O’Sullivan: The missing ingredient in North American soccer talent development

In 2005, the coaches at one of the English Premier League’s top youth academies held one of their semiannual meetings to decide upon which players they would keep for the upcoming cycle, and whom they would let go. As they were evaluating their players –many of whom would go on to star not only in the EPL, but internationally as well – they were stuck on one particular 15-year-old boy.

He had been a good player when he first entered their academy, but recently he had grown a bit and was no longer scoring well in their physical testing, nor playing like he had a few years earlier. In fact, the once-speedy player was now only the seventh-fastest kid on the team!

+ READ: O’Sullivan: How to raise a lion chaser

These incredibly qualified and highly respected coaches were torn; some wanted to keep him and offer him a scholarship to continue his training; others thought they should let him go. It was touch and go.

To break the tie, the coaches brought in their chief scout, a man named Rod Ruddick, to help them decide. Ruddick was the scout who had found the boy play at age 9 and had first invited him to join. He also had a hunch that the player was going through a difficult time as he grew, and that soon the kid he remembered would reemerge. He cast his tie-breaking vote to keep the player (read more about Ruddick here).

Within two years the player would make his first team senior debut for the club, and become the youngest international player in his country’s history. In 2007 he was transferred to Tottenham Hotspur for a fee that eventually became about $10 million, and in 2013, that speedy winger proved that the staff at Southampton were right to keep him, as he became the most expensive signing in world soccer history when he was bought by Real Madrid for more than $131 million.

16 year -old Gareth Bale at Southampton

His name was Gareth Bale.

The story of Gareth Bale, and other late developing athletes such as Danish international soccer player Simon Kjaer (whom I have written about here), Michael Jordan, or NFL quarterback Steve Young, are worth retelling because they beg the question, “Would these kids have made it today in the United States?”

Would we keep a player who seemed to be declining in ability? Would we keep a player that did not help us win today? Can we identify not just the talent that shines bright, but the talent that whispers?

Currently, in many places the answer is no, we would not keep a player who is not helping right now, because American youth sports is missing the most important prerequisite of talent development.


With our endless obsession for winning and younger and younger ages, and the accompanying cuts that go into forming select and all star teams at ages as young as 7, we have created a system that goes against all the science and best practices of player development. That science says that children develop at different rates, and the best way to let the cream rise to the top is keep as many of them around as long as possible. Yet we do the exact opposite in our quest to win today. We select talent instead of identifying it (click here to read more on that).

We focus on today instead of tomorrow.

We pick the biggest, fastest and strongest kids, focusing on athleticism instead of technique, grit and coachability.

We get rid of kids who don’t help us win in the short term.

We celebrate team achievements at pre-pubescent ages, as if that has anything to do with long-term athletic development.

We hold kids back from playing up with a developmentally appropriate age group, instead keeping them so they can dominate – and we can win – at a younger age.

+ READ: O’Sullivan: The race to nowhere in youth sports

In a nutshell, we put the needs of team success over the needs of individual player development, and put winning now ahead of individual long-term player needs.

We have lost our patience to develop players because we can get away with it. In the US, we are blessed with such huge numbers of athletes across a variety of sports. We can do a lot wrong and still compete on the international stage. Yet the world is catching up in sports we have traditionally dominated (baseball, track and field, basketball).

In sports that we are newcomers to, such as soccer, countries such as Uruguay and Portugal, with only a small percentage of our population, are producing higher-quality players and equal or better teams. Why? A variety of reasons to be sure, not the least of which is because they have the patience to develop talent.

Our biggest obstacle to patient talent development is our obsession with winning. I have met many coaches and clubs that tout their focus on player development who then proudly posts a picture of their 8 year old state championship team on their website.

To produce these “winning” teams, we cut kids from our programs in elementary school, essentially telling them they are not good enough. We form “A” and “B” teams at 7 or 8 years old, and lock in kids to teams for an entire year, even though players this age can change so much in a month or two.

And who gets cut from these pre-pubescent teams? Usually the kids who were born more than six months after the arbitrary calendar cutoff are the ones who are let go. They are at a disadvantage through puberty because they are a little bit smaller, a little bit weaker and slightly less mature. A few months can make a significant difference prior to their growth spurt (for example, a 13-year-old boy has a six-year developmental age swing, meaning he could have the body of a 10-year-old or a 16-year-old!).

ScholesIf you want to make it as a youth player, you have a far greater likelihood of being selected to a top team if you are “old” for your age. (To be fair, this is not just an American problem. In England, most youth soccer academy players are born in September through December (age cutoff is September 1) while in Spain (January 1 cutoff), most are born January through April.)

Talent identification is certainly not easy. Take for example retired Manchester United great Paul Scholes, of whom his future manager Alex Ferguson said, after watching him in a youth game, “He has got no chance – he’s a midget.”

+ READ: When should your soccer kid ‘play up’? A conversation with youth national teamer Frankie Tagliaferri

At age 16, Scholes struggled with asthma and injuries. He was technical and creative, but athletically he was behind the others. As his academy director Lev Kershaw stated:

“He was a little one. He had asthma. No strength. No power. No athleticism. No endurance. ‘You’ve got a bleeding dwarf,’ I remember somebody said to [former youth team coach] Brian Kidd. ‘You will eat your words,’ said Kidd. If Scholes had been at a lesser club, they would have got rid of him and he would probably not be in the game now. We stuck with Scholes, a wonderful technician.”

Over the next 20 years, Scholes played over 700 games, scored over 150 goals, and won over 20 league championships, cups and two UEFA Champions League titles. He became arguably the best player of his generation, earning plaudits upon his retirement from every top player in the world. All of this only happened because Manchester United’s youth setup had patience.

American coaches need to practice this same patience. Let all your players play; it you pick them, then play them! Understand that development is not a straight line, and that kids will have good periods and bad ones. Know that not every child learns just because you taught them something; teaching and learning are not the same thing. Stop being in such a hurry to pick “elite” teams and take the time to develop more players instead of a select few. The list goes on and on.

Now I am certainly not casting all the blame on coaches who are in too big a hurry.

Parents, you need patience as well. The sky is not falling when your son or daughter does not make the top team at 9 years old. In fact, most sports organizations I know have a 75 percent turnover rate on their top team from age 11 to 18. The vast majority of the players in the “A” group at age 10 will not be there in five or six years, so relax.

Actually, be glad. Your child is far better off being one of the top players on a “B” team then sitting the bench on the top team. He needs to play. Winning championships does not matter much to a kid who played no part. If a young player is not injured, and making a full commitment to attend training, he should be playing! If he is not playing at least half a game, you really should consider another team, because the one you are on is not concerned with everyone’s development.

Parents also need to be patient with coaches. Coaches have a tough job. Your child does not get 100 percent of their attention, they get 1/16 of it, or one divided by whatever number of kids is on the team. They will not see every little thing you do.

+ READ: Best advice for soccer parents: Keep quiet on the ride home

Great coaches will also push your child out of the comfort zone, and perhaps even make her unhappy once in a while. That is their job, because it promotes learning. Your child needs to play different positions, she needs to have different roles, she needs to both start and come off the bench. A youth team that has the same coach for 10 years is not a team that is developing players; it is embedding them in roles and a level of comfort that hinders development. Learning does not happen overnight, and takes a variety of forms, so embrace change, be patient and let it happen.

WAGSQUAL-Broll-parentsParents, one day you will look back on your child’s youth sports experience, and the things you will be thankful for are unlikely to be the U11 Joe Smith Super Duper Elite Cup championship.  They will be the lessons your child learned from both good times and times of adversity.

You will be thankful for the lessons your kids learned from being surrounded by positive adult role models, not the ones who only focused on the now.

You will look fondly upon the times your child struggled and overcame obstacles, the friends she made, and the positive memories that sport can bring.

You will be thankful that you had the patience to take the good and the bad, and to let your child develop as children do; not in a straight line, but in a squiggly, messy, line, improving, struggling, failing, moving on, and all the while on a journey with an unknown destination, but a well-charted path of both success and failure.

If we truly want to be a country that develops talent, instead of churning through it and getting lucky that we have enough players to still compete at the end, then its time to start developing talent the right way.

It is time to practice patience.

Because the next Gareth Bale or Paul Scholes might be on your team, huffing and puffing, stumbling and failing, and not yet showing signs of future greatness, yet bursting with talent just waiting to blossom. All they need is time!

All they need is patience!

Please leave your comments and thoughts below on how we can be more patient in American youth sports.

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By | September 2, 2014 | 18 Comments | Tags: , , , ,


  1. Futsal coach says:

    My son is currently a 15 year old elite club player. If I had to do it all over again, he would not see an outdoor field until he was 11 or 12; instead, I would have him exclusively playing futsal. Futsal develops the technical skills, and decision-making/problem-solving in tight space with compressed time. The rules of futsal (especially the short “field”, limiting physical contact) create a more level developmental playing field for growing players.

    There is too much BS in the US youth soccer culture. Clubs and coaches are rewarded for winning not for developing players. Kids are cut from teams and written off long before they reach their potential. Even at the US Soccer Development Academy, ostensibly in existence solely to develop top US players, clubs that don’t field winning competitive teams lose their Academy charters. The problem with the USSFA system is that ultimately, winning trumps development, and that completely short-circuits the objective of the system.

    To me, futsal is a key missing development component. kids should play futsal year-round and the younger ages, not just during the winter.

    • British trainer in DMV says:

      Totally agree with you.

    • John O'Sullivan says:

      Well said Futsal coach, I think I am headed down that path if my son chooses to continue with soccer

      • Just a parent says:

        It’s a nice complement and in my experience lends itself better to the “free play” model. Still have futsal balls in garage with mini pop up nets from years of pick up games in our street and neighborhood tennis court. Everyone would join for fun. Still go 2 on 2 when kids home from college. Unfortunately futsal also has leagues, tournaments, national teams, etc.

  2. Yeatts330 says:

    So what?

    Don’t get me wrong – I completely agree with the article and myriad articles like it on many of the soccer and youth sports websites and blogs.

    But what do we do about it? How do we get it to change?

    Mr. O’Sullivan can write his articles and we can comment and agree but what we need to figure out is how can effect change in America. How can we get the parents of the 8 year olds just starting in The System to demand something better and refuse to buy into it. What is the safety net for their kid when they don’t chase what all his friends are chasing.

    I get the articles. I enjoy them. But let’s change something! The big challenge is to create a systemic change – through USYS, US Club Soccer (and why can’t we all just get along), the school systems, the various multitude of leagues and clubs, etc.

    What’s next?

  3. British trainer in DMV says:

    Great article ! That’s why I ask why play tournaments (win at any cost) at u9, u10, u11, u12 ages?
    When those ages are vital for development.

  4. Western MD Soccer Coach says:

    As a coach it is better for me, my club and my players if I can put a group together and have the core group stay together for an extended period of time (3 – 5 years or more). As a coach it is better for me, my club and my players if the teams are non-flighted until at least U12, I would prefer U14 but that is a hard sell. As a coach it is better for me, my club and my players if the parents, league administrators, club administrators and players understand that until we get to U14, I can care less about wins/loses, I only want to see improvement. I have often told my players and my parents that just because we are winning 10 – 0 doesn’t mean we are playing a good game. This is especially true at the younger ages and small sided games where one player can dominate a game. There is nothing more satisfying than having a team or individual players that show continuous improvement during a season or group of seasons. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing a team or player with great potential and not being able to help them improve. With that said, I HATE to lose, so I have had to learn to redefine what winning and losing is. As a youth coach winning should not be about the final score of one game, it should be about the cumulative growth of each player and each team. This is a concept that is difficult to accept, and even though I preach it, it is sometime difficult to practice. We get caught up in the raw emotions of the game or the personal competitiveness with the coach from the rival club and we lose perspective. We see sports on television where they are lauding the winners and pointing out the coaches career record, but as I have discovered I am not a coach that is ever going to appear on television coaching a team. I am a coach who’s job is to prepare players to move to the next level of play, to prepare them to deal with the ups and downs that come with playing competitive sports and in life in general. My biggest recognition comes on Sr. day at the local high school with the players I have coached thank me for my support/coaching or when a parent comes to me and says “thank you Johnny/Jane had a fantastic experience playing for you”.
    Unfortunately, we live in a competitive world that demands immediate results, if our U10 team loses too many games they are relegated, even though it was their first season together and all of the kids were just moving up to U10. Clubs don’t want to play non-flighted teams because the parents will pull the “superior” players to go to a club that wins more games. Clubs don’t want players to play up in age, even if their skill dictates it because they want to dominate the age group, even if that isn’t in the best interest of the kid. Parent’s don’t want to go through the team growth process, especially at the U14 and above age groups, because a new team will take it’s lumps the first season or two and that means lower brackets at tournaments and less chances to be seen by college coaches. High level college coaches don’t want to take the time to mine the lower levels of tournaments for hidden talent – as a side note, there are only so many games a coaching staff can see and so many players to evaluate that this isn’t totally their fault. Club coaches want the most athletic players because winning pads their resumes, which leads to higher coaching fees or possibly coaching jobs at bigger clubs.

    • John O'Sullivan says:

      Well said coach. In other words, too many people would rather continue on a youth sports path that serves the needs of the parents, coaches and clubs – the adults – at the expense of the athletes because it is easier, and better for business. So sad. Thanks for your always thoughtful comments.

  5. Just a Parent says:

    Always well written. I believe the first sentence of the article sums up what the missing ingredient is. It was not lost on me that this appeared same day as an update on two young boys from VA in Fulham Youth Academy.

  6. Thom says:

    If I am reading this correctly, it seems as though O’Sullivan is inadvertently poking holes in the “we suck at soccer because we’re so good at other sports” thought balloon. That is one area where he and I can agree.

    O’Sullivan mentions Portugal (FIFA ranked 11th) and Uruguay (FIFA ranked 6th), and I’ll add two more Belgium (FIFA 5th ranked) and the Netherlands (FIFA 2nd Ranked), as soccer development success stories. Those countries have produced some of the world’s most spectacular players and yet the Netherlands is somewhere between Florida and Pennsylvania in terms of population, Portugal and Belgium have populations about equal to Ohio, and Uruguay’s population is just over that of Chicago. I assure you that football, baseball, and basketball are not siphoning off so much athletic talent that the United States is only capable of producing a FIFA top 20 team.

    Our problem is that our experts want our kids to be experts at everything (see many of O’Sullivan’s own “specialization is Evil” articles). And, O’Sullivan alludes to the other major obstacle to American athletic success when he says “We pick the biggest, fastest and strongest kids, focusing on athleticism instead of technique, grit and coachability.”

    Size matters in the US, bigger is always better. It’s always been that way for the other sports, and now if you look at youth soccer fields across the country you’ll see teams dominated by the very largest kids. There are a wealth of books written about the virtues of birthing our children in August over other months because they will be a little bigger, a little older, a little more developed they the other children when they get to school or start playing sports.

    • John O'Sullivan says:


      Thanks for your comments. I think you miss one of my main points which is that size should not matter prior to age 16 or so (when kids are done growing) if we really want to be competitive internationally. Look at the world’s best players over the last few years (Messi, Xavi, Iniesta for example), most of them are very small by “American standards.” Our big 10 year old relies on physicality to succeed, yet when others catch up he washes out because he has no technique. Yet we keep him and cut the tiny, technical kid because he cannot compete physically yet.

      I also have never advocated for multi sport expertise, just participation. Until I see science and research showing the benefits of early single sport specialization I will continue to advocate for a varied sports background. It is the path that all the research I see gives a child the best chance to have a healthy sports experience.

  7. SoccerEnthusiastDad says:

    The underlying question is: why are we so obsessed with winning, as opposed to patient player development? Is it primarily cultural (the American “way”)? Is such our destructive emphasis on winning driven by parent beliefs (however misguided) that their club team MUST win so it can progress to the top of the elite club pyramid, so that little Suzy can be seen by college coaches when she is in the 10th grade? Or is it because winning track records are a career requirement for Club coaches who are striving to get hired at the next level, at higher salaries etc?

    • ChelseaFan says:

      SoccerEnthusiastDad: I think you ask two very pertinent questions and I think the answer is both. There’s the parent rat-race of trying to position their kids into the path of college coaches AND there are also coaches who are trying to build a winning record to make a name for themselves. Sadly, I’ve seen coaches lie to parents, manipulate parents and players, pick fights with coaches within their own club just to keep the players THEY want in the belief THEY will be the coach winning state cup and regionals if only they own the top talent. I’ve seen parents pick fights with other parents, whisper in the ears of the coaches to try to get other players removed or benched, buy lavish meals and alcohol for coaches, gain access to team management positions and manipulate rosters, and become verbally abusive to their own players for the above reasons. There is a lot to be said for pool systems within clubs. When you live in an area where there is wide variation of team level, the coaches would carefully select rosters to match the opposition–not to win, but to keep their players challenged. Example: when one of two teams in an age group is scheduled to play a weaker league team, stronger players in the pool are removed from the roster so the less developed players get more playing time and have to win on their own. When one of the teams is up against a really strong team, the coaches put more of the dominant players on the roster, but never full strength. The point was always to work hard for the win. The interesting result was that the clubs which stratified their age groups as early as 12 never really performed as well at regional tournaments as the club who mixed and matched player ability in order to keep it challenging. Additionally, the club hangs onto a wider group of players so that if the elite group loses players to injury or family relocation, there are hard working players developed to fill the gap.

      • Yeatts330 says:

        ChelseaFan, et al.

        So what is next?

        I agree with these articles and enjoy reading them but usually feel like, on this site, this is preaching to the choir. What is the next step for things to actually change? I think that is where the secret sauce lies. How can we effect the type of change we want to see so that those parents/coaches focused on winning too young or all of the other evils we rail against have few options and wither on the vine?

        There is too much variance. Yes – there are “pool” systems that work well but it isn’t across the board. The same can be said of independent teams or flighted teams. Any system (pools, flighted, non-flighted, etc.) will work when you have a good DOC/coach/parents. Pools or A/B set-ups work great if your child is objectively in the upper third. Many middle third and lower third parents won’t be quite as thrilled (but no coach will tell them that their kid has no chance to be in the top third and and that they are just being kept around in case of an injury to a top player and to subsidize the A team.

        So, everyone, what do we do next. When do we turn articles and comments into some sort of action. What is the ice-bucket challenge of youth soccer?

  8. Fernando says:

    So true. I personally have seen so much talent go down the drain due to them not being surrounded by folks that know how to nurture.

  9. Yeatts330 says:

    Great article.

  10. soccermom#6 says:

    As always, an excellent article. I enjoyed reading it very much.

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