Back to the Future Part I: Why US Soccer Has to Rediscover Its Inner Street Cred
March 12, 2015 - By Joe Sullivan
When Kevin Grogan thinks about his earliest memories of playing soccer, it’s not about perfect grass pitches or newly laid AstroTurf. Rather, the memories that come back are about the epic matches and battles played out as a kid on the concrete streets and fields of Dublin’s Doneghmede and Sutton neighborhood. It’s there where he learned that ‘megging someone was as valuable as a simple wall pass to leaving your opponent grasping at shadows. It was there he learned what it was to be “clever” in soccer terms, as he either had to beat boys 2-3 years his age or get kicked to the curb. It also instilled a fighters mentality because there was always an older, more talented kid to beat and if you were going to get picked, you’d better be prepared to go toe-to-toe with the biggest and fastest that the neighborhood could throw at you.
It was “street soccer” at its finest, where the intelligence and nous of surviving against multiple larger and stronger opponents honed the skills that would take Kevin first to Belvedere FC, where his close control and ability to pick out a pass first caught the eye of Vincent Butler with the Football Association of Ireland. Summer trials at Manchester United soon followed. Finally, at the tender age of 15 United offered Grogan a contract. And, by age 19 he was training in the first team alongside the likes of Beckham, Giggs, Keane and Scholes.
But it is that early education that Grogan credits for much of his success and why he sees the decline of street "football’ as enormously detrimental to the development of technical and instinctual players. According to Grogan, “without street football we are losing a golden generation of talent. Giggs, Best, Pele, and Maradona all got their technical ability through natural talent and street football. The list of players who came up this way is endless. It’s not just about the technical aspect but also the street smarts to deal with situations and own problems. Kids are over coached these days and lack all the essential ingredients to succeed."
In a recent article with ESPN FC, Arsenal’s manager, Arsene Wenger, lamented the loss of street soccer in Europe. He pointed out that the best last bastion of street footballers is in South America, with his own Alexis Sanchez being a prime example of creative talent that developed on the streets of South America. Although Wenger was specifically discussing the development of top strikers, the point he makes carries across positions, “Maybe in our history, street football has gone. In street football when you are 10 years old, you play with 15-year-olds, so you have to be shrewd, you have to show that you are good; you have to fight, to win impossible balls. When it is all a bit more formulated, then it is less developing your individual skill, your fighting attitude. We have lost that a little bit in football. We have to ask ourselves, what we can add to our academies [to get it back]."
If Grogan and Wenger are correct, then the challenge becomes how to systematically re-introduce our players to the elements of street soccer that are going to develop the attributes of creativity and fight that will take youth players to the next level.
With each team that Grogan now works with he is trying to get DOCs and coaches to find time within their training schedule to allow their players to create their own field using whatever is at hand to make goals and then pick their own teams from a group of various ages. There are no coaches, no whistles and no referees. The kids have to call their own fouls and the younger kids need to learn to cope with the size and speed of the older kids. But as Grogan points out, it’s not just the younger and smaller kids who benefit from “playing up” but the older kids who need to learn to take on a leadership role within a team, directing players and providing guidance within the game to the their younger teammates.
There are interesting and challenging socioeconomic undercurrents in Wenger’s observation which dovetail with the argument that US Soccer as a whole needs to do a better job of finding the kids outside of the academy and travel system who are learning soccer in a formulaic way. And, if it’s true that soccer in America has become the quintessential middle class sport, then directors and coaches need to accept the shortcomings of a system where players are often “wrapped up in cotton wool” as Grogan likes to say. Because then, to borrow a phrase, if we remove “necessity” as the mother of invention (or, creativity for our argument), we lose the opportunity to develop game changing players and we’ll send our home grown players into the world of international football with too few tools in their tool bag and with too little guile and grit.
“The opportunity exists in the US to create a system of truly outstanding international players. Americans seem to have an uncanny way of reinventing themselves in ways that often surprise people. Right now they just need a re-think about where they want to go with player development. Is getting kids into college the ultimate goal or is it to turn out professional players in line with what happens in other soccer nations?”
The question lingers, but in the meantime Grogan will be encouraging kids to find their own unique and inventive ways to leave opponents grasping at shadows.