Ian Barker on a U.S. style of play, producing No. 10s, and coaching schools in the USA

Ian Barker  is the Director of Coaching Education of United Soccer Coaches, formerly known as the NSCAA, which was founded in 1941 and currently has 30,000 members. Barker has also served on the national instructional staff for U.S. Soccer and U.S. Youth Soccer. We check in with him as U.S. men's national team general manager Earnie Stewart searches for a new U.S. national team coach who is supposed to implement a U.S. style of play. Stewart recently described his style of play vision as: "It has everything to do with the values that we have as Americans. What we think is important. We have great athletes that are always on their front foot, that are aggressive, we're are kind of like in your face. And that's what we want to see from our players as well."

SOCCER AMERICA: What style of play do you think the U.S. men's national team should strive for?

IAN BARKER: Within Concacaf and in major tournaments, we should be a “front foot” nation. With due respect, it is the antithesis of say an Iceland, or perhaps a Costa Rica, two soccer nations I have a ton of respect for, but who have to be more circumspect. That means we would be a national team program that values possession.

We must work to find the true No. 10s, another Claudio Reyna or Tab Ramos, but that cannot always be guaranteed even with the most intentional of programming. So we should also be committed to being a positive, pressing nation valuing athleticism and spirit.

Finding a blend and balance of these somewhat northern European qualities and the massive Latin influence in U.S. soccer is critical, but not something anyone has ever provided a long-term answer to. There also has to be consideration for the conscious outreach and inclusion of African-American players and players within immigrant communities. I think we may look to the successes within MLS where blend and balance occurs that is hard to see sometimes on the U.S. men's national team.

SA: Is there anything that can be done at the grassroots level, a coaching approach for example, that will improve the ability of the USA to produce No. 10s, creative playmakers?

IAN BARKER: It is my opinion that game-based training provided with intentionality and experience offers players more chances to make decisions and provides greater realism than a lot of the more contrived “drill”-based work.

Effective coaching in this model requires the coach to be able to understand the actual challenges presented in the specific game moment, identify the players’ responses and then communicate with the players’ as to their thinking.

SA: How do United Soccer Coaches coaching courses address style of play issues?

IAN BARKER: In some of the more advanced courses, we look at formations and how formations then become systems based on coach preference, available personnel, the opponent, game situation, etc.

One of the things we have been consistent with is to encourage coaches to use their education to find solutions in their context. That is, much as we want to develop intuitive, thoughtful players who can respond to the ever-changing aspects of a game, we want to empower coaches to make informed decisions as it relates to the style of play they employ.

So that would mean if a coach is asking the players to launch the ball forward and bludgeon the opponent -- rather than immediately critique the instructor, we would want to know why that was their approach.

If the answer is, “it is the most effective way to win,” then the discussion as to, “is there a Plan B, C?” or “what does this mean for long-term player development?” is at least possible. It is easy to judge in the coaching course environment without taking the time to understand the coaches’ contexts and we want our educators to avoid those superficial judgments.

SA: In 2015, U.S. Soccer stopped allowing coaching license candidates to skip lower level U.S. Soccer courses if they had diplomas from the United Soccer Coaches (formerly the NSCAA). When I asked U.S. Soccer why they changed a policy that made it more convenient for coaches to advance on the U.S. Soccer coaching education pathway, Chief Soccer Officer Ryan Mooney said United Soccer Coaches' "curriculum approach isn’t aligned with ours." What do you think about that and his analogy that: "You’re being taught French, and you’re saying, hey, it’s a Romance language, so it should be equivalent to my Italian course"?

IAN BARKER: Personally, I am OK with a sovereign FA/Federation having an exclusive licensing pathway. That is an international standard.

In terms of the 2015 decision, the biggest issue was that it happened with immediate effect. U.S. Soccer reversed their policy of allowing coaches who had done at least 40-120 hours of education, with the then NSCAA, to skip lower levels within U.S. Soccer without warning. In doing so, the rug was pulled from under some really dedicated American coaches.

A simple “grandfather rule,” to give those coaches a window to have their commitment honored would have been the correct decision. However, that boat has sailed. As such we have been able to help many of these coaches, our members, enter UEFA B courses as their continuing education option.

As to the contention that curriculums are not aligned, I cannot speak to what others know or do not know, but I can say no one in the current U.S. Soccer education group has spoken to me about the curriculum we present.

SA: Also in the interview with Mooney and Nico Romeijn (USSF Chief Sport Development Officer), I asked them to address the shortage of U.S. Soccer coaching courses -- for the many coaches who need to get USSF licenses because the USSF has ramped up the requirements. They answered that they depend on member organizations, such as United Soccer Coaches, to give their courses. Could you help me comprehend this: USSF requires coaches get its licenses, it isn't meeting the demand for courses, so it needs United Soccer Coaches, whose courses it says are like a different language, to teach U.S. Soccer coaches …

IAN BARKER: The explanation here is fairly straight-forward.

Previously, U.S. Soccer relied on U.S. Youth Soccer state associations to get coaches through the E, D and sometimes C, before U.S. Soccer conducted the B and A courses.

Now, more member groups such as United Soccer Coaches, U.S. Club, AYSO, SAY, U.S. Adult Soccer can deliver the U.S. Soccer grassroots courses, D and sometimes C. As such, there is more opportunity for those courses to be delivered. Delivery at the B and above level is still the most direct responsibility of U.S. Soccer.

Within the United Soccer Coaches Academy Staff, we have scores of excellent educators to meet any volume of demand. Many of our National and Associate Staff are not only active, highly qualified and experienced coaches -- they are also professors and teachers.

We have an extensive network of educators that allows us to deliver final assessments for our diplomas in each coach’s own setting. This is an important innovation in the experience and learning for our staff and our members alike.

If United Soccer Coaches does deliver the U.S. Soccer grassroots courses or the D, upon the demand of members, we do so in 100% accordance with the U.S. Soccer curriculum.

We believe firmly in the grassroots education United Soccer Coaches presents in our diplomas. We believe it fits the needs of the American grassroots coach, which is why we wrote it as we did.

The U.S. Soccer grassroots content is not so radically different that it is a contradiction for a good instructor to present the material from either curriculum, or indeed that of other well-conceived coach education programs. Very often the difference is more a point of emphasis than a philosophical or educational misalignment

SA: Anything else you'd like to add or address?

IAN BARKER: United Soccer Coaches education from the 4v4 Diploma to the Master Degree we support with Ohio University is very much grounded in the solid history of U.S. soccer coaching education, initially inspired by UEFA content and then developed and molded by American coaches working in the American environment.

It has to evolve on an ongoing basis and it must be open to global trends and embrace new ideas. Coaching education must be subject to the concept of “dynamic change.”

In the space of coaching education, like that of youth soccer, or college and high school soccer, programming in the U.S. is unique and unlike that of other top FAs/Federations. That can be confusing and it can create conflict, but it also provides opportunity and choice to our community.

Our soccer community needs to find the areas of common ground, of shared values, of a vision for soccer in the country, while allowing for different ideas and actions.

Hugo Perez on style of play: 'The USA has the players to play possession-oriented, offensive soccer'
Landon Donovan on a U.S. style of play, what worked in the past, and who should coach the USA
Nico Romeijn and Ryan Mooney on U.S. Soccer coaching education: the Federation's intentions and its capabilities and capacity

23 comments about "Ian Barker on a U.S. style of play, producing No. 10s, and coaching schools in the USA".
  1. Bob Ashpole, September 20, 2018 at 5:47 a.m.

    This interview reads like a well written press release. Which I would expect.

    I have a lot of respect for Ian Barker and his predecessors at NSCAA, but..... I don't like the grass roots approach at all. It seems to be premised on the idea that the model player will not be playing outside of his contact time with the coach. I don't doubt this is typical, but where it fails is in assuming that players who don't play on their own can be the basis for a successful elite development program.

    Whether intentional or not, this "games-not-drills" meme actually results in a focus on tactics at the expense of technical development. The USSF grass roots approach is well suited to teaching tactics, but not suited to teaching technical skills to the important ages 8 to 12 period of athlete development. The doctrine forces a training plan on all coaches that is based on the "average" player rather than based on the specific group that the coach is training. The fundamental stage is actually the most important phase to player development. Once those years are lost, players will likely not reach their full potential of development in the technical and tactical areas. 

    If you ask tough questions of instructors, they will respond that it is up to the individual coach to decide what is right for his situation. But that coaching decision is not part of the doctrine. So how is this doctrine helping to improve coaches? One size does not fit all. 

  2. Bob Ashpole replied, September 20, 2018 at 5:52 a.m.

    This is exactly as if a music teacher planned on developing professional concert soloists out of students who don't touch their instrument between lessons. 

  3. Goal Goal replied, September 20, 2018 at 12:15 p.m.

    Bob, in my opinion you can develop techinical skills but you can't teach them.  Technical skills are individual traits that are the sole possesion of the individual involved and those skills are developed individually by working with the ball day in day out and not at supervised practices.  When you are at practice you experiment with the technique you are working on.

    My point is you can teach tactics you can't teach technique just as you can't teach speed.

    In my mind, many of the coaches don't have a clue on how to handle technical players.  Their only interest is to get to the goal quickly which is usually pretty ugly.

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, September 20, 2018 at 5:20 p.m.

    Right Winger, you may consider this sematics, but the coach teaches and gives feedback on correct technique. Skill with a technique is developed by doing. Most of what a coach does should be adjusting the pressure and positive reinforcement. 

    In my view a technical session should in order consist of 1/3 of the session in isolated practice of the targeted techniques under progressing pressure, 1/3 in practice in small sided games of increasing complexity, and 1/3 in unrestricted play of large sides. This is optimal for long term learning of the techique, which hopefully will be practiced in unorganized play away from the club.

  5. Wallace Wade, September 20, 2018 at 8:42 a.m.

    US Soccer has “pulled the rug out” from more than just Coaches...

  6. s fatschel, September 20, 2018 at 9:27 a.m.

    I'm struggling that coaching education as the root cause of US soccer woes.  I thinks its secondary. With several thousand men's and women's college soccer programs we have a huge number of soccer knowledgable parents  coaches at grassroots. Better to focus on fixing pay to play and adding futsal courts.

  7. Philip Carragher, September 20, 2018 at 12:55 p.m.

    I wonder if the problem we have in coordinating coaching philosophies might stem from the different age and ability levels of players and competitions. Maybe the older players have missed critical development that they can't recover. I coach at a middle school, 5-8th grade boys and girls, and view my main approach with them as a "soccer intervention". None of them have learned either the full range of basic techniques (including my best travel players) nor the simple tactics of possession soccer. These players, at this age group, have missed many formative years of critical foundational work and now, within the limits of a heterogenous group of talent and physical/mental abilities and time constraints, I need to find a way to cobble together a team that can simulate decent possession soccer and all of this with 33% of the players unable to run well. Five years ago, when I was a less-than-casual observer of DA soccer, some of the observable technique was decent, some not, and attempts at possession-style soccer mostly had teams going sideways and backwards with little idea about how to go forward and, of the teams that did go forward, that usually meant having a speed demon up top that was sent long balls. And so we have a disappointing USMNT. So maybe the focus in trying to agree on a coordinated and possession-style curriculum should be on the youngest of players and passing along apologies to the older groups who, no matter what, have missed critical development in their earliest years. That said, how about making the local U-14 coach the most revered coach in the system (resonsible for overseeing local efforts to develop players with sufficient skills/match savvy to play at highly competitive levels) rather than the U-18 DA coach? And, apologies to RW, technique can be taught. I do it.

  8. frank schoon, September 20, 2018 at 1:38 p.m.

    This is no slight on Ian but an overall critique of the whole system. The moment I see the word "educator or soccer education" immediately I see red flags, because ,in the end, it all comes down to PROCESS for we have soccer organizations "infights" arguing about, "my coaching license is better than your coaching license". When you look at the total picture than the statement by van Hanegem considered in Dutch soccer circles as the second oracle to Cruyff, that "we're beginning to lose the essentials of the game itself", is so apt. Take for example, the development of the youth between 8-12 can be so naturally carried out. At this stage is all about allowing the youth to experiment, to learn and develop not only his technique, but also understanding the game at his level all by just DOING. This is the initial stage self-development where no coach is telling you what to do. A COACH IS NOT NECESSARY AT THIS STAGE. There is so many aspects of the game learned in the first stage that no coach ,third party, can teach but only through playing experience. Here is the irony we have coaches with licenses at this stage where kids don't need a coach, for they only need playing experience. 
    What a kid possibly could have is a friend , a "facilitator , a guide at worst, or a player who teaches the love and appreciation for the game, an aspect that is much more important than having a coaching license.  The question is, do you need a licensed coaches at the first stage level, NO!! If you look at all the great players like Cruyff and his minions, my generation that made Ajax and the WC'74 so great , grew up playing street/pickup soccer, without licensed coaches, because, fortunately, there was no Coaching Academy in Holland until the mid sixties. We as kids never had the unfortunate experience of having a licensed coach telling what to do.
    This is why Cruyff would rather have good players than licensed coaches teach, GUIDE AND FACILITATE the youth by allowing them to do what they want and not restrict them in the first stage. But Licensed coaches no matter how bad a player they are or were, due to having a LICENSE want to get their 2cents and control.  This is I find it humorous to see soccer organizations playing a power game as to who has the right to license coaches who deal with youth in the first stage of development that really don't need a "licensed coach". Next Post

  9. Philip Carragher replied, September 20, 2018 at 1:53 p.m.

    FS, love your comments. Quick question, if the 8-12 year old youth in Holland did not need coaching, were they avid fans and watched highly skilled soccer matches? If so, then maybe they were the lucky recipients of the "watch and imitate" no-coach coaching; unfortunately, many players here in the US do not watch great soccer and the coaching (over-coaching) here requires filling in that gap.

  10. s fatschel replied, September 20, 2018 at 2:09 p.m.

    Must agree again with FS. At younger ages set up small sided games and just let the kids play.  I began coaching under a famous Dutch coach and this was the norm for 75 percent of the practice. 

  11. frank schoon replied, September 20, 2018 at 2:20 p.m.

    Philip, I grew in Holland in those days when there was no TV, and the only time we watched a game was when our father took us to the game. Sure I saw once in a while Faas Wilkes, who was the Cruyff of those day, but it wasn't often. The important thing is that we learned to play ,playing MIXED AGES where you learn from older players. When I was 10 years old  I was allowed on saturdays  to play with much older kids 16 or so. That was payoff for working hard for I played 20-30 hours a week soccer.. The competition to join a club especially like Ajax was so intense. I remember when I tried out there were 300 kids day trying out and I was one of three picked that day. Another club that I played for Blue/White of Amsterdam having tried out took about  3 months to tell you if you made it or not. Everybody played soccer in my days, there was nothing else that is how you learned

  12. Philip Carragher replied, September 20, 2018 at 4:02 p.m.

    Frank, does futsal with it's 5v5 including a goalie fit w/Cruyff's recommendation or does it need to be without a goalie?

  13. frank schoon replied, September 20, 2018 at 4:23 p.m.

    Philip, it will 6 on 6 with a goalie, but don't get hung up on this. Play 5v5 without goalie, but stipulate that a shot on goal is a one touch shot, in other words, you can't shoot off the dribble it has to be a pass to someone who shoots. Notice then the positioning that is going on off the ball on both sides. The team without the ball has to look for the individual(s) during run of play who is in position  that if he receives the ball can shoot on a open goal. That requires than for the player, defender who is closest positioned between the possible shooting opponent and the open to move a step or two in order to block his shot. This is the beauty of the thinking that goes on while you don't have the ball. And likewise the team that has the ball, those players need to be thinking a step ahead as far as postioning goes in order to be able to shoot. As a goal is scored stop and see why that happened for someone was not position properly to stop; therefore in this manner you make them more aware of where you're standing in relation to the run of play.
    What is also good is to play with one team having one less player in a small sided game for then it will make them think. What I do often is to use a ball for a goal for each team, which means continued play for they can go behind the ball for all you to do is hit the ball to score. You be surprised the mind games as far as positioning go in order to shoot on the goal(ball). It is all about positioning . Also the teams don't have to be even...

  14. frank schoon, September 20, 2018 at 2:09 p.m.

    Like I said , what has been a natural way of developing players in the first stage, through self learning, and self- experience , those experience the youth learned has now been processed, canned, cooked, packaged and taught in a class room setting and sold as a coaching license. I mean ,seriously, sooo much is lost when taking it away from the field and into a classroom setting. I suppose a Robot (AI) can in the near future become a  youth coach, if things keep up this way.One has to realize that at the first stage of delopment it is not about Coaching , structure and organization, which the kids will receive anyway evewn just by playing without having a coach.
    Van Hanegem's statement about losing the essentials is due to people involved who have little playing experience and understanding of the game and employ means and methods, computer programs, flip over charts ,Ipads, coaching seminars, all of which is called by many who really understand the game as" laptop coaches". For example, I was shocked to even hear there is such a thing as a 4x4 soccer Diploma....unreal. Cruyfff mentioned the kids shouldn't really play 4x4 for that is not a good way of introducing different aspects of the game, rather it should be 5x5 for that has lot more aspects to offer, technically and tactically. But this only proves that those who run the show have little understanding and have little playing experience as compared to Cruyff's experience and insight into the development of the player and youth.
     The answer to the question"How do United Soccer Coaches coaching courses address style of play issues, is such garbley gook, that even Cruyff's ,if still alive, head would be smoking..But this is what you get when you these professorial types conducting soccer instead of real players. After reading that answer my eyeballs were doing circles, what BS...

  15. Goal Goal replied, September 20, 2018 at 2:32 p.m.

    Hey Frank, I watched  Ajax play Athens yesterday and that says it all.  Just amazing play by Ajax start to finish.

  16. frank schoon replied, September 20, 2018 at 2:54 p.m.

    RW, I watched it...I hope they stay together for at least 3 years, then we'll see some great soccer. But Ajax is a young team, we'll see how they wil fare. They lost Patrick Kluiver, 18 year old son to AS Roma. The problem is that so many teams in Europe look at Ajax to get their players. I can't see why they can't develop their own crop like Ajax does. Ziyech is your typical street soccer player who learned his game in the streeet of Holland

  17. Goal Goal replied, September 20, 2018 at 4:05 p.m.

    Ziyech is a catalyst.  He breeds excitement.

  18. frank schoon replied, September 20, 2018 at 4:30 p.m.

    Frenkie de Jong is the upcoming star, Barcelona wants him.....

  19. beautiful game, September 20, 2018 at 9:50 p.m.

    This talk about a number"10' or whatever is total speculation. I would suggest that invitations be given to the NT coaching staff of Belgium, Iceland, Spain, and Germany for them to assess the USMNT players in international competitions. Afterwards compare their ratings/comments with the USMNT coaching. I'd a a feedback on this idea from every concerned blogger et al who is all into soccer. 

  20. frank schoon replied, September 21, 2018 at 9:26 a.m.

    BG, good suggestion to get overal general opinion but realize the Italians and Dutch look at defenders in a different light. For example, the Dutch look at defender of being able to do more than stop a player, he needs to be able to contribute with the ball ;therefore the mannner a defender passes to a midfielder is very important.
    What I would like to see is to bring retired players from Europe, who have a name, and be a guest commentator whose purpose is to be critical and show the wrong things that are going on,although can compliment as well. This ,to me, serves the purposes of not only educating the public and coaches but also lift the game of soccer to higher level for future development. Once the public has a more critical eye, the players the players likewise will have to improve their game.

  21. R2 Dad replied, September 24, 2018 at 7:59 p.m.

    The issue of the 10 is real--I see it every week. The problems are:

    1) these kids get kicked, every week--there is a lack of protection for these creative players starting about age 14. Injuries follow.
    2) coaches do not prefer possession in the attacking half, so 10s don't get the reps they need on that side of the field. Even teams that possess out of the back prefer to send balls down the channel vs 1v1, 2v1 passing. so a team might attack a lot but still not develop the skills required of a 10.
    3) quality of players - at the younger ages these high-potential kids do not get aggregated with other high-skilled players, diluting the quality of play and development

    I do not have access to useful soccer metrics, but for an instance like this you might rate a player vv their team on % possession x number of touches x # attacks.

    A young player at U11 might have a team that possesses the ball 60% of the time (.6). The player might get 25 touches in a game, and have 12 attacks for a score of 180.  When that kid gets older, maybe they have 50% possession, 20 touches and 8 attacks (80).

    This is an off-the-cuff attempt at a metric, but in this way you might better understand a kid playing in a coaching system. I'm sure Ahmet could vastly improve this, but the point is the average parent has no idea the quality of instruction or quality of play at which their child is performing. This is baseball 80 years before Moneyball.

    Coaches hate this whole idea of quantifying play and performance, because it takes away their freedom to do whatever occurs to them. Since the coaching universe in this country has failed us so broadly, I don't see why holding coaches accountable is a bad idea. But I'm not a coach.

  22. Bob Ashpole replied, September 24, 2018 at 11:30 p.m.

    You could say that I dislike the "idea of quantifying play and performance", but not because it takes away a coaches "freedom". I dislike the rhetoric of pretending subjective judgments are objective judgments by disguising them with metrics. (Except for the score) Numbers are meaningless without a context. 

  23. Joby Slay, September 21, 2018 at 10:46 a.m.

    You can absolutely teach technique and should. As a coach I may not be able to “teach” the flair and creativity that a player may bring in using the techniques, but I will certainly have an influence with the training environment provided. I think every level we need to allow players to experiment and not necessarily say this technique is wrong or right, but their are fundamentals in every sport that can be taught. Speed can be taught as well. Some people are just genetically gifted with speed which may be what you meant, but you can teach athletes to be faster.

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