As a nation, the United States has produced and continues to produce phenomenal athletes. The US competes at the highest level in almost any sport. When it comes to football (soccer), the US struggles to replicate the same kind of results on the world’s biggest stage. Our players have not reached the same heights or pushing the same boundaries as some of the other powerhouse nations around the globe. Many countries seemingly produce world class professional soccer players week in and week out. The United States has not had one... yet.
For a lot of reason but we will touch only a few major ones:
The American soccer system that is currently in place severely handicaps our players. It stunts and prohibits American player’s growth. They are not able to unlock their full potential.
American players are stunted because of the lack of training infrastructure and proper training starting at the grassroots level. Most players do NOT receive the proper development that is required to reach the pinnacle of the world’s professional game. The US has a pay-to-play system which promotes winning and “success” from the beginning by getting results; instead of developing total football players capable of succeeding long term or making an impact at the highest level. This is a short-sided handicap that has serious repercussions and continues to hamper the overall development of American players.
Around the world, footballers are trained, developed and refined first then put into teams to succeed. Professional clubs and other organizations primary focus is on developing COMPLETE players. They have established incredible environments that are breeding grounds for creating world class professional players.
If players are not developed, long term success is NOT possible. Long term success being reaching the highest level of the professional game. Their players are free to play and express themselves on the pitch.
Development of the player comes first, success second.
A lot of coaches especially in America try to control every single detail of player’s game including the way they play and their playing environment:
They do NOT allow players to learn, experiment and grow on their own.
They believe they are putting them in a successful model; but unfortunately, this stops players from feeling “free” on the pitch and greatly hinders their creativity.
Do you know the two things the majority of American players end up lacking that that world’s best players have?
Creativity and superior technical ability. Let’s analyze some of the world’s best players. They are technically superior than practically any other player and they aren’t afraid. They use their freedom and always discover ways to express themselves (creativity) on the pitch.
“Young players need freedom of expression to develop as creative players... They should be encouraged to try skills without fear of failure.”
Arsene Wenger, Manager of Arsenal Football Club
In turn, this leads to unbelievable skill and ability that leaves fans in awe. Sometimes a match is stuck in a 0-0 (or another scoreline) and all it’s looking for is one piece of magic from a special player. For him (or her) to exquisitely dribble past two players and smash one into the top corner. Without the combination of creativity and technical ability, this wonderful potential isn’t realizable.
Everything is Controlled
This all stems back to the controlled environment American coaches have for their players. We set our players up for failure by controlling everything. We take away their freedom and tell our players to “Pass. Pass! PASS! PASS!!!!!!”. Instead of giving them the power to be free and make their own decisions outside of non-playing influences. This can also come from parents shouting instructions from the sidelines. American players need to learn how to make their own decisions in pressure situations or in games, away from the influence of their coaches or parents.
“Football is a game of options and decisions. The player with the ball makes the decision, his teammates are options.”
Cameroon National Star & Coach, Paul Ngend
The best coaches and managers in the world know when the balls in play, you have to let the players make their own decisions - good or bad. Football is a game of experiencing and learning. The best players learn from their mistakes to improve their games.
If you watch a professional game, you almost never see a manager or coach shouting instructions. They let the players be free and enjoy the occasion. Yes, they do have their pregame instructions, but during the course of a game there are many variables and uncertainties. Now, of course, that’s at the highest level, but even in youth play, you have to allow the players to be successful (or not) on their own. If you always tell a youth player what to do, your stopping them from experiencing, learning, improving and ultimately, you’re severely negatively impacting them.
Why would telling them what to do when they have the ball negatively impact a player?
If you always tell a player what to do, they don’t think for themselves on the field. They will always want answers from the coaches or parents (whoever is shouting the instructions). Sometimes, they end up believing they need that instruction in order to play.
There is a significant difference from instructions to encouragement. Telling a player, “Well done, great pass” is completely different than “Pass to X!”.
It is stopping their creativity from flowing. Some players have a creative gift that can’t be taught. Many American players lose their creativity because of the constant bombardment of instructions.
We have to remember that youth players are just kids. Yes, it's great to give guidance. However, just like in life, people need to make their own decisions. Soccer players are no different.
The game of football is an art. The players are the brushes, the ball is the paint and the field is the canvas. It’s waiting to be created into a masterpiece.
Fans watching any game of soccer from youth to professional are waiting for that one bit of skill or ability or a passage of play to get people off their feet. It needs inspiration. However, if the instructions continue to be given without the freedom to express, the incredible potential skill and ability WILL NOT be realized.
The second problem – The Pay to Play system:
In many countries around the world, players that are in clubs are set. They do not pay a significant fee to play. If we look at top professional clubs, they spend millions of dollars a year to develop, grow, and provide a footballing education to their players.
Their goal: To develop the next generation of professional players for their club. This offers players who don’t have the financial resources the potential to develop, compete and learn from some of the best of the industry. When youth players are in this system, they do not spend a dime for their footballing education. Even at smaller (amateur) clubs the philosophy is the same, but players and their families may have to pay for smaller items like uniforms because they don’t have the same financial resources or capabilities.
The reason for clubs paying for players is because they receive something called “Compensation for Formation”. This is the development of the player during their youth and clubs receive compensation for playing a role in their development (if they make it to the professional level). It doesn’t even take into account the transfer fee a club can receive if a player is sold to another team. The transfer fee can vary from a $1 to a $120,000,000 (and counting).
Simple Example: If a club spends $12,000,000 a year on their academy, but every year they sell one of their former players for $20,000,000 they are making profit every year and this doesn’t even include the Compensation for Formation fee.
In America, our youth system revolves around families paying for their kids to gain their footballing education. It’s a completely different model. Families can pay $1,000s of dollars (per year) and their kids won’t receive a top football education that allows them to unlock their full potential.
“We are not putting enough attention into developing players. Fundamentally, we are not good enough. Technical ability. Awareness on the field. Tactical ability. The only way we can catch the Europeans is to pay attention to something other than the athletic part of the game.”
Preki, Former MLS Player
It can be a frustrating experience for all involved, but it can often make American clubs a lot of money. This can help them fund various items and future projects – but they don’t always benefit the current players (or even the future player).
Parents want results for their hard-earned money and time they invest. With the current model, short term success (winning in youth) is high and long term success (player development) is unfortunately extremely low.
Now, the United States Soccer Development Academy (USSDA or DA) is in full swing and is a positive change to improving the landscape for football in the USA. All MLS clubs have a DA program and some of the age groups involved do not pay a fee. It’s 100% covered by the club. Some MLS clubs have non-DA teams which make them lots of money to subsidize the cost of the DA program.
What about players and families who can’t afford the American Pay to Play System?
It’s an unfortunate topic. Many families don’t have the financial resources to allow their young players the opportunity to play the sport. Many potentially talented players end up slipping through the cracks, and miss out on playing all-together; all because they don’t have the money to pay for it.
One of the best things about football is you just need a ball to play. It’s so easy. However, in the American system everything is much more difficult.
Our current model makes soccer more of a middle-class sport.
Many players who may have the potential ability to breakthrough to the professional level do not because of money. They can’t get the same opportunities as someone with financial stability.
A positive thing for financially-struggling families and their players is that many clubs offer scholarships, which can help cover some if not all the cost to play per season. However, not every player in need of a scholarship gets one. Many clubs have certain rules like only one scholarship player per team.
Until these things change, America will continue to struggle on the world’s biggest stage and more thank likely will be years away from witnessing an American player becoming one of the best players in the world.