MLS's French Connection: Fred Lipka on American strides in youth development

Soccer in the USA has always had English and Scottish influences. In the 20th century, South and Central American influence was inevitable. Today, many U.S. coaches have immersed themselves in Spanish soccer. In MLS academies, coaching education is now deeply steeped in the influence of the country that won the 1998 and 2018 World Cups and has a reasonable chance of holding the men's and women's titles at the same time. French coach Fred Lipka has moved from a consulting role to a full-time position with the league, where he runs the comprehensive Elite Formation Coaching License (EFCL) course.

Fred Lipka is the MLS Technical Director of Youth Development.

SOCCER AMERICA: Can you describe your role with MLS?

FRED LIPKA: My job is in charge of youth development and player development. I would say it’s kind of a broad mission now because, more and more, youth development and player development is important to MLS. The first time I came (to the USA) was about coaching education. I am in charge of this program called EFCL, which we started in 2013. We have completed several rounds of EFCL.

It was the coaching education first. Now I’m also overseeing all the projects around the competitions and speaking to how we are going to improve our processes and our strategy around young players and young professionals in our academy, and also when we sign them as professionals.

It’s a work in progress -- very broad and very exciting as well.

SA: You’re not imposing a specific curriculum on coaches who take your program. What sort of things do you teach them?

LIPKA: Everything is based on knowledge of the game -- how to grow the team, how to operate the team, what we are able to deliver at different ages, knowledge of the high-level constraints of the game.

Now it’s not only technique or tactics, but we talk about also emotional aspects and physical aspects. The fifth parameter I would include is the social aspect. These are completely integrated and not studied in silos. The most important aspect is not to teach how to do a drill but how to integrate these main parameters in the training process and in the week.

The most important thing also is how to teach 1,000 specific cues of the game. If you don’t understand the game at the highest level, you cannot teach the game for the high-level prospect. We talk about making decisions and to discriminate among thousands of parameters and to pick the right one.

So how to read and how to teach the specific cues is crucial in this program. It's more how to transmit the knowledge of the high-level game and how to transfer it on the field than only to teach how to do a drill.

SA: You mentioned the emotional and social aspects. Was this something you were working on in France before you came here, or is this also new to you?

LIPKA: We made the switch, I would say almost 10 years ago when we had some kind of bad experience on and off field.

We think the tactical and technical aspect always has to be linked. So it's not teaching technique only and tactic only. I think it must be connected. You can have someone who is perfectly technical and able to execute but not able to decide, to have the right tactical intention. That's why teaching both at the same time is very important.

And sometimes it’s an emotion. The emotion of the game when you play against big teams or against a strong opponent -- the emotion is too much to make the right call. We try also to raise this point. Playing against a weak team or average team doesn’t give you the same environment and context as when you play a big team, when you know you will only have one opportunity to score a goal.

When you have 10 opportunities to score a goal, it’s easy to make a decision because you know you will have another one. When you have only one opportunity to win the World Cup or to win an important game, it's not the same decision. So the amount of pressure is not exactly the same.

The level of competition also allows you to have successes and also failures, and to develop the player with this level of emotional pressure.

Everything is integrated. That’s why the competition cannot be disconnected to the development process. The competition is part of the development. It’s not more important. It’s a continuity of the five days of development. You have one day to apply and reply to the question of the game. Competition is always a continuity of the week. It validates your week of development.

SA: What has changed in your four years on the job?

LIPKA: Oh, a lot of things. We are not where we were five years ago. The first time I came to the U.S. was 2012. MLS clubs in general have made a lot of progress. We still have a lot of progress to make. It’s night and day in terms of club environment but also mentality and also awareness of what we can deliver.

SA: Was it a shock to come here from France and see so many different organizations with authority over youth soccer in this country?

LIPKA: Yes, it’s a shock because French academies were mandated in the '80s, so we have 50 years of background. We have so much successes and failures, it’s incredible. It’s a drastic change but very exciting. We think the (USA) is in bad shape in terms of grassroots and number of players which play the game, but I can see a lot of passion and a lot of hope and lot of positive trends when I travel around the country. I would say yes, it’s a big change. I would say I can see a lot of challenges, but more importantly, I see the opportunity.

SA: How would you evaluate programs outside of MLS? What are some things that you see that maybe one organization is doing right? U.S. Club Soccer has its La Liga methodology. U.S. Youth Soccer is more open -- they don't really have a specific ideology for their clubs. Do you see benefits in having both approaches in the United States?

LIPKA: I would say everyone wants to do well, first. All of those organizations want to do what they think is the best. I want to develop the U.S. expertise. I want develop our coaches to be able to be leaders and to be able to incarnate the future of this country.

Now, because MLS has arrived later and we are in this business for 10 years, I would say 4-5 years ago we achieved a decent level to be able to be the leaders. We weren't able to be the leaders in the youth space 10 years ago because we didn't have the leaders. Now we have the leaders.

The soccer in this country hasn't been built for now to develop high-level players because the objective wasn’t first to have a clear pathway to develop pro players. The system was done to develop good players, but not high-level players. This is what we have fixed, and this is where our effort has to be concentrated to achieve our objectives to develop regularly high-level, world-class players.

I don’t want to blame anybody, but I think those organizations we talk about are looking for more expertise, more leadership to improve what we are to improve. What you don’t know is difficult to understand. Now in MLS environments and maybe tomorrow in other organizations, we have more people to understand what we really need.

We don’t understand what means “performance,” only results. A result is important, but as I said, the result has to validate a way to train, a methodology, a style of play. A result is only part of the iceberg. Underneath, you have everything you’re going to do during the week. You can lose a game in the right way. If you worked well, it's going to be positive for the kids, for each individual player and also for the team. The way of playing, the capacity to kick the ball, the capacity to do transitions, to defend your goal in the right way, winning the ball in the final third -- I see a lot of things to evaluate different parts of performance than only the result.

And all the coaches should be evaluated in a different way -- not only the result but what they can bring to the soccer community and to the kids.

SA: Where would you see youth development in the USA in five years?

LIPKA: In five years, I think it will be completely different. I think we will see a lot of young MLS players playing, I hope, in MLS, as we can notice now this year. They will populate more of our teams, and they will be transferred overseas as well. That's only the beginning of this story.

SA: Along the lines of results being stressed too much -- there was a coach many years ago who said, "National youth championships are the most ludicrous thing I've ever heard in my life." And yet we have several organizations that have their own national championships. What do you think of all those national championships, and is there an important national championship in France?

LIPKA: Yes, we have also a national champion. But the academy director and all of my colleagues in Europe, I hope, are not mainly evaluated in winning a championship. They are evaluated in their capacity to bring kids into the first team and to make them available to perform maybe three, five, six years, and also because we need the resources, to sell them. So never were my coaches, when I was a technical director, evaluated on their ability to win the championship. It's something that happens when you do a good job.

If I am Dallas, I am L.A., I am Seattle, I am Red Bulls, NYC -- winning is going to happen. I would be more focused on how many players they are going to deliver to the first team and to be able to perform in MLS. That should be the ultimate goal. Now, learning to win when you are 15, 16, 17, 19 is a part of your growth, but it should be natural for kids to have this will. It’s not the ultimate goal for a club to create this winning culture, but it should be something natural.

I think a winning culture is more how you create it in your weekly environment in your club, and each time the players step up on the field, it should be present. I don’t believe in a winning culture only the day of the games, the competition.

I think it’s more you as the media to find another way to reward the good things, the good clubs, the good coaches, and sometimes the good coach is not the one who won the national championship. We have to find a way to reward the other coaches.

SA: Will France win the Women’s World Cup?

LIPKA: I don’t know, but I think they will be very close. I don’t know if we are going to win the World Cup -- this one. But what I can tell you is we are going to win a World Cup. If it's not this one, we will win the next one or the next. It's difficult to predict accurately who will win a World Cup. But in France, we have the ambition in every single team to be in the top four of each competition. And when you are regularly present in the top four of one competition, at the end, you will win. I can predict that France is going to be present, over the next decade, in the top four or top two of each competition -- in female competition and also in boys competition.

I won't tell you, "We are going to win it." It would be a lack of humility and a lack of understanding of what our opponents are going to present.

I think France is one of the favorites of the next World Cup. I think they are going to do well.

11 comments about "MLS's French Connection: Fred Lipka on American strides in youth development".
  1. frank schoon, May 21, 2019 at 11:34 a.m.

    "ELITE" Formation Coaching License, WOW!!! and just recently there is a PRO-Coaching being offered. Soon  you'll need two wallets to carry around all these coaching license. I'm willing to bet soon WalMart and Amazon are going into the coaching license business, for I'm sure there is a buck to be made on this....
    One thing that has boomed and blossomed is the growth of coaching license in the development of US soccer.  It is too bad the technical expertise is way behind the growth coaching license. And definitely the number of licenses one acquires has no direct connection to one's skill level which could be poor....
    I would much rather have seen our soccer system have the problem in reverse, that is, we have  coaches with such great skill levels able to demonstrate all kinds of skills to the youth, but lack a license. Certainly the latter is much more attractive for the development of the youth. NEXT POST

  2. frank schoon, May 21, 2019 at 12:19 p.m.

    "Today, many U.S. coaches have immersed themselves in Spanish soccer. In MLS academies, coaching education is now deeply steeped in the influence of the country that won the 1998 and 2018 World Cups". Here is the problem, THE COACHES!! These idiot coaches have no clue as what to do, they just follow the flavor of the week. "oh ,we have to do it this way or that way, because so and so won this and that , so now we follow their style". This in a nutshell tells you how little these coaches understand soccer. For example , Spanish soccer's influence is mainly of Dutch origin with its progenitor being Barcelona,whose history has been heavily influenced by the dutch. Spanish soccer is dutch soccer with a Spanish temperament and flair. Bayern Munchen, and the German team, idem ditto.

    So ask yourself how do two or rather three different cultures ,if you include the Dutch, been so successful. Well certainly it has nothing to do with the culture, but rather how the game is played according to principles the Dutch created beginning back in the 70's as the underlying nexus. In other words there are many principles of the game that Cruyff stated were no longer followed or watered down but picked up again followed by Spain and Germany and hopefully again by Holland as seen by Ajax in the past couple years via the Cruyff Revolution.
     What I'm trying to say is that it has nothing to do about with copying the Spanish style or the teams that won '98 and 2018  WC  but playing soccer applying certain principles. How STUPID can you get in talking about copying styles , but this is what you're getting from the Academies and so many American coaches. They simply have no clue for they believe success is in copying styles when in fact it has to do with principles of playing good soccer....
    Let me just bring a couple of examples of what Cruyff states about certain soccer principles that became watered down. When Cruyff played for Ajax and the Dutch of '74, Rinus Michels instituted the rule that if you make a square pass, you will be benched. Another one is no outside back is allowed to pass straight up  to the wing... INSTANT BENCH!!  In other words any pass to the wing has to come from a midfielder or rather a diagonal ball.
    How often do you see a back pass straight up to the wing and no one sees anything wrong with it...

  3. frank schoon, May 21, 2019 at 1:07 p.m.

    Fred states, 'We think the tactical and technical aspect always has to be linked. NO KIDDING! That is called "FUNCTIONAL TECHNIQUE", that is what soccer is all about 'functional technique". it is not a question of 'we think" , no ,it's simply THAT IS.
     Fred further states,"That’s why the competition cannot be disconnected to the development process."
    You bet, if you look at PICK UP soccer,it is nothing BUT playing, playing , playing  
     competing against each other. That's how you learn, by doing, by watching other ,older ,better players....NOTE ,there is no element of coaching or the NEED for coaches at this stage you don't need licensed coaches. Watch the Youtube and listen to French youth interviewed who later become pros tell how PICKUP SOCCER formed them as players, not coaches.
    You can talk all you want about soccer Academies and how they develop players but without a large influence of PICKUP SOCCER , a youth players development will never be fully realized in many facets, coaches simply are unable to teach.
    "How to teach and read specific cues is crucial", Yes, it is. Tonny Bruins Slot, Cruyff 's assistant coach for many years and to Ronald Koeman, told of an anecdote. When they were at Barcelona, Beckenbauer visited Cruyff at home and they a very deep soccer discussion. Tonny, known as Cruyff's great scout, listened to the conversation and described the conversation at such as high level that made his ears flop back and forth. He stated when he and Cruyff look at an opponent ,he's able to look at 100 possible things about the opponent. But Cruyff sees at 200 possible cues and things. He stated that Cruyff 's knowledge of the game begins where another coaches of 20years experience ends.
    I just wish Tonny would write a book on his experiences with Cruyff for there is so richness of info for coaches to learn from

  4. Ric Fonseca replied, May 22, 2019 at 2:59 p.m.

    TO: FS, what is YOUR coaching pedigree?  As for ayso, the basic concept since its founding has been - and will more than likely continue to be - that everyone plays, now I've been years separated (by choice) from their overall everyone play's philosophy, and way back then, a team put together one season, could not continue with the same players as there used to be a "redraft" and "redistribution of players," supposedly to balance the teams.  This was better known then as a recreational mentality, while the unaffiliated leagues - by then the "State Youth Soccer Association," (affiliated with the state US Soccer Federation connected associations) became the more highly competitive) side (e.g. San Diego Nomads, Manhattan Beach Hurricanes, North Hollywood Jets, etc.etc.)  The competitive side was and became more attractive since they were not dictated to or scoriated by ayso management or regional commissioners.  As for the coaching education elements, I vividly remember back in 1971, when the UCLA Coach Dennis Storer announced that Dettmar Cramer would be conducting a US Soccer Coaching Licensing course - and this was waaay before Sigi Schmid, or Steve Sampson, or Ralph Perez, were even in college - this was about the time of Walt Chyzowics, Bob Gansler, et. al.  But forgive the digression, it's going now on more than four decades since then, and in these decades, I am sure that we now have quite a large class of U.S. born and trained players who hopefully have become coaches of renown, and so wht the need to bring over from accross the pond or from the southern reaches of this continents, coaches to teach us something about the game?  Get my drift?   

  5. frank schoon replied, May 22, 2019 at 4:52 p.m.

    Ric, that's  a good question...'why do we need to bring over from across the pond coaches to teach us something about the game'. If you look at our history and up to the present somehow those in power  whether it be your local soccer association or the nat'l association always had the forethought of bringing expertise over to teach us. There is nothing wrong with that concept as a matter of fact it is very smart. Our gov't  did the same with our space program bringing over the Germans, likewise the Russians. They went where the  expertise  was .....
    Did you know the history of Ajax for many years up until this Rinus Michels finally became coach , was coached by English coaches. 
    Now why would you think of all places English coaches? That's because England was way ahead of everyone in soccer, World Wide. As matter of fact England had even a lot of influence starting soccer in South America. England had the most of the expertise. Our soccer development was started by bringing over foreign teams and foreign players, etc NASL ,NPSL ,etc....We've always had foreign influence. 
    Let me put it too you bluntly , WE DON"T HAVE THE EXPERTISE ! This is why , for instance, our better players jump at a chance to go Europe and learn.  
    Now you may not agree and believe we have the expertise , therefore we don't need to reach from across the pond. Well ,that is your opinion but I don't share that for one moment. And certainly your opinion on those coaches you've named as representing as having the expertise...Sorry, I find them to be second rank ,to what is out there in the world, or rather across the pond.
    Bringing over people like a Zlatan, Henri, and great players with expertise as well as coaches from across the pond, like a Frank de Boer, etc can only benefit our soccer for they, ironically have an expertise which our better players seem  to want cross the pond for....

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, May 23, 2019 at 3:25 p.m.

    This an interesting and important subject.

    Frank has a valid point about great players being potentially great trainers if they can pass on to young players what they learned during their careers.

    Ric has a valid point about the great US players and coaches we have. Players like Perez, Dooley, Reyna, Ramos, McBride, Friedel, Cherundolo, and Guzan all have knowlege to pass on.

    These two points are not exclusive alternatives. We should be taking advantage of all the great trainers available, US and foreign.

    Everyone knows of former great players who failed as coaches. But then some great coaches have failed as coaches too. Most important to remember, Frank is talking about great players training as opposed to managing. Good trainers aren't always good managers, and vice versa.  (Frank also supports bringing over great foreign coaches as managers, but who is a great manager is very subjective. Too subjective for me to discuss here.)  

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, May 23, 2019 at 3:31 p.m.

    Another way to look at the discussion is that Ric is talking about our existing knowlege resources and Frank should be talking about adding to our existing knowledge resources.

    Outside knowlege may be seen as a threat if people fear change, but I think seeking outside knowledge is important. It make lead to change or it may lead to confirming our present course. Either way has value to our processes.

  8. frank schoon replied, May 23, 2019 at 5:12 p.m.

    Bob, exactly. We need all the expertise possible. Frank de Boer done a wonderful  job with Nagbe. Watch Atlanta United and take a look at Nagbe and see how  he has developed since de Boer has come. Of course great players don't necessarily make great coaches, but that is not at issue here.
    But we are at a stage in American  soccer development that calls for raising our soccer to a higher level. A good example of this is watching Atlanta for here is a team that actually can play ball possession and able to string a bunch of passes around which is not a trade of the average MLS team.
    We need expertise to raise the level of soccer and I don't see that coming from our stable of American coaches. Guys like Frank de Boer has so much knowledge ,experience, know-how and fortunately has been trained and developed through the Ajax system and has been influenced by great coaches/players throughout his youth and career, that can't be matched by any of our stable of coaches .
    I don't care if  de Boer is as successful as Tata with Atlanta for it is not important to me in the overal picture of what Atlanta does.  What is most important is that de Boer with  his backround and expertise soccer can raise the level of play which can be seen already with Atlanta and Nagbe.
     It is all of the great soccer DNA  de Boer is able to give to the American players, which is most important. Whether he is a great coach or not is not an issue with me but the knowledge and expertise and DNA he's able to give to our players.

  9. Philip Carragher, May 21, 2019 at 1:24 p.m.

    I agree with FS about teaching principles. I do that with my youth teams and the eventual result 90% of the time is more possession, more thought, and less chaos than our competitors even if the competitors are superior athletes (in general). The AYSO teams I've coached play a fall and spring schedule and my less athletic teams usually get pounded in the fall season by teams filled with travel players but by spring we are very competitive against the same teams and sometimes even win. And the best part is that all my players show up for all the practices (rare in AYSO) and also sign up again for next year. They do that because they enjoy it and they enjoy it because not only do the coaches and parents follow positive coaching principles but also because they are improving as players (via learning/applying sound soccer principles) and feel like they contribute to the team's success.

  10. frank schoon, May 21, 2019 at 1:31 p.m.

    Fred as he came to America, was shocked as seeing so many different "organizations" with authority.
    I'm glad for this diversity of authority for it is an outlet to allow creativity ,especially in thinking and development ,to be tried. Just look at the USSF ,what a joke, it took them over a year to find a coach. I like to see another organization come about that perhaps deal with "pickup soccer' as a major impetus in developing players. When I read about how these soccer Academies  operate as well so many coaches who want to follow a certain style , I'm only glad not everybody is tied into this garbage, but choose to follow another method and ways....This is why having a 'coaching license' should not be a restriction which it has become.
    Fred  states, "The system was done to develop good players , not high level ones, and this is what we have fixed" , REALLY??. Is that why they all want to go to Europe to learn. 
    Fred mentions that organizations are searching for EXPERTISE, which is good. A good example of what Atlanta United has done is to hire EXPERTISE , Frank de Boer, who has done it all. Just look at how Nagbe now plays. He is a totally different player from a even a year ago. You don't even know he's out there but fluently moves the ball around with effort. It is this type of expertise our American players to develop a step up. To me Nagbe is the most improved American player in the MLS. I thing GB better take a look at him...

  11. Bob Ashpole, May 21, 2019 at 10:53 p.m.

    Coach Lipka may be an excellent coach and coaching instructor, but I don't get that from this interview.

    The title, "Elite Formation Coaching License" made a huge negative impression before I finished reading the first sentence.

    "Formations are just telephone numbers." --Pep Guardiola (Also a long-time view of Argentine Coach Cesar Luis Menotti)

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