”You have the fact that it’s mostly organized soccer, when we know that the best players in the world come out of unorganized events.”
Jurgen Klinsmann, quoted from an interview with SI’s Grant Wahl.
During his introductory press conference Klinsmann alluded that soccer in America would benefit from a better street culture. The first challenge to this hope is the claim that the best athletes in America don’t play soccer, prefering instead to play football, basketball, and baseball. These three sports also happen to be more popular street sports and lend themselves to pick-up games in parks. But it’s also important to mention that the driven athletes referred to by Klinsmann during the 2010 World Cup coverage don’t have the best access to quality soccer programs.
This video further illuminates Klinsmann’s clamoring for “street soccer”.
Paradoxically, soccer, a sport which is shunned by the ambitious and hungry athletes, actually offers earlier potential pay off compared to other major sports. A player does not have to go to college in order to sign a professional contract with a soccer club. The trend recently in American sports is to delay that contract; such as enforcing the NBA’s one and done rule which requires athletes to attend college before turning pro. However, soccer is working in the opposite direction with MLS clubs housing Development Academy teams and the Homegrown players rule allowing clubs to by-pass roster restrictions and salary cap limitations.
Actual “street soccer” doesn’t need to be the reality on the ground, but the mentality behind it needs to be applied to youth programs. We certainly don’t need to recreate the poverty and misery of Brazilian favelas in America to groom quality soccer talent. In order to produce creative players, we have to reduce the rigidity of soccer organization in this country. Lightsided pick-up games with friends (whether in the street or a park) is the medium in which players try out new moves and the techniques they see on televised matches.
In a high pressure club situation, a player is going to be lambasted for trying something if it doesn’t work instead of taking the safer option. Just look at the American media response to the Mario Balotelli incident against L.A. Galaxy. If you listen to the two American commentators without the video, you’d think Balotelli mooned the crowd or bit the head off a bat. Afterwards, American writers attacked the Italian for his arrogance and saw the back heel flick as a massive insult. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed in the European media, who described the failed trick move as audacious but understandable. The easier option would have been to pass the ball off to Dzeko, but the more creative route would have been a fantastically creative shot beating the keeper near post. Either way, the play was called offside.
In America we’ve seen a sick bastardization of “professionalism” in youth soccer. Similar to Will Ferrell’s character in the film Kicking & Screaming, youth coaches wear the track suits and take themselves way too seriously, making the games about themselves and their own personal politics. The focus is solely on winning; dictating harder & faster & stronger, with little emphasis on teaching soccer intelligence. Overbearing coaches want players to robotically and physically defeat an opponent by the book, with no improvisation. Having kids play in the back yard or in pick-up games at the park isn’t going to change the mentality of youth coaches.
The sad truth is that kids can get a better soccer education from playing FIFA on the ps3 or xbox and without ever realizing it. They learn the runs that offensive players have to make to open space for the overlap. Or how to draw defenders to the near post to distract from the late-arriving far post crash. Because kids don’t hear the same things on the field, they don’t know how to apply those lessons to their own game.
Street soccer is the buzzword, but that’s all it is; a hollow simplified phrase to stand behind. The true answer to “fix” American soccer is very much a multi-layered process. The academy at Bradenton Florida still has a role, as Tab Ramos pointed at in recent Soccer America interview. The Development Academy isn’t simply the Holy Grail of American soccer because kids who don’t live in close proximity to a club are out of luck. US Soccer Scholarships also don’t do enough to change the pay-to-play culture surrounding the D.A. league. A large part of a team’s success comes down to the relationships of the players and their ability to work together. If ten starters on a team live in the same suburban gated community, the one kid from a lower socio-economic background is going to face problems fitting into the team and may drop out all together.
Sociologists describe the average American middle class parenting technique as a “concerted cultivation,” in which parents try to mold the perfect child. Parents cram as many activities into a weekly schedule as they physically can to make the most well-rounded son or daughter. This leaves children of middle class America, living in suburban wonderland, little to no downtime to make their own games or create their own rules. Being bored and having that downtime is what spurs creativity. Kids like this just play soccer as a resume builder, instead of seeing it as a part of their life.
The collegiate system gets berated too heavily most of the time, as an easy answer. Universities are a popular scapegoat because they’re seen as a barrier in reducing the differences between the United States and Europe. While it may stifle the development of some players, the system still has a very important role of tapping into undiscovered talent. Professional clubs are still losing money and with the clunky draft process, no one has the time and energy to scout youth players. Collegiate programs however, already have the contacts and connections with high schools coaches necessary to perform thorough scouring. Collegiate programs already send scouts to regional high school matches to keep an eye on earmarked talent and discover new players. Collegiate programs in multiple sports have already laid the groundwork that can help a forgotten demographic, the rural student-athlete who cannot afford or make the time commitment to drive 2 hours into the city for club practices and games. Because colleges figure hugely in the MLS draft, for players without access to academy clubs the collegiate system still presents a viable route to professional soccer.