Tuesday, April 16, 2013

An unlikely lesson on youth soccer in the U.S.

Sometimes the most profound lessons are the simplest. I got a dose of that today.

I'm doing a story about a local high school here going to the Texas state tournament later this week (naturally a hot-spot for some of the best youth soccer concentrated anywhere in the country). This school, University High in Waco, is 31-0-0, already the best record in the state in any classification in the last decade.

They are, without question, the best high school team I've ever watched. They are fluid and play a lot like the Barcelona team they all stop time to watch when they can. They draw a high line, pushing north to squeeze every ounce of possession out of the ball. High school statisticians don't keep possession metrics, but if they did, the level of sophistication at play here would awe most college coaches. They epitomize pass-and-move in a sea of boot-and-chase.

While conducting an interview with Jon Lozano, a senior striker who plays a lot like his favorite player, Cristiano Ronaldo, I tripped over an interesting thread I hadn't anticipated. University High is predominantly Hispanic – at last count, nearly 70 percent of the school. That includes every player on varsity.

Intentionally, he was answering a question on why University has been able to pass its way past dozens of teams in Texas this year, which includes some of the best from the Metroplex and Houston areas (nearly all of which play a very direct, obtuse style). Unintentionally, through his experience in our youth soccer ranks (all of these guys play select travel ball, three in the same system Clint Dempsey did), he pulled on something deeper.

Lozano was adamant that this possession style (or “touching” as he called it) wasn't something that was taught as holistically and with the same verve as it was at home, with dads, uncles, cousins and friends versed in a different style. It didn't come from the system. It came from the passion.

So like I said, the sophistication/simplicity in his response brought some clarity to an issue we've muddled beyond recognition in the wake of the soul searching the U17 team's recent failure has prompted. I think maybe we're looking in some of the wrong places for answers.

I guess my purpose here isn't to propose that this was the salve for the issue. But it was an interesting yarn on which to tug on a root, root level.

“I guess it was one of the things that started evolving when we were young, but soccer started evolving in the U.S. very late,” Lozano said. “So I guess us as Mexicans or whatever, we started since we were little. Our dads taught us to touch the ball. If you know how to touch and pass the ball, you can play soccer. So since then I guess our dads brought us up to touch it, where all you have to do is touch, touch, touch, and you can out-play another team. So since we were little all the way up until now, we've been touching the ball, and we brought it to high school soccer. Most schools don't touch it much. But I guess since we started with that style of play, we've been getting better at it since we were young.”

I then asked him if he felt like that style put him and his teammates at odds with how they were being taught in the youth ranks.

“I think it comes from maybe the Spanish, not here, because over there Barcelona, over there their touch is amazing," Lozano said. "I guess we try to represent, not Barcelona, but we try to play like the best teams with their touch. I guess that motivates us to want to play better. Seeing another team do something, we have to learn how to do it too.”

When I asked his teammate Mike Solis a similar question, I got a similar answer. I thought it was instructive that of all the examples Solis could've pulled out, it had nothing to do with playing in an organized game. There are obvious parallels here that mimic some of the best footballing countries on the planet.

“We really hate long balls, even though that's not what some of our youth teams taught us,” Solis said. “I grew up right in front of Bell's Hill (Elementary School), and there's a stop sign. My goal was, from afar, to try and hit the stop sign 10 out of 10 times. And ever since I'd started, it got to the point where, out of 10 times I'd hit it at least eight times. Just getting better and getting better.”

- Will Parchman


Phil McCracken said...

Interesting post, Will.

I remember reading a quote from one of the Barca youth coaches who said that kids really shouldn't be playing organized soccer until their nine years old. His main reasoning was that kids' brains aren't developed enough yet to understand positions and spatial awareness. Also, they are very focused on themselves at that age and his best advice was to just give them a ball and let them explore with it by themselves. That way, they are comfortable with the ball and what they can do with it.

Unfortunately, much of youth soccer is not taught this way. Even though they have the best intentions, many of the coaches teach the kids just to pass the ball because that's how they see the game played at the professional level. Because of this, I think that kids are somewhat afraid of having the ball at their feet.

Another factor in this is that all sports activities are organized now. Instead of kids playing on their own, every athletic event is organized in a league with coaches/referees involved. And this stifles creativity & trying new things which changes the focus to only winning the game.

Unknown said...

From the mouth of babes....

dikranovich said...

these kids spelled it out loud and clear for me. it takes more than two hours of practice a week to become a great soccer player. no matter who you are.

Anonymous said...

I think a quote from Dempsey about how he learned to play in Texas applies here too.

“Keep the ball on the ground, move players out of position so you can create chances for yourself,” Dempsey said. “You can’t run and gun growing up in the Texas heat. It’s more about keeping possession and making the other team tired.”

from this article http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/20/sports/soccer/20soccer.html?_r=0