Why Raul is bringing La Liga wisdom to U.S. youth development

Mike Lawrence/isiphotos.com

Two years after leaving the field, the Real Madrid legend is forging ties between his native country and his last professional home.

One hundred and four. It sounds like a number plucked out of the air, but it isn't.

When a child steps on to a field for the first time, 104 steps lie ahead of them: 104 things they must learn, 104 things they must master. Only then can they reach the top.

That's the philosophy of La Liga, the league that has dominated European soccer for years and did much to foster a Spanish national team that lifted one World Cup and two European Championships. The league could probably teach every country in the world a thing or two, but it's the United States where its philosophy is starting to be felt, with a little help from Real Madrid great Raul.

"We want to try to help to develop soccer in the USA," he explains to FourFourTwo. "[La Liga has] a very good culture, a very good methodology. We're successful with our clubs and with the national team. We want to collaborate and develop soccer here."

I think the level of soccer here is growing. It’s still possible to improve. I think they have to improve a lot of things - the education of coaches, the style and the quality of the games.

- Raul

Since 2015, La Liga has been doing just that, after a formal link-up between it and U.S. Club Soccer. Raul was swiftly employed as La Liga's country manager for the U.S., having brought his playing career to an end following a year with the New York Cosmos.

Keen to increase its presence in the U.S. as a way to boost its global brand, La Liga was willing to pass on knowledge and expertise. In youth soccer, there was one quick way to do that: by coaching the coaches.

Raul speaks to FourFourTwo at one of several events that U.S. Club Soccer coaches attend from far and wide to hear about the philosophy that has made La Liga great.

“We said that the area where we need the most help and where we can probably have the quickest effect is in coaching and coaching education,” explains Kevin Payne, CEO of US Club Soccer. “How do coaches train their players once they’ve got their licence?

“La Liga probably does a better job of developing players than any other league in the world. It's pretty hard to argue against that. On the field, it’s the best league in the world, and it also has the highest percentage of domestic players of any of the major European leagues.”

Which brings us back to those 104 things.

"Gari Fullaondo teaches the course, and he says, at the beginning, that he doesn't have a magic wand," explains Payne. "It's a process, but if you're going to teach players, you need to know how many things they have to learn. So he asks, 'How many things do you have to teach players to turn them into high-performing players?'

"Everybody looks at each other and starts guessing at numbers. But he has actually broken it down. He says there are 104 different things that you need to teach. Some of them are technical, some are physical, some are tactical, some are psychological."

Following La Liga's approach does pose one question: Is there a risk of the U.S. losing its own identity on the field? No one can master the Spanish style better than the Spanish themselves, so following it too rigidly could bring potential pitfalls.

It's a danger U.S. Club Soccer is acutely aware of, and it’s why the organization is keen to take the most useful elements of La Liga's philosophy, rather than adopt it in its entirety.

"One thing I've learned over the years is that we have to find an American solution," says Payne, a man who was once one of the founders of MLS as president of D.C. United. "Whatever we end up doing, it's going to be different than what's done in other countries.”

"You can learn a lot from the way they do things in La Liga. You take those learnings and apply them against the specific set of circumstance you have here in the States, and you can begin to develop an American methodology. We'll have different approaches in different parts of the country, because the experience culturally that kids have in New Jersey is very different from what kids have in California or Texas or Florida. There's never going to be a one size fits all approach."

Raul has seen plenty of encouraging signs since arriving in the U.S. in 2014, but he has also seen areas in which improvements can be made - improvements he wants to play his part in.

"I played one year in the North American Soccer League, I've seen a lot of MLS games and also national team games, and I think the level of soccer here is growing," he says. "It’s still possible to improve. I think they have to improve a lot of things - the education of coaches, the style and the quality of the games.

"But the most important thing is the passion that the players, the coaches and the fans already have. That's very important. The attendances in the stadiums are amazing. I was at the MLS Cup in Toronto, I've been to New York City, to New York Red Bulls, and you see the passion.

I would maybe like to be a coach in the future, but it's only been just over a year since I played my last game, and my family and my kids are very happy here ...

- Raul

"A lot of kids now are playing with academies, which are more professional, and U.S. Club Soccer are trying to improve coaching education and teach kids at a young age. It's very important to teach the kids of eight, nine, 10 and 11 in one good way that they can understand. We feel we are having success.”

Payne remembers the difference Raul’s presence made at a coaching course in Chicago, saying his group “saw a huge difference when he showed up at the event.”

"His personality just raises the level of the course and helps to focus people's attention even more."

For Raul, his role as ambassador comes at the perfect time, allowing him to stay close to the game and grow his native country’s presence while continuing to enjoy life in the United States.

“For us, the next TV rights contract will be very important,” Raul says. “We want to collaborate, learn from the business in the USA and increase our brand awareness here - helping with soccer, education and social programs.”

While Raul helps educate American coaches, fellow Real Madrid great Zinedine Zidane is preparing to coach Los Blancos in the Champions League final against Juventus. Could Raul move into coaching himself?

“Now, I’m in the process of learning,” he says. “The possibility to work with La Liga is giving me an overview of the business industry in soccer. I would maybe like to be a coach in the future, but it's only been just over a year since I played my last game, and my family and my kids are very happy here in the USA. ”

La Liga still has plenty it wants to do in the U.S. “What we’ve started with have been level-three courses, which are introductory,” Payne explains. “The next step is some level-two courses … Then finally, in 2018, we’ll do level-one courses …

“[La Liga is] also going to get more involved in our player identification programs, and in some cases, they might invite some players they like to go to Spain for a period, just to get a taste of what it’s like in a club environment in Spain. But that’s not as big a priority as the coaching side, because the best way to have the biggest effect in a short time is to teach the teachers.”

For Payne, it’s a plan reminiscent of MLS’ change of course 15 years ago, one that began with the folding of two teams and, through a series of small steps, has produced a much stronger product.

“It's a pretty good object lesson that you can affect change,” he says. “It's not going to happen overnight, but it's also not going to happen by accident.”

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