Tuesday, 10 May 2011

US Soccer Curriculum - Style and Principles of Play

The US Soccer Federation have recently published what I would call their coaching philosophy.  In their words "The curriculum is designed to improve development of players in the organized player base in the United States, concentrating on  creating more organized, age-appropriate training sessions, developing coaching practices and creating an environment that is fun for the players."

This blog is about the first part - Style and Principles of Play and is my personal view after reading this document and it should be noted that I have not read through all of the other parts of the curriculum yet.

Firstly, it must be said that any football association or federation that outlines their countries football philosophy should be commended.  The US and New Zealand are the most recent I have seen.  The Football Associations equivalent guide to young player development is 'The Future Game' document for elite and grass-roots respectively.

Any document like this is valuable to all coaches, players, parents, and others involved in football and can act as a positive template to refer to.  This is the key however.  I believe it should be referred to and not act as some kind of 'bible' to be adhered to without using your own individualism and innovation.  In the rest of the blog I hope this makes sense as I have attempted to review the Style and Principles of Play from an independent point of view.  Text shown in red is lifted directly from the US Soccer Curriculum.

Style of Play:General

Offensive style
All teams will be encouraged to display an offensive style of play based on keeping possession and quick movement of the ball.

This is a positive statement for the general style of play and is good to see in a national federation/association 'vision' document.


Quick transitions and finishing
Speed of play, avoiding over-dribbling, looking for an organized and quick movement of the ball and finishing will be encouraged in all age groups.

Unfortunately, I can see this comment being used by some as a way of preventing dribbling and running with the ball.  The intention is obviously to advise when to hold and when to release the ball to retain possession but using the word 'over-dribbling' has negative connotations and could potentially stifle experimentation and innovation in younger players.   Far too often in youth football, particularly at the 'grassroots' level I hear the words. "pass it, get rid, don't be too flash."  The encouragement of creativity and expression is crucial.


Position specific
A team must be organized defensively, keeping their specific positions in the formation. However, players will look for spaces and movements to support forward when attacking by moving away from their original positions.
Not sure about defenders being required to keep specific positions in defence and only encourage movement in the support of forward play?
I think the wording would be better if it said - "A team must be organised defensively, with  the ability and willingness to rotate positions when necessary.  When attacking, defenders should be able to overload into forward positions to gain advantage knowing that cover will be provided by defensive and attacking colleagues where appropriate".


Formations

4-3-3 formation
Teams will use the 4-3-3 formation, either in its 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-2-3 variations. Teams in the advanced stage (U15 onwards) can also use a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond in the middle. This system(4-4-2 diamond) provides more space in the wide areas of the field for the outside backs to move forward and join the attack
Again, whilst being commendable that US Soccer want to create a template for coaches to follow and a number of options are given, I feel that the above could potentially restrict innovative thinking.  Rather than 'will use' why not just say the US national team will use this system?  Teams, particularly in the development phase should not be restricted by 4 formations.  Instead adding something like "Teams should use a flexible 4-3-3 formation with its relevant variations and have the capacity to switch to other playing systems such as 4-4-2 with a diamond in the middle.  Degrees of flexibility will always be needed depending on circumstances, the players available and the opposition the team are facing.


Back 4
All formations used by the teams in 11-a-side games must keep a back 4 line. The back 4 provides consistency in defence and allows space for the outside backs to move forward when attacking.
Again it is around the word 'must' in this instance regarding a flat back four.  In most european competition the centre backs are seen as the defensive pillars. Rarely lured out of position, the general tendency is for them to appear in attacking areas exclusively for set plays and full backs to be the one to advance in attacking areas. However, I believe they should not be restricted from doing so. As mentioned previously as long as relevant rotation, cover/balance is encouraged and provided by colleagues.  If the team are losing it might be necessary to have the two full backs attacking and a holding midfielder covering in a back line of 3.

9v9
Teams playing 9v9 soccer are strongly encouraged to use the 3-2-3 formation. This formation helps players express the principles of play specified in this document. This system allows for better adaptation to a 4-3-3 formation as the players progress to 11v11.

This is a far more positive statement as it states that teams are 'strongly encouraged' rather than 'must' and it will help younger players adapt to the 11v11 version of the game.

Style of Play:Specific
In this section US Soccer describe their equivalent of the '4 Corner' model and how the style of play fits into the Technical, Tactical, Physical and Psychosocial.  This section includes a number of good points, the majority of which are used by most football associations that have produced this kind of document.  A couple of points I did notice are on the Physical section and is probably not surprising considering the US approach in the past and the undoubted physical competence of US footballers.  The US are well known for the conditioning and fitness of athletes but I feel should be careful when applying these specific aspects to the younger players.

Endurance - Individual players and teams will train to be resilient to high-intensity action. Strength & power - Strong players develop their speed more quickly, prevent injuries and are more competitive in games.
Having these statements in the core element of the specific style of play could potentially be misinterpreted by some coaches providing justification for athletic conditioning at the wrong time and worryingly at the wrong age.  Agility, balance and co-ordination for the youngest, yes, but endurance, strength and power should be sidelined until players are at the appropriate level of maturity and certainly not at the expense of technical and skill development in the youngest footballers.  I would have some kind of age appropriate element to this section which provides what proportion of time should be allocated to the relevant part of the four key components.  An example could be that at the youngest age it is 'weighted' towards the technical and psychosocial aspects and at the older ages to the tactical and physical aspects.


Principles of Play
For the coach, for the player and for the team

1.  1,2 or 3 touch maximum:Minimizing the number of touches improves the speed of play.
For me, this is controversial as I don't think this should be in the document as such a bold statement.  It completely dismisses the use of other methods of moving the ball to penetrate effectively.  It is far too one dimensional to recommend this and have it as the first point in the principles of play.

2. Keep the game simple: Do not force situations, over-dribble or be careless with the ball.
I would refer back to my point earlier regarding over-dribbling, otherwise the point is spot on.


3. Keep the ball on the ground: A ball on the ground is easier to control and can be moved more efficiently by the team.
Taken on face value I am sure most people would not have a problem with this principle, but, again it is the fact that this could potentially limit other options that must be considered when playing football.  Nobody wants to see the long ball kick and rush game but there are times when an effective pass in the air is the right option and should not simply be ignored.


4. Accuracy and quality of the pass: Passing must be firm and accurate, 
with the proper weight.

I will refer to a point that an excellent exponent of coaching, John Cartwright, has used before with regard to passing who said - "As with everything we do in the game, passes are made ‘aggressively’ not ‘sympathetically’". So yes it should be accurate and weighted but not necessarily firm.  There are times when a pass could be soft or firm.



The remainder of the Principles of Play are outlined below and include some good positive points around risk, awareness and innovation.

5.  First touch: Make a clean, controlled first touch without stopping the ball.
Take the touch away from pressure and into free space.

6. Perception and awareness: All players with or without the ball should constantly
scan the field.

7. 1v1 situations: Encourage determination to regain control of the ball in defense and keep it simple in attack by taking a touch to the side, at speed, to beat the defender.



8. Individual transition: Players must react quickly when possession change
from offense to defense and vice-versa.

9. Shooting: Always keep an eye on the goal. All players are encouraged to shoot.

10. Take risks: Soccer is an error prone sport and mistakes are part of the game
and learning process. Players are encouraged to take risks in training session
to increase the speed of play.

Summary
In summary a good read.  It is refreshing to see national associations producing a 'blueprint' for their style of play and general philosophy on the game.  US Soccer as the national federation have appropriately laid down a vision for the game in the US.  My main point would be that those involved in football should always have in mind that the information should be seen as guidance and not the complete answer.  It should help them with their coaching but not restrict them from being innovative and devising their own coaching programme based on their own players needs whilst being true to the overall aim outlined in the Style and Principles of Play.
















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