Volunteer parent coaches, though well-intentioned, have set us “very far behind” our international counterparts, Merino explained. Even at the preschool age, kids need coaches that understand child development, and how and when to introduce different skills and concepts. Things like attracting pressure, breaking lines, body position, foot selection, identifying space, and most importantly, confidence on the ball.
“Kids as young as five years old, they fully grasp these concepts,” said Merino. “It’s not about the concepts being too complex, because they’re simple. What is lacking is the ability for somebody to actually teach it and how to simplify it for a kid that is five.”
To gain this experience, we need only look at successful programs abroad. Andrews, who also serves as Director of International Development for the Marc Cuban-backed Professional Futsal League in the U.S., described the nuances of training programs abroad.
“They got to get over to Spain for a week or two weeks and really understand the inner workings of how sessions are built, of how the game is just dramatically different,” said Andrews. Details as specific as the size of the court, or a variation on keeper rules can significantly impact player development.
Take Brazil, which Andrews describes as “an island by itself” in producing pivot players.
“They play on smaller courts, which is interesting. So that could be what leads to it, and they also don’t have a rule that Spain has—a rule that up until 16 [years old] the ball has to bounce once on your half before.”
Those two minute details have led to major differences in style and ability between the two countries. In Spain, you have to actually build out of the back, Andrews explained. “We would in America eat that up, like applaud them for this great development. My Brazilian guy’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s why you have no pivots.’”
The Spain versus Brazil systems isn’t about one being better than the other, but the understanding that every aspect of training and methodology informs the type of player you develop.
My brain was on fire. I sat there and I watched them train, I watched them play, I took notes like crazy and I came back and like, we had to change the way we teach this game.
For U.S. soccer to mature, coaches need to appreciate these nuances and be intentional with each passing drill, rondo, and possession exercise, knowing exactly how practice translates to the game.
When Kamal first starting playing futsal, she and her friends, many former college players, were taught by other male futsal players on the pitch, their only source of futsal coaching at the time. “We were just out there training, just playing games and stuff. The guys would kind of stop us and be like, ‘Hey, you know when the ball’s here …’ They were kind of teaching us as we went.”
To fill this knowledge gap, Kamal studied the game ferociously on her own—she watched futsal matches, talked to coaching staff, and asked players for advice. During one of her earlier futsal trips, she took an American team to Spain and played Atletico Madrid and Benfica.
“We got our asses handed to us. ... My brain was on fire. I sat there and I watched them train, I watched them play, I took notes like crazy and I came back and like, we had to change the way we teach this game.”
"The biggest thing that futsal brings that the others don’t is an instant assessment, an instant benefit/consequence."
In acquiring an advanced knowledge of the game, coaches also need to shift their idea of what constitutes a good player. For too long, the U.S. has leaned on superior athleticism as a crutch, and the cracks are beginning to show. Although the WNT were victorious in the latest Women’s World Cup, strong performances from countries like Japan, England, France, Sweden, and Brazil indicate the margin of difference is closing fast.
"It’s sad to see kids that have natural athletic and physical attributes are valued at times over kids that actually love the sport and can develop quickly because they are good, intelligent soccer players,” said Merino.
“You can't just kick the ball up and play the same way hoping for your fastest striker to go out there and beat two defenders. The game is changing and players are evolving, and it's up to coaches to value more of the players that understand the game and can improve to whatever level you're coaching them.”
As the modern game advances, pure athleticism is becoming more and more irrelevant. Even now, the average height and weight of a professional footballer clocks in around 5’9 and 145 pounds. Check out the build on Luka Modric, Messi, and João Félix, and you realize the advantage lies in their superior technique and game IQ.