U.S. Soccer curriculum already trickling down to youth ranks
By Charles Boehm
Last year U.S. Soccer hired Claudio Reyna as the federation’s youth technical director, tasking the former Men’s National Team star with evaluating and revitalizing the nation’s approach to player development from the ground up.
Reyna unveiled the fruits of his labor, the U.S. Soccer Coaching Curriculum, at a convention this past April, urging the nation’s youth coaches to adopt a flowing, possession-based philosophy with the 4-3-3 formation as its primary tactical structure in the same slick vein as European and Spanish champions FC Barcelona.
Many observers scoffed at the idea, pointing out the futility of trying to impose an overarching style on the unruly, results-oriented world of elite youth soccer. Others doubted whether America players could master the required technical ability any time soon.
But those critics might have been surprised to find ample signs of movement in Reyna’s direction at Prince William Soccer, Inc.’s Toys For Tots Tournament in Virginia last weekend. With the fall season close at hand, teams in age groups as young as under-14 could be seen departing from the standard 4-4-2, experimenting with other tactical shapes or merely introducing new ideas for children beginning to learn the game’s finer points.
“Absolutely,” said VSA Heat Gold 96 coach Larry Chang, whose team dominated the tournament’s U15G Black division with a 4-0 record and +16 goal differential. “Ball mastery is clearly first, but we’ve worked enough over the years that many of the girls are gaining confidence there, so we’re starting to put together many of the tactical plays that you see at the higher levels.”
And this was no coincidence, as several coaches cited 4-3-3 as the future of U.S. player development.
“We have a bunch of new players and we’re trying a new formation – a move to what the U.S. Soccer model is for the youth, 4-3-3,” said David Zatt, coach of Gunston Elite’s U18 Ladies side, who finished with a 2-1 record in Flight B of Toys For Tots’ U19 Girls division.
“So we’re trying that out. It seems to be working pretty well. It is a little bit awkward for some of our players who aren’t accustomed to it, but I think they’re getting used to it. We had a scrimmage last week and the tournament here is going to help quite a bit preparing for the season.”
As the U.S. Men’s National Team’s halting performances under new coach Jurgen Klinsmann have revealed, the move from 4-4-2 to more nuanced shapes like 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and related alignments can challenge even the most elite professionals, so youth coaches must introduce the new ideas gradually.
“It is advanced, and that’s why we take it a game, a practice, a tournament at a time. They haven’t really even dealt with a four-man defense yet, so my goal is just to get the defensive line set,” explained Beach FC U15 Girls Black coach Emily Kittleson. “With the 4-3-3, that’s more of a club push. We want to push the 4-3-3 and it probably does have something to do with the national team push for that now.
“Right now I’m still sticking with a 4-4-2, because they’re starting to learn the need for the outside players, what kind of runs you make as an outside player, and how the center mids need to transition the ball and find those outside players, find the space for them to run on to. That can be transitioned into the 4-3-3 pretty easily, because my two outside mids will probably play those outside forward positions and you’re still trying to find space wide, the transition into space.”
Kittleson, a former standout player at William & Mary whose team ran up an 0-2-1 record at Toys For Tots, hopes to have her players comfortable with 4-3-3 by the end of the season but is prioritizing defensive shape at this point.
Obviously, actions speak louder than words and many coaches will do what it takes to win games, and thus placate expectant parents, rather than implement these sorts of advanced tactical concepts. But the fact that Reyna’s ideas have already begun to filter down to youth club competition probably bodes well for the future.