Tag Archives: passing

Do the US Women Pass too Much?

I enjoy watching the US Women team play.  They are the top of the heap of soccer for women.  And, being American, it is nice to be able to always be the favorite — even when you are playing European teams!  At the same time, I think there is an argument that they could be even better if they handled the ball more.

It was impressive to see the US Women start the New Zealand game with the amount of pressure they applied.  Everywhere NZL went, the US pressed them farther.  That stood out.  What also stood out was the speed of movement when we had the ball — I am not referring to the movement of the players, I am referring to movement of the ball.  Generally speaking, the USWNT exercise one-touch passing.  While all directions are explored, the only real areas they seem interested in are forward and wide.  Almost every pass played backwards is followed by a long ball up.  The right back, for instance, played it long the following times she had the ball played back to her (I only charted the first 33 minutes):

10:34  drop then long ball led to loss of possession

11:19  drop to right back and sent up (long) – maintained possession

19:00  right back played another long that led to loss of possession

21:43  right back played another long that led to loss of possession

27:33  right back turned the ball over again

I only started charting at the seventh minute – in the note on the 10:34 entry, I note that it was the fourth time the backs had played long resulting in loss of possession.   This is all interesting, but not the real point of the blog tonight.  I just wanted to point out that  there is no such thing as playing the ball out from our backs.  And, as I have written before, the argument between territory and possession, I prefer possession unless you can have a shot off the long service.

Getting back to dribbling, there were several instances in the first 1/3 of the game where a player had the ball and space.  Given that situation, why pass?  If the pass is a killer pass, it makes sense, but what if it is not?  What if the player has the ball and space in mouth of the goal (but outside the box)?  At the 16:34, Abby has just that situation.  Rather than press the ball into the throat of the goal (allowing a teammate to cut in behind the defense or allowing a shot), she immediately sends it wide to Rapinoe.  In this particular instance, Rapinoe crossed it immediately back in and it almost resulted in a goal (to be fair).  But, if you have the ball and space, why not require the defense (in front of the goal) to commit to you?  Abby does that at the 28:45 mark – opting to dribble instead of throw the ball wide.  The result was a fantastic through ball up the middle, in front of the goal, rather than away from it.

In the Olympic Edition of Sports Illustrated (August 6, 2012), Megan Rapinoe is profiled.  I had not read this article but as I was telling my wife about what I observed, she recommended it.  Rapinoe was one of the few Americans who at least held the ball at times.  While her moves in the first 1/3 of the game were limited to cuts and turns out wide, she at least handled the ball.  Interestingly, she is viewed as an “un-American” player.

“Truth be told, Pinoe is the most un-American player in the U.S. women’s soccer, and that’s a compliment.  For decades that U.S. has thrived on strength and speed more than skill…Rapinoe relies instead on clever dribbling, fluid movement and visionary passing…The key to her creativity, she says, was playing under Danny Cruz, her club coach at age 13 with Elk Grove United in Sacramento.

‘I don’t think he ever really told me how to play. . . He was really good about letting us make mistakes and play free. . . There are a lot of really bad coaches in the U.S. who maybe don’t focus on the right things. Sometimes creativity is stamped out at a young age.'”  (Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated, August 6, 2012)

Funny thing — Sam Snow, US Youth Director of Coaches, says the same thing — we are coaching the game out of the players!   Do we give our players the same opportunities?

Back to the game against NZL, the first goal was created after an excellent ball through the defense (from right to left, diagonally) with which Alex Morgan held onto it.  She challenged the defender to the left of the goal, in the box.  The defender had to retreat, giving Alex space to send a superb cross (shorter range).  Abby finished it.  This was in the 26:28 minute of the game.  Alex’s challenge to beat the defender 1v1 created her space to send the cross.

And, to answer the question about passing too much.  The default in soccer, I understand, is that if there is an open teammate, we should send the ball there.  We should stretch the defense with width (and length).  But, watching Pirlo play for Italy in the Euros, there is something to be said for at least “carrying” the ball (not necessarily beating people off the dribble, but drawing defenders to you then distributing is en effective way of managing the midfield.)  If you pass the ball too quickly, it may have the opposite effect on the defense — they do not have the time to commit so they just stay in place.

We used to use a similar strategy in basketball.  At high school, while our basketball team was above average, we competed at the highest level of Texas basketball (5A).  Our coaches’ philosophy was to play zone – we usually played a 2-3.  We allowed the opposing team freedom of ball movement anywhere outside our zone — we used it for breathers.  At the same time, penetrating dribblers challenged our defense – requiring us to commit and move.

I hope that, going forward, as a new generation of soccer players are developed, that we do not default back to the strength and speed philosophy.

Coaching Progressions: Trapping & Dribbling

Communication is an essential tool for someone training young kids to play soccer.  Just as essential, I believe, is for the trainer to have an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the players with whom he is working.  Training sessions with diverse skill levels are detrimental to the skill development of all the players involved.  One thing trainers need to do is to ensure that training sessions are built with the skill of the kids involved.  And, as mentioned, avoid placing weaker kids with stronger kids for training purposes regardless of age.  Some clubs are going to a data system where each child is rated for soccer ability and athleticism, given a score, and then placed in a training group consistent with that score (not based on age).  This ensures all kids are in groups where they are challenged and can excel.

But, that is not the point I wanted to discuss.  I mentioned before how coaches sometimes give instructions that, as we say in the legal business, assumes facts not in evidence.  What I mean is that coaches will tell kids to pass in games, but the kids lack the ability to catch.  If they cannot catch the ball, how can they pass the ball?  My experience with kids is that if they have the ball with time and space, they generally do something smart with it.  From my observations, one of the main reasons young players lack time and space with the ball is because (1) they lack mastery over the ball so that when a ball is presented to them (from a teammate or a loose ball), they lack the ability to control it quickly, and (2) they lack the ability to run off the ball to open space where they can receive it with time and space.  Note in (2), a proper catch is still required.   We can save (2) for another day.

I noticed this with my girls’ team in year 2 – at our first Houston tournament.  When you play better teams, your players’ time and space gets squeezed.  My girls just couldn’t get a clean handle on the ball, thus, rarely had it with the time and space they needed to do something helpful with it.  From then on, we worked on traps.  All kinds.  Trapping rollers, bouncers, line drives, punts.  You name it.  Even then, I lacked an understanding of the technique to properly teach the technique.  Through research, assistance from other coaches (thank you Hector Leano and Dan Ducote!), and trial and error, our system was/is:  (1) relaxed foot (angled 45 degrees to ground) (we called it a “loose tooth”), (2) foot slightly off the ground where contact with center of the ball is likely, and (3) encouragement to catch the ball in front of your body, not underneath.  The whole system was referred to as “peanut butter feet” as opposed to “concrete feet.”  Not sure why.  It just fit.

I still use those lessons today.  While there are more advanced methods of trapping, I encourage all the kids to get that basic one down.  As they get older, they are taught to keep the ball moving or touch the ball to space instead of trapping it at your feet.  I think it is helpful if you are under duress when the ball is approaching, but I think there are still a lot of moments in a soccer game where you need to collect the ball at your feet.  I delay teaching the “touch to space” trap because the kids do it anyway — they just don’t know where it is going.  In other words, most kids lack the ability to control the ball so every time they go to trap it, it is bouncing 5 yards away.  First, they need to learn to kill it at their feet, then we teach them “touch away” trap.  It goes back to my first point — many kids lose time and space because their first touch on the ball is too heavy and it bounds away – turning what was their ball into a 50/50 ball (or even a 60/40 ball).  In any event, instead of scanning the field with the ball at their feet or proceeding to dribble, the kids are left chasing after a ball.  Once they can kill the ball at their feet, then I move on to more advanced stuff.  So, my coaching progression for trapping is mastery at foot first.

For dribbling, I start with a few basics: (1) use one foot, and (2) touch it every step.  I have watched the U6 training videos and read material, but I fail to see the advantage of teaching two footed dribbling at 5-7 years old.  The reason I think it is a waste of time is because that is how they dribble anyway — penguin dribbling.  All of them do it.  Just like all of them advance the ball well in advance of where they are going.  While I think it is crucial to work on the weak foot from early ages for trapping, shooting, and passing, most people use a favorite foot to dribble through adult soccer, including professionals.  And, for speed dribbling (advancing the ball further than 1 step), they all do it anyway.  I think time is better used teaching them to pick a foot, touch it every step, and then teaching them all the different parts of the foot they can use.   When kids develop and get the idea of (1) and (2), I encourage (3) using laces to contact ball as the next progression.  A good way to get them to understand it is to tell them to raise their knee.  Once we get through that, the sky is the limit and they need to use all parts of their foot.

I have been teaching soccer for 7 years to kids, most of whom are not my own.  I have found that the progressions outlined above help the kids succeed incrementally.  The key to both points is mastery over the ball.  I think also juggling helps both trapping and dribbling as it helps to gain mastery over the ball.   In all 7 years, I have worked primarily with kids under the age of 12.  I have 5 kids of my own, currently ages 6-14.  All of my kids play.  I have worked with kids of all skill levels — from some of the most skilled in Texas to beginners.  I have learned from all of them and am always looking for fresh ideas to help.   If you have some ideas that you think are helpful on this issues, please post them so we can share them.