Part of the American psyche is that we must be the very best, at everything. America usually shines during international sporting tournaments such as the Olympics, but when it comes to soccer we are disastrously average. In the last World Cup, America progressed to the final 16, but was eliminated by Ghana. Seven American coaches were asked recently by ESPN as to what they thought our country needed to improve upon to develop better players. Here are my thoughts on their response.
A big focus of the responses were that American’s youth soccer tended to focus too much on winning, not developing skills. In an eerie manner, the very winning mindset that Americans rely upon is holding our young soccer players back. It appears counter-intuitive but the fact remains, what does it matter whether an eight year old kid wins a game or not? Because everyone is too focused on the end goal of lifting the trophy, few youngsters are harnessing their skills in youth games.
Coaches and parents should spend more time helping the kids learn how to play better. In America, they reside by the sidelines, spouting excited yelps of encouragement. Conflictingly, British matches occur with relaxed parents, who are told not to put pressure on the kids by yelling, but to merely applaud goals and at the end of a period. Coaches wait until intervals to teach tactics to kids. Leave all the crowd drama for the pros. During practices, the parents converse with each other socially, in a clubhouse at a distance, where they can see their children play outside the window, but far enough away not to be a distraction.
The American education system is too closely tied to sports. From middle school on, being on the team often means representing your school. The coaches and students are taught to win, with an emphasis placed upon regional standings and state cups. Alternatively and often jointly, American soccer players join the traveling club team, where parents pay dues upwards of $1000 each season for better coaching and spend their Saturdays in the car driving to matches.
In other countries, sports teams are separated from the school. The professional clubs often have their own youth programs which draw talent from the local pool. The academy is funded through television rights from the professional clubs and this supports the training. Youth matches rarely take note of the score. Team and league standings are only introduced at the U-16 level. Playing the game well becomes the focus, not netting goals and winning the trophy.
America’s education demands also lead children to get a college scholarship. College athletic departments receive millions of dollars each year for players. The players are granted full athletic scholarships to attend the university. It all paints a rosy picture, but the NCAA heavily restricts practice time for players, and the college workload can be extremely difficult when combined with travel time for games. The age when English soccer players become professionals is 16. For the model American, it is 22. They are already six years behind.
The final and probably most important reason that US Soccer still lags over the rest of the world is interest. England alone has hundreds of soccer clubs. In Europe, in South America, in Africa, in just about everywhere soccer is the favored sport. This is not the case in America, where children often choose basketball, football, or baseball as the sport to play growing up. Thus, many athletes who would become the Lionel Messi’s or Christiano Ronaldo’s of the world choose another sport, and the talent pool dwindles.
This will change over time however. As more people grow up playing and loving the beautiful game, training will improve. As the MLS grows in popularity, more people will choose soccer, and more adults will be experienced enough with the game to train it, and perhaps one day America might eventually lift the World Cup.