Despite the fact that on any given weekend Americans drive through the suburbs and see lush green fields spattered with kids playing soccer, the popularity the sport has with America’s youth remains stubbornly slow to translate to American adults.
As most soccer fans know, this is not the situation for other countries. Soccer there is known as football, and it is played as religiously as Little League is in America. So as the world begins to play their World Cup qualifying games, while we can hopefully expect to see in 2010 a strong American team, it will still probably lag behind countries like Germany, in part because America has not caught up to their counterparts and the gaps begin with America’s youth.
In this two-part series, I take an in-depth look at the present and future of American soccer at its youth levels, and in part one, I take an example from German club Hamburg SV and compare some of their youth training methods with those in American youth soccer.
Breaking Down the Differences
Hamburg SV youth academy director Markus Hirte, when asked about how Germany differs from other clubs, stated that his club plays “a little smoother, and a little more coordinated. In Germany, teams have a lot of discipline and technique which makes up our power in soccer.”
No one will dispute that Germany’s professional squads are more coordinated and more technically gifted when compared to America’s professional players, but the heart of the question still remains why.
For Hamburg SV, the youth training can begin when the players are 8 or 9 years old, when they are scouted and invited to try out. A lot of the players are scouted from around Germany but are not necessarily local, so once scouted and invited to train and play, they stay at a boarding house. Hamburg SV has an entire staff that is employed at this home away from home — a cook, a house mom, and tutors.
If, after the time expires, Hamburg doesn’t feel that the player fits with their squad but has talent to sustain him to another club, they will try to find other clubs for the player to go to. “In Hamburg, we educate the players for our team, our professional team, but not all of them can reach that level. Some of them go to other clubs at a smaller level. Our target — our goal — is to always train players from youth allotment into the professional team,” says Hirte.
Approximately 120 players make up the Hamburg SV youth program, and the teams are separated by age (Under 19, 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, and 12). This is one of the first differences of German youth training compared to American training. Hamburg separates their youth players into teams based on age, and doesn’t necessarily adhere to the A and B squads that American sports are so fond of. Hirte says, “Good individual players, good skills, but you always need a team. A good player is nothing without the team, but the individual player is the base for good football at the high level.”
Jim Dower, coach for the Wilmette Wings and co-founder and executive director of Urban Initiatives, believes that the A vs. B team mentality is a detriment.
“From my understanding, in England there is no A or B or C team until you’re U-12, whereas in the U.S., with 8 or 9-year-olds, you’re told ‘you’re the best so you play with the best, you’re the worst so you play with the worst.
This has a huge difference in terms of developing skills. A huge flaw in the American soccer system is the A or B team mentality. If there is a bad player, and they only play with bad players, they aren’t as challenged.
If you take a bunch of 10 year old boys on a C team they lack some focus, direction, and putting twelve of them together means they won’t be as strong than if they were mixed up with other kids who are exceptions.
I think you can often see a 9 year old who isn’t as great at 9, but by the time they are 11 or 12, they have grown into their body. If you don’t place them in a situation to be pushed as much as they could, and treat them with the same level of attention as you give really good players, you aren’t giving them the right opportunities.”
In developing skills and technique, Tom Dunmore of Pitch Invasion, thinks that part of the problem may be America’s style of play.
“There has for too long been an over-emphasis on athleticism and organization rather than flair and ingenuity in coaching kids.
Few too Americans learn playing on the streets, which is of course critical to develop the technique necessary to adapt to any circumstance.
But, this is as much a cultural as a technical problem, though one has many exceptions to the rule, especially with the growing Hispanic influence.”
With the multiple layers of culture in America, it may be hard to pin down a style to train American youth players in. “Americans play a style often referred to as athletic, but is a bit of all the world’s styles, just as our culture is. The melting pot is the cliché thrown around in regards to both our nation and our soccer. This means untechnical to a lot of people, but that’s not necessarily so,” says Adam Spangler of the blog This Is American Soccer.
Skill training is the biggest demarcation between America and German youth development. Hirte stresses that each player must possess good skills and good technique, that the players must be able to play very fast and have good strength, one on one. Hamburg institutes a battery of tests for each player when they begin playing and will revisit those skills to gauge improvement, and to see what players need to work on individually. There is a 5 meter sprint, a coordination test, a speed test, a head—ball handling test. These tests are done every year, in part to determine if the players are getting better or not. It also gives the coaching staff a base for each player.
Hirte says, “If the guy is slow but good technically, he’s no good if he’s too slow.”
“The most important things are skills and technique, technique is the base of all. To control the ball in every situation, that’s the most important thing, at a high speed that is the focus of our training, our coaching.
The second thing is good discipline and tactics. Technique is the most important thing, because you can learn tactics all over, so in youth teams, technique is most important. As the player gets older, tactics will get better.”