Challenging Players to Take Individual Responsibility for the Ball
Scott Daiutolo is a coach with West-Mont United Soccer Association in southeastern Pennsylvania, a four-time National Champion with Radnor United’s men’s adult soccer team, played Division I college soccer at perennial Top 10 Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science (now Philadelphia University) and is an avid student and consumer of O Jogo Bonito.
The late, GREAT Johan Cruyff left us with many brilliant observations about soccer, one of which was, “Quality without results is pointless; results without quality is boring”.
To be clear, neither part of this statement is intended to be flattering, and while it perfectly summed up the recent Pennsylvania 4A District 1 high school matchup between Conestoga (ranked #3 in the entire nation by TopDrawerSoccer.com) and Kennett Square, I would gladly pay my $5 general admission to see Kennett Square’s play as described in the first part of that statement than to endure Conestoga’s fast-break, kick-and-run brand of soccer on its way to a 3 to nil win as described by the latter.
A quick synopsis of how this game was played underscores the many problems with youth soccer in America, but also provides soccer purists, like me, with many kernels of hope for the future of our game. As I sat with a bunch of 50-somethings, many of whom played division I college soccer and who now coach and some of whom are retired professionals, I was told that my assessment of the high school match seemed a bit harsh. Maybe so, but if American soccer is ever going to reach the elite, international realm that’s been promised for decades, never mind the billions of dollars spent in the youth soccer ranks to get it there, then we’ve got to be much more honest about where we are at present, including using “just a high school match”, albeit, a much anticipated one, as a perfect microcosm.
First Half: Conestoga put Kennett Square on their heels from the opening kick, with a game plan ostensibly designed to leverage its size, speed and strength to overwhelm its more diminutive opponent. Therefore, the first 20 minutes of the 1st half were punctuated by a mostly aerial attack by Conestoga, as the back line predictably blasted the ball from inside their own half of the field directly into the 18-yard box, where attackers competed for head balls for a number of shots on goal, one of which went in at around the 10’ mark. It took a while for Kennett Square’s defenders to make the necessary adjustments, but towards the end of the half, they were much better at anticipating these long balls and cut many of them out. In addition, despite Conestoga repeatedly bashing the ball wide into the flanks for attackers to run onto, I counted exactly ONE deliberate cross where the attackers were able to patiently get to the end line and play the ball back on a diagonal for a quality shot on goal.
Second Half: Ten minutes in, Kennett Square finally settled into a rhythm and dominated possession through its midfielders, picking apart Conestoga and denying them the ball. Kennett did this by playing the ball mostly on the ground out of the back, through their midfielders and into their attackers, moving the ball side-to-side as purposefully as Conestoga rammed the ball North-South, in two completely contrasting styles of play. Kennett Square not only had the better of the play during most of the 2nd half, they managed to generate some quality scoring opportunities, none of which found the back of the net unfortunately. Conestoga continued to play direct and with no imagination, eventually finding success midway through the 2nd half only because a couple of Kennett Square defenders found themselves out of position, but generated many fewer scoring opportunities compared to the first half. Boring, predicable, typical.
It is why I found myself appreciating Kennett Square’s approach to the game much more than Conestoga’s, the eventual victor.
Here’s the point: if we continue to define success in American youth soccer as “results without quality” (winning), where teams are being encouraged by their coaches to bash just about every ball forward, going 100 miles per hour toward goal by playing into our fastest horses who make vertical runs at goal, then we are denying them the opportunity to fully develop the requisite technical ability which allows them to routinely hold possession, establish a rhythm and tempo and produce a tactical quality that is not only more entertaining and creative, but necessary to play at the highest levels.
Furthermore, most of the players in this high school contest are the product of area youth soccer club systems, some “neighborhood”, some “super clubs”, and some in between. They have been playing the game for most of their lives. Recognizing that soccer is a sum-of-the-parts sport, it’s ultimately up to the players on the field, each and every one of them, to take individual responsibility for the ball, in both attacking and defending, so that the whole of their game may be appreciated by those of us watching and thus giving us many reasons to applaud, not JUST goals.
And, we are watching. Intently. With enough soccer wisdom to understand what we are seeing.
So, we challenge you – you American players on the field – to play the game the way the elite countries do. To make American soccer great.
In attacking, it means mastering #1 ball on ground; #2 two-touch; #3 diagonal support; and #4 change the point of attack. In defending, it means mastering #1 pressure; #2 cover; and #3 balance and by quickly recognizing transitions from attacking to defending, by creating and taking advantage of numerical advantages (overloads) all over the field and by playing East-West with as much intensity as you go towards goal. You would have to be willfully blind or a total novice when watching any elite soccer match on T.V. and not see these principles of play being deployed all over the field. Learn from these players if your coaches and trainers don’t quite value them yet.
This way, we can applaud receiving a ball “side-on” allowing you to quickly beat two opponents; a 7-string passing sequence ending with a 3rd line pass which splits opponents initiated by a diagonal run that Christiano Ronaldo would be worthy of; by playing the way you face or playing the simple ball; by passing backwards to create more time and space with which to maintain possession; by passing the ball quickly and by changing the point of attack often; by quickly winning the ball back after a turnover.
In short, by employing the aforementioned principles of play in attacking and defending, sprinkling in individual flares of brilliance, then and only then, will you have given us permission to savor your spectacular goals.
As a way to sum up Spain’s approach to soccer versus the United States, I leave you with an exchange between a television commentator who was interviewing a Spanish youth coach. The commentator said, “my gosh, your U12 youth team play exactly the way Spain’s (national) 1st team does” to which the Spaniard replied, “you’ve got that backwards, sir, our 1st Team Nationals play EXACTLY the way our YOUTH do”.
When you acknowledge that profound statement, you begin to understand the immense work that lies ahead of America’s soccer leadership, trainers, coaches and players.