So it’s been a long time since I’ve written.
It coincided with my foot in a cast, and I’m hoping this blog isn’t going to look like me trying to do my first workout after getting my leg back out of the cast (yes, I had to cut out after 4 air squats).
But just like I threw myself back into physical activity by just starting to move, here I am back on the blog scene just going to ramble some thoughts that have been kicking around tonight.
I just saw that the US tied Brazil in the lead up to the World Cup today. And with the result, my twitter feed blew up lamenting the direction of youth soccer and development in the US and how the immense numbers and resources that the US has in women’s soccer, as compared to the rest of the world, isn’t being utilized.
After traveling and playing in multiple countries and getting an idea of the youth soccer systems around the world, and coupling that into my foray into the business of youth soccer in Connecticut, the challenges that the US faces in youth soccer development and how that relates to recent challenges at the top level, to me is quite clear.
As my good friend Dr Phil likes to say (we became good friends when he was the only English on Danish TV in the 3 years that I lived there), “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior”.
Ok sorry, please continue to read, despite the Dr Phil reference, I couldn’t help it, and I promise I won’t do it again.
Here are my 4 reasons why the gap is narrowing between US/Canada and the rest of the world:
1. No Connection Between the Youth and Pro Level:
Around the world, in many of the top countries in the world, there is a clear structure in place, from the youth structure right up to the professional level.
It is an up and down pyramid, where the funds from the bottom flows up to the top and back down, and it results in the opportunity of player development that can last deep into a player’s twenties or even thirties.
I like to tell my favourite story in this regard of a former teammate of mine May Christensen at Fortuna Hjorring. My first year at Fortuna, she was a 26 year old player who had never played in the top league in Denmark. She was brought into our team because she was the leading scorer at the closest Division 1 club in Aalborg. And she promptly became the top scorer on our team, and was called into the Danish National team that year where she played for another 4 or 5 years.
Same thing with Maiken Pape, who took up soccer in her late teenage years after dominating at tennis. After starring for Brondby, one of the top clubs in Denmark, she scored some huge goals to lead Denmark to major championships including the Euros in 2009.
That kind of late bloomer opportunity, would never ever happen in our continent.
Add also the fact that talented teenage players play age group appropriate for the most part and don’t have the opportunity to experience and see what professional looks like from mature women, and North American players again become disadvantaged while teenagers in other countries are afforded that opportunity.
As an example, Ada Hegerberg, who is currently an impact player on Lyon, arguably the top women’s club on the planet, as a 19 year old, started training with my club in Norway, when she was only 14 years old and was playing matches in the Toppserien (the top league in Norway) against national team players regularly for other countries when she turned 15.
2. North American Women’s Soccer- Youth Soccer = Wealth, Pro Soccer = Charity
Being involved in the business of youth soccer has been an eye opening experience to say the least.
Let’s just say, the realization that there’s a lot of money at stake and people running clubs that are willing to do anything to get it, came when we had 2 10 year olds in our program this summer pull out in distress after paying deposits and committing to spots on our team when the local ECNL club told these players that their chance to play in college would be ruined and they wouldn’t ever be allowed into the club if they didn’t accept the U11 spot in their club.
I had to read the 5 paragraph email myself to another parent from said club who said he’d been dodging their calls, to believe it.
So now lies another challenge (and blog) where parents fear choosing putting their daughter’s where they feel they’d best develop because these leagues have done a brilliant job of marketing themselves as the sole pathway to whatever soccer heaven every female youth soccer player in America is supposed to be running towards. Fear has been instilled that if parents aren’t on their train at age 10 that the game will be over before it started.
The irony is while these club owners rake in, in some cases, millions of dollars, pro female players struggle to make ends meet on $6000 NWSL salaries and leagues only exist because of the benevolence of individual owners. This is a precarious place to lie when that funding can be pulled at any point.
While league after league fails in the country because of a lack of money, in reality there is so much money that is flowing, it is just lacking the funnel necessary to provide that up and down pyramid that exists in other countries.
You could only dream of the possibilities and opportunities to expand the player pool if even just a fraction of funds from youth soccer in all the states and provinces were put towards building structures for development that lasted far beyond youth and college soccer.
3. A Focus on Winning
Combine the business of youth soccer, with the misconception that success correlates directly with winning, (and this winning is rewarded with more business), and you have decisions made all the time that choose score over development.
Structurally until this changes, North American players will for the most part lack the flair and artistry that the Marta’s of the world (with the mistakes and scores sacrificed in order to learn) that make the game a joy to watch, big, fast players that can score will have the opportunities that will be a challenge for small, technical late bloomers to acquire, and technique will always be put behind scoring goals and winning games, no matter how ugly the play. You only need to see the amount of U12 championship trophies being polished in order to reinforce this unfortunate reality.
As a sidenote, in a country such as Iceland, 80% of the coaches at the youth level, (I’m talking U7 etc) have a UEFA A or UEFA B level license. We may have an abundance of numbers but the sheer scope and lack of organization, make quality coaching and maximizing the resource of players, a sheer impossibility.
Hence allowing the Iceland’s of the world (population 300,000…total…as in the whole country), to be able to compete and succeed. Because of this lack of disorganization and crapshoot to receive proper coaching for good development that will later benefit national teams, it becomes a case of luck of the draw that a player that has the mental willingness to learn and compete to be afforded the technical and tactical instruction to be able to do so.
4. Soccer is Not In Our Blood
Coaching in Europe and coaching in the US/Canada has been an eye opening experience. Quite simply female players in Europe tactically just knew the game. There were nuances that needed not to be explained, because the girls had spent the night before watching the Champions League games as fans, and could name many of the players and all of the teams in the pro leagues, both men and women.
A NCAA D1 Championship winning coach spoke at a symposium we held a few years ago, and he said how he would email his team to let them know of an afternoon Champions League game that he’d be playing in his office, and he’d get 3 players tops, be there to watch it.
Until that changes, tactically female North American players will be like kids who’ve spent 15 years sitting on a couch, eating junk food and watching TV, trying to run a marathon against those who’ve spent the same years eating right and training hard.
It’s a difficult game of catch up.
I have a feeling that what we may witness in the next few years in women’s soccer will be a metaphor for the 10 year old who’s dominated for years on sheer talent getting surpassed at 16 by the kid that’s been doing extra in her yard quietly through all the same years.
But when it happens, if the above issues aren’t rectified, if we haven’t done anything to change things, let’s not act surprised.