Why Youth Development Should Lean Further Into Most Athletic Players


It is time to throw away the American inferiority complex with its place in the sport, where many blindly claim that technique should come above all in choosing and developing the best prospects and that the U.S. is not an international power because it cares too much about athleticism.

Contrary to that popular belief, I propose the U.S. should lean further into physically gifted athletes in youth development, not away from it. Why?

I am sure you have heard it at some point. Maybe from that friend who presents as an expert and is 100% confident they have diagnosed why the U.S. is not a soccer power, regurgitating the same cliches about how the country is too backward and lacking in soccer knowledge to do youth soccer correctly.

"In American youth soccer, all we care about are the best athletes, not the best players. And that is the problem because no other country cares about athleticism. They only care if you can play soccer."

The problem is that cliche is a half-truth. Should there be an increased focus on technical development? Yes. But this idea that there is no room for prioritizing athleticism is misguided and not based on the reality of the soccer world.

The reality is that many of the best countries in the sport actually make a concerted effort to lean towards physically gifted youth. They then put those kids through years of focused technical development to make prospects that combine elite athleticism with technique.

Look at France and their trip to two straight World Cup finals. Their star player and generational prospect, Kylian Mbappe, is a 5 foot 11 tall forward whose recorded top speed of 23.6 mph is faster than any player in NFL history. And yes, including Tyreke Hill, whose record is 23.24 mph.

And if you look at most of the France team over the last decade, you see the likes of Theo Hernandez, Jules Kounde, and Ousmane Dembele, three of the fastest athletes in the sport; Paul Pogba, a 6 foot 3 midfielder whose strides eat up massive blades of grass; and N'Golo Kante, whose top tier agility and lung capacity provide a combination that catapulted him to elite heights.

Does this mean France solely focused on finding the most athletic players in their youth systems? Not at all, but it does show a concerted effort in their youth development to marry elite athleticism with elite technical development. And what are the results? Two World Cup finals and a Euro Final in six years, one of the best international runs in history.

In a 2019 interview with ESPN, Gerard Bonneau, the former head of youth recruitment at Lyon who is one of the premier developers of talent in the sport, spoke about how France became a hotbed for young talent. "French players are very clean, technically, and lots of our players are naturally very athletic."

Simple isn't it? Elite technique with elite athleticism.

England is another example of a country to reflect on. In their case, they were similar to the U.S. in that they produced great natural athletes for decades but lacked behind their competitors in technical proficiency. Rather than throw athleticism out the window in place for technique, like some would suggest the U.S. should do, England reworked its youth system to increase on-ball training while still leaning toward the best natural athletes.

The results are players like Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford, Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham, Reece James, Mason Mount, and so on, forming a golden generation of talent marrying elite natural athleticism with extreme technical proficiency to reach world-class levels.

Since that change, called the Elite Player Performance Plan, was enacted in 2012, England won the U17 and U20 World Cups for the first time in 2017 and are in the midst of their best run in a half-century, as Euro 2020 was their first major international final in 55 years.

And this is not to say elite athletes are the only way to soccer domination, but rather to say that the countries whose population provides those qualities do and should lean into them.

You have the gold standard for the technique over physicality argument in Spain, which reached great heights purely on technical development. But, even there, their dominance has faded in recent years as modern soccer places a more stringent requirement on physical qualities.

Take Pep Guardiola, the coach who popularized tiki-taka, a tactical style whose name is now often used by those who point to technical superiority over athletic, who has evolved his approach to leaning towards more athletic players. His Barcelona team that won the 2011 Champions League final had an average height of 5 foot 9, but 12 years later, his 2023 Manchester City winning team had an average height of 6 foot tall, equipped with physical behemoths in the back line and Erling Haaland at striker, one of the best athletes the sport has ever seen.

Guardiola recognized that the ideal combination in soccer is an elite athlete who is also elite technically, not one who sacrifices one for the other.

And this is not to say 'athlete' always means big and tall, as that is another common misconception. For example, people credit Cristiano Ronaldo as a better athlete than Lionel Messi due to his 6 foot 2 muscle-bound frame and outstanding vertical leap, ignoring that Messi, at his peak, was measured to have accelerative abilities comparable to NFL running backs. And if you watched Messi in that era, you saw a player whose elite ability to change directions and hit top speed in the flash of an eye, two traits making him an elite physical specimen, were the foundation for his legendary dribbling.

So, then you look at the U.S., a country with a vibrant sports culture that produces elite athletes of all shapes and sizes, and you have to conclude that it would be a massive oversight not to lean into that. Even if soccer is not the number one sport in the country, that is not an issue, considering the U.S. has the world's largest youth soccer player pool.

There should absolutely be an effort in youth soccer to find players with great natural athleticism, as long as that goes along with a coaching focus on technical development.

Rather than shying away from physicality in place of technique, the two should be valued side by side, as that will be how the U.S. reaches world dominance.

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It is time to throw away the American inferiority complex with its place in the sport, where many blindly claim that technique should come above all in choosing and developing the best prospects and that the U.S. is not an international power because it cares too much about athleticism.