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Q & A with Justin Neese regarding New US Youth Soccer Curriculum

Reyna Delivers New Curriculum – April 2011

The new US Youth Soccer Curriculum has been addressed on this blog several times.  The New Curriculum was published in April 2011.  Here are some prior blog links:

Possession, Possession, Possession: New US Youth Soccer Guidelines

“Go on son, take him on.”

Gaining Territory v. Possession: Part II

US Youth Soccer VISION Statement

And here is a link to the actual curriculum:  New Curriculum

And here is a link to Cladio Reyna presenting the New Curriculum: Reyna Presents New Curriculum

I sent some Questions to Justin Neese regarding the new US Youth Soccer Curriculum to get his impressions of its implementation and effect.  Just has posted on here before, but I will share his qualifications and background again.

Justin played competitive soccer throughout his youth and played four years of college soccer at an NCAA Division III institution, earning a bachelor’s degree in 2003 and a master’s degree in 2005. Since then, he has been coaching as a full-time profession on the collegiate and youth levels (3 years as a head coach at two different DIII institutions, and 3 years as a DIII assistant at two different institutions). He holds an “A” license from US Soccer in 2008, a Premier Diploma from the NSCAA in 2007, and a National Youth License from US Youth Soccer in 2003.  He has been an age group coach within the North Texas Olympic Development Program, a member of the North Texas Coaching Education Staff, and a member of the State teaching staff for the NSCAA.  He currently is the Assistant Manager of Soccer Programs for our hometown Houston Dynamo.

 Q & A with JUSTIN NEESE regarding US Youth Soccer Curriculum

What is the impact of the new US Youth Soccer Curriculum on youth soccer?

First and foremost, I think that the Curriculum is a fantastic piece of work and a massive achievement by Claudio Reyna and Dr. Javier Perez. I genuinely think that the Curriculum is a giant step towards the soccer nation that we are all trying to build because it defines the American style of soccer and the principles that flow from that style. To me, these concepts have always been somewhat vague and that the definition you got when you asked coaches, players, fans, etc. about these concepts varied widely depending on who you were talking to, who had one the last World Cup or Champions League, or who every happened to have won their Premier League or La Liga match the previous weekend. I think that having such an undefined style and set or principles was harmful to the growth of soccer in this country, to the development of our youth players and, maybe most importantly, I think that it hurt our confidence as a soccer nation and fueled a “grass is always greener,” second fiddle kind of mentality in our game that hurt our coaching and administration of the youth game.

For example, before the Curriculum, if you were to ask most youth, high school, or college coaches to define their team’s style, I think that you would have received a lot of different answers, and you would have been told that their team plays like any number of foreign professional or international sides. “Great,” you’d (and maybe I’d) think, “but my kid is an American and I don’t think that he will fit in with a Barcelona style of soccer.” The next two thoughts had to be very, very common, and I have to believe that it was an either or scenario: If the parents were determined that their kid play soccer, maybe they’d say “Where can we go where they play American soccer?” If the parents heard all of this talk of foreign teams and concepts, of all of the soccer nonsense that people like me are so prone to spout, they may start to think: “Maybe soccer’s not our game.” Beyond damaging our psyche and self-belief, I have to believe that the American soccer community’s over reliance on foreign “thinkers,” coaches, concepts and ideas has damaged the overall and systemic growth of our game in our country. Now that it is clear who we are, though, I have to believe that the tide is turning, and that we are taking steady and confident steps towards a future of “American” soccer.

Because it defines us and our “Way”, I think that the Curriculum also fills a cognitive and informational gap in our collective thinking in American soccer because it clearly and precisely spells out both the end product and the timeline; it defines the exact kind of player, teams, and games that we are trying to produce and it tells us that we are trying to produce it eventually, for the future health and wealth of our game. This was a vitally important piece of our developmental puzzle that I think was unclear over the last 40 years of organized soccer in the States because, without it, I think that it has been very difficult for a lot of very well-meaning youth coaches in our country to develop realistic coaching philosophies or long term development plans, and that this has caused our growth and development to stall or at least slow over the years.

The over-arching impact of the Curriculum is difficult to say with it being relatively new (and maybe unknown), but I think that it is clear that we can look at the Curriculum as a defining document in a relatively short line of seminal documents that have changed soccer in America.

What is the impact of the US Youth Soccer Curriculum on professionally trained academies?  

Of course, I think that the above applies to the Academy teams and Clubs, but I also think that the Curriculum has provided some much needed guidance to Academy clubs on the structure and development around their younger teams. With regard to how and what to actually coach younger players (those in “Zone One”) I think that the Curriculum does a great job, and that it offers solid advice, but I think that the real seminal works in this arena are the Vision Document (which you have already written about here), US Soccer’s Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States, Tom Turner’s Total Player Development and, from US Youth Soccer, The Official US Youth Soccer Coaching ManualSkills School and Player Development Model.  I think that these works and writers were the giants upon whose shoulders Reyna and Perez could stand in direction our new efforts and our new era.

Has there been a shift in teaching possession soccer, ball on the ground, short passes, etc., that you have noticed?  

Yes and no. It really depends on the level that we are talking about. By and large, I think that a lot of people at the top levels have found that their kids enjoy the game more, that they can win more, and that the game is “better” when they ask their players to play aesthetically pleasing soccer precisely because aesthetically pleasing soccer is also amazingly efficient, attack minded soccer that is difficult to break down and defeat. However, I think that a lot of people who are not at the top levels are having a difficult time coaching this way (despite what they might say), but that the cause of their problems is not the kids, the game, their opponents, leagues, fields, etc., the cause of their difficulties is that this kind of a game, the real game, is difficult to teach and they don’t have the knowledge base, educational spirit, or teaching skills to teach their players how to actually play the real game. The simple fact is that we may have a lot of “coaches” in American youth soccer, but we do not have a lot of teachers, and it is the teachers that we need now because they are the ones who are going to make our kids and our game strong, who are going to move us into a new era. This is exactly why US Soccer and USYSA have been saying for so long that we need our “best” coaches working with our youngest players. I also think this realization is the cause of the coaching education evolutions at US Soccer and I am trying to be as supportive as possible in these new endeavors and ambitions.

Is it hard for teachers of the game with a different philosophy to adapt their training sessions?  

Yes, but I think that it is more down to the above, than it is down to adherence to something more ideological.

Where do you anticipate the most growth of this philosophy to thrive?  

I think that the concepts and ideals presented in the Curriculum (and the other works noted here) have, in the past, found their home mostly in coaching education, in courses and coaching schools around the country. But, now that we have a well-organized base for youth soccer, now that we have organized Clubs that are professionally managed and run, and now that we have full-time professional Clubs with a noticeable stake in the present and future state and quality of youth soccer, I think that these ideas are going to find a new home with these organizations and in their leaders and, hopefully, in the hearts of all of the current players that these organizations impact so that these can go onto become our future coaches, administrators, parents and so that they can start from a better foundation than pervious generations have started.

Gaining Territory v. Possession: Part II

As outlined in the prior post, kick and rush soccer, which has infiltrated every layer of American soccer, had its beginnings in England and, though justified with faulty statistical analysis, has spread throughout the world.  While there are likely times when, because of the skill level of the respective teams (meaning, when there is large discrepancy in skill level of players on one team that is playing another), less possessive tactical strategies may be required, consider the following statements of soccer “Style and Principles of Play”:


Style of Play-Specific
1.  Technical. Passing the ball on the ground with pace from different distances and receiving the ball while keeping it moving will be encouraged in all age groups.
2.  Ball Control and Turning.  Players will be encouraged to keep close control of the ball and use different turning techniques to move away from a defender.  


Tactical
1.  Playing Out from the Back.  All teams must feel comfortable playing the ball from the back through the midfield and from there to the final quarter of the field. 
2.  Possession & Transition.  All teams must try to keep possession of the ball playing a one-two touch game. Players will be encouraged to support and move, thus creating passing options. Once the possession game is consolidated the team must learn how to transfer the ball in the most efficient way from one area of the field to another.  (I added emphasis here because it seems that they want us to develop ball control and possession passing before long ball).  


Principles of Play
1.  1,2, or 3 touch maximum. Minimizing the number of touches improves the speed of play.
2.  Keep the game simple. Do not force situations, over-dribble or be careless with the ball (kickball).  
3.  Keep the ball on the ground.  A ball on the ground is easier to control and can be moved more efficiently by the team.
4.  Accuracy and quality of the pass.  Passing must be firm and accurate, with the proper weight.
5.  First touch.  Make a clean, controlled first touch without stopping the ball. Take the touch away from pressure and into free space.
6.  Perception and awareness.  All players with or without the ball should constantly scan the field.
7.  1v1 situations.  Encourage determination to regain control of the ball in defense and keep it simple in attack by taking a touch to the side, at speed, to beat a defender.
8.  Individual transition.  Players must react quickly when possession change from offense to defense and vice-versa.
9.  Shooting.  Always keep an eye on the goal.  All players are encouraged to shoot.
10.  Take risks.  Soccer is an error prone sport and mistakes are part of the game and learning process.  Players are encouraged to take risks in training session to increase the speed of play.  1
(U.S. Soccer Curriculum, Style and Principles of Play, p.2-3)


You may think from the style and principles outlined, that those are guidelines for Spain, not the U.S.  But these are our new youth coaching guidelines.  Why are these our guidelines?  As Spain demonstrated in the World Cup, possession soccer isn’t just cute, it wins.  


But in my experience, most youth soccer locally, from recreation to competitive to high school, is based on the kick and rush model rather than the style described above.  Why?  I think one of the problems is that we focus too much on the result at young ages when we should be focused on player development.  In desperate attempts to win matches, players are pigeon-holed into specific positions and assignments, like winning the ball and kicking up to a fast forward.  It works.  With little or no change, kids develop habits and, later on, are then asked to change them.  That is not so easy.  


I appreciate and respect all of the time that coaches give for youth sports.  But, is it helpful to a 8 year old to play fullback all season with the instruction to kick it as hard as he can to a fast forward?  While that does work and should be a part of the game, it should not be the only part of the game.  One of our local coaches that I admire (Chris Carter), who was previously a basketball coach, puts it this way:  “You need to be able to fast break, but you don’t fast break an entire game.”  To finish the basketball analogy, you also need a half-court offense.  Or, to put it in soccer speak, a soccer team should be able to play an over-the-top through style (long ball), but it should not be their only style.  


Most of the objections come from people who believe that the system described above is too hard for kids. But, as noted on the principles above, a ball on the ground played to a young player is easier to handle than a lofted ball from longer distance.  


Here’s hoping we embrace the paradigm shift from U.S. Youth Soccer in Southeast Texas.  

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.