Commentary

The bottom of the soccer pyramid

Photo: Chris Gibbons

The grass on this field is as nice as any I’ve played on in my 40 years.

Three widths of carefully lined, cleanly leveled, meticulously trimmed green shoots, and a ball being pinged around each one. Well… pinged around two of the three, I should say. On my field, there are eight players and a cloud of dust.

Welcome to the bottom of the American soccer pyramid: U-9 Boys travel soccer in suburban Philadelphia.

In my day

Any story of the way things are has to start with the way they were.

When I was a kid, soccer as an 8 year old included a reversible pinnie with the screen printing “Biddy Soccer League” on it, mandatory mouth guards, and halftime orange slices. The only traveling we did was to the next neighborhood over, timeless match ups like Boalsburg against Park Forest.

Today, the attire is a custom home and away kit from Soccer.com, shin guards for everyone, and a “bring your own water” league rule. Away days in Malvern might be an hour for some parents – both ways (and this is the lowest of the three travel tiers in this age group. The kids who’ve developed early? Weekend excursions from the Brotherly Suburbs to the the nation’s capitol, central New Jersey, and parks unknown in Maryland).

As it was, the first practice of the season was on the Tuesday before Saturday’s game, at some point after Labor Day. As it is, this first practice is three full months before any league game. That seems like a lot, though when that impossibly far-off time comes, at least official scores won’t be kept (and aren’t until U-13).

To say I wasn’t at all prepared for this when I went to the preseason coaches meeting is an understatement. A lot has changed.

Just like it was in my day however, and no matter the tier, these bright-eyed kids are still learning the basics.

Kicking and running… sometimes

Practice starts with a scrimmage – what better way to assess individual talent than to see it in a tumbled scrum of limbs, like when Calvin and Hobbes get into a fight.

Out of the chaos, some clarity.

One of the kids is a veritable Dax McCarty, buzzing around the midfield with shock of red hair, getting stuck in any chance he gets. On the ball, he is burying his teammates with his signature (and perhaps only) move: the cut back.

Another is more a bespectacled Yaya Toure – eighty percent legs, strides as tall as some of his teammates, and enough power to move the proverbial pile. The ball always ends up at his feet, as do a wake of toppled teammates.

Most of the gathered young men are a lot like my kid though: growing into their bodies, trying to figure out how to turn their hips in order to hit the ball with their instep (and settling for toe pokes as the ninety minutes of training tires on), and asking if we can “practice hat tricks.” That’s an actual request and, frankly, I don’t know what that means exactly. But we did practice juggling because one of the Coopers asked – there is more than one Cooper, and the team record for keepy-uppy is 3 at the time of publication.

To be serious, this is the most organized league I’ve ever been a part of – almost jarringly so.

There are over 50 teams across the ages, divisions, and gender separations, all led by volunteer parents who (mostly) have some level of USSF teaching license. For our first practice, there was the head coach, an assistant (me), and another part-time assistant who goes back and forth between this age group and that of his older twin boys. Nothing is accidental, everything is planned, and though most of it is player-driven, even that’s by design.

The parents who aren’t volunteering are clustered under some trees, chasing the widening shade. There aren’t any orange slices that I can divine, but plenty of emails being checked and quick glances toward the playground to make sure the younger siblings in attendance are doing alright.

My youngest is among that bunch, and she keeps running across the field to show me the flower she’s picked or to steal some of her brother’s water. It’ll be her turn to put the boots on next year, and since she’s half ballerina, half middle linebacker… well, opponents beware.

Is enough too much?

By the time we get to fall, we’ll have had nearly as many practices as my high school soccer team did in all of our formal preseason – again, this is the lowest tier of U9s we’re talking about here.

Frequent PSP commenter el Pachyderm has opined on these pages more than once about the state of the American soccer pyramid – rarely in glowing terms. Too much structure, like what I’m butting up against first hand. From that structure, too much predictive or methodical playing and a focus on game-winning, but not enough “beautiful game” in the process.

He’s certainly not the only voice in this chorus of reform.

To be fair, we’re not in the thick of that yet, but it’s clearly on the horizon. We went from lumpy 4-a-side matches on a dirt field in the city to this in a few months – it’s a lot to take in.

And yet…

I’d have killed for a pitch like this as a kid (I was sure I’d end up the starting quarterback for our local college, irrespective of the fact that I didn’t like to get tackled and topped out as a high schooler in the 140s for weight). Three supportive dads, showing me how to plant my foot to deliver a controllable pass? Incredible – who could ask for more?

And really, I remember all the good coaches I had along the way (almost as much as the bad ones).

So maybe this is great, maybe this is a trifecta of things I want (time with my kids, furthering my soccer education, and time away from a laptop or work email), maybe I’m the grumpy old man here.

Let them play!

Or maybe not, as come fall it’ll be two nights a week of practice and games on Saturday – plus the girl’s intramural league, which I’ll also be assistant coaching. Maybe I shouldn’t get ahead of myself.

My goal for them? To get out of the house, play organized sports, and more than anything, try different ones each season. That’s more manageable.

To that end, one practice in and it’s been wildly successful so far…

But ask me again in the fall.

13 Comments

  1. Nice exposition, appreciated from a parent with kids at a similar place in their sports careers. Regarding seasonality, it seems youth soccer is now very much an 11-month commitment, requiring early specialization to be competitive. As much as I’d like for my kids to get the cross training and variety of other sports, that doesn’t seem possible, and as long as they’re having fun, it might possibly be OK…

  2. Zizouisgod says:

    The Youth Industrial Sports Complex is a real thing. There’s really no need for the level of travel that some of these youth sports teams are doing right now. Perhaps when they get to their mid teens, some travel is warranted. However, until they reach that age, it should be more basics with unstructured play. They just need time to have fun with the ball.

    Lastly, bad fields make better and more adaptable players who can easily transition to playing on good pitches. In my experience, the opposite doesn’t hold true.

  3. Scott of Nazareth says:

    Congrats and best of luck to you Chris! I never played the game growing up, but ended up coaching my own kids and their friends and will cherish every minute of it now that they’ve graduated.
    .
    Absolutely a lot of debate and valid ideas on development out there. To me the most important thing at U9 is putting the FUN in fundamentals. Happy, laughing kids will come back to the next practice, the next scrimmage, the next game and the next season. So long as they love the game, the skills will come about on their own because they’ll be driven by that love to continuously improve their game.
    .
    I’m actually a little jealous that you’re starting this journey with your kids. Enjoy every moment – it goes by in a flash!

  4. It’s always all in the execution. Having “practices” during the summer can be a helpful way to get kids together and simply playing. It was my experience some percentage of the team was always away on vacation and we’d pile in with another squad to get a decent scrimmage. There’s definitely no need for traveling far and wide for comp and worrying about wins when the kids are so young. My son stayed with our exceptionally inexpensive neighborhood club that played basically in a 30 minute radius through U12 and is now enjoying success in MLS NEXT.

  5. el Pachyderm says:

    The deeper into the wormhole I travel the more convinced I am, ball watching players become ball watching coaches and these coaches, unable to create a pathway to a first team are factioned into a win mentality as metric to prove success. Due to US Soccer policy, winning is the metric that ultimately guides consumers. It’s a tough road Chris.
    .
    The top of the pyramid appears to be humming along, I mean truly was not Jack McGlyn resplendent last night in a USYNT CONCACAF outing against Canada?
    .
    The under layers of the pyramid however are a mire of well intentioned grassroots clubs thst by and large get left behind and higher level clubs monetizing your child and calling it—-DEVELOPMENT. These same ball watching players become ball watching coaches become ball watching Directors with a hyper fascination for the athleticism of the American youth.
    .
    Three things I’ll leave this post with… if I had it to do over, I NEVER would have stepped over the edge of the event horizon of US Soccer. I woulda put the money and time into a more family centered activity.
    .
    Second… which is vitally important as it relates to these youngest children entering the crucible and make no mistake it is a crucible… I sent this text to a fellow soccer parent recently…

    .
    {I have a buddy who’s taken his kid to Fundacion Marcet, Spain for multiple years. A very well respected Spanish training center. His son is undersized… been on the bottom of boots here like bubble gum. Good player though. During one of the trips, he paid for a soup to nuts evaluation of his kid. When it was over they handed him a 7 page report. Seven pages.
    .
    He read through the report, asked the guy why is there nothing in here about ‘physical’ metrics. Guy from Marcet / Spanish FF said, we don’t even consider the physical tools of a player until they are 16. Let alone evaluate that player on them.
    .
    Oh man. Meanwhile in this twilight zone it’s pretty much the absolute single distinguishing factor in player evaluation. Hurts the soul.}
    .
    Three…. Do not be one of the many INSANE and when I say insane I mean INSANE parents I see every weekend. Simply sit back observe, start and end EVERY soccer conversation you have with your child no matter your level of involvement and expertise to help the child improve- with one sentence.
    .
    .
    “I love to watch you play.”
    .
    I love the article Chris. Well done.

    • How would you have done it differently? I’m genuinely curious.

      And thank you.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Right on.
        .
        I was a golfer Chris. Pretty good one too. Ida joined the country club within walking distance to my house, pool… good practice facilities and quite likely the son I have playing footy at a very high level with the remarkable work ethic woulda just as easily fallen in love with the game of golf had that been the past time we first engaged in.
        .
        The untold thousands of dollars I spend on soccer every year I would have funneled into a country club membership which come out a wash in the end financially. Yup. Given my kids that access. The golfers would golf. The pool goers would pool go. A blending of them both for us all. Taught them what I know. Played with them a bunch. And never interfered with them while playing. Invented crazy games on the range and course. Allowed them to problem solve with their swings. Hired the pro to be sure their swings were honed and technically sound… then chased our summers playing event after event on the AJGA around the Tri-States.
        .
        There is no subjectivity in golf. Provided there is a modicum of access and availability…and a kiddo with a bit of loner in him like my #3 … well- the numbers never lie. You can either go low or not and that determines the pathway forward for a player. Totally objective sport.
        .
        This is Par. This is your score in relation to par.

  6. Deez Nuggs says:

    Thanks for this , Chris. Brought a mist to the eye as I remembered the great times I had with my son at games and practice… but especially tournaments. I cherish those memories….
    .
    Even though my son walked out and slammed the door on club soccer. A few bad coaches and a few bully teammates left a sour taste in his mouth. For awhile I thought he would never play competitive games again.
    .
    But he went out for the team in High School. Made varsity as a freshman. I can point to some of that “development” getting him there. (Even not playing even once through a year and a half of pandemic.) But the most important thing is he’s having a great time with a real team and loving the game again.
    .
    I’ll second pachy here… try to keep judgements about a performance to yourself and just tell them you love to be there. Best advice.

  7. When looking through the lens at US soccer, understand that in Germany 75% of the national team are born in the 3 months around the age change. (worse in Hockey) If you are young in your bracket, it is a hard row to hoe, because coaching goes to the older more mature players. It is not just here.

    • Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this in hockey in Canada. Persistent inequity.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Funny thing about that – there is compelling evidence the players who actually make it to the professional ranks and or become national team players tend to be those 14-20% late Q3 and Q4 players their entire youth development lives. There is something in having to fight scratch and claw for every ounce of respect you get along the way that clearly creates a different mindset places a pretty sizable chip on the shoulder. I am banking our experience on the truth of it to be honest. My kid is late Q4… and some day when all the testosterone has finally been doled out evenly I’m gonna have a 6’4” 195 lb stud who’s been told he’s not good enough through the whole thing. We’ll see.
        .
        The motto has become. Fuck Them.

    • Wonder how it will shake out for the kids who were originally in the August to July age group and then shifted to calendar year. My son was young for the first five years of his Travel soccer experience and then became one of the older guys.

  8. I appreciate all of you sharing this post. I coached my 3 sons’ soccer teams (and baseball and basketball teams) either as head coach or assistant when all 3 were growing up. I have coached my 8 year-old grandson’s team (in two separate leagues) for the last two years. One of my three sons played on a B-level travel team from age 10 through 13 after which he decided to play American football. I love soccer, but I don’t think that we are coaching it correctly. We focus way too early on the game, whether it is small-sided or not and not enough on the skills. To be sure, it is a lot easier to manage a game than to teach skills, and that is an issue. We need to make learning the skills fun with some degree of competition, but mostly competition with oneself (meaning improvement). The best lessons from sports are that 1) persistence usually pays off; 2) it’s OK to ask for help when you get stuck; 3) your gained skills make the game more fun and challenging.

    What I saw at the travel team level was that many of those kids who were the most skilled at single-digit ages dropped out well before high school, and didn’t even try out for the high school soccer team. There is clearly something wrong with that. Too much competition at too early an age? Possibly. But the one missing element is not enough fun. As a youth coach I constantly reminded myself that Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team as a freshman. We who coach need to be agents of improvement, not talent evaluators.

    Thanks to all of you who coach (and who will coach) for the right reasons. None of us knows who on the team may be the next professional. But we can teach kids that improving skills is something they can do, and that is a valuable life lesson.

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