The two things any nation, large or small, can do to be a World Cup power

Richard Whittall
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

This morning, Dutch footballing legend Johan Cruyff dropped this tweet on an unsuspecting American public:

Cruyff’s remarks broadly reflect the consensus after another hardworking, heroic, but ultimately losing performance by the United States. Already American soccer people are looking to see what can be done to improve the U.S. team’s technical ability. Some believe introducing promotion and relegation to the single entity Major League Soccer will strengthen players, with more at stake for losing football matches. Others believe better coaching is the answer.

However, another problem in American player development has come up in light of the U.S.’s defeat by Belgium: the prohibitive cost of youth football. In a column for the Telegraph, Liviu Bird quoted Jurgen Klinsmann in 2010 on the issue affecting soccer participation numbers in the U.S.:

“You are the only country in the world that has the pyramid upside-down,” he said in his post mortem on the US’s World Cup exit against Ghana. “You pay for having your kid play soccer because your goal is not that your kid becomes a professional soccer player – because your goal is that your kid gets a scholarship in a high school or in a college, which is completely opposite from the rest of the world.”   

This point over “pay to play” was echoed by Dave Hannigan in the Irish Times, who pointed to the development of current USMNT players to make the point:

Centre-half Omar Gonzalez might be on several Premier League radars this week but it’s not that long ago since he required a team-mate’s wealthy parents to fork over $1,500 so he could continue to play with his youth team each season. His plight highlights the difficulty so many Hispanic families across America face when trying to make sure their kids can play for the best soccer teams in the best leagues so they can be spotted by scouts.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about youth development in football. The more reports I read and the more papers and columns I digest over the years, and the more football history I absorb, the more I believe that becoming a World Power in football involves two separate but related factors.

1. Encourage as many kids as you can to play football for as long as possible.

2. Give them as many routes to playing professionally as possible.

That’s it. Almost every issue involving player development falls under these two categories. Do soccer-playing adolescents keep doing so into their teens? Are there opportunities or obstacles for them to play for elite youth clubs and eventually for a club in a stable national league?

Note that “coaching” doesn’t explicitly fall under either of these. When we use the phrase “technical ability”, we’re tempted to think of a UEFA badge holder running elite training exercises in a cloistered national academy. Yet a lot of what constitutes the core of brilliant technical ability involves a lot less elite “top down” administrative learning than some wonks would like to believe.

Clint Dempsey learned his trade playing pick-up soccer, and was spotted by chance ball juggling on the sidelines while his brother was on a tryout with a youth soccer team. The technically adept DeAndre Yedlin was apprenticed through Washington State’s Olympic Development Program team, not exactly known as a global La Masia.

What matters more is that potential stars are “discovered” or at least given a chance in playing with a competitive youth team to help further their talents, and that the pool of potential greats is as wide and deep as possible. As Leander Schaerlaeckens wrote earlier this year, “Player development in any sport is a numbers game. You develop a thousand prospects in hopes that one makes it to the top. And of the 1,000 that make it to the top, a lone difference-maker at the international would constitute a nice yield.”

Eliminating pay-to-play is one big step in that direction. So is encouraging a more direct route to professional football than the current clunky collegiate system.

Viewed this way, English football reformers might look to increase flagging youth participation numbers in addition to improving coaching standards and encouraging smoother pathways into the professional game.  

Generally I think the best route is not to overthink youth development. The main thing is to encourage wide participation, ensure kids play the game for as long as possible (which in part means making it fun), and ensure they have access to academies, clubs—as many routes to be “discovered” as possible.

Far easier said than done, but a good guiding principle.