Raising Players: Soccer and the American Development System

Q: Are soccer players better at their game than football players are at theirs?

This is a question about development, and how we turn prospects into players. The agreed upon model, in our corner of the sporting universe, is getting players more playing time, more games, more touches. This is true for kids and adults: We see it with the Development Academy’s decision to go a ten-month season, restricting participants’ abilities to play high school soccer in favor of getting more games against higher quality opposition and with the college kids who play on PDL sides and wherever they can to get more games and with Jurgen Klinsmann’s newfound penchant for pool players extending their seasons with loans to foreign clubs.

The first change particularly interests me, because it’s basically the final, sudden snap of soccer’s long break from the old way of doing things, from the methods we once used to raise our best athletes, the way basketball too is moving away from and the way football, by and large, is still doing it: the high school to college to professional model, where educational entities shoulder the burden of training the young minds and young bodies of the future.

The various development systems for different sports have long sought ways to extend the season for their best players: from all-star games to showcase tournaments to elite summer camps. The development academy model, and its basketball counterpart, the elite AAU structure, is the next logical step of this, allowing players to experience that level of play throughout the year or summer or whatever the case may be. More time, more games, more touches equal better players.

But football is different. There are plenty of (obvious) reasons why football can’t be a year-round sport. The toll the game takes on its players’ bodies, not just in terms of the hundreds of slightly concussive heads players’ heads experience but the potential for serious injury and the sum of all the aches of the hands, knees and everywhere mean there’s a limit to how much football a body can take, usually somewhere between ten and twenty games total depending on the level of play and the amount of postseason success.

There are ways of extending this, particularly at the high school level, with the aforementioned all-star games and camps being the most common. In Texas, they have 7-on-7 football that runs during the summer, a stripped-down flag football variant for centers, quarterbacks and receivers from a particular school to get in a rhythm with one another. But generally the opportunities are more limited (though not non-existent). Does that inhibit their growth as players? Does the more time, more games, more touches formula apply to football as it does to other sports?

Just because a player isn’t playing football doesn’t mean he’s not getting better at it, and that reveals something about the difference between our games. DeMarcus Ware doesn’t need to be organizing scrimmages twice a week throughout the offseason to make sure he doesn’t lose his match sharpness. For what DeMarcus Ware does, and indeed for what most football players do, his primary advantage is derived from strength and speed; he can improve his playing ability not just by playing, but by lifting and running and honing his body. You could have the best technique in the world, but if you’re not strong enough or fast enough to overcome your opponent it won’t matter. The technique, for most football positions, is the little edge you get over the other guy (assuming he has his own moderate level of technique.). It’s the opposite in soccer. Technique is the dominant concern, and strength and speed the little edges wielded against your opponent, something we often have to remind youth coaches.

This is the case because of the high degree of specialization in football compared to soccer. The game activities of a central defender and a center forward are not all that different really: the same trapping, passing, heading and movement abilities are required, with a narrow range of more position-specific activities. The differences, however, between a left tackle and a safety, or a quarterback and a punt returner, are vast. The techniques are completely different, but because of the narrower range of skills to practice, it’s easier to improve those particular characteristics. More time, more games, more touches helps, but the scenarios in which they’re used are so limited it’s easier to practice them. Look at what USC lineman and likely first-round draft pick Matt Kalil told SI’s Don Banks at the NFL Combine this weekend:

When Kalil, his brother and their dad went to the park to play some ball, it wasn’t for a game of catch. “My brother was coming out of high school and about to go to the USC camp, and me and Chris Galippo were one-on-one dummies and getting tossed around. Bloody knees and all that. Basically getting beaten up on every drill.”

Did they even bring a football along for those sessions? “Yeah, for my brother to snap and then beat me up playing D-line,” Kalil said. “That’s about it.’

But more crucially, that narrow range of activities also predicates a narrower understanding of the game. As we’ve said before on the site, football plays move so fast and are over so quickly that there’s not time for a player like Kalil to observe and figure out what all the players around him are doing and how best he can contribute. Instead he has to rely on the instructions given to him by his coaches, and trust that everyone else is doing the same, in order for the play to go properly. Thus the emphasis on execution in football, on drilling a particular set of actions into a player until they can be performed perfectly. That kind of improvement can only be done in practice.

Soccer brains don’t work the same way. The fluid nature of the game brings with it a limitless set of potential problems to work through. Drills can attempt to simulate some of those situations, but the types of creativity and problem solving we ideally like to see in soccer players are best arrived at organically, where the solution is not just whether to attempt a throughball or a pass to the wings or to carry it forward or check it back but when to do those things, and how. More time, more games, more touches isn’t about developing soccer bodies; it’s developing soccer minds.

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