old and under to International Pro teams because they cant sign them before then there really wont be an interest to do so. Too much of a risk. Not enough of a payback. Unless that rule changes we will never see anything different. Too much money being made off of parents to give up for investing in an unsecured player. A player's perspective must be this in USA. I am 17 and going to college next year. If I secure a full ride to a good college, why would I take anything below $200,000 a year to play in the MLS and thats only if it's for at least 3-5 years gauranteed or 3 plus a promise to pay for college?? If someone in Mexico or Europe offers me more than that then I should consider. $40,000 - $50,000 a year with no playing time on 1st team, eliminating my college eligibility, is a huge career risk. Academies should only target developing pros and college should be a 2nd option for all of them as a set goal. Any club can produce college players given the style of play. Not much difference from that standpoint and it should be the biggest one.

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