Inverso’s final 5 wishes for U.S. Soccer have common theme: place player development over winning at youth levels

By Charlie Inverso

July 9: Last week, Rider University head soccer coach Charlie Inverso gave Fish4scores the first five of his Top 10 wishes for U.S. Soccer. As the World Cup builds to its culmination this week (without America partaking), the former U.S. National Team coach gives us the second five on his list. 

Before I get to my wish list, I would like to acknowledge the outstanding effort of Japan’s National Team. The Japanese have never been known as a world power. But instead of sitting back and defending, they went right after one of the best teams in the world, semifinalist Belgium. Japan has one of the best combinations of men’s and women’s teams in the world and we could learn a lot from them in terms of technical/player development.

And now, here is the remainder of my Top 10 wishes for U.S. Soccer

Creation of a community coaching license (A combination of wishes No. 6 & 7)

Wishes number 6 & 7 are fulfilled together with the creation of a “Community Coaching License.”

We already have in place a “Grassroots License” but I believe most parents don’t have the time for this. Parent-coaches make up the most important aspect of player development in this country. Therefore, we must change the mentality of these coaches from striving to win to trying to develop better players.  We must institute a “Community Coaching License” where a qualified, advanced thinking coach spends two to three hours conducting dialogue and dispersing valuable information on the following topics:

A) Technical Development and how it is acquired

This topic was discussed in the previous article and is a huge factor if we are to create better players.

B) Soccer in your own hometown community

We need to explore how communities can develop soccer talent in their own backyard so I believe it is hugely important to have dialogue about this in the Community License Course.

Manny Schellscheidt, in my opinion the greatest soccer mind this country has ever known, has hundreds of sage quotes. One of his best is “The game is the greatest teacher.”  No matter how many scientists, quants and tactical masterminds surface today (in all sports), this adage will never become obsolete.

Decades ago, Manny brought an innovative concept in player development to his hometown of Union, N.J. As director of the Union Soccer Association, he assigned players to a team and all teams would play games and train by playing uninterrupted small sided soccer. Manfred was very cautious about who he selected as coaches. He did not want anyone with an overzealous agenda of winning championships taking away from the players joy of the game. Coaches were ‘facilitators’ and the game was the actual teacher.

The Union Lancers, coached by Manny and Bob Bradley, went on to win two consecutive national U18 championships. As time passed, parents who thought they had a better idea took over the Union youth league and it became like most youth soccer….very ordinary.

In instructing youth league directors on how to improve soccer in their communities, my advice would be to have the courage to create small sided games with parents as facilitators. Let the kids play.

I would take this one step further. Find enough facilitators (pay high school players if necessary) to be at the training ground four nights a week. Make practice completely voluntary but provide a place to play for those four nights. You would be astounded at the popularity of this concept. Between school, practices and lessons, kids today have a mandatory life. If they had a choice to play soccer that was free flowing and fun, most would show up every night.

I have witnessed first-hand how voluntary attendance works from observing two different clubs who shared the cost of renting an indoor facility. The group that was there by choice rushed onto the court upon arrival and immediately started playing. They played until pulled off the floor. The other group entered the facility, sat on their phones and did not start to participate until their coach arrived. This told me everything that I needed to know regarding the power of voluntary practice for youth.

Another suggestion would be, if given the choice to play shorter or longer sessions, play shorter. When your practice time is almost over and the kids are having fun, end the practice. Use the old adage associated with a great show or concert…”leave them wanting more.” Or for you Seinfeld aficionados, as Jerry told George – always go out on a high note. If players beg to keep playing or ask for “just five more minutes,” you have created a great soccer environment.

For decades I have heard we need to have pickup games and street soccer in this country. Soccer pickup games are rare and even becoming less popular in Europe because technology is everywhere. Unfortunately, today’s kids are dependent on adults for play. Adults have created this problem so we must fix it by creating pickup soccer for our children.

If there was ever an example of how valuable pickup soccer can be, it came in the 1970s when some of the greatest players in the history of Mercer County played on the Nottingham field across from Eet Gud Bakery on summer nights. Folks used to bring lawn chairs out to Eet Gud’s parking lot and watch the action. Bobby Smith Mooch Myernick, Tim Murphy, Billy Gazonas and a host of others played in these shirts & skins games, which were for nothing but pride and practice, and most of them acknowledge the games made them better players.

The aforementioned plan is pick-up soccer, but again this is where we lack vision and leadership. Someone at the top with power at every level should be encouraging this type of soccer culture. Trust me, it takes guts. I have witnessed parents take coaching directors (who were very progressive) behind the woodshed for introducing this concept because they are more concerned with winning the league title.
Find the courage and create something special.

C) Finding the best athletes to play soccer and retaining them in the sport

In the last article we talked about the debate that, while soccer athletic ability may be uniquely different, the sport needs to attract better athletes

The answers are pretty simple. Youth coaches are generally visible in the community. They know most kids because they are classmates of their own children. At an early age the parent/coaches should be looking for the best athletes in our communities and encourage them to play soccer. Too often, these parent/coaches are only concerned about the progress of their own child and the absurdity of winning a league title.

Each league should have several talent directors, who should work with the school district’s physical education teachers to recruit players for soccer. For sure part of their job would be to conduct clinics in the schools to ensure that kids know soccer is a fun sport. Teachers can be very conducive to our sports progress and they are incredibly underutilized. One of the components of Iceland’s amazing success is that many of their U9-U12 coaches are teachers. Teachers know how to guide talent but also can create great venues after school and at lunchtime to play soccer and grow the sport.

Without a doubt the U.S. should be producing some of the best goalkeepers in the world. While LeBron’s basketball athletic ability skill set doesn’t guarantee success as a field player it is definitely the kind of athleticism needed for being a keeper. I think we can find tons of athletic kids all the way up to the age of 14 that may not want to be a field player but would love the athletic skill set (jumping, diving, catching) that a goalkeeper employs.

Soccer also needs to keep the good players it already has. My friend from childhood, Bob Bennett was the best athlete in our class. He checked all of the boxes of what the previous article mentioned with regards to athletic talent needed for soccer. He was fast, agile and had lightning quick decision-making ability. He played youth soccer but stopped, and still regrets it today. He had given up soccer simply because he didn’t connect with the coach and connected must better with his basketball coach.

The Talent Code tells us that the best coaches/teachers/instructors for youngsters are not necessarily experts in their area. They are, however, the nicest and most caring. They are the ones that kids most connect with. The Code also tells us that this profile of instructors have the highest retention rate. They use the example of the piano teacher. The kindly piano teacher who bakes them cookies and asks about school and family is usually better for retaining the child than the draconian who may know more about music but is less personable. This may seem trivial but it is not. This is the type of valuable information that should be taught in the Community Coaching License.

8) Make our top financial investment in player development 

I wish we would realize that stadiums, promotions and aging star European players (although great for MLS profile) won’t make soccer grow in the US. Putting money (lots of it) in player development is the only way we will grow this game.

Great players make a great product.

Case closed.

In 2007, U.S. Soccer created the United States Developmental Academy. Besides hosting the World Cup, the USDA has been one of the most united efforts in the history of our sport in this country. It proved that when people work together on a national level in this sport we can accomplish anything. The Developmental Academy is very good and must be continued but I think we need a higher level and something more expansive at the crucial U10-15 level. I never thought I would say this but we need to concentrate much of our efforts at this age level. It is what the rest of the world is doing, and has been doing for years.

Any developmental program needs to be indigenous to the country it serves. We need to copy the ideas that will work for us from the great developmental programs of Europe and other great soccer nations.

9) Have our best coaches coach our best players

It seems that when it comes to our player development approach in the US  we rely too heavily on theorist, strategists and a lot of blah, blah, blah. I believe we should come up with a simple, pragmatic plan and hire the best coaches that we can get our hands on. After that we must realize that these coaches are as important as scientists working in the labs of major corporations to develop the next new breakthrough discovery. In soccer, the players are that next new breakthrough discovery and we need the very best coaches working with them.

Soccer and every other sport is pretty much meaningless without great players. Any country that produces great players employs some of their best coaches to coach players between the ages of 10-15. Croatia and Portugal, which produce more professional players per capita than any European country, does this. So do most great soccer nations. Having our best coaches coaching our best players takes money but any good business invests in improving its product. Stadiums won’t make the sport get better. Making great American players to fill those stadiums will.

10) Create regional development centers

If I had my way, we would have 25 regional development centers working with players ages 10-15. These centers would also serve as the players club. Players would have the experience of training against the best players in their region. If we are serious about soccer development in this country our federation should sponsor this program. When a player turns 15 they will be re-evaluated. US Soccer would determine where the player goes next – Europe, MLS or U.S. Academy.

A 15-year-old staying in the U.S. in MLS and playing in the PDL or USL, training with the first team mirrors player development throughout the rest of the world. The Talent Code calls this “deep practice.” growing up, we called this playing against older kids. When kids around the world reach a certain level they get exposed to “deep practice”

We don’t employ this strategy very well in soccer in the US.

These ideas are just a start. But this is the United States, we have to think big. If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we put at least eight players on the rosters of Champions League clubs?

About The Author

Charlie Inverso is the Rider University Men's Soccer coach, a previous U-14 National Coach who has guided the Broncs to two NCAA berths in the last three years and won five national championships as the head coach with Mercer County Community College.