Are youth players being put in ‘positions’ to succeed?

As we approach the end of the youth soccer season for many who aren’t lucky enough to spend their summers in West Virginia playing Regionals and other tournaments/leagues going through June and July, I wanted to take some time to write about something I’ve noticed a lot of over the last few seasons, which is player positions.

A good coach, a good team, and a good club are able to create a consistent environment where youth players are able to excel. The players are put in a position to succeed. They have consistent and quality training facilities, a consistent message from their youth coach(es) who have hopefully been able to keep the same core team together through multiple age groups, and they have parents who don’t put too much pressure on them to obtain college scholarships. They are put in positions to develop at their own pace, learn the importance of competing, and are ready to do whatever to help the team succeed, even if that means giving up playing time so others can get a chance on the pitch.

If you’re reading this and thinking to yourself that this sounds like a wonderful land of unicorns and rainbows where 100% of youth soccer players have every opportunity to develop and excel, then I would probably agree with you.

The honest fact, from my past year of coaching two teams in EDP (one in National League, another in EDP D3 under National League), is that this consistent development path is hardly ever followed by the majority of youth soccer players.

By creating multiple leagues which are seen by many as the “pinnacle” of youth soccer, it’s my opinion that development in this country may be taking a step backward, due to the lack of consistent coaching at young ages, and a constantly changing youth soccer landscape. But for anyone who follows us on Twitter, this is hardly a revelation. We’ve expressed these opinions on multiple occasions. Once the Development Academy was torn down, there are now two major leagues for “elite” youth soccer players: MLSNext, and ECNL (which is expanding their regional leagues as well). I won’t get into specifics in regards to leagues, but what I will say is that this change in the overall youth soccer landscape has encouraged parents and players, more than ever, to take a detour from their development plan and look for greener pastures, in an attempt to gain more “visibility” by college coaches, with leagues promising they provide a “proven pathway” to collegiate soccer.

For the first few years of my coaching career, I spent time as an assistant coach in US Soccer Development Academy. I then spent 3 seasons as an assistant coach with a USYS/EDP (and later ECNL) club team which was already competing for State Cups and making appearances at National Championships. For these combined 6 or 7 seasons, we never had a problem with players wanting to leave, because we were either already at the top of the pyramid, or a strong enough team that players knew they were developing.

Fast forward to this season, my first season as a head coach at a smaller lesser-known youth soccer club in Washington, DC were I could get more experience as a head coach. I grew up in PG County and wanted to challenge myself to coach in an environment in “The DMV” which was different from normal pay-to-play models, where it was a given that parents could afford to spend thousands of dollars every season on travel, and sacrifice their entire weekends for out-of-state matches and tournaments.

What did I take for granted in those early years in the higher echelon of Baltimore youth soccer? The fact that access to consistent training facilities is important. The fact that parents don’t actually tend to stick around at the same youth clubs unless those clubs are included in the ECNL/MLSNext roadmaps. The fact that most of those kids in Baltimore were well coached in their earlier youth days, learned to play specific positions, and weren’t just allowed to only focus on the part of their game which they could watch replays of on Instagram.

The number of players I have come across over this past year who have told me they want to stay on the wing and only dribble at players 1v1 has been a bit of an eye-opener, and the number of youth players who haven’t actually been coached to specialize in one or two specific positions has also been a huge surprise. I’ve had multiple kids quit because they weren’t being played in their favorite positions, and a number of kids who have openly tried out for other clubs as they attempt to find the “magic bullet” to help them be seen by more college coaches.

Unfortunately this is the youth soccer landscape which we all, as coaches, have to abide by. There are those players and families spending thousands of dollars to be in ECNL and MLSNext, giving up their weekends to play in a college showcase down in NC or traveling out of state for a basic league match, all while promising that this is where the NCAA coaches are looking for their next commit.

But how are we not expecting players to fall through the cracks when we have a landscape that encourages players to switch clubs every season? How do we expect players to develop when they have so many inconsistent experiences and guidance throughout their youth careers? We really expect to keep developing diamonds in the rough, raw talent, overlooked players, and others when most major MLSNext and ECNL clubs have 100-200 players at their tryouts? What are the odds that a player moves to a new club team, has played 3 or 4 different positions at their past club, and are asked to learn a new position with their new team?

How many youth clubs, realistically, are able to employ youth soccer coaches who are put in a position where they can keep the same team together for multiple seasons, vs looking to make a move to greener pastures themselves? How many youth clubs over the last few seasons, and in seasons moving forward, will struggle to continue to exist as a result of being unable to attract quality players as a result of the current “elite vs everyone else” landscape? Are we really expecting everyone to drive an hour or 2 hours 2-4 times a week for training, spend the majority of their weekends at out-of-state matches, and spend thousands of dollars on hotel rooms, gas, flights, and other travel expenses in order to compete, based on the fact that those clubs on the outside looking in are leaking players and coaches every other week?

Not to mention the fact that some players who move onto other teams may not have ever actually learned and specialized in a particular position, either because their coach now needs them to fill in for one of the better players who have left for ECNL/MLSNext teams, or because the coach allows the player to basically do whatever he/she wants in order to try to keep them around. I can’t tell you how many players I have coached this season who simply want to play the wing, dribble at players 1v1 in space, serve balls into the box. At 41 years old I’m pretty sure I could spend 20 minutes on the pitch standing out wide in space, playing no defense, and my only responsibility is to try to beat a guy 1v1 in space and kick the ball blindly into the box hoping someone can get onto it.

I would say that a number of youth players who go onto college are asked to play a new position, but it’s hard to believe that this current inconsistent landscape where 100% of the players’ attention is spent trying to reach the “elite” promised land with college coaches everywhere is developing players on teams who are outside of the top echelon. Because literally everyone is climbing over each other to try to get to “the top”. I miss the days when, if you were good enough to play in college, you would play in college. Instead lately it seems like all kids care about is “more visibility” all while there are less college spots available than ever before, more programs folding, more International players coming over to play NCAA soccer. It’s almost impossible to believe that players aren’t falling through the cracks, as we continue to focus almost all of our attention on the top 10% of teams, players, and clubs, and everyone outside of that upper echelon is every man/woman for themselves.