How to improve U.S. soccer
Top coaches discuss where domestic soccer talent is faltering and how it can get better
Making predictions for the upcoming soccer year is hard. The future is unknowable, the ball is round, so much can change, and all that.
One thing we can already establish with some confidence, however, is that the U.S. will not have the world's best soccer talent at its disposal in 2012. Like every year before it, other countries will produce more good prospects with better skills and a higher likelihood of stardom. Although player development in this vast country has made strides, there is much ground to cover.
Future of U.S. soccer
Check out our coverage on the future of the U.S. men's national team:
• Top 10 under 21
• Coaches' roundtable
• Brazil Board 2014
• Sports Nation: Have your say
• 2012 U.S. resolutions
• Chat, 3 ET: Jeff Carlisle on U.S. soccer
• Report from U.S. camp
In an attempt to map out the road to competing seriously for future World Cups, ESPN.com asked seven of the brightest American soccer minds where the assembly line for domestic soccer talent is faltering, where it needs tinkering, and where wholesale changes are necessary. Here's what they had to say, with responses listed alphabetically:
Bob Bradley, head coach, Egypt national soccer team
Résumé highlights: U.S. national team coach, 2006-11; 1998 MLS Cup winner
"It still comes down to how many good people get with clubs and are working with young kids to make sure things are done right. Over time, you need people with experience who understand youth development. Bob Jenkins compiled a best-practices document, which was good. [U.S. Youth Soccer technical director] Claudio Reyna's [coaching blueprint] is a good starting point, in that it adds consistency. But giving someone a stack of papers doesn't ensure that the quality of work is what it needs to be. That's where we are right now.
"You can look at different places around the country where things are going in the right direction, money is being spent, and people have a good feel for identifying talent. Other places are behind. There is no getting around the fact that a big money commitment is still key. Germany put a lot of money into their program when they were at a low point. We've made progress, but not enough. Then it's down to identifying the right people with a feel for it, different coaches that are out there, even others who can contribute in other ways. There are examples of good and bad."
John Hackworth, youth development coordinator, Philadelphia Union
Résumé highlights: U-17 U.S. national team head coach, 2004-2007; U.S. national team assistant coach, 2007-09
"It starts with being a cultural issue with our sport. The key period of development for a young player is at an early age, when their acquisition of technical skills is so important. But in this country that is not emphasized at the appropriate age or time in development. There are so many good people out there right now, a lot of very experienced coaches, but what happens in youth soccer is that the better coaches coach the best teams. When you go down to the lowest age levels, where the coaching is really important, you have fathers and mothers who don't know the game and who know more about basketball or [American] football.
"Ours is a very result-oriented culture -- specifically parents of young children -- and the only way they can measure whether their child is doing something good is whether they won on a Saturday. And that's the wrong way to look at how to become a really good soccer player. We need to think of it more as a musician. If you're a parent and your child is trying to play a piano recital in Carnegie Hall, they practice hours and hours and hours and play just once when they've perfected it. It's the opposite for kids in soccer; they play games and play games and play games and only practice every once in a while. We have it backwards. There is too much structure. What's appropriate for kids is not winning games and tournaments. Soccer is a skill game and you need to practice and practice. Most of that for a young kid is a lot of time on the ball in an environment where an adult really shouldn't be doing much more than cultivating creativity. The ball itself is the best coach there could be."
Caleb Porter, head coach, U.S. U-23 national team and University of Akron
Résumé highlights: 2010 College Cup winner
"The priority has to be development over winning. I think you can win and develop players, but in order to do that you have to have a philosophy. A process, an approach, or some kind of a method is the most important thing at younger ages. In a country like Mexico, you watch their U-17s, you watch the U-20s, you watch the full senior team: They all play the same way. You see that even rub off on the clubs. Overall, you can tell there was at least an idea within the country of the way they want to go about things. It's difficult because there are all these different ways to play, but if it starts with U.S. Soccer and we say, 'Hey, this is how we're going to play as a country,' that will help youth academies follow that lead.
"We're starting to see that take shape in this country. At the end of the day, it's going to take a long-term vision and some sort of philosophy. Vertical integration in the national team is a good start. We're on our way, we're not there yet; it takes time, it takes patience. The top countries have a way of doing things from a country standpoint and a way of doing things system-wise. When you grow up in that country, you learn that's how you do things: That's the system, that's how every position is played. Over time, that gets passed on and leads to uniformity, helping you to identify and isolate players that could be effective in a certain role. There are so many ways to do things that otherwise kids get lost in the shuffle. If what one coach is looking for is different from what another coach is looking for, it creates confusion."
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Tab Ramos, U-20 head coach and assistant coach, U.S. national team
Résumé highlights: 81 caps for the U.S. between 1988 and 2000
"At this point, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy has a network of scouts throughout the country watching games week after week, but in a few years, as the network gets bigger, we'll be able to watch more players in stronger competitions. I think at times there's no question that we're going to miss players. It's a big country and there are a lot of kids playing soccer, so it's difficult to say we're getting them all. In recent years it's become easier to identify players with the Development Academy. But obviously we need to improve and hope that down the road we're not missing any.
"And we need to identify the players that are more skilled and have more technique rather than always spotting the biggest players. I think Barcelona has made people think a little bit more about the importance of a technical player and not seeing only the importance of a great athlete. The perception of the player is slowly evolving, but it hasn't completely changed."
Thomas Rongen, academy director, Toronto FC
Résumé highlights: U.S. U-20 national team coach, 2001-2005 and 2006-2010; 1999 MLS Cup winner
"I think there are two components that, to me, are very important that right now we're not addressing and if we don't, we'll continue to produce pretty good but not great players. First, we need full-time skills teachers at the youngest levels who can teach in a game context, through repetition, proper technique for both feet that's required at the highest level. In the successful countries, you see the best coaches at the youngest ages. We still fall short there, because coaches are paid much more to oversee the older players. I got a lot of players on the U-20 national team that were technically very deficient, and they were some of the best players in the country. That's one of the ways we need to go. Question is, how you do that? Would a YMCA in central Florida hire a skills coach? Eventually, we need to go to regional centers throughout the United States and have technical directors, coaches and specific coaches in areas of strength who would have players training a few times a week from ages 6 to 19.
"The next component, which is very important, that we're also not doing enough -- you look at the rest of the world, most teams train four or five times as a team, as a group, but also then have two individual trainings, which are really geared towards positions. We still get players that don't know how to play a position within a certain system well. We have too many players without a position."
Sigi Schmid, head coach, Seattle Sounders
Résumé highlights: three-time College Cup winner; two-time MLS Cup winner
"Ultimately, development of the player is contingent on being able to be put him/her into a competitive game situation at as high a level as you're able to play. That means players have to play outside their age groups at the youth level or leave college early. A lot of times at the youth level it's more important for coaches to win an under-13 tournament rather than put him on the under-15. At the youth level, players get retained at a certain age group because it's going to help win a championship, because a coach might say they might make more money if they win a championship.
"The other thing is we need to use the resources we already have. Club soccer and MLS discount college soccer because it's different than the way it's done in Europe and South America. But colleges have a budget of a million dollars for their soccer team when you add it all up, and sometimes people try to discount that. We need to make the money that's already available for soccer work better for us. We need to take stock of resources that are there and use them in a more efficient manner; rather than throwing away the facilities and the abilities that those organizations have, we need to use them better."
Earnie Stewart, technical director, AZ Alkmaar
Résumé highlights: 101 caps and three World Cups for the U.S., 1990-04
"It starts with coaching. A lot of players in the United States from this generation or the generation before that didn't get to meet up with good coaches until they were 18 or 19, at which time they went to the MLS and then all of a sudden their education and development started at a later age. You can say what you want about developing players, but if they don't have good coaches, they're in trouble. A player has to be able to realize what he's done wrong, and when you don't have someone on the sideline able to tell you what you're doing wrong, how to develop and how to change that, you're in bad shape.
"I see logistical problems in the United States and [NCAA limitations on practice time in college soccer] make it difficult. It all goes back to repetitions, hours and hours and hours. Kids from 18 to 22 are only practicing a few hours a week -- and these are some of the top players in the United States? That's ridiculous. If you see what we in Holland put in for hours and what the United States puts in, it's not even close."