Category Archives: Soccer Tactics

Possession, Possession, Possession: New US Youth Soccer Guidelines

It’s about time.  Claudia Reyna, US Youth Soccer Technical Director, has been hired by Jurgen Klinnsman to develop a new training system for US Youth coaches and players emphasizing possession and short passing with the ball staying on the ground as much as possible.  On April 21, 2011, Reyna unveiled the new system in a presentation at a Player Development Summit.  The material he used includes training guidelines all the way down to U6.  The documents are as follows:

New Us Youth Soccer Curriculum

You can watch his presentation here:  Reyna Presents New Curriculum

There are literally hundreds of pages of instructions, some drills (not a lot), and concepts generally and broken down for each age level.  Each age has a section for Tactical, Technical, Physical, and Psychosocial; these are referred to as the 4 Pillars of Soccer Coaching.  The main ideas are summarized in the U.S. Soccer Curriculum (first pdf).  It states that the “Style of Play” is an offensive style where “all teams will be encouraged to display an offensive style of play based on keeping possession and quick movement of the ball.”  (Curriculum, page 1).  It goes on to instruct coaches to instruct their players to “avoid over-dribbling.”  While positions are taught, players will be expected to “look for spaces and movements to support forward when attacking by moving away from their original positions.”  Id.  

The Curriculum also specifies formations.  It instructs coaches to teach the 4-3-3 and its varieties (4-2-3-1 or 4-1-2-3) as opposed to 4-4-2 (reserved for older, more advanced youth).  If teams want to utilize a 4-4-2, they encourage a 4-1-2-1-2 instead (diamond in the middle).  Importantly, all 11v11 should utilize 4 defensive backs.  

Like the style currently used by Spain, Barcelona, Arsenal, and even Ajax, the new U.S. model encourages teaching the ability to play the ball out from the back with short passes rather than long, lofted balls.  (Curriculum, 2).  The Curriculum outlines the following “Principles of Play” for coaches to use:

1.  1,2, or 3 touch maximum.  
2.  Keep the game simple.  (Avoid over-dribbling or long balls without targets)
3.  Keep the ball on the ground.
4.  Accuracy and quality of the pass.
5.  First touch.  (Do not stop the ball)
6.  Perception and Awareness. (scan the field)
7.  1v1 situations.  (still encouraged for players to bear defenders)
8.  Individual Transition. (from offense to defense and vice versa)
9.  Shooting.  (always keep eye on goal)
10.  Take risks.  
(Curriculum, 3)

In line with those principles, skills are outlined to develop at each age down to 5.  According to the plans, dribbling starts getting less priority at age 7.  I think that is a big mistake.  I think it is great that the US is finally implementing what the Dutch started in 1970 and exported to Barcelona.  We all owe a big thank you to Ajax, Cruyff, Michaels and their cutting edge concept of space.  Spain has taken the TOTAL football model from the Dutch, improved it, and won the World Cup demonstrating the virtues of short passing and keeping the ball on the ground–something the Dutch never did (they were runners up in 1974 and 1978 — the 1974 loss was considered by many to be a major upset by the West Germans).  If Klinsman never wins another game, his vision in implementing this at the US Youth level will be worth every penny he earns from us.  

Going back to dribbling, it is a skill that needs continued work until early teens.  If you over-emphasize the pass at 9, you will get players later on who will never take the opportunity and will lack the skill to beat someone 1v1.  For all of the 2v1 and 3v1 sequences of Barcelona, you still need to be able to take a defender 1v1 — it will make the subsequent pass that much more deadly.  So, to that regard, I disagree with the de-emphasis on dribbling starting at age 7.  

It is widely noted that Arsene Wenger altered the playing style of Arsenal to what it is today.  Before Wenger, George Graham’s boys were physical and, like a lot of the EPL competitors, played a lot of long ball; hence, the chant “Boring, boring Arsenal” or “One-nil to the Arsenal.”  When Wenger entered Arsenal, he altered the style of play to a more possession based, short passing approach.  They were taught and trained to play the ball from back to front, and vice-versa.  Width and depth should be explored while in possession of the ball.  But, they did not de-emphasize dribbling.  Rather, they imported ideas from Barcelona’s Academy.  

We should be wary of advice to de-emphasize dribbling at age 7.  Here is quote from the book Arsenal: The Making of a Modern Superclub: “Their (Barcelona) Academy coach Carlos Rexach reveals … ‘Above all what we are after is a boy who is good with the ball and then we hope he becomes strong physically. Other academies tend to look for athletes they can turn into footballers. Most coaches, when they see a kid who dribbles a lot they tell him to stop and pass the ball.  Here (Barcelona) they do the opposite. We tell them to continue so that they get even better at dribbling.  It’s only when the kid develops that we start teaching them the passing game.'”  (Page 68).  

I know firsthand that over-emphasizing passing early will retard dribbling and creativity with the ball.  When coaching and teaching youngsters, encourage them to touch the ball as much as they can.  Allow them opportunities to be creative.  As a result, they will also develop ball control skills that will lead to passing and creative use of space. 

Also, it is recommended that at U8, players progress to 7v7 from 4v4.  At U9-10, it is 9v9, and at U11 up to 11v11.  This is counter to the current recommendations of small-sided games.  Depending on the Association, some use 4v4 for U7-U8, 6v6 for U9-10, 8v8 for U11-12, and 11v11 starting at U13.  I do think the 4v4 at U8 is a wasted year currently.  

To sum it up, I was ecstatic to see this change in US Youth Soccer philosophy.  As Reyna says, “it has never been done” in the U.S.  We are late in the day to finally get away from the physical back line, great GK, and fast forward kick and run approach U.S. normally plays, but it is never too late to add some Johan Cruyff magic.  Hopefully it will stick.  I know some coaches in Southeast Texas that are committed to it and have been for a while.  Cheers.