To say I was running on fumes during the last few days of terms may have been an understatement this year. I was looking forward to the warm soft embrace of the summer holidays. Starting it by spending two weeks on a football tour in the US with 44 young men and 5 colleagues might not be everyones cup of tea, but as Seneca said ‘travel and change of place bring vigour to the mind’. Flying to San Francisco we would travel down to L.A. via Santa Barbara, playing six youth soccer clubs along the way. A total of fifteen fixtures.
My role on on the tour was that of Tour Manager, an unassuming but vital role. They spend their time dealing with administration; paperwork, finances, kit, risk assessments and transport. Booking into and checking out of hotels and university campuses. Scouting out potential areas to eat, visit, shop, sightsee whilst the rest of the tour party are busy with their current task (there doesn’t seem to be any opportunity to take a breath and stop). A trouble shooter of some kind.
The up side of being Tour Manager meant that I was free of any coaching duties, allowing me the opportunity to watch our fixtures in comfort. This is not a pleasure I often get during term time. Further it gave my natural curiosity a chance to observe our American cousins preparing for and playing soccer in their natural habitat. I need to mention assumptions before I start, as I was picked up on this via Twitter. My thoughts from my observations are only from experiences of a small representation of youth soccer in the state of California. Not of youth soccer in the U.S. and of course not of youth sport in the U.S. Please bear this in mind when you read and feel free to question my views or analysis.
California Youth Soccer is principled. The clubs, the coaches and the players all want to play possession football. They play out from and back to the goalkeeper at all times. The ball is kept on the ground. Played to feet or into space, along the ground, behind the opposition. Everyone in the team clearly understands this philosophy and tries to uphold it. At the beginning of the tour I greatly admired it. By the end I began to question it. In all fifteen fixtures every team played the same way. It was like someone had decided that the way the Barcelona team from the noughties was the perfect model for a football team and all have aspired to be a carbon copy of it. Not one team deviated from this style, even when we successfully countered it by being ‘negative’ in our set-up. Neither coaches or the players took it on themselves to say ‘this isn’t working, what can we change’? There was no plan B, there was no adaptability. Perhaps it is because they want to stay true to their principles? I can respect that. Perhaps it is because they don’t know any different? Why should they if every opponent plays the same way. Perhaps it is because they value development over winning? If every youth team plays the same way, then they are always presented with the same challenge. The same riddle to solve. Aren’t players being adaptable, realising things aren’t working and making changes is as much part of their footballing education as anything else? Tactical understanding is an important part of player development, just as much as the technical, physical and psychological.
California Youth Soccer is impressive. Better in many ways than school football in my area. 10 of our squad of 44 are what I would consider ‘proper footballers’. Those that have played club and school football consistently from a young age. They formed the backbone of a County Cup winning team and have done well in the National Schools Cup. The rest only play football for the school and this tour was really for their development. Individually though every player we encountered was technically more proficient than ours, including the defenders and the goalkeepers who were very comfortable on the ball under pressure. Individually every player was physically more developed than ours, especially their aerobic capacity. Every opponent seem to cover way more ground, they also had the attitude of wanting to cover more ground. This attitude was one that all of the teaching staff loved. The attitude that all 11 on the pitch wanted the ball at all times. Everyone tried to make themselves available to receive the ball. They didn’t see breaks in play as a rest, they saw them as opportunities to get into a better place to be available to their team mates. This attitude out of everything was the most impressive. It was apparent in every team we played.
I got to watch around 7 training sessions, both boys and girls, from U14 to U18. All sessions were very similar in their approach accept one (which was led by an Irish coach and was mainly a PBL approach via SSG). Generally they would last around 2 to 2.5 hours. After a dynamic warm-up players always went into 30 minutes of individual or pair work with the ball that focused around control of the ball with all parts of their bodies. They were intently focussed and they worked hard. They listened to the coach and didn’t deviate once from their coaches instructions. (When L.A. Galaxy coaches tried something similar with our pupils they lost interest after about 2 minutes). Next they would move into line drills. For me this looked very much like my experience with coaching youth basketball in Italy. Groups would set up how they would on the pitch and then practice, unopposed, what seemed like set moves. The coaches would stop and admonish players if they got the run or the pass wrong. The learning of these patterns of play seemed to be the most important thing in a training session. For the last 30 minutes to an hour of a session they worked hard on their running. Fartlek training and intervals or what the Americans called suicides. The whole squad was expected to do this. No one dropped out. No one complained. Everyone pushed and pushed hard. Frightening as it was impressive.