July 10, 2010

It’s No Secret: Why the Spanish and Dutch Are In the World Cup Finals . . . and the Americans Aren�t

In Sunday’s World Cup finals billions of people will be watching Spain’s David Villa and the Netherlands’ Wesley Sneijder to see who will notch the winning goal. In spite of their brilliance, Villa and Sneijder aren’t the reason why these two European sides are in the final.

The real reason lies in the youth camps of Barcelona and Amsterdam’s Ajax, where young players learn the Spanish and Dutch way of playing soccer. Day after day they are taught the rigor of ball skills, passing, and shooting from the age of five until the select few that emerge are launched into the national team fifteen years later. These young players get the same level of top quality, consistent coaching day-after-day, supported by their country’s national coaches. In their spare time, you can see them on the local soccer fields practicing clever shots with swerving balls from every conceivable angle and challenging each other in two-vs.-two games.

The Spanish advantage is that the best of their players stay at home and play for Barcelona (7 starters) or Real Madrid (3 starters). They continue to develop what they learn in the youth camps with the same teammates and same style. The Germans also have a fabulous youth development program that is producing young players like Thomas Mueller, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Mesut Ozil who play for Bayern Munich.

In contrast, American players go from parent coaches to club coaches to select team coaches to high school coaches to college coaches, all of whom have different styles and different views about how soccer should be played. No wonder young players are confused! They focus so much on winning youth games from the age of five that they never learn the basics of ball skills, clever passing, and creative shooting.

They get in lots of practices, but much of their time is spent standing in line doing drills their coach made up or in conditioning exercises. It is rare for them to just go out and play the game so they can learn to be creative. In contrast to the Europeans, American soccer fields are empty when there aren’t games or practices as American youth are overbooked with other activities.

Whereas the Spanish and the Dutch focus on player development, the Americans focus on player selection. But if you don’t develop your players, when it comes to selection, your choices are limited. That’s why American men’s coach Bob Bradley wound up selecting three of four strikers for the World Cup who hadn’t been part of the two-year U.S. ordeal of qualifying matches and friendly tournaments: he had very little to choose from. No wonder U.S. strikers failed to score a single goal in the four World Cup games. Wouldn’t Bradley love to have two strikers who sat on the bench for Spain against Germany: Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas.

It is fair game to criticize Bradley for his inability to adapt his tactics at the start of each game from the 1980s style of sitting back and watching how the game develops to the 2010 style of the great teams of going to goal from the opening whistle. That cost the U.S. early goals in every game except Algeria where we were saved by the crossbar. In retrospect, U.S. players did remarkably well to battle back in every game. With a little bit of luck, they could have wound up in the semi-finals.

But the real reason we didn’t advance further is that Bradley simply lacked the talent to choose from. So don’t blame him. Instead, look to the boss of U.S. Soccer, Sunil Gulati, who focuses more on choosing and critiquing coaches that he does in creating a youth development system.

American soccer today has fifty percent more youth players than any other sport. In a nation of 300 million people (versus five million in the Netherlands), you would think that America could produce top-level players like it does in every other sport. Obviously, we have the athletes with the speed, size, agility and strength to be world-class players. But we’ll never produce championship teams until we create a youth development system with consistent coaching.