What can U.S. Soccer learn from Iceland's Euro 2016 run?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

A population with one one-thousandth of the population of the United States displayed the value of focusing on your strengths, Steve Davis writes.

“What if this country’s best athletes chose soccer? How good could we be then?”

Yeah, that one. If you’ve been around soccer in this country for a while, you’ve surely spun the wheel on that painful old number. It’s a back-alley beating, isn’t it?

So I’d suggest answering a question with a question next time someone lobs that blah-blah-blah your way: “What if we drop it already? What if we evolve and move out of the 1990s in our thinking about the game? What if we actually worry about the ways and means of improving the substantial pool of players we have?”

We have good athletes playing soccer. Certainly not all the best of the best, but we have plenty of performers touched by the better genetic angels. Now seems like a particularly good time to squash this annoying little gnat of an argument once and for all, because the success of countries like Wales and, of course, Iceland in the ongoing European Championship could and should change the conversation.

Iceland.

Iceland!

The land of 320,000 qualified for the EURO 2016. And then advanced out of group stage. And then did a number on England. (Yes, the habitually overrated Three Lions were once again, somehow, overrated … but still.) We’re all still happily dizzy from digesting it all after Iceland’s quarterfinal loss to France on Sunday.  

It is difficult to draw hard lessons from the glorious success of this smaller land, but it should be teaching us something. At very least, it’s worth asking, “What can we learn from this land’s remarkable rise?”

Here’s a wonderful place to start: focusing on the best practices of youth development – not just scanning the land, hoping to pick off “better athletes” – is the way forward. Sorry, but there’s no quick fix here. It’s about a comprehensive approach to creating better soccer players. Improving speed, mobility, agility, balance, strength, endurance, higher VO2 max and all the other markers of “athleticism” can certainly be part of it. But that stuff is worthless as a bunch of pulled teeth if elite athletes aren’t savvy in performing the game’s essential skills, or if they can’t think quickly in real time.   

(It’s actually a lesson we should have learned long, long ago from the Netherlands, the globe’s traditional gold standard in making the best from less in terms of sheer numbers. Today’s population in the lowland nation, a three-time World Cup runner-up, is just under 17 million.)

Press Association

Iceland: Always on the same page. (Press Association)

Iceland is a land known for its competitive strongmen; there is clearly some good genetics going on. But when we talk about player pools, at some point it’s just math. Larger lands with broader selection pools can certainly match such a small country in athleticism, even if a large percentage of its athletes (our own U.S. athletes, that is) select basketball or American football or whatever.

Do better athletes make better soccer players? Of course they do. Size, speed and strength make a difference in all athletics. But in a nation of 320 million, even if a relatively small percentage choose soccer as their athletic pursuit, isn’t it logical to conclude there is some righteous, fast-twitch DNA in the stream?

Look at the current pool. You don’t think Clint Dempsey is a good athlete? Or DeAndre Yedlin? Or Geoff Cameron, Jermaine Jones, Graham Zusi, Bobby Wood, Brad Guzan, Tim Howard, etc.? You’ve heard of the “beep test,” a gauge of aerobic fitness? Michael Bradley chews that thing up like the rest of us chew up Friday night pizza.

We’ve always had good athletes. Not great athletes up and down the roster, of course, but what country has that? For that matter, what team sport has that? Almost every roster in every sport has someone who can barely run from here to there without falling over – but he’s got it up top, in his noggin. And in his heart. So it works.

Investing in youth, coaching

Chile has one of the world’s best soccer teams right now. That’s Chile, with its population of 17 million. Does anybody really think Chile’s selections are collectively bigger, faster and stronger than the U.S. players? Or isn’t it more logical to conclude that they are just higher-functioning soccer players, blessed at the moment with a superior understanding of the game, quicker and more instinctive thinkers, faithfully committed to a snug fit of a system?

Sounds a lot like Iceland, doesn’t it? Obviously, Iceland isn’t Chile in overall quality. Then again, Iceland has less than 2 percent of Chile’s total population.

Read this excellent Guardian piece from January.   It’s not about Iceland looking for better athletes; it doesn’t have “better athletes.” The country has what it has, a tiny pool of appropriately aged players.

So Iceland improved its pool. It did so through strategic design of developmental systems and creation of physical facilities that could host soccer programs year-round, even in a cold, windswept northern land. This is a place where polar bears occasionally drift in from icebergs, for heaven’s sake! So, investing in the abundant indoor facilities looks like A+ problem-solving.

Of course, a table is only as useful as the food we set on it. So it really starts in Iceland with qualified coaches.  Here’s another strong piece on the secret to Iceland’s success. In both stories you’ll find mention of a remarkable percentage of UEFA A- or B-licensed coaches. There is approximately one for every 500 Icelanders. Compare that to a ratio closer to 1-10,000 for England, according to the story. And here’s the real key: this quality, advanced instruction starts early.

If you know anything about youth soccer in the United States, the following passage from the Guardian piece mentioned above will resonate (and the first part will be almost physically painful in its familiarity): “Prior to the late 1990s, soccer instruction at the youth level in Iceland was mostly conducted by parents with limited knowledge of the game. But as [successful, professional players] returned from careers abroad, they brought with them the understanding that, at the highest levels of the sport, there was a direct line from experienced youth coaching to player success.”

The quality of American youth coaching has been steadily on the rise for decades. But the premium grade instruction is generally tilted toward older age groups. Younger players, especially in the ubiquitous rec leagues, are far less likely to receive that useful instruction that builds a rock-solid base. Even competent instruction can be flawed, relatively speaking. I remember talking to FC Dallas manager Oscar Pareja about this a few years ago.

Pareja is practically a prophet of youth development; FC Dallas has built its club, a Supporters Shield contender until the final kick in 2015 and currently the MLS Western Conference leader, around a youth academy that Pareja largely constructed.

If he gets a talented 14- or 15-year old, he told me at the time, it often takes a year or so to exorcise some of the bad habits, to re-teach some of the game’s fundamentals in ways elite players needs to know them. Obviously, he’s talking about “next-level” stuff here; the players clearly know how to pass and trap. It’s the useful repetitive patterns, the practice habits, the overall way players approach to the game that Pareja was talking about. That’s coaching – and it has zero to do with siphoning off “better athletes” from other sports.

It’s a much bigger discussion, of course, but American youth soccer has way too often preferred the “better athlete” over the superior “soccer player.” It’s all about youth clubs, the profits of winning and all that … again, a much larger conversation (check out some of it here).

In fairness, remodeling youth development is a lot easier in a smaller country. Think of it like this: from concept to design to execution, remodeling a small frame house would be snap compared to a massive high-rise makeover project. We’ve been faithfully attempting to improve youth soccer for decades. And we’ve made progress. We’ve come a long way, for instance, from the 70s and 80s, when our youngest little kickers were mostly still playing 11-v-11 with goals three times their wee size.

We’ve gotten better. Our coaching is better. Yes, the collective youth system here remains flawed – fabulously so, really. But it’s better than it was, and we can only hope better yet is ahead. It starts with the right conversations, with asking the right questions. Or at the very least eliminating the white noise of the useless queries.

So, hopefully, we can eliminate this one: “What if our best athletes played soccer?”

MLS This and That

After careful scrutiny of MLS Round 17, we’d love to see …

A little more of this: More Jack Harrison, please. The NYCFC winger is a late-comer to the Rookie of the Year discussions, but quickly elbowing his way into them with two goals and two assists in his first five matches. (He was injured previously, hence the late pro debut.) It’s a delicious little bonus that at least one England newspaper is suggesting Harrison might soon need calling into his native land’s international program. Yes, it’s come to that for beleaguered England: the answers may soon be arriving from MLS.

A little less of that: Watching the standings (“tables” if you really must) as a pillar of how we consume sports. So the imbalance of games played around the league remains one of the maddening -- really one of the wacky -- elements of MLS. (Yes, this rates as “first-world” problem. Indulge us, please.) As the season is now into the second half, we all begin looking harder at the standings. They have more meaning now. So this is a good time to remind the league deciders: it’s darn hard to make heads or tails of this stuff when one team has played 15 games … but another one has played 19. Grrrrr!

A little more this: Could the Dynamo, woeful in a year and change under Owen Coyle, actually have something to say about the Western Conference playoffs? They are 1-1-3 under Wade Barrett; the only loss was a close one at Portland. They also advanced last week in the U.S. Open Cup, eliminating title-holder Sporting KC. Barrett is big on accountability (something surely learned from his year under Dominic Kinnear) and leadership. He recently handed the captain’s armband to DaMarcus Beasley, the longtime U.S. international who is performing more like a 24-year-old than the 34-year-old that he is.

A little less of that: Is anyone else getting tired of the Nigel de Jong conversations? What is there left to say? We had them when the Galaxy signed him. We had them when he brutally hacked down Portland’s Darlington Nagbe. We’ll have them again now that he’s done a number of Vancouver Blas Perez. Here’s video of the Dutchman’s latest work. He got three games for Nagbe; this one wasn’t as egregious, but given de Jong’s history, look for something similar from MLS this week.

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Steve Davis writes a weekly column for FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @SteveDavis90.