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Curriculum confusion: Academy drama, new field sizes and the biggest issues facing U.S. youth soccer

ISI Photos-Robin Alam
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Does the curriculum still exist?

In 2011, Claudio Reyna unveiled the U.S. Soccer curriculum, a plan showing what skills should be emphasized at which ages and how to do it.

But the curriculum hasn’t dictated much of the action at NSCAA in subsequent years. Instead, coaches are still having a productive discussion about best practices.

At a session early in the convention on the “player development pathway,” former D.C. United defender and veteran youth coach Erik Imler asked the assembled coaches how many of them felt they understood the style or curriculum their own clubs were trying to impart. Roughly half of the coaches did not raise their hands.

Todd Beane, a well-traveled coach and Johan Cruyff’s son-in-law, argued that soccer can be interpreted differently by different people, but within a club, we need a coherent curriculum.

And there’s value in facing diverse approaches, Imler argued. Development Academy kids, he said, play other Development Academy kids, all working toward the same style. Then they face Jamaica, playing an unorthodox formation with a physical style, and they have no idea what to do. Imler sees the DA working toward more flexibility -- as long as they maintain a coherent curriculum within the club and demonstrate that they’re making progress.

Beane also found in his Barcelona travels that the conventional wisdom in the United States is missing the point. With our youngest players, we emphasize touches on the ball above all else. At Barcelona, he said, kids are being trained to think, not just develop a skill out of context.

Keeping the talent pool open

U.S. clubs start tryouts to sort “elite” players from others at young ages and continue with Darwinian selection each year, often believing that they’re following best practices from Europe. Not necessarily. Celtic youth coach Willie McNab told a large group at his presentation that the Glasgow giant doesn’t release players during the high school years, instead committing to their soccer education at Celtic and their overall education at partner school St. Ninian’s.

In the player development pathway session, Brett Jacobs touted his experience with current MLS player Dillon Powers, whom Jacobs said was overlooked in his teen years, and women’s coach Lisa Cole saw a need to change our mindset so we’re not turning away 8-year-olds because they’re not “there yet.”

Physical literacy

Snow lamented the lack of physical education kids receive in U.S. elementary schools today, saying soccer coaches need to start teaching how to run, how to jump and how to land from a jump. “How can we expect them to control the ball if they can’t control their bodies?” he asked.

Winning vs. development

The age-old argument continues to rage in NSCAA hallways and meeting rooms. Former women’s national team star Shannon MacMillan said her club uses constant communication to emphasize long-term goals to coaches and parents. Coaches won’t lose their jobs because of their records, she says. Instead, they’re evaluated on how enthusiastic their players are when they come to play.

None of these issues has an easy answer. But we’ll see everyone try again soon -- when U.S. Soccer convenes its Annual General Meeting in March.

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Beau Dure is the author of Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game. He gave two presentations at the 2017 NSCAA Convention, one on parent coaches and one on running a program that doesn't cut players before age 12.