Youth Football in the US

Youth Football in the US


Ruud Gullit: ‘We can’t play sexy football at LA Galaxy’

“I can’t play sexy football with this team at the moment because we are not ready for this. There is a huge difference between the very good players and some of the average players.

The reason for this, I have found out, is that young players are not being schooled in the way we do it in Europe. A good young player in Europe will start at youth team level at a professional club and over the years he will build up his knowledge and develop a natural affinity for the game along with a good tactical brain.

But here in the United States they play soccer in the schools and then college and they are 20 or 21 years old and they are coming to me, having been coached straight out of a book. None of these coaches has played at any kind of high level. This is a major limitation when these players come into the professional game and it means that I have to go back to basics with them.

They’re just rough diamonds and they don’t have the tactical vision. Some of them will make it, some will not, but all of the teams see the same young players because of the draft system, so my challenge is to develop them into something more than anybody else can achieve with them. That’s a tough challenge.”

From here, one needs more of a summary than an explanation.

So here’s a broad outline.

How does a kid in America learn to play soccer?

He can’t play much of a pick-up/street game with friends because there are no streets in America. There are suburbs. Street games are for basketball, often in a tough urban center or under a roof. Spaces for free soccer pitches have been long turned into parking lots. (People need room for their SUV’s)

But suburbia has its own limitations – it is spread out. One could perhaps bicycle from home to home but walking is usually frowned upon. Local schools usually bus their students in. When you’re on the bus, you ain’t walking. And you ain’t playing street soccer.

And, so with pick-up games eliminated, one looks to the organized game. That is run by a plethora of occasionally coordinated youth clubs. Clubs charge fees to play and that often negates a possibility of the poorer kids joining the club. Still, that isn’t the worst problem with these youth clubs. The worst and perhaps the only significant problem here is that coaches at these small clubs don’t know and don’t want to know the game. Teaching basic skills is considered anachronistic despite the fact that the club players have little previous experience. This “coaching” – and I am using the term loosely – involves dropping the ball on the (rented) grass field and telling the young players to have a good time running around. No tactical and technical training takes place. If the same principle applied to assembling an orchestra, a resulting cacophony would be put down by a riot police with water hoses and tear gas. Yet, what one sees on the soccer fields across America is precisely that type of cacophony that knowledgeable sport fans would fine nauseating.

Other clubs/coaches are motivated solely by winning. That’s what gets the parents to cough up that needed dough. But that leads to an unsophisticated game approach where a couple of the fastest kids keep chasing long ball, with the rest of their team mates aimlessly booting them up the pitch. Any desire to teach actual skills is put on the back burner because it doesn’t gel with the long ball and takes too much time where none is really available anyway.

There are exceptions to the rule, clearly. There are a few former European and South American pros employed by a few respected clubs who teach as good a game as their own teachers once did. Alas, with millions of youth soccer players in the US, the professionals only reach a minuscule portion of the American soccer universe. The rest of the prospects is idiotized and taught, to be blunt, garbage.

Even the Bradenton Academy in Florida – formed to develop the most elite US soccer athletes up to the U-17 World Cup – has suffered from inept coaching and a selection process that depended on the early bloomers who matured earlier than their peers and thus were physically dominant. Subsequently, those early bloomers’ star power proved to be short-lived. Freddy Adu, a poster child of all early bloomers, was deemed a future superstar at thirteen and is now firmly tucked away on the bench at Benfica. All 5’6″ of him.

But the above is only the tip of the iceberg.

The US soccer development system is governed by the United States Soccer Federation. The Federation itself consists of the representatives from both the various soccer groups – amateur, college and pros. All of these groups have opposing interests – youth clubs are more concerned with milking the well heeled parents for their kids’ membership fees. Colleges want free student-athletes, who are limited by its regulations not only to the compensation they could receive (none) but to the amount of hours they could spend practicing under supervision. Pros – MLS and USL – ideally want well trained 18-23 year old prospects but are unwilling and often unable to offer them a salary commensurable with the one they’d get in a business world with their college degrees.

NCAA soccer has another conundrum. It has different rules and not different in some insignificant unimportant miniscule way – it has unlimited number of substitutions. (though the re-entry in the same half is largely prohibited: 2007 NCAA Men’s and Women’s Soccer Rules and Interpretations )

That leads to a ping-pong type of action with a lot of running – the US soccer player is very fit – but not much skill on the ball. This doesn’t bother NCAA, as it looks at soccer in more recreational than competitive terms.

Which brings us to the pros.

MLS coaches are hired to win games. They are not hired to raise and educate 20-23 year old rookies. If it can be done concurrently, the best of them do what they can within a limited time allowed.

But most have taken to understand the system for what it can give them. In an annual MLS draft, the few players with skills – who may have come from the rare ex-pro schooled clubs or are simply uniquely gifted individuals – are picked early. The raw athletes are picked next. Then the coaches divide the team between the “piano players” (skill) and the “piano movers” (no skill, never heard of skill).

When a squad is short of the “piano players”, its management goes outside of the country and brings in the likes of Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Juan Pablo Angel, Marcelo Gallardo, Guillermo Barros Schelotto and David Beckham.

There’s never a shortage of the “piano movers” – American kids can indeed run all day long.

So how does an average American player learn the game?

By osmosis.

Occasionally by practice.

But mostly he never learns much and leaves the game as bereft of skill and knowledge as he came into the game with.

The luckiest ones get competent coaches with a European or South American background – Juan Carlos Osorio with New York, Ruud Gullit with the LA Galaxy, Preki with the Chivas USA. The most athletically talented of the lucky ones may even get interests of the European clubs and are given a chance to develop there.

The bulk of the MLS’ers, however, is out of luck.

It’ll stick around for a few years but eventually will have to go back and rely on their college degree to make a real living. Their pro years will be memories saved on their VCR’s.

PS. Some loyal followers of the American soccer are placing considerable amount of hope on the various non-profit youth academies that are being set up across the country. If one adopts a principle that something is better than nothing, then it’s a step in the right direction. But quantity is easier to define than quality and that leaves the only important variable – coaching – still up in the air. If these new and newly affiliated academies – rumored to number over sixty – feature the necessary “quality control”, then the up-and-coming American talent should see a noticeable improvement in tactical and technical knowledge. If, and this may end up being the case, it’s the old faces with new uniforms and barely reformulated slogans, the status quo will likely prevail.

NCAA is a drain and will remain so.

MLS keeps on improving but it must hire more coaches like Gullit and Osorio, who won’t stand for the same old football that has been an MLS staple since its inception. It may count half a dozen of coaches with similar ideas among its fourteen member base. But it needs one for every team pronto. It needed them before yesterday too.

Also See: Youth Development in the MLS: The Promise and the Problems.

Transfer Rumors: Manchester United, Tottenham, Inter Milan, Barcelona, Bordeaux
In defence of King Kev


  1. “Previously, Northern Virginia high schools were dominated by the long-ball style, where there are far fewer passes and players under pressure can play a 40- or 50-yard ball in the air to a player downfield. The system, also called “direct,” helps to disguise a team’s weaknesses, and is considered less demanding for the players. It is also considered less attractive, and when playing against an organized defense, far less effective.”

    In this example, it helps to disguise a coach’s weaknesses. I grew up in the DC area, and played against these teams. The English style (they call it direct now) was in vogue then at the high school level. Kick it down the pitch whenever you were pressed. You would never see a defender attempt to dribble out of his own area. Long ball down field, one pass to the winger, and cross it in. Mix and repeat. 😉

    I had a very good coach in junior high school (age range 13 to 15). He was American, but understood the game and tactics. With him, we did maintain a semblance of possession, and were taught fundamentals. But I think progress has been made. I still feel that we need to nurture more creativity in the youth ranks. As Dan noted, you don’t often see kids just kicking a ball for recreation. Soccer is extremely organized in North America and parent-centric. We need to develop and encourage kids to take on players instead of dumping the ball at the first sign of trouble. Or because parents are screaming at them from the touchlines. Mark Carter had an interesting quote (Ministry of Sport): “If he was learning to reading a book, would you yell at him?”

    We live in a coaching culture in North America. That is another factor in this discussion about youth football. Other American sports have a very pronounced coaching or management influence. The coaches are on the same level as the star athletes. If you watch pro sports on TV, at times you see more images of the coaches than the players. That carries over to youth soccer. Especially with inexperienced coaches. They tend to overmanage, or as Ruud Gullit said, coach from a book.

    The US U-20 team last summer played a creative brand of football at the Youth World Cup. But they were coached by a Dutchman, Thomas Rongen. I believe that it bodes well for the future.

  2. I am, in a way, going through the system, but my path is very different just because I come from a place where we play outdoors for only a few months while we are stuck inside for the majority of the year. However, now that I’m out of that place, which is terrible for football development, I am gaining a different perspective.

    However, I would like to say that the majority of the coaches I have worked with are licensed and qualified. The USSF constantly holds licensing courses not only for club coaches and competitive coaches, but also for recreational level coaches. I’ve attended both types of these courses, and although they may not learn a great deal about soccer, these “parent coaches” always walk away with new knowledge about what to teach and how to train their players.

    The college system is the way it is, and that will not change. However, I will not get into a discussion about the NCAA, mostly because I hate them and don’t want to give them the exposure of the people on the site, but also because it is a very negative system.

    I would also like to point out that you have talked your tongue out about what coaches and parents want, but not really about what the players want. The majority of football players in this country are not out to sign a multi-million dollar contract or even to represent their high school team. They’re just playing for fun.

    The players, such as myself, who are seriously in the game and have devoted their lives to it can succeed very easily. These players find the clubs that have this coaching (such as the one I play for now, although it is not a youth club) and find ways to make themselves better, and eventually end up reaching their full potential if they keep working.

  3. I agree, but this problem was brought up back in the late 60’s every time the Olympics rolled around and pundits would bring up that the Communist athletes had been training for the games since they were 12, and the American athletes only had 4 years of serious training. The problem with youth soccer in America is no one takes it seriously, not the organization. In Texas your kid plays soccer until he’s 8, then plays baseball until he’s 14, then he play American football and if he’s good enough he goes to college to continue his American football career.But once more money gets behind soccer, more kids stick with the sport, and all the MLS teams comply with the now mandatory youth academy more great American players will come forward. I’m not worried at all about America’s youth, it’s England that should be worried.

  4. Also anything Gullit says should be negated, he’s just trying to justify the again mediocre LA Galaxy.

  5. Steve

    The stereotype of kids giving up soccer when they hit high school is a little dated now. A lot has changed in the last 10-15 years as far as how many kids play competitively.

    I thought the article ham-handed and laid on way too thick to be of any use to anyone that has more than a passing knowledge of this country. “there are no streets in America. There are suburbs.” WTF? What America do you live in?

  6. I’m 18 and i’ve played soccer in 3 different states. Alot of the kids I played with when I was 7, or 10 gave up soccer for a different sport, but the people that stuck with the sport have a true passion that I don’t think America has seen in the past 30 years. I guarantee within the next 10 years America will produce a Ronaldo.

    I also agree with the no streets, no suburbs thing. My lawn is big enough to play a pick up game on, i’ve played pick up games in the school parking lot, i’ve played pick up games in gym, i’ve played pick up games in the back of grocery stores, i’ve played pick up games in Grant Park, i’ve even much to my mother’s horror played pick up games in the street. There’s plenty of places to play pick up games and I live in Chicago. Most colleges have clubs now dedicated now to playing pick up games of soccer. When I went to Washington DC I saw a pick up game on the National Mall. But i’ve been to England, and outside London and I often wonder where they find the room to play a pick up game. Here in America there are infinite options, but in compact England I can’t see someone getting a ball out of their bag and playing a game in a parking lot.

  7. Excellent article! US soccer is doomed unless some radicle changes are made to our system. From AYSO to college…the whole format needs to be revamped or we’ll always struggle against the foreign competition. MLS needs to start young…around age 9 and emphasize the technical aspects. We have bright young kids but they can be easily distracted with other sports.

  8. I’m sorry George, but if you are basing your analysis on AYSO then you are sadly not seeing the full picture. AYSO is more about the recreational game than competitive. If you need to see what the good youth system in the US looks like, look up the United States Youth Soccer Association.

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