It’s far off in the future but it will be here in a developmental instant. Although the World Cup of 2026 is almost a decade away, the present is the only place where we can impact the future. Recognizing that Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams may be the “veterans” of that team gives the extremely realistic picture that while our future could be bright, it is in our best interest to make it brighter. The loftier heights of the sport world are not reached by the individual but rather by a cultural movement that serves as a base to raise the many. So the US soccer needs to realize that it’s chess, not kick ball.
The reason is that our soccer culture has gotten extremely effective at creating only pawns. Christian Pulisic is an anomaly as an American player because of his versatility and vision. Generally speaking the youth systems of the country are extremely effective at creating players who can make the next pass and not much else. A slightly dumbed down version of the beautiful game where creativity is superseded by practicality. Although pawns are necessary in the game of chess, they are unable to win the game on their own. The major pieces, like rooks and queens, give the best possibility for victory because they are dynamic and possibly game changing. Opponents must fear them because they are unpredictable. They are in the right spots because they think five moves ahead from where the play is right now. And that’s what we all need to do with the game.
The recognition that right now is not the goal. The goal looms in front of us in the distance but we can’t reach it playing kick ball. We need to be playing chess, developing rooks, queens, bishops and even knights. Seeing a path that leads to eventual checkmate will only come if we are developing enough quality pieces, not pawns for our small game.
It was many years ago but I’ve still not encountered a better example. I was the field marshal at a youth tournament in Pennsylvania. The players were under twelve years old and engaged in a very back and forth game. One team was extremely adept at the offside trap. Late in the game, there was a corner kick. The cross was cleared out of the penalty box and the defense pushed up. The ball fell to the foot of a offensive player about 30 yards from goal. He shot. The ball rocketed toward the goal and hit the post. The rebound fell to a forward who was slow getting back onside and he scored. The referee instantly called offside and awarded a free kick to the defense. The coach of the team that had the goal disallowed went ballistic. He screamed about how “ridiculous” the call was and asked about the referees sight, etc. As the field marshal I felt that it was my job to diffuse the situation in order to avoid it interfering with the game. I said, “Coach, if you’d like, I can explain to you why that was the right call.” He responded, “I know it was the right call! I’m just blowing off some steam.”
In most cases, soccer is not a life or death situation. It’s a passion, diversion, recreation, fun or even a teacher. The game has the possibility to do so many things because it garners the emotions of the people around it. There is nothing inherently wrong with emotion. We need them to live and color our lives. However emotion without any sense of reason is problematic. The word was chosen very deliberately. REASON! The reason why we’re there in the first place gets lost when we cannot control our emotions. Referees become demons. Opponents become enemies and sense of our self-interest overrides the judgment that we use elsewhere. This is not so much of a problem when it is a single person. However it seems to have become a societal norm.
The steam that so many people are letting off is clouding our vision. The ability to see what is right in front of our faces. Children. Children who are looking at us for how to act. Not just on a soccer field on Saturdays or Sundays but in their daily lives. When something doesn’t go their way, they’re supposed to have an emotion freak out session because that’s what you do. You don’t take a breath and refocus on the task at hand. You don’t see the bigger picture. You don’t recognize that human error is part of life and needs to be coped with. Those things aren’t done because they’re hard. They require effort, judgement and self-control. These skills are difficult to develop, especially when you’re a child, watching the adults act like children.
So don’t breathe in the steam, just breathe! Recognize that the children on the field have spent hours this week trying to improve their skills in order to perform for you. Put your focus on that. Double, triple or quadruple your focus on the fact that these are kids, trying to do something that is difficult. AND DIFFICULT THINGS ARE THE ONLY ONES WORTH PURSUING! So don’t produce steam, produce esteem for what everyone on that field is trying to do.
The 90s had many memorable events and people. Kurt Cobain, the OJ Simpson trial, Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton were all extremely noteworthy. Both for their own unique reasons and the media circus that followed them. It was not just that something happened but that it was perpetuated daily for probably longer than needed. One of the most ridiculous stories of the decade was the ice skating scandal involving rivals Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. For those too young to remember, the major event was an attack on Kerrigan’s knee orchestrated at least partially by Harding’s ex-husband. There was a movie released last year called “I, Tonya” that chronicles the entire episode.
Reality had to happen first in this case because even Hollywood could not have come up with a story as far fetched as this. It’s easy to look back at a time that was truly “last century” and chuckle. It’s no surprise that from such a chaotic decade sprang reality television. A weekly public reminder that even though your life might have problems, you can feel good about yourself in comparison to “those people”.
Seeing the problem is always so much easier when it belongs to someone else. Each of us has within ourselves the solutions to the problems of our friends and family members. However we all struggle with our own issues that seem so difficult. Time and distance both seem to have a clarifying effect on the problems of the world.
I’m sure that if the issue of youth soccer politics were someone else’s, each of us would have a plausible solution. Since it’s now and it’s close to us, the issues of last decade persist with even higher price tags. Children are pawns and commodities in a game that has nothing to do with soccer but rather egos and territoriality. This coming fall, an unknown number of player who want to play soccer will not have a team. Not due to a lack of resources. Not due an insurmountable distance to travel. The deciding factor will be a focus on “our club” rather than the kids. These players end up being acceptable casualties to a soccer culture that is focused on prizes that are apparent and available now.
In so many ways we are now reaping the rewards of our fast food culture. Rampant obesity, depression, anxiety and others are all symptoms of the NOW culture that we’ve begun to accept as normal. Even though many people recognize that the ultimate prizes come from long term commitment to small improvements made over years or decades, it is so much easier to sell the cash grab of today. Risking that small and almost insignificant prize of the short term seems to be almost unbearable.
So I implore you. Yep! I’m talking directly to you because as I said last week, if the USMNT doesn’t win a World Cup by/in 2026, It’s my fault! So I need some help. If you have anything to do with youth soccer in this country. Take the long term view. See how more kids playing is better for them and better for “US”. Understand that letting your best player move on to a more appropriate team may hurt your record slightly but it could also be the opportunity that makes that player’s life better, both on and off the field. Realize that your small pond is not actually a pond. It’s part of a more expansive body. Trying to keep it separate is an exercise in futility and may cause its destruction when the wrong current comes along. BE the first person to do the right thing. It’s often difficult because there is a culture of short sightedness. People are so used to being hurt that they are either on attack or defense, rarely in a mode to assess. And more than ever that’s what needs to happen.
I’m sure if this was someone else’s problem, we’d have it all figured out but it’s not. It’s ours and it’s close to our hearts. So we get blinded by the shiny thing that’s right in front of us but I swear the bigger jewels are down the road. The hardest part is foregoing the prize of now because it feels like everything.
It’s such a common conversation that in each instance, I really need to work to not get fired up. A player (or a parent) will complain to me about the fact that their coach is not playing them for __insert reason here____. Usually it is some combination of “playing favorites” or “doesn’t know what he/she is doing”. The reason why these conversations are so difficult is that the player almost invariably refuses to see that they are choosing the bench. That sentence and the title of this post must sound ridiculous but I’ll do my best to make my argument for its accuracy.
The player who is complaining about playing time is almost always ignoring the fact that they have control over the key component to their PT, themselves. When people don’t get what they want, the easiest thing to do is blame someone else or circumstances. While this is the easiest thing to do, it rarely has positive results. In these situations of complaint, I usually direct the player’s attention to how much extra time they’re putting into their skills, fitness, tactical awareness, relationship with key players, etc. Upon asking about these things, I usually get a blank stare or a halfhearted explanation of their “extra” work.
In all of my years of playing and coaching, I’ve never met a coach who kept talent on the bench without a reason. Therefore the equation of playing time becomes quite a simple one. GET SO GOOD THAT YOU CAN’T BE IGNORED! The truth of most of these situations is that the player only wants to do enough to get what they want. They do not truly want the playing time because if they did, they’d be doing all of the work to get it and a ton extra. The obstacle of the coach is just an excuse for them not to do the work.
“Thumbs before fingers!” has been a mantra of mine for years. It simply states that you need to acknowledge your contribution to any challenge before you blame someone else. By seeing your faults first, you have the power to change them. If you ignore the fact that you have any fault, you become powerless. You are completely at the mercy of the person or situation. So I implore you! Don’t put yourself on the bench! Become so good that you can’t be ignored! Give so much effort that the coach has to feel guilty about taking you off the field! Then other people can talk about you being “the coach’s favorite” but you’ll know the truth of how hard you worked to get there.
The discussion of the GOAT is always tough because it brings apples against oranges and people’s personal perspective weighs heavily on their arguments. The comparison of Messi vs Ronaldo could be a more objective conversation but adding Pele into the mix makes things much more difficult. Considering different eras and playing landscapes muddies the waters to the point where the argument says more about what the fan values rather than what the player meant in their own time. With all of those points well established from the outset, I am not at all bashful about nominating my mom as the Youth Soccer Fan GOAT! This is not a son’s love for his mother taken to the extreme. In fact, I thought my mother was one of the worst fans at the time but given years to evaluate and compare, she truly was the best.
She didn’t know the game! Some people might view this as a negative but it was a huge positive. Her best things to say from the sideline were “Kick the ball!” and “Go!” She didn’t know enough about the game to yell at the referee or opposing parents. I’m not sure that she even really took them into account. She was supremely focused on our (my brother and my) team. Despite being our parent, she cheered “Kick the ball!” for anyone on our team. Her support never wavered, even in the season where we lost every single game.
She told everyone except the coaches! I’m being serious. Everyone knew about my brother and I. Toll booth operators, people working at Wendy’s, cute girls at tournaments and many more complete strangers heard about how her sons played for the “Taygers”. We played for the “Tigers” but she always seemed to have this special pronunciation when talking about it. She sang our praises up and down the east coast even out of season. However this overwhelming promotion of her kids never reached the coaches. It was before the internet was pervasive but it didn’t happen by phone, letter or fax either. She knew better.
She always clapped at the end! Now this is not an individual thing. It was a team effort. I was lucky enough to play together with a lot of the same guys through my youth and into high school. That collective group of parents would always clap for my teammates and I upon leaving the field. The result didn’t matter. I’d like to believe that they were clapping our effort because I think we always gave that, even in the lean years.
At the time I probably took all of this for granted but now as a coach and a parent, I don’t. My view may be skewed and my mother is not actually the GOAT but she definitely was great for my time. My time as a player was better because of her. She reflected only her love for me as her son. The result of every single game was the same whether we won or lost, my mom was still my biggest fan. I think that’s something that we’re missing today. I’ve heard the words “My mom/dad is going to be so ___________.” far too often from players. Parents need to be the North Star to a child, not a feather in the wind. Even if a parent is trying to raise an elite athlete, their love should not be on the line every match. There are more than enough people around to show a child how to play the game. Parents are the first ones that can show the child how much they matter regardless of the game.