“If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he’d have put grass in the sky.” –Brian Clough

In the late 1970’s the English FA technical director, Charles Hughes, preached a direct style of play using as few as passes as possible to get the ball forward. Charles Reep, a statistician studied how goals were scored in hundreds of games and discovered that 80% of goals scored were from three or less passes. Reep went on to work with coaches at several English clubs using this theory and was very successful employing this direct style of play.

But times have changed and during the 2006 World Cup Argentina scored one of the greatest goals ever after 24 passes vs Serbia and Montenegro.
What challenges the rest of the world is not how beautiful this style of play is but more importantly, how to teach it.

Not only do we struggle with the how, but the why becomes just as curious. If three or less passes score 80% or more of goals why not teach teams and players to play two touch soccer, one to control and one to strike the ball forward? How can you argue that we’re not playing soccer to win the game if we’re merely matching what the professionals are doing?

First, the professional game and the youth game are nowhere near the mirror images of each other based on one extremely important factor: unlimited substitutions.

With unlimited substitutions American youth coaches can run their players in a high octane full court press similar to collegiate basketball. The run and gun, kickball, kick and run or the professionally justified, direct play. Coaches can concentrate on physical fitness, ball striking, speed, work rate, player toughness and powerful shooting from outside. Predictable patterns emerge leading to the lack of creativity we see at the national level leading to the outcomes of the USMNT and USWNT when faced against teams with unleashed creativity.

The second aspect of direct play in American soccer is the creation of the 50/50 ball. Unfortunately many coaches, coaching directors and adults glamorize the player willing to risk body and limb for the 50/50 ball without fully understanding the risks inherent in unprotected bodies fumbling to the ground. ( search : “soccer injuries” in YouTube.) Scores and wins are tabulated based on how efficiently and frequently you can place a ball past an untrained and immature goalie*. You can see youth teams that understand how to strike a ball effectively, but cannot for the life of them dribble out of pressure.

Thus, direct play puts players at serious risk of injury. Players without a full understanding of the consequences of 50/50 injuries and the proper technique for receiving, tackling and containing the attacker run the risk of having a short career.

Finally, the last aspect of why we teach direct play is because it’s very difficult to teach indirect soccer and even more so it’s hard to facilitate creative, problem solving players through the learning process. When and where to support the receiver of the ball, looking up before you receive the ball to play to a teammate on the ground is more difficult to teach than playing the ball forward and running into it.

This isn’t a rant on direct soccer. It must be used. It’s like the American Football tactic that you need a good rushing game to open up the passing game, or vice versa, you need a good passing attack to open up the run. The same applies with soccer. You need to play direct to open up the indirect patterns, but you also have to teach the safety skills to go along with the technical skills of receiving and passing on the ground.

In the end the final consequence is evaluating the number of touches the player has. In the two touch build up and two touch finish one questions how technical the player will be in five years compared to the three touch build up and three pass finish. An article by Gregg Thompson sums up the situation wisely:

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“I brought 4 boys from our club to a soccer camp featuring Pepijn Lijinders from PSV Eindhoven, one of the premier developers of youth talent in the world. After the final day of camp, I discussed with him why Europeans are so much more comfortable with the ball than Americans. The answer was simple…touches on the ball. He said at the younger ages, the top American players are fairly even with the European players but as time goes on, the Americans fall further and further behind.

Once I got home, I did some quick calculations on my calculator and Pepijn’s point really hit home. I approximated the touches the players received at the soccer camp during Pepijn’s 90 minute session and compared them to the number of touches players receive at a “typical” 90 minute soccer practice I see every day of the week.”

Summation: Typical US session: Total number of touches in 90 minutes = 425 touches! Typical European session:Total number of touches in 90 minutes = 2,100
Assuming 3 training sessions per week and a 9 month season:
Number of touches per week
PSV team: 6,300
Typical American player: 1,275
per month
PSV team: 25,200
Typical American player: 5,100
per season
PSV team: 226,800
Typical American player: 45,900
In just 5 years, the PSV player or similarly coached players will touch the ball nearly 1 million more times than the American player. Tough to argue with those numbers!

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So you have to question which score we should really be keeping at the end of a youth soccer game. Do we keep the number of times a team one touches the ball past an immature goalie? Or do we count the number of touches our team has vs the numbers of the other team? Do we value the player who juggles 20 times once a week or the player who juggles 10 times every day. In the end, it’s all a matter of orientation.

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*Goalies mature at around the age of 35 whereas field players mature around the age of 25-28. Goalies often have the fewest number of experiences as growing players that lead to anticipation, learning and application. More often for most goalies the higher the level of play, the less shots you see, but the more important the save. If you want to be great goalie at age 17, play with awful teams from U11-15 and have a great trainer because you’ll see more shots than with a team that only allows 5 goals all season because they’re scoring 35.