Athleticism vs. Awareness


Football in the USA is on the rise, with increased participation, international success on the pitch and big names playing in MLS. Yet producing world-class talent is what separates the USA from the world’s elite nations.

Let me be politely blunt.

While the USA is doing wonderfully with respect to growing the game in terms of participation, the country still has not answered the call for player development at the elite level in the men’s game.


In the USA, we develop physically fit players. We love hustle. We call that “athleticism” and we define athleticism as physical prowess. Interestingly enough, if we saw Andres Iniesta walking the streets of New York, we would probably place him on Wall Street before we lined him up on the pitch.

What Iniesta understands (and has been trained to understand) is the inseparable relationship between ball control and position play. Ball control is the ability to dominate the ball through skillful passing, receiving, dribbling, shooting and heading. To play the game at the highest level, you must be able to call upon an arsenal of ball control skills which the game demands. Without a doubt, a total footballer must “treat the ball well and make it his friend” – as Johan Cruyff explains. If one cannot control the ball, all other aspects of the game become irrelevant.

Position play is the understanding of angles, distance, lines, timing and situation. It is the art of being in the right place at the right time. To play the game with the best, you must profoundly understand the subtle details of body position, angle of reception, distance in support, when to run and when to stand still. Elite players know how to manage the relationship between time and space.

We are not nurturing the cognitive development required to combine both ball control and position play
in a manner which allows US players to play for the best in Europe. And until the USA begins to train in a
way that develops players capable of impeccable skill and profound understanding, we will not become an elite nation in the ranks of international football.

I wish that were not the case and I am not undermining the raw talent we have in our resourceful children within the US borders. In fact, the US has passionate young players in abundance.

If one cannot control the ball, all other aspects of the game become irrelevant.

The US needs to lead children somewhere new: to a place where our players become admired worldwide for their prowess and game intelligence.

But until we change the US curriculum to emphasise ball control focused positional play games, and until
we get coaches across the country allowing the children to find solutions other than “booting it”, we will not serve these children well. The players will remain one tier below their European counterparts and the elite development program will be found lacking for decades to come.