Soccer is a sport where athleticism can lead to dominance at most levels. It is very hard to stop someone as strong, powerful, and pacey as Yaya Toure on his day. Though most would agree that there is much more to the game then just being athletic and pacey, but pace matched with the skill, decision making, and technique necessary to excel at the highest levels can lead to a world class player. So why in a country with so many players does the USA still struggle to produce world class outside backs, wingers, and strikers? You could make a very long list of emerging young American wide players who have struggled to really make an impact on the international scene in their given opportunities. The question is why these players have failed thus far to really demonstrate an ability to excel at the international level?
The answer lies in the player’s development here state side, and the lack of challenge that they faced growing up. A lot of these players were blessed with world class pace, and were always able to bail themselves out of situations or excel due to their athletic ability. DeAndre Yedlin you can tell was faster than everyone on the field growing up until he reached the Premier League this season. The pacey wide back showed his lack of positional understanding and technique at the beginning of this year with Sunderland. I believe he has grown substantially as a player after this pressure packed season in the Northeast of England, but really DeAndre was let down by our developmental system in the USA not pushing him forward quickly enough at a young age to the levels where his pace would be canceled out by the competition.
When players with superb athletic ability are not pushed by players with likewise attributes, they will forever rely on their height or pace to get them an edge ahead of their competition. I can remember a number of teams who played balls over the top to their one fast striker, who ran by everyone and scored. This worked until everyone caught up pace wise to the striker who was mature for his age at 12 or 13 and the team’s lack of ability was exposed. This was the story for the players with above average pace. There were players who continued to base their success off of their pace rather than their quality all the way through the professional ranks. I am by no means saying that these players did not work hard at their trade to reach the professional level, that is by no means the case in almost every instance. But the environments they were exposed to from ages 16 onward were not challenging enough, leading to them still excelling, but not actually growing as players.
At the international level, pace means very little. With very few exceptions every outside back, winger, and striker has the pace required to cancel out the opposition. This is where the player’s actual ability comes into question. If the player can not cross, cannot make good decisions, and is positionally unaware he or she will be exposed. The USMNT has looked very poor at times due to the players with pace lacking quality in the final third and defensively. Not to make it out to be an easy task to play at that level, but as a country we do not do enough to prepare players possessing this elite level of athleticism for that level of play. Too much focus is given to winning state cups and tournaments, improving a club's reputation in the short term, rather than looking at the big picture of development..
I grew up playing with Andrew Wenger, currently of the Houston Dynamo. Over the course of our relationship Andrew grew from a top level striker from ages 12-14, to an absolute menace of a player from 15 onward. He matured into a world class athlete, at 6 foot 1” 190 with strength and world class pace to match, very few club level players and almost no one at high school soccer level we played could cope with him. He breezed through his high school and club career, dominated the ACC during his collegiate career at Duke, and was the first pick in the 2012 draft for Montreal. Andrew has struggled slightly in MLS at times, and seems to be on track in Houston after a painful year in Philadelphia last season.
In my opinion, had Andrew grew up in the US Soccer system we have today, with an academy structure and a fast route to the first team at the MLS academies his career would have been fast tracked to the top levels of the game. Andrew would have hopefully either been sent to Europe or sent to the first team of an MLS squad at 16. There his pace and power would have been challenged by the maturity of the other players. His growth to the player he is now would have been accelerated. He would now be much closer to developing into the world class player that he has the potential to be. Instead years of playing collegiately, and in high school with below par competition and instruction hindered his technical development and limited his exposure to MLS until he was 21 years old. The US Soccer system robbed itself of a player who could have impacted the national team setting due to its lack of focus on development prior to the years of home grown players and the DA existing.
Players with superior athletic ability than their competition at their age group should simply be moved up to the higher age groups where their athleticism will be canceled out. The more time they spend actually learning to play quicker, make the right decisions, and play against players with similar athletic strengths, the more they will benefit from the environment. Christian Pulisic, who is now being noticed by just about everyone paying attention to USMNT, before moving to Dortmund at 15 played up at least two age groups at all times. He trained with Harrisburg City Islanders and would play for the u18 PA Classics academy as a 14 year old. He was never allowed to use his pace or explosiveness to his advantage against players his own age. He was forced to adapt to the environments he was put into where he would still excel even a teenager. Thus why his move to Dortmund seems like it was the correct action to take as he wasn’t able to find a competitive environment stateside.
Competitive environments are what develop young players into the elite category. The idea that an unchallenged player will sink to the level of the surrounding team is very real. Grouping players by height and pace rather than by age may be an idea major clubs should adopt moving forward. Belgium has implemented a similar idea to great success. Clubs should look to move players to more challenging environments if the player is having to easy of a time at their current club. This will ensure the players development does not stagnate, Anytime I coach a player who is pacey, I immediately fear for his or her development. If the player does not become challenged in an environment that is constantly pushing them to improve, the player is losing ground on the global scale to players in European academies.
The problem we face is a to narrow minded small picture attitude that most club coaches take to a player being successful. If we look at the big picture of developing international talent it is almost the duty of coaches to push their best players to academies in order to expose them to the best competition available. The academy system has a long way to go in this country in many aspects. However if you happen to come across a player who falls in the top 1% of athletes, as a coach you should responsibly push the player to an environment where they will be challenged. Without pressure we cannot make the diamonds we will showcase to the world during international competitions.