The OUTS and INS of my soccer world

I’ve been coaching youth soccer for over 22 years, at every level imaginable.  I did lots of federation coaching courses, both in the US and abroad. I’ve always tried to be a lifelong student of the game.  I spent ten years teaching coaching courses for my local state association.  I embraced the orthodox, championed the tried and true, and followed the conventional wisdom.

Then about five years ago I started to ask “why?”.  Since them I have been methodically examining every accumulated piece of hard-earned knowledge, holding them up to the light, and more often than not…. discarding them for something better.

Here is my very personal list of soccer OUTS and INS from those past fiver years.  The “ins” are what I am doing now…. at least until I can find something better.

Disclaimer: these are general principles.  There are always exceptions and there is never an always

OUT: Possession Soccer

IN: Positional Soccer

OUT: Triangles

IN: Diamonds (no a diamond is NOT a ‘double triangle’.  Don’t even go there)

OUT: Play the way you’re facing

IN: Face the way you’re playing

OUT: Call for the ball

IN: Tell your team mate where the ball should be played

OUT: The Five Principles of Attack

IN: The only principle of Attack is Penetration (everything else is just detail)

OUT: Move the ball

IN: Move the opponents

OUT: Get the ball or get the man

IN: Win the space, so you get both

OUT: Simple to complex

IN: Whole-Part-Whole

OUT: Progressions

IN: Linked activities

OUT: The Game is the Best Teacher

IN: The Best Teachers are the Best Teachers      (if you had me as an instructor and I told you the game was the best teacher….. SORRY!!!!!)

OUT: Coaching Courses

IN: Social Media Connections

Thanks to all of those on Twitter who share their passion, knowledge, opinions,  and ideas through videos, blog posts, public conversations, and DM’s.  


USSF Lesson Plans: Form vs Content

This is a great rant sent to me by Chad McNichol (twitter:@balonfoot), a youth soccer coach in Arizona. It raises some great questions about both USSF coaching education and USSF coaching orthodoxy.  Take a look at the email and the accompanying lesson plan.-Scott

Here’s an example of what bothers me about USSF, which is fresh in my mind after the recent C License presentation from the DOC of our club.


 Here we have a session in a pretty PDF. 

  • We have our topic – check
  • We have our progression of activities starting with the technical warm up – check
  • We end in a game – check

 But wait…. there’s more!  We’ve been doing the above for years….since the old E “certificate” days …. Now we’ve added

  • the 5 W’s (Who, What, When, Where, Why)
  • intensity levels (because we’re tying it to periodization, the latest buzzword)
  • and we’ve even added the numbers of the players per the 1-4-3-3 numbering system! (I added the one, per new USSF orthodoxy, in case you were afraid that we wouldn’t be playing with a Goalkeeper on Sunday)

 Who could ask for anything more!?  Just look at all these words on the page!  All the fields are meticulously filled in!

Never mind that:

  • We have completely conflated the concepts of “dribbling to beat an opponent 1v1” with “dribbling to penetrate”.  The warm up has us doing Cruyff turns and scissors.
  • We are pretending that “dribbling to penetrate” is primarily a technical issue, when in fact recognizing when and why to “dribble to penetrate” (e.g. to draw defensive response for dismarking, to create overloads etc.) is the part that’s difficult.  Training the tactical is far more complex than talking about “dribbling with the laces”, “head up”, or whatever other  canned coaching point you can list about any creature dribbling a soccer ball.
  • If I’m a coach seeking info, and I download this plan from the internet, how helpful are these very generic so-called “coaching points”?

           “Penetration: Where, when, why?”

            “Improvisation: What, where, when?” 

Indeed.  Those are really important questions. Conveniently not answered here.

This is “guided discovery” run amok.  Notice that the details of all coaching points DO NOT GET MORE SPECIFIC OR FOCUSED as the session increases in complexity and becomes more game-like.  This is a huge problem for me.

The methodology is obviously just a box check.  This plan was put together by the MYSA, a big name in youth soccer. And in my opinion it’s abysmal.

  • “Where: Attacking Half” – Really? So not applicable to center backs dribbling to penetrate into the middle third if everyone is marked? (As Mascherano does for Barcelona week in, week out) 
  • “When: In Possession of the Ball” – Mind blown! I was struggling to figure out how to dribble when not in possession of the ball.  this is a canned response that offers no insight or information to either the coach or the players.

You get the idea.  There’s all this polished material out there.  All this pedagogy.  All these edicts.  And, more importantly, all this $$$ being shelled out for this coaching education from the experts.  But how helpful is this plan to a coach who has no tactical context of where, why or when to dribble?

I agree with Chad.  I think there are two dangers in this type of approach to coaching education.  One is that we get too wrapped up in the “How” of coaching:  Methods, Style, Pedagogy, Theory, Presentation, etc. to the point where the “How” becomes more important than the “What”… or even worse: we start to think the “How” is the “What”.  Just run this lesson plan, the activities will do the teaching, and the kids will figure it out for themselves. Congratulations! You’ve just created the Next Messi™

The second problem is that the real information the American coaches desperately need… the global standard of “What, When, Why, Where”… is still missing, either because the things  we really need to know aren’t known by those in charge, aren’t being taught, or aren’t being taught adequately.   Shouldn’t it be the job of our Coaching Education system to both know and to teach these things to their coaches?  The big concepts and the little details that make the difference between success and failure? The specific information you need in a situation to dismark from an opponent.  The specific conditions that influence a decision to pass or dribble? The specific body angle to take in a specific situation? What foot to receive the ball on in a specific situation?… This information is out there, and it’s both teachable and learnable.  Kids all around the world (even some here) are being taught these things and you can see the difference when you watch them play. And trust me, until you know what you don’t know, the players you coach are not going to get much better. Not really.

This past week another friend of mine received his USSF B License. (sincere congratulations, by the way!)  I asked him what kind of technical and tactical insights he were taught at the course. Taken in tandem with Chad’s observations, I thought this reply was very interesting:

“the application of technique in tactical phases is always a concern and issue but it wasn’t a particular focus of the course. The course REALLY focuses on the work of the coach from a holistic perspective (how do you lead your team, how do you lead your players, how do you manage the performance environment, methodology of training sessions, methodology and application of game analysis, management of game day/in game functions and analysis, how do you lead yourself, etc etc. The assumption would be that anyone getting to the level of a B coach would already know and be doing that kind of stuff.”

Sounds like good stuff.  But it’s still more form over content.  And I’m going to repeat that final line because I think it is crucially important.

“The assumption would be that anyone getting to the level of a B coach would already know and be doing that kind of stuff.”

But is that stuff being taught?  Are our coaches really learning it? Are they “doing it”? I don’t think so.  Not from my experiences at National Licenses, not from experiences others have shared with me, and frankly not from what I see on the majority of soccer fields I frequent. (apologies to those exceptions.  There are some, but they are the exception, not the norm)

What is the point of having coaching points on a lesson plan if the coach doesn’t  understand the technical and tactical points, doesn’t understand how those pieces work together, doesn’t recognize when they are or aren’t working, and doesn’t understand how to apply or adjust them? Worst of all, what if the coaching points are just flat out wrong for the topic?

as a postscript to this, Chad later told me

As an engineer in corporate America, I deal with canned, pointless templates, meetings and activities ALL DAY EVERY DAY. It upsets me to turn soccer into the same.

I couldn’t agree more. Is there value in learning good coaching methods and techniques ? Of course there is!  Is this where American coaches are falling behind their international counterparts? I don’t think so.  In my opinion, what our intermediate and high level coaches really need, desperately need, is not information on how to run a more efficient session, but content and information on how to make our players better. Without the right content, even the best organized training session is a waste of time.



More than a few people I follow on Twitter commented with varying levels of dismay about the shortcomings of the USWNT U20 team at the recently completed Womens World Cup in Papua New Guinea.

From being heavily outshot in many games to their failure to keep and constructively use possession of the ball, it ought to be coming abundantly clear to all by now that unless something changes at the National level, the USA risks getting left in the dust.  US Women’s Soccer is the Hare dozing in a stupor under a tree while more and more of the world’s Tortoises grind determinedly and relentlessly pass us in terms of technique, tactics, and mentality and catch up to us athletically.

One thing that really shocked me about this particular team was the absolute shambles they made of their restarts.  How can a team preparing for international competition not be better prepared for standard situations that occur over and over again in games?  Yet from watching the team, it seems that no premium at all was put on retaining the ball in basic situations like goal kicks and throw ins

To make my point, I broke down footage from the 3rd place game between the USA and Japan. I isolated and included every throw in for either side and all of the USA’s goal kicks and long clearances. The footage is as detailed as the camera work allowed.


I saw quite a bit of discussion in social media about the USA’s absolute refusal to even attempt a single goal kick short in the tournament.  Everything went long.  Okay, so either the coach didn’t want to play short or felt that the team could not play short.  If the ends justified the means, you can say it’s just a matter of style and philosophy.  Fair enough.

Except that the USA’s ability to play and retain long balls was dismal.  Above is a video of every goal kick, punt, long ball, and even some injury time balls served in the box as the USA pressed for another late equalizer.  As you can see, the vast majority of sequences end with the Japan comfortably in possession

It’s worth noting that Japan played short as much as possible, sometimes faking long before playing short (a ruse that the USA bit on more than once).  Not all of the POFTB was brilliant, but overall it was solid.  There were occasional breakdowns, but those breakdowns did not lead to any danger.  The willingness and ability of the Japanese to play out was a major factor in them owning the ball in this game.

Ironic, given the choice to always play goal kicks long, but the USA keeper did frequently look to distribute short when the ball was in hand. Unfortunately, spacing issues, poor decisions, an the Japanese press rendered this tactic ineffective and the USA had serious problems getting the ball out of their defensive third without losing possession


This is something that caught my eye from the USWNT U20 team because it is a pet peeve that I have been actively addressing in my club the past few weeks: The typical attitude of American Soccer teams at the youth level (and sometimes even higher) is to treat a throw in more as a “jump ball” free-for-all rather than an opportunity to restart the game with clear possession of the ball.

If you watch the video above, you can see that the USWNT looked just like a typical American youth team: losing more than half of their throws, and few of the balls they did keep were retained cleanly or for very long.  As with youth soccer, the first impulse was most often to “chuck it down the line”, and the results were annoyingly similar, with Japan effortlessly winning possession and switching play immediately out of danger. Sometimes the ball was literally thrown straight to a Japanese player who intercepted the ball under no pressure.

When the USA did retain or immediately re-win the ball, play was rarely expansive.  The players tended to try to force the ball through the immediate crowd of pressure around the ball, usually to poor effect.  On one of the rare occasions where they did win the ball, drop, and switch play, the sequence culminated in a dangerous cross in the box.  This was the only dangerous opportunity that originated with a USA throw and shows what our players could be capable of doing.

Japan was a different story.  If you watch the video above you will see that they kept possession of almost all of their throw ins with ease.  In fact, their two shaky moments came in the 88th minute.  While it’s true that the USA made no effort to press in Japan’s defensive third, Japan had no problems keeping the ball elsewhere on the field.  In fact, I would expect that the USA’s unwillingness to press throw ins deep in Japanese territory most likely came from their understanding of the futility of that venture.

When Japan does retain the ball, play is often expansive, either switching play or going forward with line breaking passes immediately after knocking the ball backwards and expanding their team shape.

On three occasions, a Japanese throw in launched a sequence that led to a dangerous ball being played in Zone 14.  Two other sequences forced excellent saves from Murphy (arguably the best two scoring chances before the goal)

So it begs the question: Why couldn’t this USA team get some basic fundamentals while Japan can play out of the back and retain their throw ins in their sleep? Is it a function of CAN’T or WON’T? Is this stuff not trained my our National Team coaches? Not trained correctly?  Is it even something that is considered when putting together a long term training plan for an International Tournament?

Throw ins matter. Goal kicks matter. Especially at the International Level where margins of victory can be extremely slim.  Every opportunity that your team has the ball is an opportunity to score.  Every opportunity that the opponent has the ball is a chance to concede.

The maddening thing with watching Japanese throw ins was how easy it was for them.  There were no elaborate rotations or movement patterns (we are working on some very simple ones at my club). The Japanese players simply checked away and back to the ball, then the receiving players and the players they combined with showed basic technical competence and solid team shape.  Nothing more.  I cannot believe that our players could not be taught to do the same.  Why aren’t they?

The rest of the world is catching up and surpassing us when it comes to the women’s game.  The days where we can just put out the best athletes and overwhelm everyone physically at any level are gone.  If we want to stay competitive internationally, maybe a good place to start is with the fundamentals; such as keeping the ball when you already have it.

What do you think?

Surge International 2016 “Fade into Bolivian” Fundraiser

At the end of June I will once again, as Mike Tyson famously said, “Fade into Bolivian”.  This will be my third trip to Bolivia as a team member of Surge International, where we will once again be working with the Escuela de Futbol UEB .

This is a fantastic organization that provides soccer skills and life lessons to more than 80 low income and at risk kids in Santa Cruz, one of the fastest growing cities in South America.

In order to help fund my expenses for the 2016 trip, I am offering up prints of some of my original photography and watercolor artwork for sale via Fine Art America

The quality of the prints is top notch, and all proceeds after expenses will go to fund my trip.  Any money raised above the $2000 goal will go directly to the Escueka de Futbol UEB to support the school and its coaching staff

Here is a sample of my watercolors: “Craven Cottage”

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and a sample of my photography: “Mount Rainier Sunset”

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These and other images can be found on my Fine Art America Page at

Purchases of these prints are not tax deductible, but if you want to get a write off and support a great cause you can support me by donating directly to Surge International via their website or by sending a check to:

Surge International
PO Box 2689
Salem, OR 97308-2689
Please put “Scott Nelson Bolivia 2016” in the comments section of your check or in the online comments section if you want to support my trip specifically
For more information about our work in Bolivia you can watch this 5 minute video


The Rondo Debate

Here is a video I made to contribute to the Great Rondo Debate of 2016.

When it comes to Rondos, I have to side with Cryuff.  I have had a lot of recent success with my players by relating various game situations, their problems, and solutions, the fixed and directional rondos we do.  But like anything else in soccer, including “Free Play”, “Choreography”, “Coerver”, “Shadow Play”, etc… Rondo is a coaching tool, and like any coaching tool it’s effectiveness depends on how it is used.  The world’s best screwdriver will not drive a nail as well as a mediocre hammer.  But if all you have is a hammer then everything becomes a nail.

Barca Notes

Alejandro Perez took some very detailed notes during the Barcelona Presentation at the 2016 NSCAA Convention in Baltimore.


FC Barcelona Notes NSCAA Convention 2016 by Jandro Perez

I appreciate the detail FCB is presenting in this presentation, and also the detail Jandro put into thee notes.

just over the past year I’ve come to recognize one simple truth:

Attention to Detail is not the difference between “Good” and “Better”

Attention to Detail is the difference between “Success” and Failure”