A missing ingredient in US youth soccer

Here are two interesting podcasts from John Pranjic at 3four3.com:

  1. An interview with a former Dutch soccer player, Sacha, who is currently serving as a scout for the Mexican national team.
  2. An interview with an American coach, Kephern, who is building pathways for American soccer players in Europe, especially the Netherlands (or Holland).

I found the following tidbits interesting.

Growing up soccer in Holland (vs US)

Sacha describes what it’s like growing up as a soccer player in the Netherlands. It’s a stark contrast to the U.S.

It starts with neighborhood pickup games at the park where the older players bring you in to even out sides. That’s common for basketball, football and baseball in the U.S., but not soccer, which is mostly an adult-led activity for youngsters.

Then, you join a local, inexpensive club. He said every neighborhood has a club.

It’s cheap at about $250 per year for a 10-month season compared with $1,000-$3,000 per year for a youth soccer club in the U.S.

There, clubs have a club house, fields and junior and adult teams. Most clubs in the U.S. do not have a clubhouse, fields or adult teams.

At 15, he coached a younger team in the club. Compare this to the U.S., where many are either parent volunteers or former college/semi-pro players trying to make a living.

This inspired him to start a non-profit organization, Home Field Advantage, to teach high school soccer players how to lead and coach a soccer program for elementary students.

The youth teams in their clubs play on Saturdays and the adult teams play on Sundays. The youth players often attend the adult games. They know the adults because they practice near them, are coached by them and see them at social functions. Compare this to the U.S. where kids barely pay attention to soccer outside their team bubble, even within a club.

I assume, that like much of Europe, in Holland athletics and academics isn’t wedded like in the U.S., so the club is the primary source of athletics.

This is the website for his club: Quick. With a little help from Google Translate, I’m able to deduce that they have youth, adult, veteran and masters teams. Sacha said they have 1,500 members.

Differences between European and American youth soccer players

In podcast #2, Pranjic asked Kephern about differences he sees between American and European players.

He said a key difference is in the players knowing where they’re going. American kids don’t seem to have a good sense of this. They are okay to say they’re the best on the team and their team has had some success, but they don’t have a sense beyond that of what good looks like or what kind of player they are working to become.

European kids have a much clearer picture of what they want to become. This shows up in the effort they put in on and off the field and how seriously they take and compete within a drills during training.

Connecting the dots between the two interviews

I think that American and European youth soccer players strive to achieve within their insular bubbles. It’s just that that bubble in Europe, created by the club, includes more exposure to higher levels of play for youth soccer players than in the U.S.

The beginning level senior team in Sacha’s club is like to the high school team in the US, with a key difference. The European youth interact with members of that team often. They watch their games, they may practice on the next pitch and they are coached by them. They know those guys. They are part of the same club.

This gives, as Kephern says, European soccer kids a good idea of where they’re going because they’ve been immersed in it for about decade by the time they are old enough to be considered for the adult team.

A part of the reason there’s such a difference between the U.S. and Europe is that schools have co-opted the sports experience in the U.S. so the soccer system that has emerged in the U.S. is much more fragmented for the youth soccer player than it is in Europe.

In Europe, it’s a short step from pickup soccer to inexpensive clubs where kids can learn and play the sport for decades. While they’re there, they see what “good” looks like from the top adult teams and learn it takes years of practice, patience and play to get there. They may also see a few of their fellow club members make it to the pros.

In the U.S., most kids don’t experience pickup soccer. They start in parks and rec or YMCA program where they learn little more than the difference between a corner kick and goal kick.

If they rise to the top of that bubble (which usually means knowing whether it’s a corner kick or goal kick faster than others on the field), they may join a club that has paid coaches and teams divided by 1-year age groups and skill levels, so games will be competitive to keep kids, and parents, interested.

Sounds good, except, it rarely exposes the kids and parents to what good looks like and what they should want to become. Why try hard to clean up your 1st touch when you and you’re team are competitive?

After a few years in a club, they enter high school and may decide to play there. It’s tough to balance club and high school, so club ranks thin out.

Many adults play soccer in the U.S. at indoor soccer complexes, but these teams are  disconnected from youth soccer. If, in the rare case a club does have a senior team, it’s not common for the youth and senior to practice anywhere near each other.

Club-based vs. School-based sports

Does this theory hold up in other sports? The U.S. dominates in basketball, American football and baseball, which are largely school-based.

Yes. But, these sports were invented in the U.S. and haven’t caught on in countries with the sports club model. It’s easy for the U.S. to dominate with its school-based sports model because its competing against countries that don’t play these sports in a serious way. So, something is better than nothing.

The Dominican baseball academies are similar to sport clubs and they are doing an excellent job of developing talent, being the 2nd largest supplier of MLB players, behind the U.S.

What does this mean?

If the above is true, then anything that helps youth soccer players experience what ‘good’ looks like on a regular basis can help.

Sacha’s Home Field Advantage may be one way. There are lots of others.

Even the MLS is another way. As it gains popularity kids will want to emulate their favorites more, like they do in other sports.

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One thought on “A missing ingredient in US youth soccer

  1. Pingback: Missing ingredient in US youth soccer II | Our Dinner Table

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