Commentary

A balanced approach that includes supporting high school ball will move American soccer forward

"Where there is balance, there is a sense of total well-being."
-- Dr. Kenneth Cooper


A powerful and timeless sentiment expressed by Dr. Cooper over 50 years ago has multiple applications because it captures the elemental essence, importance, and influence “balance” has in our professional and personal lives. Whether the subject matter is health, professional development, education, or sport; achieving balance is indeed the key to total well-being.

In that sense, the advancement of soccer in the U.S. requires a balanced, rather than radical, approach. While there is evidence of reducing numbers of youth participants in the sport and a paradigm shift in various attitudes in player and coaching development areas is needed, contrary to popular sentiment, soccer development in America is not experiencing a system failure. Not even close. So, as stakeholders, fans, and even casual observers debate, discuss, and develop strategies to take the American game forward, we must value the contributions of the various institutions, ways, and means represented in the American soccer story -- and not be so quick to discard them as obsolete relics of past eras; they are not.

Having been both witness and participant in the American soccer experiment for the past 50 years, the story of soccer in the USA is, unquestionably, an impressive tale by any objective measure. From urban landscapes to rural households, the game has taken hold and achieved mainstream status in our culture. This was not always the case.

Many soccer evangelists, like myself, recall a not too distant past where the general American attitude toward soccer ranged from indifference to hostility. I remember taking teammates to shopping malls for promotions in front of audiences of two; while oblivious shoppers strolled by with little interest. Or, having my sons; who were 5 and 6 at the time, juggle the ball on their head as a way to pique interest of the kids playing on the basketball courts in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore and join us on the baseball outfield for Department of Recreation clinics.

These points are raised not to reminisce but to illustrate that the game has emerged from humble beginnings and the very pathways that sustained and contributed to the growth of the game to where it is today will be as important and relevant to its future growth and development. When the story of American soccer is properly analyzed, reasonable people will see the folly of hitting the panic button every time a national team disappointments.

A more objective measure

The prospects of our senior national teams to qualify and compete in World Cup and regional tournament competition is not a reliable or prudent variable to solely determine the state of the game. Can the chemistry, confidence, and abilities of a single team really be used as a harbinger? Had the men's team emerged victorious in Couva, Trinidad and qualified for the 2018 World Cup, would calls for radical change still emerge? Probably not. But there are other measures that are far more accurate to determine whether we are on the right track; for instance, looking at the rate of progress among the game’s practitioners, namely players and coaches.

In relation to our place on the international level there has been significant improvement and in regard to the domestic game; what is taking place is encouraging.

In my view, the most relevant measure is the amount of American soccer players plying their trade in overseas leagues. In both numbers of players and quality of clubs and leagues that have an American presence; the positive trending can not be denied, there has been significant improvement over the past 25 years. Those who perform in leagues outside the USA are presented a daily dose of competing for a spot within foreign player limitation rules, different culture, and, at times, lingering local doubts of American player competence. Through such circumstances, American player presence in European leagues continues to grow.


Atlanta United photo

Staying with the professional game; this time domestically, a league record crowd of more 73,000 witnessed MLS Cup in Atlanta, Georgia; a region that was not a soccer hotbed a generation ago. It was a hard sell to get kids to leave the basketball black tops and join soccer clinics 50 years ago. Today, the Atlanta hip hop community is among many in the vibrant region that has embraced Atlanta United. Similar success stories are echoed in other communities that aren’t historically regarded as soccer hotbeds such as Cincinnati, Nashville, and Sacramento.

The professional game is, without question, enjoying its best form ever in the USA. Yet, some are still not convinced a world class player can ever be developed by a MLS team. In their view, America lacks the authenticity to produce world class soccer players or coaches. In my view, such sentiment will have little to no merit in the not too distant future. Recent comments from MLS Commissioner, Don Garber, suggest the league is poised to change its views on FIFA solidarity payments in recognition of economic realities and the fact the league's future value will turn on being a selling league. On a side note; hopefully, the league's support of solidarity payments will be retroactive and clubs from developing countries will receive long denied solidarity payments for players they produced that enabled MLS to develop and thrive.

College soccer remains a proving ground

Let’s take a look at the collegiate game; specifically on the women’s side. The explosion and international dominance of American women players would not have been possible without college soccer programs and Title IX. Though club structures in Germany, Japan, France, and England have emerged as rival producers of international talent, the U.S. collegiate game still serves as a vital developer of player and coaching talent. Youth girls competitions are thriving and the opportunities for young women to earn collegiate scholarships as a result of robust youth club programs have few rivals internationally.

Men's collegiate programs' impact on the professional game may have slightly diminished as a result of the growing prominence of the MLS Development Academy programs, but, like their counterpart on the women’s side it remains an important proving ground for players and coaches alike. Any doubters of what the college game can produce can look no further than the recent Akron-Stanford NCAA quarterfinal match where Akron strung together 34 passes with the reward of a goal in a quality display of possession-based soccer. NCAA rules limit coaches contact with their players, however, the support structure of college programs provide players the platform to excel and prepare for the next level of competition; if they so choose to take such a path. Contempt toward college soccer remains and some advocate it has no place in the development of future professional footballers. Yet, former Columbus Crew goalkeeper, Zack Steffen, who played two years at the University of Maryland, recently signed with Manchester City. College soccer will continue to play a role in developing top level talent.

Seek to advance the game at all levels

On the youth level, the most enduring and, at times, misrepresented topic is the debate on the “pay to play” model. Yes, barriers remain and continue to hamper player identification efforts. Quite often, those barriers are rooted in cultural as well as financial constraints. However, groups like Alianza de Futbol and Soccer In The Streets are making significant inroads in opening opportunities for all children and their families to be part of the American soccer story.

Opportunities to have access to quality instruction and competition should not be denied to any child. However, it is important to note that the international system being touted as the best replacement for "pay to play" model is under attack itself for being too commercial or awash in financial interests. I have yet to see a realistic and workable replacement to the current system and, in all candor, have heard people decry "pay to play" and in the same breath decry the "over-commercialization" and influence finance has in the sport or advocate reduction of taxes that support school programs. There are inescapable cost factors that exist in developing players. We must have consensus on how best to fairly address such costs.

Which brings me to extol the virtues of an important competitive structure that does not require player payment; our high school leagues. But, those with limited scope who unwisely advocate early “professionalization” of promising young players frequently underestimate and ignore the positive social development impact high school sports participation has on adolescents. It is difficult to accept the notion that a player will develop more while experiencing limited playing time on a Developmental Academy team rather than playing heavy minutes against older players on their high school team.

Can the coaching in high school significantly improve in various areas? Certainly. That is where entities like U.S. Soccer, United Soccer Coaches, and U.S. Youth Soccer can lobby state education boards to create required coaching qualification standards and join forces to provide continuing education courses.

Why can't the ECNL and U.S. Development Academy programs regularly run identification camps or joint competitions along with high school programs? Aren't there opportunities for a state association ODP to link with U.S. Club Soccer?

One thing is certain, the change so many are calling for must not be in the form of a bulldozer demolishing the very programs that built the American soccer story. Instead, it must be in the form of bridges that connect and fortify these very institutions and programs that have, all too often, cast each other as rivals rather than partners over the years.

In adopting a balanced approach and one of mutual respect among stakeholders when addressing player and coaching development shortcomings, it is clear our efforts must focus on altering attitudes rather than overhauling or dismantling the very institutions and structures that got us to where we are today.

The next upward swing of American soccer will happen when existing stakeholders understand and embrace the notion that there is more than enough room to not only co-exist but cooperate and reach out beyond boardrooms for the purpose of advancing the game on all levels. This will require risk. It will contain failure from time to time. But the sports policy-makers, parents, and players must eschew easy victories in order to claim false success and short-term satisfaction. In many ways, that fateful night in Couva may be the best thing to happen to American soccer if we seek a balanced approach.

(Lincoln Phillips is a NCAA Division I Championship winning coach, former U.S. Soccer National Staff Coach and U.S. National Team Goalkeeper Coach, and former Technical Director of the Trinidad & Tobago Football Association. Lincoln is also the author of "Goalkeeping; Last Line of Defense, First Line of Attack" and "Rising Above and Beyond The Crossbar: The Life Story of Lincoln 'Tiger' Phillips." Sheldon Phillips contributed this article. He served as General Secretary of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association, executive with World Cup '94 Washington D.C. venue, and Atlanta Committee on the Olympic Games.)

25 comments about "A balanced approach that includes supporting high school ball will move American soccer forward".
  1. Hany Hosny, January 1, 2019 at 9:35 a.m.

    Well written piece!

  2. William Gerstmyer, January 1, 2019 at 10:52 a.m.

    A fairly balanced article but a few other points. 
    Yes, the systems we have in the US have produced an upward trend of US players in foreign leagues. Given the sheer size of our population compared to others, the “control” part of the experiment is lacking from the argument; how do we compare what we have to any other system or possible organic system that might have produced as much or more?
    The women’s game is impressive, too, until context is considered. Soccer, internationally, was a game of rough standards and was considered an inappropriate choice for women in many countries (and they had no title IX). With no disrespect for our championship pedigree, our women did not face near the level of international competitiveness that our men have. While the international women’s game is leaping forward, this is still the case. 
    If we look at the USMNT run to the quarterfinals in 2002 and some subsequent FIFA rankings in 2009 as an aberration, the facts are clearer: we aren’t there yet in terms of belonging on the world stage. We play in a weak (Concacaf) region and that can skew us into being overly optimistic. What we do produce, consistently, in terms of world caliber players, are keepers, which is telling. This is in keeping with the athletic context that predominates in our country since the big sports focus on hand-ball technical skills. So we “can hang” in a fair number of games. Defense is also the easier part of the game to teach, and the ambitious US player is disciplined enough to learn how to “destroy” well enough in soccer as opposed to learning the vision needed of this particular game to create. It is fairly clear that Pulisic was the only American to hold his own creatively against England recently and how much claim on him can our system boast?
    When are systems holding us back? For those of us who have played and coached at a high level, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s recent comment is the most obvious goal statement for this country: the US game is not as fast as the rest of the world’s elite in terms of decision-making. This is why strong players past their prime in other countries can be top drawer here: they see and do effective things faster than our MLS players do. 
    Continues 

  3. William Gerstmyer, January 1, 2019 at 11:06 a.m.

    Continued:

    Could our existing structures, or systems, that educate our players attend to this problem? Sure, but recognize this is a concept that requires a good learning environment in order to change it. For instance, 1) younger players who are capable of deciding and technically performing faster need to be engrossed in weekly intake of the best soccer, so they internalize good basic habits at the same time they see the incredible pace of the game. If engrossed in the context of a league like the EPL so they understand how the weak adapt in order to be able to tame the strong and this requires a fuller appreciation of the game than what can be gleaned from highlights. All 90 minutes matter. 


    2) They could play against older and stronger competitors which would force them to rise up or fall out. Knowing how to first spot this talent relatively early on, as well as how to nurture and not destroy this kind of talent requires fine coaching...and the building of a strong infrastructure of coaches, trainers and referees that reach down into the youth leagues. Given our huge number of participants, it is no wonder that under-equipped adults are pressed into service. 


    We are still young. We need to acknowledge this and quit deluding ourselves we are deserving of the Final 16. 


    If we try to radically change what we have, it is easier (though incredibly challenging) at this time than later. On the other hand, it is tough to gain consensus for what is needed when agreement on a roadmap so thin.
    We need to embrace the world’s rules, professional schedule and fanaticism among at least 1/10 of our population (or, the equivalent population of other soccer rich countries). One can see this as possible, though not immediately. 

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, January 3, 2019 at 7:57 a.m.

    Did you realize the Hispanic population in the US is significantly larger than the entire population of Spain?

    Or that the soccer matches using English rules started being played in the US in the 1850s?

    Soccer arrived in the US like in other countries, brought by sailors to our ports.

    Why has our Hispanic population not produced more talent for our MNT? You should to ask USSF to explain that one.

  5. Wallace Wade, January 1, 2019 at 11:57 a.m.

    A couple of good ideas in this article. High school soccer in this country will still be irrelevant until we can improve coaching at the High School level. Currently, it’s not even close. Title XI destroyed men’s college soccer in this country. It’s as simple as that. If I was a promising young player in this country present day, I’m trying to get as much time playing and training in Europe. That’s cost prohibitive. Only the very wealthy young players will have that option. Present day, things are a mess in the youth game in the USA. 

  6. Wallace Wade replied, January 1, 2019 at 12:05 p.m.

    * Title IX

  7. Kris Spyrka, January 1, 2019 at 2:52 p.m.

    Title IX did not destroy men's soccer in this country.  That is a a misguided, masoginistic statement if I ever heard one.  That is, if you consider men's soccer "destroyed", not sure what that means?  What has diminished men's soccer in the US, however, is men's college soccer.  Not because of Title IX, rather, the fact that men serious about becoming professionals in the sport at an international level, even consider playing college.  If you look at the large amount of foreign men playing in US College Soccer, the numbers show just south of a third; chances are they came this direction for the education, because their dreams of being a pro elsewhere were already diminished.  What Title IX did do, is elevate the women's game to a level that makes the USA the gold standard for women's soccer internationally!  And, we should be thankful that we got something right in the last half century of attempting to become a credible soccer nation.

    Men in the US at D1 schools, even if they are standouts, rarely go on to play professionally (anywhere). That's because they will probably graduate with a degree that will earn them a six figure starting salary out of the box, rather than live out of a suitcase for low pay in USL or MLS.  Further, by playing college, a pro prospect sacrifices the best developmental years for making it anywhere else, i.e., EPL, Bundesliga, La Liga, even Mexico.  They basically gave up U19 to U23 at school, and those are arguabely critical years for making hay with the big boys, considering scouts and agents for those clubs are starting their focus with U17.  

    In terms of high school play.  I would argue that players taking time out of club for 2 to 3 months to play highschool does not hurt anything.  You have elements that are not present in club, like school spirit along with its comradery and friendships.  The clubs have largely become an individualistic performance based sterile workplace like environments for kids (something is wrong with that).  Horst Hrubesch just blasted the German Federation for creating this very same thing last week (traveling hundereds of miles, poor academic standards for younger ages, etc.).  

    Saying that coaching is bad in highschool could be geography related.  In my patch, most high school coaches are also club coaches and hold a National C licence or better.  So, blame US Soccer if you don't like the coaching.  Where HS soccer could vastly improve (NFHS), is to get off of these silly rules that it has, that don't relate to anything (including FIFA), in order to just be different.  Like uniform restrictions, oddball game durations, etc.

    Happy New Year!

  8. frank schoon, January 1, 2019 at 4:01 p.m.

    Lincoln, you can do better than that.  Real soccer guys don't express themselves like this, I know you to well...This is something Cordeiro would come write.....

  9. R2 Dad, January 1, 2019 at 4:49 p.m.

    Thank you for your insights, Mr. Phillip, but I think you are completely incorrect. At every turn. You seem well-intentioned, but the facts on the ground seem inconguous with your "All is Well" assessment.

    We are such a smug nation. "Aren't we doing well! We are inclusive! We value everyone's contributtions! Yay, USA!" While we are busy patting ourselves on the back for a job well done over the past 20 years, countries with fewer resources have made much greater progress, with fractions of the population that we have. Iceland, Wales, Japan, North Korea (but not a carribean nation among them).

    The values our society likes to advocate are our footballing weaknesses. More of the same will not catch us up to the top 10 countries in soccer.

    College soccer's main contribution it to train bad college coaches, who over 10-20 years might figure out how the game is played. You point out 32 passes for one goal in one match--that is infintessimally tiny in comparison to the thousands of hours of brain-numbing kickball college soccer generates. Exhibit A of why college soccer doesn't create top soccer players: Jordan Morris. A great talent who died on the vine of college soccer.

    Highschool soccer is likewise a developmental desert. The reason you value heavy playing minutes in highschool is because you don't value training minutes against better competition in your own squad--but the rest of the football universe does (see: Martin Odegaard at 17). Granted, the DA needs to improve this aspect of their training, since they are handicapped without the carrot of training with a professional team (and many of those pro teams are marginal MLS squads). But in Europe and South America, youth players with direct access to training with teams in the Champions League is a huge draw, a large challenge and that path to the pros we don't have here.

    The status quo has much to lose should anything materially change in US Soccer. And so it won't. 

  10. Kris Spyrka replied, January 1, 2019 at 9:52 p.m.

    Spot on.

  11. Tony Marturano replied, January 3, 2019 at 9:45 a.m.

    High school soccer does many things that Club/PayToPlay soccer cannot - it requires the entire community to invest in the development of soccer players - in metro areas it greatly reduces the time required for players and parents to get to games and training - it raises the awareness of soccer by developing local rivalries among high school populations - it allows ALL players to play for free - it allows the marginal player to grow and develop their involvement and commitment to soccer - it raises the awareness of soccer at every level in every community.
    The final thing HS soccer does is allow for more than 1 style of soccer player to maintain their participation in the game - including many 2 or 3 sport HS athletes - which greatly broadens the impact and influence in the sporting community in the US.

  12. beautiful game, January 1, 2019 at 5:12 p.m.

    This read is nothing new and just another excuse.

  13. Bob Ashpole, January 1, 2019 at 7:28 p.m.

    It is a tough audiance here, Mr. Phillips. Optimistic generalities won't cut it. 

    If men's college soccer is a proving ground for US players, why did the US men fail to qualify for the last two Olympics? Why are so many foreign players on US college teams? I doubt that any other nation has as many men's college programs as the US does. The younger youth teams are not world beaters, but they aren't failures either.

  14. Kris Spyrka replied, January 1, 2019 at 9:53 p.m.

    Also, spot on.

  15. Tony Marturano replied, January 3, 2019 at 10:02 a.m.

    Bob you're missing the point. College soccer has always developed 2 or 3 pro-capable players in every class despite the fact that is NOT the purpose of college soccer. The purpose of college soccer is to provide the next - maybe last - step in the playing career of a very large number of players - players that become the fans for the game for the rest of their lives - and owners of local teams in the second half of their business careers.
    Any serious analysis of the play of the USMNT - at the senior level or U-20 level - in CONCACAF qualifying always shows that losses are almost always about being outplayed by the diversity of the athletic capabilities of the teams which the USA must face in CONCACAF. Rather than choose a U-20 team that can play 2 or 3 styles, every US coach in the last 10-15 years selects and trains their team to play against EUROPEAN teams - not CONCACAF teams - and then everyone is amazed when we fail to qualify from CONCACAF. The previous generation of US coaches had the courage to play CONCACAF ball in CONCACAF to qualify and then progress to EuropeBALL when progressing to the international stage. The current crop seems unable or unwilling to recognize that the US in not in the EU.

  16. Tony Marturano replied, January 3, 2019 at 10:10 a.m.

    Bob you're missing the point. College soccer has always developed 2 or 3 pro-capable players in every class despite the fact that is NOT the purpose of college soccer. The purpose of college soccer is to provide the next - maybe last - step in the playing career of a very large number of players - players that become the fans for the game for the rest of their lives - and owners of local teams in the second half of their business careers.
    Any serious analysis of the play of the USMNT - at the senior level or U-20 level - in CONCACAF qualifying always shows that losses are almost always about being outplayed by the diversity of the athletic capabilities of the teams which the USA must face in CONCACAF. Rather than choose a U-20 team that can play 2 or 3 styles, every US coach in the last 10-15 years selects and trains their team to play against EUROPEAN teams - not CONCACAF teams - and then everyone is amazed when we fail to qualify from CONCACAF. The previous generation of US coaches had the courage to play CONCACAF ball in CONCACAF to qualify and then progress to EuropeBALL when progressing to the international stage. The current crop seems unable or unwilling to recognize that the US in not in the EU.

  17. Bob Ashpole replied, January 3, 2019 at 11:09 a.m.

    Tony, I didn't think I need explain the drawback to college soccer as a development opportunity for professional soccer players.
    1) NCAA restrictions on training.
    2) The substitution rules.
    3) The quality of play. (Don't bother throwing some exceptions at me. It would mean you are saying that those colleges present good development opportunities, not colleges in general.) 

    There are about 25,000 men playing college soccer in the NCAA according to its website. That is not counting the many other college programs. 2 or 3 players a year out of 25,000 is not significant enough to say anything positive about development opportunities in college. How many non-college amateur players turn pro each year? The point is that college presents an inferior development opportunity, especially for Juniors and Seniors because of the age mix. 

  18. s fatschel, January 1, 2019 at 9:13 p.m.

    I recall the former US soccer president and various experts on Sirius saying there is no solution to pay to play.  Thank you Mr Lincoln for reminding  them high school and college soccer are heavily subsidized and serve 99 percent of players just fine.  Not to mention MLS academies for the 1 percent of those truely talented enough for the pros.  Now we just need USL teams to close the gap and provide free soccer, rather than parents proping up their pro teams. Once pay to play is reduced to $200 per year like in other countries we can talk solidarity payments. 

  19. Wallace Wade, January 2, 2019 at 8:57 a.m.

    Kris, I’ve spent 50 years involved at all levels in soccer. If you think Title IX had no effect on Men’s soccer in this country, you are delusional. Have a Happy New Year. 

  20. Bob Ashpole replied, January 2, 2019 at 10:21 p.m.

    I am sure somewhere you can find a school where that was the case, but drawing generalities is dangerous. For instance where I went to school in the 70's, they didn't have a women's team until 1994 and didn't have a men's team until years after that. That certainly doesn't fit your view. In much of the country there simply wasn't organized soccer to be found.

  21. Ben Myers, January 2, 2019 at 12:06 p.m.

    Coaching, coaching, coaching!  Improved coaching is needed at all levels from grassroots, through select club teams and high school, up to college soccer.

    Player selection, player selection, player selection!  The bias in our country is toward the selection of big and fast players, and that bias continues to prevail up through the USMNT.  The ethnicity of a player does not matter as much as a player's love of the game and dedication to learning.  Give me a bunch of scrawny little kids with smiles on their faces and a gleam in their eyes and laughter when they play.  Those are the kids to develop into elite players.

    So we have to train all coaches to make better selections.

  22. Toby Rappolt, January 2, 2019 at 7:45 p.m.

    A very insightful and very well written piece. 

    I’m hoping you become a regular contributor to SA.  

    Thank you, Lincoln. 

  23. Ric Fonseca, January 9, 2019 at 5:14 p.m.

    Mr. Ashpole:  In answer to ylur question above vis "...our Hispanic polulation..." not produced greater numbers, read "talent for our MNT..." I very strongly beg to differ with you.  In danger of being impolite, I will pose a question to you:  We have (I am Mexican) but the US MNT powers that be, to include virtually at all levels, have opted NOT to see the production or note the growth of our talented players.  They've developed blinders, and I fear that this (hopefully not) includes you?  (p.s. btw, where do you live?)

  24. Bob Ashpole replied, January 13, 2019 at 5:38 p.m.

    Ric, it was a rhetorical question meant to provoke people to think about why we don't see more Hispanic players and coaches involved in USSF affiliated programs. The last sentence should have tipped you about where I thought the problem lay. ("...ask USSF to explain that one.")

    In my mind I think a lot of our MNT players have been products of Hispanic coaches and leagues. In my mind I count not just the players with Hispanic names but also players like Dempsey and Donovan. I don't see how anyone playing in the soccer hotbeds of Southern California or Texas could avoid playing and training with Hispanic players and coaches. In Southern Arizona Hispanics are included in USSF affilated soccer. The problem isn't with the grass roots.    

  25. James Madison, January 20, 2019 at 8:20 p.m.

    Is our concern as a nation developing professional players and those professionals who are good enough to be called into national teams or does our concern extend more broadly to growing adults who maintain a lifelong devotion to soccer whether as coaches, referees, players or merely fans?  Moreover, does our concern, even as to professionals include providing the proverbial "second chance," as we do in education by opening community colleges to "late bloomers."  In either event, opportunities to play soccer in high school should not be restricted.

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