It’s All about the Touches – or, against the Fetishization of Flash in American Soccer

Writing for Sports Illustrated’s blog Planet Futbol this week, Stanley Kay had an interesting piece this week about U.S. Soccer’s plans to locate and nurture talent which otherwise might go undiscovered by today’s ecosystem of pay-to-play clubs and youth soccer associations. From the position of chairman of U.S. Soccer’s Diversity Task Force, Doug Andreassen has spearheaded efforts to develop:

…a concrete strategy for reaching underserved communities in the United States. The idea is that the U.S. is not fulfilling its soccer potential – both at the national team level and below – at least in part because a substantial chunk of the population does not participate in mainstream organized soccer. In theory, if more Americans from underserved communities were provided greater opportunities in the sport, quality of play at all levels would improve significantly.
Andreassen’s strategy for identifying and developing street soccer talent is still being finalized, but he has a basic sketch of how the plan will be proposed. The first, essential step is to develop a network of community leaders across the country…
Andreassen wants to develop a curriculum, similar to U.S. Soccer’s coach licensing program, that would train community leaders and certify them to help U.S. Soccer establish a presence in underserved neighborhoods. These local leaders would be entrusted to help identify soccer talent through local networking, coordinate the creation of community soccer programs, and foster a greater working relationship between U.S. Soccer and locals.
As described, this sounds fantastic. As a fan of the national team I have a selfish interest in seeing U.S. Soccer become more able to recruit and develop the best soccer talent in the country, but it is also undoubtedly represents progress when it comes to more general questions of, call it, sporting equity – the more kids who have access to the game, the better. And the details of how Andreassen has gone about assembling his in-progress plan and the examples of extant programs that might serve as models for community engagement (or potential partners) are unquestionably interesting.
It’s in Kay’s final section, “What will U.S. Soccer gain?”, that the quotations of his interlocutors start to head in a direction with dubious merits. The section’s overall premise is that the execution of Andreassen’s plan would result (or at least is intended to result) in the U.S. Men’s National Team gaining the services of players who, having learned the game away from the confines of organized soccer, possess better comfort on the ball, creativity, and attacking skill than we have typically seen to date.
One certainly hopes that’s true – it would be a shame to expend loads of resources on the program only to discover we’ve discovered a bunch of plonkers – but the quotations mustered in support of this thesis are are presented in an occasionally conflationary way, and some also come close to a kind of weird fetishization of a very particular style of soccer. A good example of the conflating – Tab Ramos saying:

I believe the relationship between the player and the ball doesn’t grow during organized practices. That happens on your own…

This is certainly true, but it has nothing to do with street soccer or the informal pickup games played by children in underserved communities. I grew up in what you might euphemistically call an overserved community and probably didn’t play an informal pickup game until high school, but Tab Ramos’ quotation rings true for me, too.* I didn’t become comfortable on the ball (and eventually I became very comfortable on the ball) until I’d spent hours by myself juggling and dribbling in circles and pretending to slalom through invisible defenders in the waning seconds of injury time during the World Cup final. But that has everything to do with me loving the game and being perfectly happy to spend hours alone with the ball, and nothing to do with my socioeconomic status.
Then the fetishization, coming from J. Marcelo Gangotena, who played professionally in Ecuador:
Gangotena’s email signature includes a quote attributed to Xavi: “The one who has the ball is master of the game.” It’s an appropriate sentiment considering Gangotena’s views on the differences between players who grow up playing structured versus unstructured soccer.

“The mentality is a little bit different for the structured practice player. If you go watch a youth club, they might play very good. They are skillful, they pass and they move,” he says. “But nobody in this country can pass the ball to one side and look to the other side like Ronaldinho. But those are the kinds of skills kids who are 10 and 11 years old playing in underserved communities can bring.”

I would argue there is a decent chance that the reason “those are the kinds of skills kids who are 10 and 11 years old playing in underserved communities can bring” is that in the United States the underserved communities in question tend to have high concentrations of immigrants from Central and South America, where soccer that involves flashy but pointless activity is pretty explicitly valorized. If these kids were German we’d be talking about trying to tap into their heading ability or their organizational skills. It’s one thing to be comfortable on the ball (hell, it’s nigh on the only thing), but let’s not overemphasize the importance of rabonas and backheels and step-overs. If you try any of those things in a serious training environment and they don’t come off (and they never, never fucking come off), your teammates are going to shank you in the locker room after practice for giving away possession so cheaply.

Unwittingly, Gangotena makes the case against his own comment with the inclusion of that Iniesta quotation in his email signature. If he who keeps the ball controls the game, why the fuck would you risk giving it away on a no-look backheel? And as it happens, some ungodly percentage of Barcelona’ on-pitch activity is playing three yard passes; La Masia is not a world renowned talent factory because of its ability to flawlessly simulate the street soccer of Sao Paulo’s favelas; and Leo Messi is one of the greatest players the world has ever known, and when was the last time you saw him play a no-look pass?**

I enthusiastically applaud U.S. Soccer’s efforts to expand its talent identification network and foster inclusive soccer programs at a grassroots level throughout America. But let’s not overdo it and get carried away with the idea that a little more informality is what’s standing between us and the next level of success on the international stage. It’s all about getting more touches.

*There is a joke somewhere in here about my hometown being a dry town and overserved usually referring to people getting hammered at bars, but I am going to let you locate it
**Watch, it will turn out he played six yesterday, but the point stands