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The American Struggle

The American struggle, why US Soccer can not consistently produce a #10 

This past weekend, while buried in my house under a foot of snow, I was able to catch one of the best play makers in the world apply their influence to a match in La Liga.  I witnessed Luka Modric of Real Madrid pull the strings in the midfield for Los Blancos as they were somehow held at Real Betis to a 1-1 draw after trailing for most of the match.  Modric who recently became the first Croatian to be voted into the World 11 by FIFA, demonstrated how his passing and creativity on the ball can absolutely terrorize defenses.  Much can be said about US soccer and its failure to develop players of similar quality, but today the question is why does the US  fail to produce very many true #10 attacking midfielders who excel at the highest levels of the game?  

First let’s describe characteristics of a #10, a position described as the play maker, the orchestrator, or the maestro of the team.  The player on the pitch that holds the key to unlocking the opposing defense.  The player given this role usually roams behind the #9 striker, but is given freedom to play in the wide areas and in behind the opposing defense in search of the ball if necessary.  Sometimes, in the case of  players like Modric, Xavi Alonso, or Mousa Dembele, these players are sometimes put deeper in the midfield as the #8, to maximize the attacking threat for teams with a wealth of attacking options.  The job of the #10 is to score goals, assist, and orchestrate goal scoring opportunities for teammates, while helping as much as they can defensively in the midfield.  This role requires a high level of technical ability, incredible comfort with the ball in tight areas, a creative view of the game, a willingness to attack defences at a high pace, and the ability to distribute the ball with precision.  The role is usually given to the best ball player on the team, and is extremely important to the offensive success of any team playing any variation of 4-3-3.  

The US was somewhat successful asking Clint Dempsey to fulfill this role for the national team.  The former Tottenham front man was employed behind Jozy Altidore in the build up to the last World Cup and the Texas native excelled as the Yanks #10.  Dempsey has a tremendous ability on the ball, he is creative when he dribbles, is able to take players 1 v 1. In my opinion Dempsey was as close as we have come to having a true #10 for our national team.  Which brings up the question, why is it so tough to find players with these abilities, and what made Dempsey such a good option during his prime?  

Dempsey grew up playing with Latinos in street matches in Texas, an influence you still see in his game to this day.  Every time Deuce gets the ball he is looks to humiliate the opposing defender, almost as if he is fighting for the attention of the neighborhood on lookers.  In these pickup games, where a goal may win you the match meaning you live to play again, it is not hard to see that Dempsey thrives to be the player who bags the winner for his group of friends.  Sending whatever collection of villains on the other side of the dirt pitch to the sideline.  Dempsey brought the street foundation and view of the game to the college and professional level, and excelled, learning how to apply this attitude and craft in the professional setting.  

A young Clint Dempsey playing with the USMNT as a youngster 

A young Clint Dempsey playing with the USMNT as a youngster 

So what characteristics are needed from a young player in order to transform into a #10?  The foundation of this position is developed at a very young age, and is a simple technical foundation of the game.  A future #10 needs to excel at dribbling.  Not only the action, but the concept, of dribbling the ball at defenders, humiliating and beating them with their individual skill.  Players should look to play in environments where dribbling, self expression, and creative ability on the ball is promoted before passing until they are around the age of 10-12 where they can start to be introduced to the team aspect of the game.  

An aspiring #10 needs to then develop his ability to pass and play through defenses as defenders become more skilled and physical in the teenage years.  In this stage of a player’s development success through passing should be demonstrated, but the player should still strive to increase his or her skill set on the ball.  Like I stated earlier dribbling is still an extremely important aspect of the position, and the ability to drive at the defense at a high pace in order to distribute or shoot should be emphasized.  The player should learn to love to attack defenses and create opportunities to score for themselves and teammates.  At this level selfishness should develop, along with a fearlessness of opposing defenders and of making mistakes.  

The quicker the player learns the concepts of the position, and the more chances he or she has to play in the role the better. The advanced movements and ability to find gaps between midfielders and defenders you see the likes of Mesut Ozil  perform weekly should be the next aspect of the player’s game that needs to be developed along with the continued development of their technical ability, explosiveness, and comfort on the ball.  The environment the player is surrounded in now comes into play in the later stages of development.  The playing environment supplied by the coaches affects the confidence levels of the players and the mentality they then take into competitive matches.  The player also needs to be given the opportunity to create by their coaches, and allowed to exist in an environment where the pressure to not mistakes is very minimal.  

Ozil has been one of the best play makers in the EPL this season, leading Arsenal to title contention (Getty images)

Ozil has been one of the best play makers in the EPL this season, leading Arsenal to title contention (Getty images)

This is where one of the downfalls of the American #10 lies in my opinion.  Players who are not given the opportunity to express themselves in this role, with a fearlessness of opponents and failing, will never reach their full potential.  The pressure to win meaningless matches on the weekend, and make academy teams at the higher level clubs, discourages players from trying new skills, techniques, and decreases the flare and creativity in youth soccer.  Players are discouraged to dribble or go 1 v 1 in favor of passing the ball square or backwards, there is no willingness to attack, no urge to humiliate the defense by being clever or creative.  The game becomes boring, uptight, and bogged down with too much emphasis put on possession of the ball and  the result of the match by success crazed coaches and parents.  The Jedi inside the young player is slowly but surely morphed into a member of the clown army of mediocrity we witness so often in US Soccer.  

Learning to compete and to win is essential in the development of a young player.  Learning what it takes to win and what causes a team to lose is pivotal and by no means am I saying this aspect of the game should be taken out in favor of everyone being encouraged to try hard and do whatever they want on the pitch.  A young #10 needs to understand that the success of the team lies in their ability to create, their ability to get touches on the ball, and their ability to unlock the other team’s defense.  Thus why the #10 should be judged to a higher standard to the others since the team has bet its entire account on that player impacting the game. Coaches, parents, and teammates need to find the balance of positively encouraging these players to be creative and expressive, with also holding them accountable for how much of an impact they are having on the match.

In the end the drive you find in most of the world’s best #10 comes from within the player.  The inner enjoyment of attacking will lead them to success in this sport, and if the hours are spent as a youngster perfecting their individual style and ability on the ball, the player could be on their way to developing into an elite #10.  Most players who end up playing the play maker role develop playing constant recreational games, an aspect of US Soccer that has been missing at a grassroots level.  Soccer is to organized and parents become too involved in the sport and fail  to allow kids to go play for fun and competitively in an unorganized setting.  With the sport still dominated by the suburban middle class  of the country, most kids do not play enough as youngsters to really develop their own ability with the ball.  

So why does the US fail to regularly produce these creative midfielders who can pull the strings at the highest levels?  The absence of pickup soccer games is a grassroots issue that is making the development of these types of players very difficult.  But a lot has to do with the emphasis on results that we see club soccer coaches and parents stress over.  Creative players need to be encouraged to try what they envision in their head or what they tried in the driveway during game scenarios, and yes more often than not it will not work, but coaches must back the players willingness to try and their lack of fear and respect for the opponents.  Once a player figures out what works for them consistently you will have an attacking force on hand that will look to unlock defenses and if given opportunities to grow in confidence as player.  He or she may be able to reach their full potential at the highest levels if given the opportunity.

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