Commentary

Steve Swanson, coach of world champions, has a special fondness for the college game



Steve Swanson
 has spent more than 30 years developing soccer players. With 30 straight winning seasons (including the last 21 as University of Virginia women’s head coach), a world championship with the U-20 U.S. women’s team, and two World Cup titles as an assistant with the U.S. women’s national team, he’s come to appreciate the most important element of a soccer player.

It’s her brain.

“It’s good to have a strong mentality. But most countries do,” the Michigan State graduate and former professional says. “We’ll win World Cups because we make better decisions than other teams.”

He has dedicated his professional life – including stints at Stanford University and Dartmouth College – to developing the brains (and feet) of his players.

His years on the international stage are important. But he has a special fondness for college-age athletes.

“It’s an amazing time in the span of a soccer player,” Swanson notes. “They’re still growing. There’s room to develop in every facet of life.”

As he has helped developed players, he’s watched the college game grow. When he started coaching, there were fewer than 50 NCAA Division I women’s teams. That number increased sevenfold. Club soccer has grown exponentially too.

The result, Swanson says, is “more technical players, and less space to play.” Still, he sees “a little too much reliance on athleticism. You need to make quick decisions in those tight spaces.”

Steve Swanson served as an assistant coach to Jill Ellis when the USA won Women's World Cup titles in 2015 (which led to a White House invitation from Barack Obama) and 2019. The USA's last U-20 Women's World Cup title came in 2012 with Swanson at the helm of a team that included Crystal Dunn, Julie (née Johnston) Ertz, Morgan Brian and Sam Mewis. He's coached U.S. national teams at all age groups from U-16s to U-23s.

With more coaches having grown up playing soccer – not always true in the past – Swanson believes “the onus is on all of us” to instill the high standards needed to reach skillful levels, both technical and tactical.

“Every player needs the skillset to pass, shoot, receive, attack and defend one-on-one. College is too late to learn how to strike a long ball properly. We’ve improved enormously from 25, 30 years ago. At the same time, we have to make teaching those things a priority.”

Having learned those fundamentals, Swanson adds, players must apply them when making decisions. “That’s more important than going undefeated at a young age.”

He includes not only coaches, but entire leagues, in that responsibility.

He understands “turf wars” between the ECNL and Girls Academy. But, he maintains, “we all need to get on the same page to help grow the game. We’re not there yet. A lot of people have good intentions. We have to have the big picture in mind. And we all need to do better.”

His international experience has given Swanson a broad perspective. Women’s soccer is booming across the globe; new powerhouses have burst on the scene. “That’s the competition the U.S. needs,” he says. “That’s the way we’ll get better.”

The women’s game is evolving dramatically here, with players becoming more complete. The top athletes must attack and defend, play inside and outside, and assume different roles on the field at different times. It all comes back to his mantra: better technical skills, and quicker decision-making.

Swanson says, “As a country, we’ve been very focused on the ball. Now we have to focus more off the ball. Coaches at the youth and college level have to keep that in mind. They need to do their homework, so they can prepare their players well.”

He is excited by the number of passionate people working to improve U.S. soccer. Now, he says, “we all need to get rolling in the same direction.”

COVID changed Swanson’s life dramatically. After working two jobs for more than 10 years – head coach at Virginia, and U.S. Soccer national teams’ coach – he was forced to slow down. The national teams did not get together for months.

After traveling the world with the full women’s and U-20 national teams – and across the country with the Cavaliers – Swanson appreciates Charlottesville even more now. It’s the quintessential college town, filled with “quality people” in all walks of life. He and his wife Julie have raised three children there.

His route to Virginia was varied. Swanson started as a youth coach, with U-13 and U-16 boys. He’s coached “all ages, sizes, abilities and genders” – and enjoyed it all. Every team has contributed to his own coaching education. And, he says, “I’m still learning and growing.”

As for the future of U.S. women’s soccer, Swanson believes “the sky’s the limit. We have amazing people in this country. We just need to keep the standards high, at every level.”

Photos courtesy of UVA Athletics
8 comments about "Steve Swanson, coach of world champions, has a special fondness for the college game".
  1. frank schoon, October 28, 2021 at 9:37 a.m.

    As a coach ,Steve is also a good 'politician'. But a lot of things he states are simple generalities than anyone can agree with and some other things he states I questioned.

    I cringe whenever I hear the Terminology, 'skillset' which I hear of read about so often is another way of not getting into real specifics, but still sounding very knowledgeable and it can be easily taught... The problem is what Steve enumerates is not really taught. Have you watch a women's college game....good lord, it's awful, skillwise and/or thinking wise....It's simply not good soccer...

    In college, he states it's too late to learn to strike a long ball. I beg to differ ,of all the techniques that one can learn at a late age this one is the easiest to learn and furthermore it is better to learn kick long balls when you're older in the late teens for then the body is more coordinated. Now if he had stated learning to play wing, which all the skills, and other assets,nuances that comes with the position it then I would say has a point. But I have taught a specific move to a wing player that he can use.

    The Cruyff once stated that coaches today would feint if a wing came up to him and ask to teach him several wing moves. Another example, running fast towards an uncoming ball and able to control upon meeting it, that can be learned by just practicing and that doesn't take long. But even at the National level , you never even see a women player of the WNT run at ball ,they just stand there and pass to the feet....Or trapping a ball dead on the feet or underneath the shoes from a goalie's high kick...these things can all be learned in practice. There a lot of skills than can be learned to be more effective as a player at an older age that just are not taught at college level.

    To me the most important 'skillset' :), is ATTACKING ONE ON ONE, PERIOD.  That is really the initial movement with the ball you learn playing pickup...That goes for any sport, i.e. basketball...
    To beat your opponent is the most satisfying and most rewarding of all aspects of soccer in the beginning stages of one's development, and it builds  your self-esteem as a player....There is a PSYCHOLOGY that coaches don't understand which is so important to the player. In my days in street soccer the one that gets the respect from other players is the best one on one player. That is how the hierarchy is formed among the players. Players automatically look up to you because you can beat the competition, one on one. 
                                                         

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  2. frank schoon, October 28, 2021 at 10:01 a.m.

     PSYCHOLOGY that goes with beating a player ONE ON ONE,that particular aspect of the game is missing in today's players which is due in great part to coaches getting involved in youth soccer.  Pickup soccer when I played or even today is free from restrictions (COACHING). There were no coaches, telling you to be 'efficient', saying 'you dribble too much', 'one-touch it', 'switch the field', 'pass it', along with  the other organizational and team aspects which should be taught but at a much later age like 15 or so. 

    This PSYCHOLOGY is what made the youth player who was good one on one, a cocky, confident player. Just look at Zlatan, Mr. Pickup himself, his character, the way carries himself, all of which he nurtured and gotten from playing pickup soccer, and he didn't get into organized ball until around 17...I miss that in today's players for they don't have that PSYCHOLOGY. In my days most of the good youth players had that psychologically of , 'you think you're better than me'. At Ajax, the youth that tried out were all cocky youth players because they represented the best players of the various neighborhoods in Amsterdam. How you a handle ball against competition marks you as 'the man'.

    The other aspect of this PSYCHOLOGY was that you try to stay on top of the competition because of the respect you earn from your peers. By being confident and cocky with the ball, it is so much easier to learn other aspects, technically and tactically as you get older....After you gained great skills you BRANCH OUT into those other areas.

    When I look at the MNT, I don't recognize any cockiness, confidence from these players, instead I see a lot of strange hairdo's, tattoos and other forms pseudo machoisms but as soon as one has a ball on their foot and a opponents show up he gets the shakes. The players are formed and programmed all these years by coaches that they end up lacking a strong individuality with the ball..
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  3. frank schoon, October 28, 2021 at 10:23 a.m.

    Steve had mentioned that women soccer has improved over the past 25-30 years....to me i, yes, horizontally, there are more women players and therefore more possible talent to choose from but TECHNICALLY, no. I think the best women players are also the more athletic types with some talent...If you look at Mia Hamm and others of that generation, than I don't see the improvement in women soccer ,individually, considering all the improvements and benefits  in coaching,etc...The quality of the game has stayed at one level..

    "Quicker skills and quicker decision-making"....to me are just Mantras employed by coaches to sound knowledgeable for I don't see that in women soccer, and how do you go about doing this....I think we will always have handicapped as American players until 'pickup' soccer becomes part of all culture. You can't expected our player to better by just going to training at a club and be lead by by programmed coaches....Like in basketball the good ,better player come out of playing pickup all the time for that is where you hone and learn the inner aspect that can't acquired from just the coaching side

    "As a country we've been very focused on the ball". TOTALLY DISAGREE. If we were focused on the ball we would have GREAT INDIVIDUALISTS. Brazil is country that is focused on the ball, for that is the first step how youth developed and they have great players on the ball..WE DON'T HAVE THAT....I wish we were focused on the ball than we could say, "yeah, our NT doesn't win because we have such great individualists with the ball and all we need now is a coach that put them together as a team". BUT WE DON'T HAVE THAT, PERIOD. If anything that is where our training thinking should be directed to put a lot of focus on the ball then later when we can talk about 'off the ball'.

  4. Mike Lynch, October 28, 2021 at 10:58 a.m.

    Dan, Great article highlighting Steve Swanson's long and consistently successful career not only getting results but also in developing players and people. His record is indisputible and his opinions are credible. Are there lots of aspects to our current state of player and team development, including college age female players here in the US that could be better, need fine tuning? Absolutely, but college soccer is not a barrier to these possible solutions. At it's best as one of several different player development pathways, it continues to attract and develop many of the best players in the world as evidenced in past World Cups and Olympic competitions including the lastest ones, and at it's worst as a player development pathway, still provides young people an opportunity to pursue BOTH education AND athletics, a pathway not possible elsewhere ... and if one that is so bad, why are so many players from abroad clammering to be a part of our college soccer experience here? 

  5. humble 1 replied, October 28, 2021 at 12:30 p.m.

    Agree with you on this one Mike.  Sorry Frank, we cannot go our developing shortcomings on Mr. Swanson. College soccer is dynamic, not static, it is so large you can find almost any playing style you want, and yes there are teams with very technical players on the ball, from forward to backs, you just have to hunt for them.  It is, if not the largest, one of the largest, when taken as a whole, on the men or women side, amatuer leagues in the world. Coaches are rotating in and out quickly, for young coaches it is a terrific platform when one can continue in the sport and make a living.  It was for a very long time, the only desination for boys and girls if they wanted to continue playing soccer after High School.  It's got it's faults, but it is not at fault for our nations soccer shortcomings, rather case could be made, that it was what kept us limping along for a long time.  It can be improved upon, but it is not the problem.  The mission of college soccer is education, athletics is seen as supporting that end, contributing to the players growth.  If you want to question outcomes in player development look at clubs, and the nation federation and professional leagues, they are the ones that have the mission to develop players.  The real player is developed at home, and in the community well before they turn 17, when we figure this out as a nation and stop asking colleges and clubs and federations and professional leagues to develop our players and start providing the means for and encouraging kids to develop themselves, like we do in the other round ball sport basketball, we will be on track.  This is nothing to do with college soccer or even U17 play. Make it happen!     

  6. frank schoon replied, October 28, 2021 at 12:52 p.m.

    Humble, where did I say I blame our nations shortcomings on college soccer. How can it be,for it is too late if you're in college. Colleges takes players that are given to them, so the fault should be tracked back to a time earlier and to the type of training players received before they enter college....But at college you still can improve on your game technically, although limited.

    Your quote,"The real player is developed at home, and in the community well before they turn 17, when we figure this out as a nation and stop asking colleges and clubs and federations and professional leagues to develop our players and start providing the means for and encouraging kids to develop themselves,". It what i"m saying in a nutshell....

  7. frank schoon replied, November 1, 2021 at 1:23 p.m.

    Mike, I agree in spirit on what you say, but the Europeans that come here to play ,come here for the AMERICAN experience, that is unmatched anywhere in the world. In other words they don't come here for better coaching and player development.

    As I look at the rosters of college teams that I watch on ESPN+, I find soooo many foreigners recruited for our colleges, which means fewer American boys (talent) have a chance to play. I don't mind if a college team recruits one or at most two foreigners for I believe we need a mix of foreign talent to influence our game. But when I look at these rosters ,I'm asking myself is the coach this hard up to win the trophy by recruiting all these foreign players. And if he's successful, he can declare he's a great coach or rather ,to me, a great recruiter, not a great coach.... Yeah, we all want to win our games, but with Americans. If you think that colleges play a part in developing our (American) players, what good is it if we rely on the increasing flow of foreign players.


  8. Ben Myers, October 28, 2021 at 11:53 a.m.

    I long ago learned, no matter what the level of play, getting into a player's head to help them to THINK about playing the game is nearly as rewarding as all the technical training.

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