The problem with American soccer


(Getty Images)

Less is more.

That maxim may sound trite, but when it comes to developing world-class soccer stars, that cliche might be the key to success, according to Davis Paul, an American-born former MLS player. Paul recently returned from Brazil, where he made a video series about “the beautiful game” for GoPro in the lead-up for the World Cup.

“The skill that exists down there is something that doesn’t exist in the masses in the United States,” Davis said, adding that during the 16 days he spent in Brazil playing and filming pick-up games Brazilians on the beaches of Rio and the streets of the favelas he was most impressed with the kids.

“To me, it was pretty amazing to see these kids go into a caged field — no referees, no structure — [and] put a ball down and literally just have the confidence to try to dribble and take every player that was in front of them,” Davis said, telling a story about playing against a 7-year-old kid as an example.

“Instead of being afraid because I had played pro, he wanted to take me, he wanted to try to get through me.” Davis explained. “It was like they weren’t really playing the game as much as they were just doing what they felt like they wanted to do.”

For Davis, that lack of an imposed structure when first learning the game is one of the reasons why Brazil has been able to develop players like Pele, Ronaldo and today’s Neymar, while the United States has not.

One need only bring up the cliche of the “soccer mom” to understand how the game is looked at completely differently in the United States than in Brazil. If you ever took part playing soccer as a kid, you may recall that soccer was seen as more of an activity than a competitive sport, like, say American football, baseball or basketball. Soccer was a means for adults to supervise kids outdoors while kids learned how to follow rules.

“[In the U.S.] we have these big grass fields and big parks and we learn the game at such a slower pace,” Davis said. “It’s very much like ‘trap the ball,’ ‘kick the ball 30 yards,’ everybody runs… [I]t’s very cautious … I think we have to start doing it differently.”

Besides letting kids follow less rules and have more fun when they first start learning, perhaps a change in where kids initially learn needs to happen, as well.

“Every game I stumbled upon [in Brazil], it’s in tight little complexes, where there are fences, and so the ball never really goes out of bounds, it’s always in play,” Davis said.

This more ad hoc, more nonstop approach that many kids in Brazil use to train their feet and bodies to manipulate the ball teaches them to pass quicker and develop finer skills, Davis said. “They were just so sharp versus when you coach and 8-year-old team here in the United States.”

These young kids’ skills are visible in Davis’s three-part GoPro series entitled “For the Love,” which explores Brazil’s culture and connection with soccer by focusing on three main topics: skills, creativity and hope for the future. While most of us will watch the series for its entertainment value, the first video (below) is out now with the second and third to come this week and next week, U.S. Soccer officials might want to watch the series for educational purposes.

Marissa Payne writes for The Early Lead, a fast-breaking sports blog, where she focuses on what she calls the “cultural anthropological” side of sports, aka “mostly the fun stuff.” She is also an avid WWE fan.

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David Larimer · June 23, 2014

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