Elite? Premier? Not when the punts are flying

By Ian Plenderleith

The setting is a "showcase" tournament featuring some of the top youth clubs in Region 1. College scouts are dotted around the field sitting in fold-up chairs, their clipboards on their knees, with pens poised to note the number of any outstanding players. The goalkeeper of a boys U19 team has the ball in his hands. I am standing in the middle of the field as the referee, and I know exactly where that ball is going. High in the air. Over my head.

Often, it goes straight through to the other goalkeeper, who will then gather it up and fire it back in the exact same English fourth division style. Sometimes it is headed by a defender back into the midfield melee, and there is an ensuing scrap for the ball. Occasionally, a forward will get a head on it, and even more occasionally he will find one of his own players. At least half the time, to the disbelieving despair of players, coaches and parents alike, I have to call a foul for pushing, holding or charging.

Over the course of six depressing games at U19 and U17 level, on only one single occasion did a goalkeeper throw the ball out to a teammate standing in space. Unsurprisingly, there were just five goals in the course of these six games, one of them a penalty kick. While there were high levels of fitness, aggression, speed and (inevitably) foul play, there was almost a complete lack of the one thing US soccer needs most -- imagination.

Fellow referee Randy Vogt pointed out in a piece this week at Soccer America that it’s laughable so many clubs have the word “Premier” in their titles. I have two more humorous and all too common monikers for youth soccer clubs -- Elite and Academy.

“Elite” should mean that these are the select few, the absolute cream of our flourishing young talent. Yet all you tend to see at the Elite level is the same replicated player type -- the disciplined hard worker who will run all day, but lacks any kind of composure on the ball, or in passing the ball. The player whose attacking repertoire consists of hopeful but aimless shots from 30 yards out, and predictable crosses that are easily snaffled by reliable goalkeepers.

Academy, meanwhile, implies something cerebral. Think Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klopp, think tactical systems, flexible positioning, and sophisticated ways of breaking down the opposition. Only think these things, though, because in real life you will most probably see an Academy coach screaming at a player for trying to dribble, or for getting caught in possession because he wasn’t quick enough to welt the ball 60 yards down the field.

It could be that I had an unlucky weekend, and just happened to come across 12 “elite” teams playing the most primitive brand of soccer. Teams containing stacks of fit and fairly strong soccer players. However, anyone can train a kid to run fast and fight hard and kick a ball a long way down a field, just as it doesn’t take much effort to train a dog to run and fetch a tennis ball. It takes a lot more time and patience, though, to train that dog to sit on its hind legs and balance the ball on its nose. (And when it drops the ball, don’t yell at the poor mutt.)

In the seventh and final game, I was relieved to come across a team whose goalkeeper threw the ball out to his defenders, who then constructed offensive moves by generally passing the ball along the ground. It was no coincidence that this game featured much less wasted possession, as well as five goals. There were still no phenomenal carriers of the ball, and precious little sign of improvisation, trickery, daring or flair, but at least the width of the field was properly used, and the coach’s instructions -- none of which were screamed -- were useful to his players. This team, sadly, was a conspicuous exception to the norm.

As the United States enters the 2014 World Cup having dropped the only attacker to have consistently shown off exciting, world-class play over the past decade, it’s difficult to imagine -- despite the millions of hard-running but over-coached players in this country -- where his successor will come from. Like those long punted balls, though, we remain full of hope.

(Ian Plenderleith is a Maryland-based soccer writer, coach and referee. His book "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League" will be published by Icon Books in September. He previously published two works of adult soccer fiction, "For Whom The Ball Rolls" and "The Chairman’s Daughter.")
20 comments about "Elite? Premier? Not when the punts are flying".
  1. Peter Skouras, May 30, 2014 at 2:07 a.m.

    Hey Ian...looking forward in reading your book! By reading your comments somewhat on the domestic structure(s) plural, how the American player is learning the game is unfortunate...I won't get into the details because you described some of the tactical ones. We cannot compare Arsene Venger and Klopp to any Coach in the United States even Klinsman. The problem is massive Ian. No regulation by US Soccer, a zillion leagues affiliated and non (which is where the next "American Superstar comes and goes) pay to play, I can go on and on. And one more thing...the "Relegation" battles that go on in foreign leagues from wayyyyyyyyyy at the bottom to the First Division is Global, it produces a "different" type of player, IT IS TELEVISED WEEK IN AND WEEK OUT, "But US Soccer wants no part of it!" Ian, the American soccer player is a spoiled rotten brat...for the most part and in Suburban Soccer America. The Inner City America Soccer player has more to "dream" for but still cannot compare globally to the "effort" foreign soccer players let alone "societies" battle with in their daily lives. Soccer has reached its pinnacle in this country. This is it. First round, 1-2-3 and back to the mainland...unless of course there is a revolution...people who have positions for long periods of time are kicked so the far away from exploited the game. We must hook up with the Europeans and South Americans and I also mean the Greeks who do a wonderful job with their National Teams programs and domestic Super you thing we give them any credit??? By the way they are ranked 10th in the world! Globaliz Ian, if not, soccer will remain as always a "high level recreational sport."

  2. Coach Referee, May 30, 2014 at 10:37 a.m.

    My goalies learn that when they make a save with their hands and hold onto the ball that they are now "first attacker" and should lead the attack. This equates to maintaining possession. Possession is 50/50 on punted balls. Possession is typically 100/0 when rolled and usually the same 100/0 when thrown. Seems pretty obvious which choices should come before opting for punting. If a punt occurs, it's definitely something discussed at halftime/end of the match.

  3. Gabriel Chapman, May 30, 2014 at 10:57 a.m.

    I couldn't agree with this more, Ian. Following up on Randy's piece, we have come a long way in the last 40 years...but we have a long way to go.

    I am an American coach currently living and pursuing my UEFA licenses in Spain. The kids here play from morning till night and are fantastic.

    Average 8-year-olds here can fire off strong, accurate passes, dribble well and already have some tactical awareness.

    I think it has a lot to do with the amount of pick-up they play with friends - of all ages - outside of formal team activities.

    Despite Randy's optimism on that front, I just don't see a lot of young Americans playing outside of organized games and practices. I think until we change this our players will be short on creativity and imagination.

  4. Brent Crossland, May 30, 2014 at 11:17 a.m.

    "While there were high levels of fitness, aggression, speed and (inevitably) foul play, there was almost a complete lack of the one thing US soccer needs most -- imagination. "
    This single sentence sums up too many US games at all levels -- youth, HS, college, and MLS.

  5. william newsom, May 30, 2014 at 11:18 a.m.

    1st we cant play pickup games because no one lets their kids outside because of the kidnappers around each corner.

    2nd Since anyone can call their team "elite" and "premier" and "I'm special in some way" there are plenty of teams/clubs around to join.

    3rd Every coach "knows" the game with or without ever playing it at a high level. Every coach should be paid a bucket of money, Every coach is an expert and finally when a coach gets mad they become Directors of Coaching and make another club adding to the problem.

    4th Since when is it bad to punt the ball as a goalie , every team does it , lets focus on the "why" and "when" to do it as the article suggests.

    5th Everyone has a better mousetrap: ECNL, USDA, ID2, ODP, this that and the other. All designed to make a player feel more special than his/her peers.

    On and On and On it goes.

  6. Amos Annan, May 30, 2014 at 11:40 a.m.

    Despite all the criticism, the US ranks higher than most of the world. Many foolishly think the US should win it all in a country where 4 or 5 other sports rank higher in interest. In most other countries it is the ONLY sport and they have a 100 year history of playing it.

  7. Bill Me, May 30, 2014 at 12:53 p.m.

    Ranked 4th or 5th?? Not true. USA is divided into several cultures with different preferences. What culture dominates basketball and football and is less than 20% of the USA population that also makes up the majority of USA prisoner's?? Black People. With the prison stat working against them they still manage to dominate USA's 2 most popular sports!! Less than 20% of population !!! The other large minority that makes up about 20% of the population are Hispanics. What sport do they pick 1st?? Easy answer. Soccer. SO if USA dominates 2 sports Internationally with less than 20% of the population being the one solid contributor why cant we dominate one sport, SOCCER, knowing that is the sport of preference of one of our cultures??? Maybe we should stop making excuses when logic and facts state otherwise and get down to the root of the problem like this article does!!

  8. Peter Greene, May 30, 2014 at 1:22 p.m.

    The other problem is coaches who put a premium on keepers who can punt the ball out of the park. You may have a kid with the imagination you speak about, but if that kid doesn't have as strong a foot as his or her competition in goal chances are they will be on the bench.

  9. Ron kruse, May 30, 2014 at 1:40 p.m.

    Ian, In America it is how fast and strong you are period. So many kids get left behind because they are not the fastest or strongest. When i coached "competetive" whatever the hell that is supposed to mean. I tried so hard to leave the game to the players and foster creativity with many different SSG's in training as well as teaching them the concepts of space, time, and playing the ball on the ground, leaving them the game to play.I also made a massive effort to commun icate what i was trying to do to the parents. My team was not big or fast and as i was just starting to see those flashes of crerativity in my U8U10 girls, after about 18 months, i was told that i was going to have to seperate them into an A and B team basically because we were not winning alteast 6 games per season. I started my team with 6 girls and at the end of 18 months i was at 20! Needless to say i stopped coaching all of those girls, way to much stress/pressure to win from parents and club! I now coach the 3 and 4 year olds because that is the only group that the club will let me coach without any pressure to win. After 3 4/6 week sessions i have those little ones knowing and using all six sides of thier feet and keeping the ball close while dribbling. It is amazing what kids can do when they are having fun, but in American "Competitve" Clubs, atleast the one i was at FUN is a four letter word.

  10. R2 Dad, May 30, 2014 at 4:35 p.m.

    Unfortunately, many parents whose children play this sport disagree. They love long kicks/punts, lots of fast running willy-nilly all over the field. You can hear them on the sideline encouraging kids, lauding them for every long/high kick, simple pass or shot from 30 yards out. Fix the parents. Once they get retrained, they will demand their coaches play possession (since that is what Ian is advocating here). Until then everyone is wasting their time, and we are wasting the talents of the proto-Messis in the USA who will only excel if they go overseas.

  11. James Madison, May 30, 2014 at 6:56 p.m.

    It's astonishing to read there are still youth coaches out there who (a) don't understand the importance of possessing the ball and (b)don't know or, if they know, don't appreciate the odds. To paraphrase Tony Curtis's character in the delightful 1960s movie Operation Petticoat, "The boys in Las Vegas would say they're trying to make their point the hard way."

  12. BJ Genovese, May 30, 2014 at 9 p.m.

    Son just spent the last year with a team that is ranked in the top ten in the US. Big name tourney's and college showcases... and yes. Utter long ball. Yelling "Forward" from the top of the coaches lungs with more and more ferver as the game reaches the last minutes. Utterly disapointing. My Son had been picked for programs like ID2 and PDP as a diminutive player only because he was good with the ball at his feet and playing 1-2. Only to go to this team and be punished almost cruely by the coach for not getting the ball and punting it up field. Lesson, beware the allure or need to go to big clubs with high rankings. Go watch them play a couple of times before trying out. Sometimes you dont know who the coach is or what style they teach. Most teach winning so they can build the resume.

  13. Kevin Sims, May 31, 2014 at 10:20 p.m.

    Last fall I happened upon a U14 boys game which included the A team from our local Development Academy club. Their opponent that day was quite inferior physically, but vastly superior in terms of guile, creativity and passing. I sat on a hill near the DA bench. The DA coach never offered a single moment's praise to quality soccer or creative soccer or daring efforts or tricky passes or fine dribbling ... and there was plenty. The DA coach, during match play and during halftime, spoke/yelled to the team solely about effort and wanting to play/tackle harder than the opponent. The DA coach got it all so horribly wrong when the opponent scored shortly after the DA team's most spectacular attacking work of the match narrowly missed resulting in a goal ... yet for the superb GK snag of a cross at the far post that quickly resulted in a brilliant throw distribution and a counterattack goal a few passes later. After the goal, the DA coach yelled at a MF who had performed several pieces of quick magic while almost getting on the end of the cross ... at the right post despite his being an outside left midfielder. Yes, the counter exploited the space out of which the MF ran during his creative, dynamic series. But rather than seize the teachable moment about the team balancing smartly after the attack, the coach snarled at the inside-dribbling, 1-2-passing, dribble-two-defenders, overlap-to-far-post MFer ... who spent the rest of the match playing "simple" and predictably in "his position". I couldn't decide whether to cry, laugh or scream about it all. AAAAAAAAAAArgh!!!! That coach has no business anywhere near a field, yet makes a handsome living with the DA club damaging America's future in soccer.

  14. Christopher Janusz, June 1, 2014 at 11:12 a.m.

    I red all of the comments and agree with almost all of you. If you don't know where the problem is, it's about Jerry McGuire. Yes, Jerry McGuire the movie, more about the famous line "Show me the money!". It's about Got Soccer rankings and tournament money being made, making the bucks on parents sending their kids to these "Academies" for a fortune rather then spend it on their education. Why do I as a coach need two rosters, two sets of player cards, play in one league, that is scheduled as playing two different with different rules as who can be on the roster and who can't. Every year a new "Premier" league pops up, a new so called Premiere club pops up who are made up of 1 or 2 teams, don't have their own fields, charge a fortune, pull kids from other teams telling them they are "Premiere" basically making the player pool more wider and mediocre, rather than making it more narrow with the best players. We keep telling our kids to keep it simple. Then why are we adults making this so complicated?!As far as bigger stronger, faster players playing simple destruction, kick the ball to the fast strong forward as Ron described, absolutely agree. The problem is rankings and points depending on which tournament you play in, come first before style, imagination, creativity. As far as lack of control by the Federation, of course! There are too many people and organizations claiming to be in charge and caring about development of our players. They care about the power! Each group will not give up power and their position to unite and be organized, and actually care about development. For this I blame US soccer for not taking control. I can go on and on. To those of you who have the same views and are trying to coach style, imagination, creativity, don't give up. Like in Gladiator "Hold the line!"

  15. Hector Alzando, June 3, 2014 at 10:04 a.m.

    I was at a u11 boys game recently where the head coach yelled "boom" and shuddered with joy every time some kicked the ball hard. Imagine why American soccer players have little creativity.

  16. Bill Me, June 3, 2014 at 11:12 a.m.

    The new epidemic now is mindless posession soccer. It is better than booting but now we have alot of coaches instructing 2 touch at the top of their lungs and little to nothing else. I am starting to see teams play out of the back (not many) but more thsn usual but these teams dont seem to know when to mix it up. The coaches want these players playing out of the back on every single play. The goalie gets stuck with the ball for 10 seconds because opposing team knows exactly whats going to happen next so they all pressure the opposing 1/2. MINDLESS. When they finally get the ball up to final 1/3 I see these teams terrified in sending a through ball because that would mean risking posession. So the forwards are just making runs without getting the ball until they figure out they have to come to the ball for a safer pass. MINDLESS. No creativity. Coaches are not instructing their teams to mix up. Play long once in a while to confuse opposing team and therefore create more space. Dribble in certain situations when one on one marking is good. Posession game can be as mindless and boring as booting it up and will not create the players we are hoping for.

  17. Bill Me, June 3, 2014 at 11:13 a.m.

    Forgot to mention, I see this type of play at the highest levels in US Soccer. We are missing the bigger picture thinking we know it all now.

  18. Ron kruse, June 4, 2014 at 3:21 p.m.

    @ Bill me, Ya i agree that mindless posession soccer can creep in especially with younger players. The solution, i believe, to most of these problems is teaching the players and then giving them the freedom on the pitch to make thier own decisions and not brow beating them when they try something and it doesnt work. I have evolved as a coach, with training and alot of reading, from yelling instructions to players to now evaulating thier play and asking them leading questions when they are subbed in and out of the game. Like i said before, my young girls were not the most athletic and because i let them play and did not dictate to them we did not win alot of our games. During one season i told the players that i would coach like alot of them said thier previous coaches coached, yelling instructions from the touch. Well i did and that was the biggest win ever for us against the best team in the league. But after the game we talked about it and they did not like it. They told me it was like i was making all of the decsions and they could not concentrate. I was also trying to teach my players the Dutch Total Soccer way and this is even more difficult with younger players because it seems like kids now a days, are being, want to be told what to do so when they are givien the freedom to move around the pitch in the early stages of development it is very difficult for them.

  19. Kevin Bondi, June 4, 2014 at 3:34 p.m.

    Terrific article! However, I think there is room for optimism. When I grew up playing in the 80s, our coach like most others had never played soccer in his life. He was a good father and read a book on how to be a coach. Fast forward 30 years and how things have changed. I'm an assistant coach of my 9 year old son. All three coaches have played a significant level of soccer. We have a paid trainer the was a top college soccer player. I believe we are teaching the boys in the manner that you describe as the right way to do it. In addition to our club there are plenty of independent camps and trainers, mainly from Europe, that also teach the possession game. Our group is also actively involved in futsal and love the creativity that is teaches.

    I don't think we can replace the development like those in Europe or South America where the kids play soccer independently nearly everyday. It is hard to duplicate touching the ball in free play everyday. However, I think there is a shift in American soccer. I see more and more coaches teaching the right way. As third and fourth generation players are coaching, it will only continue to get better.

  20. Matt Morse, June 9, 2014 at 4:28 p.m.

    OK people, why aren't there any players on the USMNT from Southern California for WC 2014? Calsouth wins everything at the regional and national level. Supposedly the best players come out of so cal. Most top colleges feature players from so cal. So why doesn't this translate into world class players for so cal? Focus on winning from U8. Too much club hopping! All the leagues only provide 10-14 game seasons. The list goes on and on...

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