Why don’t Americans score goals in the MLS?

Top MLS goal scorers (as of 8/14/2019):

1. Carlos Vela, Mexico

2. Josef Martinez, Venezuela

3. Diego Rossi, Uraguay

4. Wayne Rooney, England

5. Kacper Przybylko, Poland

6. Kei Kamara, Sierra Leone

7. Felipe Guitierrez, Chile

8. Charles Gil, Spain

9. Alejandro Pozuelo, Spain

10. Mauro Manotos, Columbia

11. Saphir Taider, France/Algeria

12. Jozy Altidore, USA

Goal scoring is soccer’s top ball skill. Consistent scoring requires high-level ball mastery.

It’s “striking” to me that in the USA’s top soccer division (a league considered to be in the third tier of pro leagues around the world), that the top 11 goal scorers are not from the U.S. They are from countries with strong ‘ball-centric’ soccer cultures.

This is one result of the US “participation culture” in soccer, as I wrote about in the previous post, where ball mastery is treated as an afterthought.

The feedbacks for encouraging ball mastery in the participation culture are weak or negative and the ball mastery light bulb doesn’t turn on for too many players until it’s too late (usually about 10 years too late) to be able to catch up to the levels of mastery achieved by players from ball-centric cultures.

Why the U.S. Men’s National Team hasn’t improved in 30 years

This Coaching Soccer Weekly podcast has a good discussion about isolated technical training (i.e. ball mastery work) during soccer practice and what he heard while taking a pilot USSF’s pilot Director of Coaching course.

The podcast host, Mura, took the pilot course and says that part of the rationale presented in the coaching course to not do isolated technical training at soccer practice, in favor of more game play, was to make practice more fun to keep kids interested and playing longer.

Hmmm…

Soccer cultures that produce world level talent are centered on mastering the ball from early ages. Mastering the ball takes a lot of practice, against opponents and on your own.

U.S. Soccer culture is centered on participation with ball mastery at early ages as an afterthought.

The last 30 years proves that participation doesn’t improve top level talent.

If kids don’t think ball work is fun, then we are attracting the wrong kids or we need to come up with more fun activities that get kids enjoying working with the ball.

If you look closely at ball-centric soccer cultures, you see they have these activities along with knowledge transfer among large age bands (e.g. pickup game with ages from 3 up to adult), encouragement to learn (e.g. the worst juggler gets picked last).

I’ve seen this firsthand here in the U.S.

The function of soccer culture

In each episode of John Pranjic’s 3Four3 soccer podcast he plugs 3Four3’s coaching training program.

One of his best selling-points for their coaching program is that helps coaches get past the “trial-and-error discovery phase” of figuring out what activities work and getting right to activities and coaching points that will make a difference in the players and team.

While writing the previous two posts, it dawned on me that soccer culture serves the same function for individual players.

Becoming a competent player from scratch has two has two general periods:

A. 2-5 year period of trial-and-error of learning about soccer and what’s important. This phase is filled with dead-ends, traps and road blocks. One example is simply underestimating the importance of ball skills.

B. 3-5 year period of developing competency on basic skills like first touch, dribbling and passing.

Soccer culture is a shortcut past the first period, because the culture has already discovered what’s important and made it possible to achieve that with activities that develop the basics in fun, unorganized activities with nobody noticing.

In baseball culture, we know one such activity as “catch”. Examples in basketball are 1-on-1, OUT and 21.

Soccer culture activities include juggling, monkey-in-the-middle and 1v1 to 3v3.

In addition to being played in unorganized settings, it’s with people ranging in age and ability, which enables knowledge transfer between generations and ability levels that doesn’t occur in organized settings sliced by age and ability levels.

In the U.S. soccer culture, it’s typical for kids to learn how to self-organize and enjoy playing a game of monkey-in-the-middle (which develops about 60% of the basic skills useful in soccer) in their teens.

In stronger soccer cultures, kids learn to play this on their own and have fun as early as age 5. And they play it a lot.

High School soccer stunts passing of soccer culture to the next generation

This is a continuation of my previous post on how high school soccer hurts soccer culture in U.S.

First, I want to say that I have nothing against high school soccer.In the U.S., school sports is all we know.

It’s just that it’s worth pointing out that one result of the club/high school structure is that it keeps youth players from forming connections to teenage players, and those connections are vital in soccer-playing countries to help pass on soccer culture.

Clubs in soccer-playing countries foster these connections.

High school age players play for the club’s senior teams, they practice on the same grounds as younger youth and often coach the younger players (which also keeps costs down).

Kids in these clubs get to know these players, want to watch them play on the weekend and emulate them. Their senior team heroes provide a vision of players the kids want to become someday.

Younger players in the U.S. don’t have this long-term vision to guide them because they don’t have close connections to the equivalent of these club senior teams in the U.S.: high school varsity teams.

Kids in the U.S. just have their team’s current results. Since competition is grouped by age and skill, those results give youth players a false sense of competency. Why bother trying to get better? Our games are close enough.

This hit home with me when one of my players ran into the local pro indoor team practicing at a field that we often practiced on, by accident. We moved practice that day, but that player’s Dad didn’t get the email.

We had attended a few of that team’s games to help spark an interest in kids, so my player knew of the team and was surprised and excited to see them practicing there.

The player’s Dad introduced him to the pro GK. That GK ended up giving him goalie gloves and became that kid’s hero. His Dad bought season tickets and took every chance to see the GK again at fan events and training camps the team offered.

At the time, that player was one of the 4 who played GK. They were all about the same level of ability at that time and were content with that. They had not concept of what better looked like.

Over the next year, that player excelled. His vision shifted from being good for our team to wanting to play like his hero. That made a world of difference.

I remember the first time he made a diving save, thinking how much he looked like his favorite goalkeeper. He was learning.

When I took the team to high school, college and pro matches hoping to spark an interest in soccer beyond what we did in practice, the kids complained about how boring it was.

They had no connection to the players.

The kid described above showed me how important that connection was.

Imagine if all the kids could make that kind of connection.

Consider how far it sets us back that our system doesn’t foster such connections, while countries with strong soccer cultures do.

Tale of two teams: raise the bottom to push up the top

Tweet from Tom Byer:

The following example supports that point.

Setting: Sideline of scrimmage at youth soccer practice where I assisted.

Team One: Academy, top division team.

Team Two: Beginner to intermediate, but a year older.

If you judge the the teams before they scrimmage each other you might expect Team Two to dominate. They are older, bigger and look more athletic. A lot of the Team One players look bookish.

Once scrimmage begins, you quickly learn you are mistaken. Team One dominates and keeps the ball 90% of the time.

When Team Two gets the ball, they are lucky to get three touches before giving it back to Team One.

It’s like watching 6th graders (Team One) compete against 2nd graders (Team Two) in math. Of course, the 6th graders will look like geniuses, if you have nothing else to compare to.

But, Team One isn’t great, even though they are “elite” and win a lot.

They just have the basics down. Algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus are still to come.

Team Two represents the bottom 60-70% in my area and Team One the top 10%.

Comparing to traditional US sports of basketball and baseball, a team with a similar level of proficiency in either of those sports as Team One has in soccer would be low B or C level and Team Two would be in the bottom 10%, if playing at all.

Here are some key differences I noticed between Team One and Two players.

When players wait on the sideline to sub into scrimmage, Team One players work with the ball without being led. They juggle in groups, play 1v1, pass or dribble around backpacks and water bottles. They can all juggle 50 to 100.

Players from Team Two need need adult direction or they goof off. They think the academy players juggle to show off. “You don’t use it in a game,” they reason.

Team Two player have played organized “soccer for years.” They will tell you that, but they also exhibit no interest in discovering the sport on their own. They don’t see the need to touch the ball outside of practice and could barely name a single player on the local pro team. They are a step better than beginners, learning close to 100% of what they know about soccer through the team. They are often the first ones in their family to play soccer.

Team One also played organized soccer for years. But, its players are curious about learning to master the ball and game, learning about 90% of what they know outside of organized soccer through family and/or on their own. Many came from families whose parents played soccer, or have older siblings who play.

That’s what Tom Byer means by raising the bottom to lift the top. If Team Two had basic proficiency, they would push Team One harder to improve.

In non-soccer cultures the mindset is that kids learn soccer in organized settings with qualified professionals at the helm.

Byer’s suggests flipping that by expecting kids to learn the basics before they join a team.

That’s more like how we think of basketball and baseball. That’s part of the reason we start playing catch with kids when they’re toddlers and buy them Fisher-Price basketball hoops.

Parents expect more from soccer coaches than coaches of other sports. If their kid can’t make a basket, they encourage their kid to practice more.

That mindset is flipped in soccer. If their kid can’t score a goal, they ask why the coach hasn’t taught them how, yet, and start to doubt if the coach knows what they’re doing.

The U.S. lacks a soccer ball culture

Here’s a great tweet from Tom Byer:

Good timing. I’ve been working on a similar thought.

For me, it comes down to how much time kids spend discovering the ball, self-directed. The ball culture fosters this in soccer-playing cultures.

Not only does the US lack a culture that promotes discovering the ball in a self-directed fashion, many aspects of our culture actually works against developing ball mastery.

I know that sounds strange. It seems pretty simple to understand that it’s a fundamental.

But, here are just a few things that work against that…

Kick and run — While this attitude is slowly changing, many unfamiliar with the sport still see it as pretty simple, you just kick and run and there’s need for ‘fancy footwork’ (or, what I like to call “the basics”).

Sadly, it took me about 2 years to learn, as a coach, that I was wrong about this. It took my team playing against another team that did have some basics. I wish I would have played a team like that much sooner.

Misunderstanding of how touch develops — Lots of folks do appreciate touch, but just don’t understand how it develops. They think it just eventually comes with age and coordination. They don’t realize that it can start at an early age and takes a lot of practice.

I doubt that the folks in a ball culture explicitly realize this, either. It’s not like they are forcing their 2 year-old’s to dribble through cones with the express intent of developing ball mastery.

Rather, they teach and play with their kids in simple and fun games to play with the soccer ball, just like we teach our kids simple and fun games with baseballs (all variations of catch) and basketballs (all variations of 1-on-1, etc.) that build lots of repetition without realizing it, because it’s fun.

Aversion to playing with the soccer ball outside of organized soccer — I’ve scratched my head on this one for years. It amazes me, and lots of others, how few soccer players even look at the ball outside of organized events.

They treat it like a job that they don’t want to bring home. It doesn’t help that parents don’t want kids to have balls in the house, or a wall to kick the ball against. And, they seem to believe that practice should be enough to learn to ‘kick a ball.’

I think this goes back to the previous point — kids and parents simply don’t know simple and fun games.

Inside Soccer Playing Culture

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:

kids playing soccer

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.