Fish says that U.S. youth coaches are too fixated on
"Over there, they don't care about winning. A kid could
spend his entire youth career at one training academy and
not win a game and then sign a pro-contract. Skills - that's
the measuring stick - not how many games he's won. Here,
it's the complete opposite. Here it's... 'I need the team
that's going to win a state title. If this 14-year-old can't
get it done for me, then get rid of him. Get a horse in. Get
a stud in here that can do his job better.' It's an
"In Europe, they would laugh at an American coach who takes
a technically good but small player and just pushes him
aside because he's not big enough yet. Too many American
coaches would have looked at Michael Owen and said, 'I need
somebody bigger. 'They don't really know when and what to
teach a player. And there's always the pressure to win in
America, at any level, at any sport.
"American coaches look at a player and say that player can
do a lot for me. What they need to do is say, this is what I
can do for that player."
Fish's return from Holland in 1998 coincided with the
publication of the U.S. Soccer Federation's Project 2010
report. Asked what it would take for the U.S. Men's team to
win the World Cup in 2010, the report's authors concluded,
in part, that the Americans had to learn from the
centralized and disciplined French and Dutch. Fish has been
making that exact same argument ever since.
"You take Holland," says Fish, "which is basically the same
Size as New Hampshire. It's tiny. Yet, year in and year out
They produce fantastic players. Every World Cup, they're one
of the top teams. Why? Because 30 years ago the Dutch
Federation said to their pro clubs – this is how you'll
develop your players. This is the philosophy – the Dutch
method. By the time a player is 10, he needs to be able to
do this. At 12, he needs to do this, this and this. So by
the time a kid makes the U-17 Dutch National Team, he knows
exactly what to do and the coaches know exactly what he's
"Then you take the U.S., which is massively bigger than
Holland. But not only does the country not have a common
Youth training policy, but also with in states, sometimes
within counties, you have different policies.
"On top of that, I would venture to say that 80 percent of
the Coaches in this country, probably more, have never
played. And the game is exploding, it's the second largest
youth sport In the country. Basketball is the only one with
more numbers. We've passed baseball, we've passed football,
but the problem Is we have all the millions of kids
playing, but not enough Quality people to teach them. The
imbalance is enormous."
Fish isn't alone in banging the Project 2010 drum. There are
numerous academies all over the U.S. that pay lip service to
it conclusions. But precious little has been done, says
Fish, to turn those conclusions into a reality.
"I won't say that the authorities aren't paying attention,"
says Fish. "I'd just say that the sport is growing so fast,
they can't keep a handle on it."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, English born
Steve Hoffman, affectionately known as Hoffy, is the
technical director of the southern half of the California
Youth Soccer Association (CalSouth). He talks just as
passionately and knowledgeably as Fish, but at almost twice
the speed. And, at least in part, he thinks Fish is wrong.
Hoffy's the first to admit that there's a gap between the
U.S. and Europe that has to be breached. "My nephew is at
Preston North End and he's amazed when he comes to America.
They teach the kids everything here; stuff that you'd just
assume that kid knew from watching TV in England, "but he's
far from certain the Dutch route is the solution.
"I struggle when people say we have to do it the Dutch way
or we have to do it the English way or the Brazilian way or
whatever. We have to do it the American way, and the
American way is evolving," says Hoffy in an accent that's a
curious mixture of Lancashire and Southern California.
"You ask Bruce Arena and, yeah, of course he'd love it if we
Could do it the European way. But do you think we could sell
that to the parents? Kids here are competing for college
places at 12. Are you gonna tell them that they should put
college on hold for soccer training? No! It's not gonna
happen. In England, the dream is the pro contract. That's
the pot of gold. In America, the pot of gold is a sports
scholarship – saving your parents what...$100,000 by playing
soccer. It's a completely different infrastructure."
"America," says Hoffy, "is different."
"This is a massive country. It's so big it could be five
different countries, And there are huge regional differences
– even in the way kids from different states play the game.
Every state has different needs. So yeah, we need to do it
the American way, but maybe even a different way in each
In 1997, still wide-eyed with enthusiasm for the Dutch
system, Fish asked himself where he'd like to be in ten
years time. The answer, he says ,was running an MLS Academy
on the PSV principals. But, both he and Hoffy are agreed
that's not going to happen any time soon. Last year, the LA
Galaxy became the first MLS franchise to turn a profit. The
money for European style club academies simply isn't there.
"My thinking now," says Fish," is that the academies have to
Be privately run. They should be corporately sponsored, the
kids shouldn't have to pay..."
Hoffy just doesn't think that's going to happen. "This is
America," he says – and I can almost hear him shrug over the
I ask Fish why he has proselytized so long and so hard for
his Vision of U.S. soccer's future. The question stuns him.
He Thinks about his answer for a long time. And then he
"I love the game. It flows. It's simple. It's the freedom of
it. It's the players' game. And it's knowing that America
could Be as good as any other country. I firmly believe that
we have future World Players of the Year here in America.
"Like Hoffy and like me (and like you too, I'm guessing),
Fish desperately wants soccer to succeed in the U.S. and
for the U.S. to succeed in soccer. And we could all probably
agree on The obstacles that stand in the way of that
There's the fact that, almost uniquely in the world, the
grass roots game is still heavily skewed towards the
suburban middle class. Part of that is the pay-to-play
culture with parents Forking over $850 - $1500 per child in
most parts of the country. Which is kinda ridiculous for a
game played with no cleats and a bundle of rags or an old
Coke can in every slum in Third World countries.
There's the fact that the U.S. college system, which seems
to work for football and basketball, is totally at odds with
the Way soccer has evolved in the rest of the world. And,
says Fish, the end result is, "We've got tremendous athletes
playing soccer that can't control a ball with their weak
foot. They don't know how to chest the ball properly. They
can't strike a ball. Then I go to Real Madrid and I watch
these 12 year aids strike 30 – 40 yard balls - right footed
, left footed. It's unbelievable. I get goose bumps as I'm
talking about it!"
But then there's the insurmountable fact that this isn't
Holland or France. This is America – the sporting
Bizarroland. And in America, we do everything differently.
"The growth in U.S. soccer in the last 15 years has been
staggering, and expectations have increased exponentially"
says Jim Moorhouse, Director of Communications for the U.S.
Soccer Federation. "But you don't just snap your fingers and
"We need time to grow and expand, "says Jim. "We've got 12
Pro clubs in a league that's 10 years old. There's no magic
Wand we can wave and suddenly have an integrated
professional academy system. Yeah that would be great...but
all these things take time. You can look at a club like
Liverpool and say, yeah, that's the way to do it. But
there's no magic Wand to just make that happen."
Jim points to the progress that the USSF has made towards
fulfilling the Project 2010 blueprint – particularly the
National U-17Residency Program, started in 1999, which now
has 40 full-time players.
"If you look at the World Cup players that it has produced,"
says Jim, "the success level is absolutely staggering-any
academy in the world would be proud of that success rate."
All of which begs the question - if that's what the U.S. can
do with one academy, what could we do with 12? Or 20? Which
begs the further question of who'd pay for these academies -
Nike? Real Madrid? MLS? The poor bloody parents?
According to FIFA, 20 million Americans play soccer, making
the U.S. the most soccer populous nation on the planet. Jim
Moorhouse reckons there are 4 million players registered
with the USSF, and on any given Saturday morning, Hoffy
claims to oversee 1,800 11-a-side U-11 games in Southern
California alone. Meanwhile, Fish points out that the
Europeans look to the U.S. to find out how to make their
players fitter and stronger." Juergen Klinsmann has hired an
American physical training staff for the German National
Team for 2006."
All of which suggests that the U.S. must be doing something
right, says Managing Director of Sports Learning Ltd. Robin
Russell – a coach with decades of experience on both sides
of the Atlantic. Robin is effervescently enthusiastic about
the state of the American game.
"People ask me - do you think the U.S. will ever be a major
Soccer nation? I reply, it already is!" says Robin, over the
phone from the London. "In my life time, the U.S. Men's team
will win a World Cup.
"I totally disagree with the idea that the Americans have
got it all wrong, and the Europeans have got it all right.
The kids I see in the U.S. and are as good as any in
Europe," claims Robin. "I defy any body to say they're not."
The idea that kids in Europe grow up with the advantage of
playing soccer in the streets is outdated, says Robin.
"So what do they do in the most enlightened academies? They
recreate street soccer – the emphasis is on lots of
small-sided games, lots of touches and lots of fun. The
ideas that these kids are being hot-housed is a fallacy.
"The critical thing is what I call the 3T's – identifying
the talent, maximizing the time and finding the teachers.
And of these, the time is the most important. I mean, I
don't care how good a teacher you are, you'd have to. Be a
magician if you only saw the kids 2 or 3 times a week.
"My experience with U.S. kids is that, by and large, the
talent is being identified. And by and large, they are
getting as much time to practice. I would say that the only
real advantage the European kids have is that when
they reach 15 or 16 they enter a much more competitive
As for Fish's claim that the majority of U.S. coaches have
never played the game, Robin claims that this isn't
necessarily a bad thing.
"Steve Heighway at Liverpool has a saying – give me coaches
that know more about kids rather than coaches who think they
know everything about football. I meet a lot more coaches in
America who understand about how kids learn. knowing that,
is a lot more important than thinking you know a lot about
And, says Robin, "the win-at-all-costs mentality isn't a
Uniquely American problem.
"The over-competitiveness? Is it a good thing? No, of course
not, but do you think it's really any better in Europe?
America doesn't have a monopoly on mad parents, I'm afraid."
The U.S. Women's team is already proven world beaters. And,
as Robin points out, the U.S. U-17 and U-20 Men's teams
recently beat England and Argentina respectively.
Can you imagine how good those teams will be when soccer
Moves into the inner cities, and we get the other 264
million Americans playing the game?
It's going to happen. All we're arguing about is how we get
there. Evolution or revolution? Or maybe a bit of both.
appearance 90 MINUTES magazine. An article about
the training of American players.
HERE TO READ]
'PULSE' segment, 90 Minutes magazines puts the
spotlight on YPT player Joseph Gyau and his
recent experiences at some of Europe's best
HERE TO READ]
Residence Program trainers, from left to right: Mick
Priest (Oldham), Carlos Salvachua (Real Madrid),
Danny Veyt (Anderlecht), Stefano Belinzaghi (Inter MIlan).
Not Pictured: Alex Bayer, Ronald Becht (Batern Munich),
This program is the brain child of 39-year-old John Fisher,
universally known as Fish. Fish looks a bit like Bruce Arena
(in my twisted mind at least). And Fish is an angry, driven
and passionate man.
After years of coaching college soccer, Fish traveled to
Holland to find out how PSV Eindhoven trains their
youngsters. He was shocked to see 11-year-olds more skilled
than the adults he coached at home. And he's hardly stopped
talking about it since.
"I was like Moses coming down from the mountain. I went up
the hill a boy and came back a man!"
Fish enters a St. Andrews refectory packed full of exhausted
and ravenously hungry boy soccer players. He's clutching a
wooden sword. One of the kids had found it. And Fish
confiscated it, but not before dubbing the boy Sir Jimmy.
After showing me a power point presentation of his trips to
Old Trafford and the Bernabeu, Fish starts the interview
slow and cautious - and then rapidly builds to a passionate,
table thumping near-messianic crescendo. Which he keeps up
for the better part of an hour. Can a crescendo last an
hour? This one did.
On adjacent pitches, coaches from Inter Milan and Real
Madrid are also billycooing sweet encouragement as 120
American boys, aged 10 to 15, sweat their bollocks off in
the baking mid-summer sun.
Welcome to Youth Soccer Heaven, USA.
Just outside the gates of the St. Andrews School in
Middletown, Delaware is ugly, indenti-kit, strip-mall
America. But inside, it's pure Harry Potter. Built around an
idyllic lake by the gunpowder millionaire Du Pont family,
St. Andrews is an achingly beautiful 1920s reproduction of a
Victorian British boarding school. They shot the movie Dead
Poets Society here for that very reason. There's a mural on
the wall of the refectory showing wide-eyed and firm-jawed
white boys, some of them in baseball and football gear,
gathered around the skirts of their symbolic alma mater.
It's all terribly, terribly posh. And it costs $33,000 a year
to send your kid here during term time.
In the summer though, St. Andrews hosts
YPT's Residence Program – and that's a lot
harder to get into. Boys selected by their coaches for
having exceptional talent and motivation come to be trained
by youth academy coaches from Bayern Munich, Manchester
United, Inter Milan, Anderlecht, Oldham and Real Madrid.
This being America (and this being American soccer) most of
these kids aren't exactly under privileged. One boy has a
favorite uncle who owns an internationally known clothing
line. Another says his dad is a "banker." Another has a
father who "buys and sells companies" and who takes him to
the UK every year to train with a Premiership youth team.
But there are inner-city and immigrant kids here too, and
there isn't anybody who isn't here on merit. The level of
skill on display is astounding. Several of these boys will
go on to train at academies in England, Germany and Italy.
"A GOALKEEPER HAS TO BE LIKE A TANK!" ROARS BAYERN Munich
Academy goalkeeping coach Alex Bayer. He has a huge healed
gash on one leg - the result of a brutal quarry accident
that crushed his own goalkeeping career at age17. You can
see his calf muscles pulsing under the scar tissue. "A free
pizza if you smash the camera!" he laughs, pointing at me,
as his young American charges throw themselves fearlessly at
the soccer balls he hurls like thunderbolts.
"You've eaten too many hamburgers!" bellows Anderlecht Youth
coach and former Belgian World Cup player Danny Veyt on the
next pitch over, as the kids in his tender care groan
through a set of rigorous exercises.
"No! Not like that, you muppet!" yells Oldham FC (and
ex-Manchester United) youth coach Mick Priest as a kid fails
to complete a "Cruyff" to his complete satisfaction.
YOUTH SOCCER IN AMERICA IS A DISASTER BUT DUTCH METHOD
JOHN FISHER IS LUNGING TOWARDS A BETTER WAY