One thing that gets overlooked in the discussion about how to improve the state of soccer in the U.S. is how much soccer is not a part of American culture.
I got to see first hand what a difference that makes when I attended a backyard quinceanara on my wife’s side of the family, last year.
I snapped this photo at the party:
The family is Mexican and Honduran, which are heavy soccer-playing cultures.
There was up to 12 kids out there kicking the ball around and they ranged in age from 3 to 20.
They didn’t play a soccer game like we know it, with goals and teams.
In this photo they were playing keep away. The guy with the ball would try to keep it, make a few moves to beat the defender and the closest guy to him would try to put pressure on him to stop him and try to get the ball.
A player possessed the ball for about 5 – 10 seconds, on average, then they’d pass it on to someone else and that pair would do the same thing.
Every now and then they’d do a 2-3 pass combo to attack an imaginary goal and shoot, but that wasn’t the main purpose of the game.
Notice the young kid with ball. He’s using the inside of his foot to control the ball and keeping it under his shoulders. He has basic technique down at a young age.
Another game they played was a simple 1v1. One guy had the ball, the other defended. The attacker tried to control the ball past the defender. The defender tried to keep the attacker from beating him and tried to get the ball.
After the attacker got past the defender or when the defender got the ball, they’d switch roles. I believe they kept score. A point for beating the defender. A point for getting the ball. They played best 2 out of 3 or 3 out of 5.
A few weeks later, my adult indoor team played against a Hispanic team. Before and after the game, their team spread across the field, paired off and played this simple 1v1 game.
These games worked well with the age differences while working on key fundamentals. The games were like simple versions of sports in our culture like 1-on-1 or 21 in basketball or ‘catch’ with a baseball or football.
All these games are fun and increase reps on fundamentals to where they become second nature.
I tried the first game with the 10 year soccer team that I coached. Here are some of the differences I saw.
Birthday party kids: Maintained their spacing well. Allowed them to move the ball around and have passing options available when the attacker’s dribbling options ran out.
American kids: A herd of 3-4 chasing after the ball, knocking each other down to get it and often clogging up the attacker’s passing lanes.
Birthday party: Even the youngest kids had a fine 1st touch and played it away from pressure, kept the ball under their shoulders and stayed in an athletic position (shoulders over toes).
American kids: Many of the kids had a heavy first touch and often played the ball right to a defender. When they kept the ball, their next touch created a 50/50 when they kicked the ball out from under their shoulders and chased it. They too often reached for the ball with their foot, getting out of the athletic position and becoming unbalanced.
Birthday party: The closest guy naturally became the defender and started pressing to contain the attacker and wait for the mistake to tackle. It was almost like they were being switched on. As soon as the guy near them got the ball, they changed their stance to become more defensive and closed space to pressure.
American kids: The closest guy often avoided defending, moving away from the ball leaving a big gap for the attacker to play into and causing confusion among other players on who was going to defend. They wanted to be on offense only or wanted to be on the ‘good players’ team, so didn’t want to defend when the good players had the ball. When they did defend, they dived-in for the ball, becoming unbalanced, and got beat.
Birthday party: The kids communicated passes, where to play the ball and moved around to be open for a pass.
American kids: Silent, staring at each other, standing like statues instead of moving around to get create open passing lanes.
The American kids aren’t beginners. Many have played for years.
But, they’ve played only in adult-led settings with kids in their 1 year age group and similar skill level, so they can feel competitive and successful. They haven’t discovered the game on their own they’ve had enough success with ‘boom and zoom’ soccer that they’ve had a difficult time understanding why they would want to play any differently.
I often hear these 10-year-olds brag about how many seasons they have played soccer, yet many don’t have the technical skill of the 6 year-old kids at the birthday party, because they haven’t put the reps in on their own.
Back to the party: After 20 minutes of soccer, the older kids moved on to running American football plays. Meanwhile, the younger kids got the soccer ball and kept trying to emulate the moves they saw the older kids doing a few minutes before, building their skills up.
I witnessed, firsthand, soccer being handed down through culture, without adults on the sidelines coaching every step and acting like every mistake is career-ending.
Their culture puts more focus in the early years on 1v1 skills. What little soccer is in our culture puts more focus in early years on big kicks and athleticism.
In their culture, they have refined their 1v1 skills by the time they turn 10. Most don’t even remember a time when they didn’t have those skills because they learned much of it from ages 2 – 7 by emulating their older family members and neighbors.
In our culture, that type of skill development often starts about age 10.