Commentary / Youth Soccer

Youth development: Broad or deep?

Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Union

One question about soccer development is whether the path forward is to develop widely or to develop identified talent intensively.

The ideas are not inherently at odds, but they do come into conflict when one considers that there are limited resources for development.

One way of examining this question is looking at how many of the current national team contributors were on the U17 or U18 team when they were that age.

Below is a chart that examines the story of the eleven starters against Honduras in the USMNT home world cup qualifier where the US looked how fans dream they will look. This game worked well because a rash of injuries saw only one German American starting.

Player Pro Parent/ Coach Parent International parent/origin  (within a generation youth soccer in the US College soccer US Youth National Team Age moving


Tim Howard No Hungary NJ No U-17 24
Christian Pulisic Yes Albania PA No No 14
Clint Dempsey No No Dallas Texans Furman No 23
Jozy Altidore No Haiti IMG Academy (FL) No No 19
Sebastien Lleget No Argentinian Sporting Santa Clara (CA) No U-17, U-18 17
Michael Bradley Yes No IMG, Chicago Sookers No U17, U18 19
Omar Gonzalez No No? Dallas Texans 13-18 (TX) Maryland U17, U18 27
Darlington Nagbe Yes Liberia Cleveland Internationals (OH) Akron No 18
Geoff Cameron No No Bayside United (MA) Rhode Island No 27
Jorge Villafana No Mexico Santa Ana DSP Juventus


No No 25
John Brooks No Germany Germany Germany No NA


We can exclude Brooks from the discussion. He was developed by Germany and only tells us, along with the four or five other German Americans in the national team pool, that Germany is better at developing talent than we are. Of course, we already knew that: Germany, a country of roughly 80 million, has won the World Cup four times while the United States, a country of 300 million, has never won the World Cup.

Most of the rest of these players were developed in an intensive way by key adults (indeed, most success stories involve great coaches). Nagbe came from France in his childhood, and his family is Liberian. While many had families with deep soccer pedigrees, others like Dempsey had families willing to drive them three hours each way to the best club in the state.

Tim Howard is one of the diamond in the rough development stories, getting spotted by Tim Mulqueen, a former U17 national coach, at a one time, 25 dollar coaching event, and Mulqueen, seeing talent, undertook to train Howard for free. He was Howard’s coach and made connections for him throughout his early career (Howard played midfield in high school).

Jorge Villafaña also has some element of coming up on his own, winning a reality show, Sueno MLS, to get a contract with Chivas USA, and then earning his start by scoring goals off the bench. Both of these players ended up on club teams with good pedigrees before they broke out.

While most of these players showed up for the U-20 or 23 at some point, I choose not to look at that. They are already grown and playing professional soccer by age 20. Only 4 of 11 appeared for the United States’ U17 or U18 teams. Consider that the age range of men playing for the team is ten years, so that is the equivalent of ten U18 teams. Consider that many more than eleven players appear for those teams. There are a number of factors that contribute to the fact that some of our future best were not part of our present national team at that point:

1. Our scouting is not organized enough. We have a large country and still imperfect systems for tracking the talent. The ideal situation would be having the best in the same place. I surmise that the U17 national team coach uses a network of soccer coaches and their word to choose his team. Most likely he lacks opportunity to compare a larger group of top players by seeing them compete with one another.

2. Another reason that our national team now is not our national team then is that the trajectory of an individual player is not entirely predictable. A kid might be the best sixteen-year-old in the country and then tear his ACL twice two years running and give up the game. Another talented kid might be too angry and refuse discipline. Some kids of medium talent might keep getting better. The classic story is that Michael Jordan did not make his high school basketball team. This possibility points to the idea that it is not how we develop the best fifty, but the best few thousand, that dictates the future of our soccer success.

One could draw a pyramid as well. For those best few thousand to be playing against good competition, it’s probably unrealistic to dream that we have a soccer complex where they all go. Instead, we need the next few thousand to also grow to push the top players.


  1. Jim Presti says:

    Gonzalez is first generation American. Both parents are Mexican. I do not believe his father played professionally.

  2. The Realist Brian says:

    Where to start, where to start….
    #1. Read Tom Byers “Soccer Starts at Home.” It amazes me that people think we will develop players if they practice 1-2x per week. Kids have to be touching a ball regularly all the time. At a school bus stop, before dinner. Have fun. Challenge them. Kids that start young quickly outpace their cohorts. And their cohorts will never catch up in terms of control, touch and speed of thought.
    #2. Find pick up games for your kids. If there aren’t any, set one up and let the kids play. Minimum 2x per week if not more.
    #3 Utilize a growth mindset, Rwad Carol Dweck PhD “The Growth Mindset” and implement. Also carefully follow up that it isn’t just praising effort and hard work, but correct to get it right (Kid gets a D or F, you don’t applaud effort, you correct). Biggest thing missing most people that profess Growth Mindsets.
    #4 Make it fun!
    #5 Make it competitive, so that kids are learning how to strive for the next level.
    #6 Pro/rel for the Academies and youth leagues. Insulated teams play like robots unfortunately. All for the sake of development. Kids need to start learning how to win between 14-18. And for all the development people out there, key point is 14-18, not at the younger ages where technique is paramount. By the time those kids get up to 14, their technique should be flawless and they can fine tune their tactical acumen and game sense.
    #7 Don’t just practice unopposed and work on skills like scissors and step-overs. Application need to be done with pressure and game like situations. Create thinkers and relexes in players.
    #8. POFTB and Rondo’a. ENUFF said. Like we saw last night against Mexico (complete lack by the way).
    #9. Always play Funino for thinking purposes.
    #10 Always play 3v3 or 4v4 up through U8/U9. So critical and I see clubs always play more kids than necessary because of numbers. This kills time on the ball. Too many people unknowledgeable about this at intramural level (even some club teams).
    #11 Institute KINS (Kicking is NOT Soccer). Georgia did this and they have so many youth players coming through it is ridiculous other states haven’t followed through.
    Final point- guys like Dempsey played a ton of pick up with Mexicans.

    • All of this!! Perfect. I recently got into a Twitter debate about whether or not you can teach movement to players. While, yes of course you can teach it, the best players were never taught it, they intuitively learned creative movements with and without the ball by PLAYING. Thousands of attempts at trying to get the ball and trying to get past defenders — the game teaches itself. Messi was a GREAT player by all accounts before he got to La Masia. The one common theme for all the truly great players is that they played all the time as kids – pickup, mixed ages, unstructured and un-coached.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Well said, IMO though the game only teaches itself in proper environments. Teachers teach the game at youth levels by constraint on SSG.
        Unless a kid is playing 10 hours a week with kids his own age and a standard deviation of +\- 5 years and the hierarchy of age mets out the necessary responses.

    • Nick Fishman says:

      Well said!

    • Scott of Nazareth says:

      Yes on all points – double yes’s on #2, #4 & #10.

      RE: #11 & Georgia, not sure what the reasoning is/was, but their ODP teams have dominated at the younger ages.

  3. The US U20 team during the recent WC looked very good. It looked to me as if they are better at passing and attacking than the current national team (especially last night). If you write a follow-up article it may be worth checking where these players are coming from and how they have been developed. I expect that we will see a lot of them in the national team in the near future.

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    With proper education a country with 90,00,000 youth soccer players ought to produce world class talent. So my answer is intensive instead of wide net, the reason for ”tis is because soccer in America is an economy. Plain and simple built buy and for people to create wealth to either feed a family through coaching or as it appears now a monitory elite few first team owners…. there is no other way because the number of first teams in the US is currently capped at 24 so it is impossible to capture anything short of an intensively trained small group of players.
    Change the policy the net widens but then also allows decentralization of power which is an impossibility for the previously mentioned reasons… at this point a kid largely needs to succeed in spite of not because if the system.
    of course el Poacher would say get rid of travel soccer as the jumping off point to decentralize power, destress the experience and put all that money into robust recreational programs to just let kids have fun…. the ones who then sweat equity themselves to higher skills become an Acdemy pool.
    This is what el Poacher thinks as stolen from el Pachyderm who likely took the idea as his own from somewhere else.

  5. So, it might be interesting to do a similar look at other countries. How many of Germany’s starters played for their U17 or U18 team? England? Brazil? France? Spain? Iceland? Etc.
    I think without having a comparison to top countries’ (however you want to define that), we really don’t have any idea whether 4 out of 11 is bad, good, or par for the course.

  6. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the purpose of the US youth national team column but Pulisic played in the 2015 u17 world cup in Chile as did Jozy in the 2005 u17 world cup, coached by our old buddy John Hackworth.

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