In the U.S., there’s more focus on numbers that don’t matter and not enough on numbers that do.
Many people are dumbfounded that a country of over 300 million people with millions of registered soccer players can’t turn out world beating soccer talent, while much smaller nations do better.
To be recognized by U.S. Soccer as a professional soccer league you must adhere to its numbers. Owners must have a minimum net worth, leagues must maintain a minimum number of teams and stadiums must have a minimum number of seats.
The MLS puts a good deal of attention on numbers like team salaries, the number of foreign and US National Team players on each team, to try to keep things fair.
At college and pro combines, there is a lot of attention given to measures of general athleticism like 40 yard dash and shuttle run times.
All these are examples of numbers that don’t matter much in contributing to the level of the top talent.
Here are some numbers that matter more.
One important number is how many kids play soccer and soccer-related games, on their own, with their friends, family and neighbors.
Another is how much they are playing and how many touches are they getting.
Multiply that difference out by how many weeks they play over how many years and that number will tell you why the U.S. doesn’t produce top-level talent.
You will discover that our top players have a fraction of the touches accumulated over their lives as top players from top producing soccer nations.
Doing some rough math, I estimate that the typical American soccer player has accumulated 200,000 – 500,000 touches by the time they turn 18.
That sounds like quite a bit.
But, I estimate that a typical player of the same age from a soccer culture has accumulated between 4 and 6 million touches.
How? They start at younger age, they play more each week, more consistently throughout the year and when they do play, they play in ways that give them more touches on the ball and touches that translate to better game play — most of this through unorganized play.
In soccer cultures, organized play is like the icing on the cake, the cake being the unorganized play the builds the baseline skill and knowledge.
This is the same with basketball in our country. Most of the sport is learned through unorganized play, and organized play is the icing on the cake.
In the U.S., for soccer we mostly just have the icing and no cake. (I heard this recently and thought it was a good description, but I can’t remember where I heard it).
Another theory I hear about the level of U.S. talent is that our top athletes choose other sports. The problem with that is not understanding that by the time a top athlete “chooses” a sport (say between age 10 and 14), it’s too late.
They will not be able to make up for all the missed touches.
The beauty of unorganized play is that we don’t have to wait for top athletes to “choose” a sport. It develops important skills of soccer for them without them knowing it, so that by the time they choose a sport, they have a good foundation to build from.