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  • One doesn’t need to look far to find an article talking about how bad the U.S. National Team is or how we need a new manager or how half the team needs to be replaced.  Such articles raise the obvious questions:  Who is responsible for the current state of affairs of the U.S. National Team?  What do we do about it?  While there are many opinions out there, this article does not try to answer those questions.  Instead, this article explores the lessons that youth soccer in the United States can learn from the National Team and U-23 Team losses, and how youth soccer can put U.S. soccer back on the right track.

    I have a couple of observations about the recent losses.  Jurgen Klinsmann has always said that he wants a possession-oriented team that dominates the midfield and is able to control the tempo of the game.  However, in the game against Mexico, and even the game against Costa Rica, our midfield was slow to push forward, slow to “combine” in the middle, defended for long periods of time, and could not produce any reasonable combination play while holding the ball.  If you are reading this article, you likely already know this.

    So, what did we see?

    - We had no “team speed” when we tried to possess and attack.

    - When we had the ball, we had no energy or “team skill” to move the ball around and attack at speed (meaning team speed, not individual speed).  Instead, we relied on sending the ball forward to strikers to hold the ball.

    - In order to promote this strategy, Klinsmann put Yedlin on the field and relied on his individual speed to get the ball in the open space and just run to cross the ball.

    Some will undoubtedly blame Klinsmann for selecting the wrong players in the midfield, where we relied on the strength of Jones, the resilience of Bradley and the defensive presence of Beckerman, then on the individual speed of Yedlin.  But give Klinsmann credit; he experimented with a lot of players prior to the Mexico match, but could not find a midfield that would reliably provide creativity and the ability to control the middle.  So, in the end Klinsman relied on the “old,” “proven” guys who are unfortunately not getting younger and can no longer compete playing the “attractive attacking soccer” that all of us in the U.S. are talking about.

    So, the first question to ask is “why didn’t the U.S. play the way Klinsmann has always advertised that it would?”

    A couple of thoughts.  The U.S. team does not have the “team skill” that is required to compete against Mexico in a possession-oriented game.  This is a result of 1) not having the right players, 2) not having the proper systems in place to teach this at all levels of play, or 3) a combination of the first two.

    This past weekend, I had the chance to attend the U13 and U15 Pre-Academy NPL Showcase in Lancaster, PA.  Some of the most promising young soccer players on the East Coast played in multiple games over the course of three days.  I observed that, even at the U13 & U15 levels, teams rely a lot on individual player speed and strength, and long ball play.  What I have seen is that teams under heavy pressure try to find an “easy” solution by playing a long ball and relying on individual skill, rather than overcoming the challenges of the pressure and playing a possession game.  It is shocking to me that I have seen only a small number of teams that could connect more than three passes in a row at high speed.  If you disagree, I’d ask you to take a look at the plethora of YouTube videos of Academy and Pre Academy games . . . see what you think.

    The second, and more important, question is “what can we do at the youth level to ensure our players have the capability to move the ball around quickly, at team speed and under heavy pressure?”  I have talked to several youth academy coaches from Europe, and they all say the same thing:  American players can be strong individually, but they lack a sense of the game – knowing where to move, anticipating plays, thinking ahead – and that clearly shows.

    I would suggest that the answer is simple.  We must create a demanding training regimen wherein our players practice under heavy pressure, making them solve problems on the field.  With respect to each exercise, we must, as coaches, ask ourselves, “What is the objective?” and “Does this make our players better as a team?”  So long as the answer to the first question focuses on possession and creative problem solving, and the answer to the second question is yes, we will help protect our players from repeating the mistakes of the current National Team.

    Finally, I’d like to give a shameless plug for ClubSportal, a software platform I designed to make all of our jobs as coaches easier, by providing the tools necessary to implement and monitor a demanding training program for our future National Team members.  I initially created the backbone of this software for myself.  I have been overseeing dozens of teams in different Clubs, and I frequently see how inefficient training is.  There is no pyramid of development in the majority of clubs; there is only a collection of individual teams.  Technical Directors, take a look at what ClubSportal provides and give me a call to discuss your thoughts.

    In the second part of this exploration of what U.S. youth soccer can learn from National Team losses, I will look at our inability to create an attack from the midfield while relying on game IQ rather than individual speed.