Have we been too harsh on direct soccer?

My U-14 team’s first practices were heavy on small-sided games and passing exercises. In the opening game of the season, they were dutifully working the ball around, with the most talented players winning the occasional 1v1 battle.

We lost 5-1. The other team simply blasted the ball up the field to forwards who were faster than our defenders. On one goal, an assistant coach exulted in the fact that their goalkeeper got an assist.

Our team stuck with it the rest of the season, but we also worked on longer passes. We still weren’t blasting the ball up the field (our forwards didn’t have the speed to play that way, anyway), but our best goal was on a 40-yard diagonal ball from a center back to a tactically astute winger who was making a well-timed run. We got a few results, but the teams that could pull off direct attacks still had our number.

Route 1, longball, kickball -- whatever you call it, direct soccer has a bad reputation. Perhaps that’s justified, or perhaps it’s a way of feeling better about losing that U-14 game. Or a college game. Or a World Cup game.

Yes, a World Cup game. If I were to complain about my rec-league woes, I’d have plenty of company. Mexico’s then-coach Juan Carlos Osorio was offended by Sweden’s long-ball tactics when they faced off in the World Cup last year. Sweden won 3-0.

And Sweden wasn’t alone. France possessed the ball just 48% of the time in the 2018 World Cup, according to the FIFA Technical Report, which said of the champions: “France did not rely on ball possession, but rather focused on getting into the opposition’s half as fast as they could.”

Meanwhile, Germany possessed the ball 67% of the time and failed to make the Round of 16. Spain, predictably, had the ball 69% of the time but, unpredictably, fell to host nation Russia in the Round of 16. Russia went on to the quarterfinals and scored two against Croatia (two more than possession wizards Argentina) before losing on penalties, all with a mere 38% possession for the tournament.

All of this is bad news for all the youth coaches who insist that they’ll never resort to Route 1 soccer. They keep telling us their possession style will win out in the long run over all that other team that plays “kickball.”

The funny thing is that no self-respecting club will admit to having that “other” team. In several years of research that includes perusing scores of youth club websites, I have yet to find that “other” team. No one says, “We’re going to play Route 1 soccer and win State Cups.”

So if every youth coach in the country thinks direct soccer should be avoided like political discussions at Thanksgiving, are they preparing their kids for some level higher than the World Cup? A Galactic Cup? When the aliens come to challenge us, will we stick with short passes and fancy footwork with the fate of our planet in the balance?

No one’s saying we should all abandon futsal and rondos. Players who are uncomfortable on the ball and can’t play short passes are going to be picked apart when they play at higher levels. The “buildout lines” that make U-9 and U-10 goalkeepers play to defenders are long overdue -- why teach pointless punts and long goal kicks that have a 50-50 chance of success and a significant chance of head trauma?

But you simply can’t take the athleticism, the driver of direct play, out of soccer. Diego Maradona doesn’t score that goal against England (not the Hand of God -- the other one) in 1986 if he can’t outrun Peter Reid, even with the ball at his feet, and his effectiveness through the years was inversely proportional to his waist size.

When you combine athleticism and skill, you get lightning-fast counterattacks that account for two of the most important goals in recent U.S. history. Rampone to Krieger to Lloyd to Rapinoe to Wambach in 2011 -- 16 seconds. One year prior: Howard’s NFL-worthy heave to Donovan, over to Altidore, center to Dempsey, rebound, and enables the invention of the viral video montage of Americans in bars, homes and streets losing their collective minds -- 12 seconds.

It’s not just the USA. Belgium’s 2018 winner against Japan traveled from Thibaut Cortois’ hand to the back of the net in 11 seconds.

Yes, we have plenty of evidence that any team that relies too heavily on direct play is going to hit a glass ceiling. In 2003, Germany stunned a partisan World Cup crowd in Portland by tactically and technically dismantling a U.S. team too reliant on the “whack it to Wambach” approach. But Germany also needed speed and aerial prowess to contain the U.S. attack and push the action the other way.

Youth soccer doesn’t require such balance. Teams can win by going to one extreme on the longball-to-shortball spectrum. Some coaches preach the possession gospel to attract talented players, and then we have a chicken-or-egg argument. Are they winning (with style) because the coach turned a random group of 8-year-olds into a U-16 juggernaut over several years? Or are they winning because the best players in the area flocked to the supercoach’s club?

On the other hand, the youth coaches who insist they can take a team of unathletic kids with minimal soccer aptitude and turn their 10-1 losses at U-9 to 4-3 wins in the top bracket of a U-14 tournament are selling snake oil. When it doesn’t happen, the coach looks like a liar, and the discouraged kids quit.

You also can’t win consistently without being able to win an occasional 1v1 matchup without pummeling an opponent. Nor can you win consistently without the skills to play short passes in congested spaces. But you also can’t win without the ability to hit a 20-, 30- or even 50-yard pass on occasion.

A piece from Left Foot Coaching Academy put it well: “You need to play direct to open up the indirect patterns, but you also have to teach the safety skills to go along with the technical skills of receiving and passing on the ground.”

Maybe if youth clubs advertise that approach, they’ll develop what the USA really needs. Complete players. And teams that can get the ball up the field quickly to set up those 1v1s or 2v2s they’re all learning in futsal.

(Beau Dure is the author of “Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game” and the host of the podcast “Ranting Soccer Dad.” He coaches and refs youth soccer in Northern Virginia.)

12 comments about "Have we been too harsh on direct soccer?".
  1. Ginger Peeler, March 12, 2019 at 4:59 p.m.

    Great article! Thought provoking! Thanks, Beau. 

  2. R2 Dad, March 12, 2019 at 5:16 p.m.

    Youth clubs have zero incentive to develop complete players. Kids are a means to an end around here. Beau, you seem to believe the majority of clubs/teams/leagues are playing a possession-oriented game, or even talk about possession--that's just not the case. The clubs here play kickball, even if they have skilled players. I had a coach say they didn't need to teach kids to understand the offside trap because nobody plays that anymore. Club web sites tout "developing the player as a person" and other such nebulous nonsense. No club will go on record listing their playing style because despite the DOC, coaches want the flexibility to do whatever they want. Occassionally, there will be a coach that wants to do the right thing and stick with it--developing players despite initial losses, building a back line, playing from back to front--but they are few and far in between. It's in the club's best interest to try to keep all their players yet play recball, because staffing is easier to manage. So they spend their time switching coaches after the season starts, churning coaches to attract players, lining up summer tournaments (with payments due in the early spring) to secure players for the next year or ID those who are heading out so they can bench them. And most parents are still agnostic about playing style--they're still worried about playing TIME. So the battle is far from won. Yes direct play is an important tactic, but the leagues will have to continue pushing small fields/small teams to older and older ages to mitigate this tendancy to kickball. I'd like to see small-sided matches up to U14, so less athletic/slow growers will not drop out when they swtich to larger fields. 

  3. Bob Ashpole, March 12, 2019 at 10:53 p.m.

    I don't call kick and chase soccer "direct" play. I don't even consider it a style of play.

    I think U14s ought to have already mastered unbalancing and breaking lines with combination passing. If all they do is send long balls over the top then they are not going to learn how to unbalance defenses and break lines with combination passing. Which in my mind means that they aren't learning how to play. 

  4. Ron Frechette, March 13, 2019 at 9:47 a.m.

    The point is that we as coaches need to have the players playing with their heads up and seeing the best passing option - this takes a lot of time to teach all of the needed techniques.
    The article takes about the youth levels where there are ALWAYS huge differences in physical abilities of the players due to different growth spurts – Faster/stronger players dominating via the direct game. The point that I think is missing is the coaching/teaching of getting a youth player to select the best passing option and having the correct technique to make the pass - be it a 8 yard thread the needle or a switch the point that is driven not floated and the receiving player have the ability to have a good positive 1st touch.
    Both small-sided and the "direct" play have places in the game and should be taught.
    Points missing from the article:
    1) The long pass can't be made if there is proper pressure on the passer!
    2) The defense needs to learn that they have to drop when there is no pressure on the passer!

    Both are tactical issues for players to learn!

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, March 13, 2019 at 11:54 a.m.

    Ron, I thought he was talking about teams that just blindly kick the ball up field and chase it. Pressure on the ball won't prevent it because the kicker doesn't have to look up. He just boots it.

    This illustrates the inefficiency of trying to use matches to develop players compared to scrimmages where the coach controls both teams. 

  6. uffe gustafsson replied, March 22, 2019 at 5:11 p.m.

    It’s so much easier to teach kick ball then learning how to control the ball and have the field vision to see how can make a short pass to my team mate and then move to an open space to receive the ball back.
    my daughter played on the top team and you think they would be playing good soccer, but the coach only wanted to boot the ball to a fast forward.
    and this is on a club who speaks of development,
    the truth is winning always trump development
    and coaches know this, if I’m winning games and some trophies I will look good. Unfortunately everything else is secondary.
    not all coaches but enough of them that I seen reffing as well coaching against the
    m to wonder how you still get to coach, oversite is a big issue in many clubs, does the DOC see how crappy his coach following the clubs statement that’s on the website.

  7. frank schoon, March 13, 2019 at 10:18 a.m.

    Bob, R2, you guys are right on, good stuff.  The Author's "Have we been harsh on direct soccer?"   implies perhaps that playing long balls and using speed (direct soccer) employed by those types of coaches as their strategy is justified when you compare it to certain teams with a low possession rate have had success.
    I think those types of coaches, shouldn't be allowed to coach, PERIOD, for their main emphasis is about winning not developing.  At Marcia, the word 'winning' is not mentioned with Barcelona youth system, but 'good soccer'. I can't believe that in this day and age the soccer associations still have coaches who emphasize the long ball and speed aspect of soccer to win..I can understand if we were back in the 70's/ 80's but today, that's Neanderthal....As a matter of fact, the president of the soccer association should be made to answer why he allows these types of coaches to be with the kids. I wonder how many of these types of coaches are even licensed since today every one has to be licensed....That's leads up to the next question the USSF in their role of making it clear to prospective licensed coaches who think to be successfull employing this Neanderthal approach...

  8. Kevin Leahy, March 13, 2019 at 1:38 p.m.

    I don't believe the article has any merit. Youth players should never play like this because it, stunts there development. Speaking of Belgium and France we, weren't seeing long balls. Look back at the quality of the passes and the quickness with which they moved up the field. Quickly countering is not the same as long balls. If we go to soccer games that, become tennis matches, I am not interested.

  9. Ben Myers, March 13, 2019 at 2:49 p.m.

    My way of looking at this conundrum is for the kids to learn to think about soccer while on the field of play.  Realistically, there are three general patterns when playing an opponent, say Team A vs Team B.  If Team A dominates possession, Team B probably needs to play to counterattack, or vice versa, and a direct ball becomes one of the counterattacking weapons.  The third type of match is fairly even possession.  For each type, kids need to learn to recognize and adjust individually and as a team while playing.  Different and better defensive pressure may change the percentages of possession, and kids need to learn about that, too.  Young men and women are intelligent and they can learn these concepts, how and when to apply them.  Sadly, coaches often do not develop the soccer smarts of their players.

    Simply bashing the ball over the top, which some teams do, is exciting, and also a symptom of improperly coached players.   Still, we see this play all the time at the pro level, late in the game as one team struggles to get an equalizer or a winning goal.

  10. Bradley Rogers, March 13, 2019 at 4:10 p.m.

    I think the situation changes when defenses really start to get organized. With good defensive coordination it becomes very very difficult to score with individual effort unless there is an extreme discrepancy in athletic ability or skill.

  11. James Madison, March 13, 2019 at 6:06 p.m.

    So Beau's team had a losing season.  So what?  Did their playing improve?  If all were better players at the end than at the beginning, that's a winning U-14 season.  The greater the margin of improvement, the more decisive the winning season. 40-yard passes to strikers in stride are not inconsistent with player development.  Bob Gansler taught them.  Jeff Agoos lived off his assists to Cobi Jones. Frechette is right in noting that along with players learning to build an attack, they also need to learn how to defend.  It's all a matter of balance, which is difficult to attain when dealing with the time pressure of two or three 1-1/2 hour training sessions per week.  

  12. Kent James, March 23, 2019 at 1:21 a.m.

    The key issue (for me) as to whether "long ball" is a good or bad characteristic is if the "long ball" is a pass or just a random kick up the field.  If the ball is kicked into the opponents' half of the field and it is simply a footrace as to who gets it first, that's not soccer (even if an occasonal goal is scored).  On the other hand, if the long ball is hit into the stride of a teammate sprinting behind the defense, that's good soccer.  I think while a team may prefer one style of play, it needs to be able to switch stlyles if the preferred style is not working or if the opponent is more susceptible to the other style.

    As for youth playing long ball, the same standards apply.  If it's a pass, great.  If it's a clearance, only acceptable as a form of desperate defending.  Kids should learn short passes first (more touches, don't have the strength to play long), and move on to longer passes as they grow more capable.  

    Generally what you play strategically should be risk v. reward; a short back pass has low risk but low reward.  A long pass over the top may have a great reward (1 v 1 against the keeper), so a higher failure rate should be allowed.  On the other hand, too much long ball and the defense adusts and it's unlikely tow work.  I think most passing should be short, with the occasional long pass to change the attack.  

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