why BOOT IT is a four letter word

…And not necessarily the safe option

It’s something you hear at soccer games at all ages and levels in the United States all too often:

A player wins possession of a ball deep in their own half and immediately the call rings out from at least one parent on the sideline, and often from the coach and team mates as well…. “BOOT IT!”


And every time someone yells “BOOT IT!” an angel in Soccer Heaven loses its wings and plummets headlong to earth

Similarly, when a goalkeeper gets control of the ball or takes a goal kick, the most common decision among American players is to “Send it deep”, often with the clear consensus approval of the sidelines.  If the goalkeeper plays a goal kick short or bowls a ball out to a defender, it often cues a collective gasp from spectators, followed by more exhortations to “BOOT IT!”, or similar variations on the fear driven Safety First theme:

Ladies and gentlemen may I present you “BOOT IT’s!” ugly cousins




Now to be fair, if players have not been trained up to be comfortable with the ball under pressure, and if a coach has not adequately prepared his team to play out of the back in a structured, organized way, it will indeed be a recipe for disaster.

But does that mean that “BOOT IT!” and “SEND IT!” are the safe answers?

Watch this clip from BVB Dortmund’s recent Europa League fixture with Italy’s Atalanta.  This play starts out with BVB goalkeeper Roman Burki in comfortable possession and under no pressure.  With short options available, including Gonzalo Castro at the top of the box doing an amazing 5 shoulder checks of his surroundings in 8 seconds, Burki decides to go long.

So how did that work out for Dortmund?

And here’s the thing, most American players, fans, and coaches who watched the match live probably did not even register that Atalanta’s goal was the direct result of a ball literally given away to the other team.  I know this is the case because I have seen dozens and dozens of examples of similar events happening in youth games and rarely have I heard a spectator or coach make a connection between a long punt, goal kick, or clearance and the goal they surrendered as a direct result.  Most will never make the connection, and when they do they will blame the distribution or lament that the clearance was not won, but the bottom line is that this goal happened because Dortmund  had firm possession of the ball and decided to give it away instead of keep it.

But if a team surrenders a goal (or even a shot) when their attempt to play the ball out of the back goes awry it’s a different story.  “Why didn’t he punt it?” “I knew this would happen”, “You gotta clear those”.

And it’s never the technique or decision making that’s critiqued or questioned “Why didn’t he take the ball across his body?” “Why didn’t the Center back slide over to give him an outlet?” “He needs to pass a little quicker there…”  No, the QUALITY of the attempt to play out is rarely examined, just the DECISION to play out in the first place.

Here is an example from the extreme opposite end of the spectrum.  Bayern under Guardiola finds themselves under extreme pressure against Wolfsburg and just doesn’t care.

How did that work out for Bayern?

Okay, so this is the part of the blog where the typical American soccer parent or coach is going to say “Yeah, yeah, that’s fine for Bayern and their World Class players… but our kids can’t play out of the back.  They aren’t good enough.  They aren’t technical enough.  It’s too risky.  This is only for the best players and it’s dumb to even try with our local youth teams.”

Are you sure????

If it’s not possible, what about this High School JV team that had a grand total of three kids playing organized club soccer on the roster?

If it’s not possible, what do you make of this mid level Gu13 select team?

If it’s not possible, what do you make of this Bu10 team?

If it’s not possible, what do you make of this Bu8 recreational team?


If you watched the clips, you will have observed that none of these teams are collections of elite players. These are not products of our “World Class DA” system.  Most of the players on on these teams didn’t even go through a tryout process. But they all understand what they are doing.

And the truth is that Playing out of the back, if taught and executed correctly, is actually safer than sending the ball long.  It really doesn’t matter what the level or your players is. If you have a lower level team then quality of your playing out might not be great, but if you are competitive in your league then your opponent’s ability to counter you won’t be great either.

The caveat here is “If taught correctly”.  This is not something where a coach can come up to his team in the pregame huddle and say “Hey you know what?  Let’s play out of the back like Spain today!*”It needs to be organized, rehearsed, and trained**

*I literally saw this happen once, by the way.  It turned out exactly as you would imagine

** Sending a goal kick square to a wide defender and then having that player try to jam the ball up the line whether there is an opening or not is NOT “playing out of the back”.  Aargh! Don’t even get me started!

I started teaching all my teams play out of the back 6 years ago.  I’d say on average those teams choose the short option for keeper distribution about 2/3 of the time and only try to clear the ball in the run of play when it is bouncing around in the six yard box or some other extreme event.  In that time frame I can count a grand total of 3 times where a goal was surrendered after the Playing Out of the Back broke down, and one of these includes an incident where we lost the ball out of bounds at midfield and the opponent scored on the sequence after the throw in.  During the same time period my teams have surrendered 9 goals from long punts, goal kicks and clearances, despite the fact that we only choose those options 1/3 of the time.

So why is BOOT IT not the safe option?  Because every time you have the ball, your team potentially has a chance to score.  Yes, losing the ball closer to your own goal is potentially more risky than losing the ball in the other team’s half of the field, but risk is relative.  If you are a demolitions expert and you follow your training and are careful, handling dynamite entails minimal risks.  But if you are untrained or careless, it is probably best NOT to handle explosives.

the safe solution is not to avoid playing out of the back; the safe solution is to learn to do it without giving the ball away

Here is a clip of a mid level u14 team playing out of the back.  This is literally every opportunity in the game where the goalkeeper had possession of the ball.  As you can see, these girls create two legit chances (and eventually force the opposing team to stop pressing and back off) while never putting themselves under threat at all

So the solution is not to avoid risk, but manage it.  And to weigh the risk against the reward accurately.  Losing the ball close to your own goal is obviously dangerous, but did you know that statistically, more goals from open play in professional soccer start from sequences where the ball is won in the center of midfield than from any other area of the pitch, including more than are won near the goal?  Knowing this, does it make sense to intentionally trade 100% possession of the ball for a 50/50 loose ball in the area of the field where it is most dangerous to lose it?

In a recent excellent interview with French Magazine So Foot, Barcelona great Xavi summed it up perfectly:

“But hey, I do not see where is the pleasure to do that (clearing the ball- “Booting it”) anyway. Do it in the 93rd minute of play, to have control on the result, why not? But in the 60th or the 70th, what is the point? You still have time to find a solution, to take advantage! Clearing the ball is an intellectual defeat: ‘Can I really not do anything else there?’ When you recover the ball and you lose it again, you give a new possession of ball to the opponent. Don’t do that. Find spaces, pass the ball to the goalkeeper, dribble, get a throw-in by shooting the ball on the player you have in front of you. Do something, anything, but do not throw it out! My sense of responsibility prevents me from doing it.”

Like many of today’s parents (at least the older ones) I grew up playing at a time where soccer tactics were not so much about getting the ball and doing something with it as they were about dumping the ball into the other team’s half of the field and trying (or hoping) to force a technical mistake or a turnover you could capitalize on.  It was less a game of chess and more a game of “toss the grenade”, with the loser being the player in possession when the grenade went off.  This strategy still works at the younger ages of soccer at all levels, because in general a young player’s ability to capitalize on mistakes far exceeds a young player’s ability to avoid them.  But as players get older and more skillful and experienced, it becomes a function of diminishing returns.  The better the team you play against, the less success you will have.  And if you were to try and defeat a youth team from Spain or Germany with indiscriminant aerial bombardment they would just smile, thank you for the ball, and then jam it down your throat.

We need to teach our kids and our coaches not to be afraid, and teach them how to handle the explosives safely.  And if you get caught with a grenade every once in a while, so be it.  Better than getting scored on because you lost the ball than because you willingly gave the opponent the ball.



A Spanish Soccer Journey

In December of 2017 I fulfilled a bucket list wish to travel Spain in search of soccer and other cool things.  Here is the report from the “soccer” portion of that journey.

Bilbao 0 vs Formentera 1Copa Del Rey Round of 32 2nd Leg

Highlights Here – Not Suitable for Athletic Fans

My Spanish Soccer sojourn hits the ground running.  Our plane from London touched down in Bilbao at 7:20 pm.  By 8:20 pm we had successfully parked the car and arrived at the hotel.  By 8:30 pm I was out the lobby door and on my way to San Mames to see Athletic Bilbao vs Segunda B side Formentera in the Copa Del Rey.  This kind of behavior is not that unusual for me.  It’s actually the third European trip I’ve taken where I went to a game the same day I arrived, though I’ve never gone even remotely this close to the wire before. Thank you Spain for your quirky abundance of 9 pm kickoffs!

The stadium is about a mile from my hotel, and as I get closer, the Christmas lights on the busy street and the Red and White clad Athletic fans make for a festive atmosphere despite the darkness and rain.  Basque Country, although exceedingly beautiful, is NOT “Sunny Spain”.  As a matter of fact, during my time in Euskadi it not only rained more than I’m used to in Seattle; it rained harder as well.  In Seattle I know few people who own an umbrella.  In Bilbao, it seems like everyone does.

It’s not exactly a cracking atmosphere inside the stadium.  The combination of a later weekend kickoff, tickets not being available on line, and a result against the minnows from Ibiza being taken for granted conspire to keep all but about 12,000 people away.  In the cavernous San Mamés it feels like far fewer.  I’ve been to Chicago Fire games at Soldier Field that felt more crowded.  (The next day, my Basque friends were all shocked by the small crowd.  Of course, none of them had bothered to go, either!) I had borrowed a season pass from a prominent local soccer coach, and so predictably my seat was high in the upper deck behind one of the goals. Better for easy observation of all things tactical.

Formentera’s game plan is exactly what you would expect from an underdog in a second leg cup tie.  Despite Athletic having the away goal advantage after a 1-1 tie in Ibiza, the visitors parked the bus, stalled for time, and generally sought to shorten the game before launching a second half push for the decisive goal.  The plan works perfectly.  Athletic Bilbao totally dominate possession and territory without creating much in the way of clear cut scoring chances.  Iñaki Williams toils upfront in isolation, starved of service by the bloc of midfielders in front of him.  At about the 65th minute, Formentera come out of the shell.  They have done their job defensively and now both sides are faced with a 25 minute game.  The pace and the entertainment value of the match immediately increase.  Formentera start to mount pressure.  They force a fingertip save from a corner kick.  Athletic wastes the resulting counter attack opportunities.  With seconds to go in injury time, an Athletic defender inexplicably dumps a ball over his own end line under minimal pressure.  Corner kick.  Everyone in the stadium knows what is going to happen next.  Corner. Header. Goal. Whistle.  Just like that, the game is over and Formentera have stolen the tie. They are onto the next round.  I’ve seen a lot of late goals during a lifetime of watching live soccer, but this is the first time I remember a game being decided by the literal last kick of the game.

The streets of Bilbao are decidedly less festive on the walk back to the hotel in the pouring rain.

Barcelona 2 v Celta Vigo 2  –  La Liga Matchday 14

Highlights Here


I was expecting this to be the highlight of my soccer trip and the match did not disappoint. After a long drive from Bilbao the day before, My wife and I are firmly squared away in our Barcelona studio, which is, like our hotel in Bilbao, also a mere mile away from the stadium (“A coincidence”, I tell my wife.  “These were the best available accommodations I could find.  Honest!)  There is a massive low front over Sicily and it’s turned down the thermostat on the entire Mediterranean!  So we have “Sunny Spain” but by no means “Warm Spain”.

One striking thing I noticed in my time in Barcelona… I was all over different parts of the city, and although there were a few really super nice areas, I never came across any super bad areas.  This walk to the stadium fits the normal city pattern of “apartments above and small shops below”.  At first the sheer density of Barcelona can feel overwhelming if you live in the burns like I do.  But after a while I started to like it.

Lots of Catalan flags featuring the blue star of the Independence minded are on show on the balconies, one of them planted an inch away from his neighbor’s Spanish Federal flag.  Probably makes for some awkward meetings in the hallway every day.

The Camp Nou is every bit as imposing and impressive as you would expect it to be.  An extra layer of security causes a crowd to back up on the streets as you make your way into the stadium.  While I am waiting to get through, a vendor tries to see me a beer, sees the Seattle Sounders logo on my jacket, and starts going on and on about Marco Papa. “Eres de Guatemala?” I ask, already knowing the answer. Marco: You number one fan is selling loose beers on the streets of Barcelona.

The Inside of the Camp Nou is a little less impressive in terms of atmosphere.  The concourses are a regular Tower of Babel. I hear French, Spanish, Catalan, German, Norwegian, Russian, and English tinted in North American, British, and Antipodean accents.  Like me, people from all over the world are here to see the Greatest Player on Earth and the Greatest Team on the Planet.  But like me, a lot of these fans are soccer tourists. Real Fans, for sure….. but not true Cúles.  It makes for an enthusiastic but surprisingly quiet atmosphere.  Like too many people are trying to soak in the atmosphere instead of trying to be a part of it.  There are also quite a few empty seats and it seems that many Cúles are staying away.  Most locals I talked to agree it has to do with dissatisfaction with the current board and their decisions on and off the field. Or maybe it’s too cold.  Or maybe it’s too early.  Or maybe it’s too expensive.  Unlike the rest of the games I went to, Barça tickets are fairly pricey

The game is a real cracker though.  With 1st place in the UCL sown up, there is no need to rest anyone for the impending game against Sporting.  All the stars that I came to see are out there on the field… Messi, Luis Suarez, Iniesta, Busquets, Umtiti.  But Celta are not star struck.  They are here to play and take advantage of some comical defending to take a 20th minute lead, only for Messi to equalize two minutes later after some classic tiki taka one touch play in Zone 14. Suarez scores two brilliant goals, one of which is wrongly disallowed. On the goal that counts, Messi slide-rules a ball to the end line through an opening that didn’t seem to be there when he made the pass, and the only thought that comes to my mind is “Thomas Rongen just might be wrong about this boy’s lack of soccer intelligence”.  Celta equalize on another piece of sloppy Barcelona defending, but I got what I came for.

Years after hearing the famous Vicente Del Bosque quote, I finally… FINALLY get my chance.  I spend 15-20 minutes just watching Busquests, and as promised… I did “see the whole game”.


Girona 2 vs Alavés 3 –  La Liga Matchday 14

Highlights Here


My wife and I had wanted to scout out the Costa Brava on this trip, and we spent the day driving through the endless chain of beach resorts, many of which were absolute ghost towns on a December Monday afternoon.  But the weather is again clear and a little warmer (at least in the sun), so it’s a glorious day. Twilight finds us at the top of Begur castle, sun setting behind the Catalonian hills and the lights of the town igniting one by one.  My wife is an exceedingly good sport, so instead of driving back to Barcelona in the dark, I convinced her ahead of time that a better plan would be to spend the night in Girona so we could see the city the next day before driving back to home base.  She agrees… and as luck would have it… (nudge nudge…) that very night Girona FC is hosting Alavés at 9pm just a mile and a half down the road from our hotel!  “Hey Hon, since you like to turn in early and I tend to stay up late… do you mind if I go to the game?  No?  Okay.  Guess I’ll be heading out…”

Walking out the door I look at the hotel events board…”Team breakfast at 10 am…”, “Tactical sessions in the ballroom at 3pm”… Deportivo Alaves is staying at this same hotel!

Girona’s stadium has a really temporary feel about it.  The “main stand” is a pre-fab retrofit that overlooks the club’s former (and much smaller) main stand.  I’m looking around this place and thinking “here is the skeptic’s answer to how a ‘Minor League’ team could survive and adapt to promotion in an open US Soccer Market.  The bathroom facilities need some improvements though.  One portakabin with three urinals and one stall for about five thousand people just doesn’t quite cut it.

Unlike Barcelona, where many people I encountered only spoke Spanish, Girona is very much Catalan.  I’d actually learned enough Catalan to hold basic conversations, and this was my chance.   When you speak Catalan to a native Catalan speaker, they will almost always rect in the following manner:

  • Excitedly: “Oh! You speak Catalan!” ……followed quickly by……
  • Mildly suspicious: “Why do you speak Catalan????”

I stuck up a conversation with the people to my left and found out some interesting things, such as that their son was serving as a technical Director for a youth Club in Virginia, and that Mariano Rajoy is not particularly well liked in Girona.

Another great game.  Alaves dig in to defend and shorten the game, a strategy that leads to a halftime score of Girona 0, Alaves 0, Celsius 0.  It’s cold!  Only the warmth of the cigarette smoke is keeping us from going numb

Sidebar: Every other stadium I went to in Spain was joyously smoke free. A factor that actually raises Spain’s stock in the future Nelson Retirement Sweepstakes.  After coming back from the Girona game I had shower twice and put all my clothes in a plastic bag that I hung outside the hotel window. A factor that lowers Girona’s stock in the Nelson Retirement Sweepstakes

In the second half Alaves’ plan unravels as half-man-half-bulldozer-whose-parents-couldn’t-spell Cristhian Stuani puts Girona in front and Juanpe quickly adds a header.  Alaves goes out hunting for goals and immediately looks like a completely different team. Ibai Gomes scores a hat trick of conversation piece goals, including a goal that came from a move that looked offside, a penalty off an incredibly reckless goalkeeper challenge, and another literal last-kick-game-winner that came after some amazing determination by the Alaves winger who set up the play.

I’m wondering if I can make a career as a good luck charm for visiting Spanish League teams, as my appearances have now coincided with two last second wins and an improbable draw for the visiting teams.  Hey Spanish teams… DM me!Let’s talk!


Barcelona 2 v Sporting Lisbon 0 – UEFA Champions League Group Game 6

Highlights Here

From a competitive standpoint, I kinda expected that this game might not be very compelling.   Barcelona had already won the group after the previous game vs Juventus.  And I could pretty much tell when Cuadrado scored for the Old Lady against Olympiacos because the Sporting fans who had smuggled their way into the general population and were scattered around us gave out a sudden collective groan in the 15th minute (I’d sorted them all out earlier…they were the only ones trying to smoke).  Game officially meaningless.  As you would expect, Barcelona rested a lots of players in this game, though Suarez started and Messi came on in the second half.  The standouts displays of the night were the surprisingly competent performances of two players you would expect to suck… Thomas Vermaelen deputizing for the injured Umtiti and Jeremy Mathieu for Sporting.  Of course, just as recognize him and am thinking about how much better the ex-Barça man looks in green and white hoops, he promptly puts the ball into his own net.   Not the last kick of the game, but the fourth injury time goal I have seen in three games. But the home team won, diminishing my claims of being a talisman for Spanish away sides.

In truth, the best thing about this game was I got to spend it with my wife, Kirsten.  She’s not much of a soccer fan (it’s a wonder she doesn’t hate it, to be truthful) so it was special for her to come with me to the home of the Best Club on the Planet, and to see the Best Player in the World.

Walking back, I reconfirmed an initial impression about Barcelona.  The place feels incredibly safe.  Game day or not, there are always little kids and old people wandering about on their business at all hours, and nobody bothers anyone else or even looks even slightly menacing. “if you want crime at night”, I was told “Go to the Ramblas. But if anyone causes you trouble it will probably be another foreigner”

Alavés 2 vs Las Palmas 0La Liga Matchday 15

Highlights Here

This game was memorable both for the match experience and the sometimes white knuckle drive to get there.  Back in the Basque Country, we found ourselves in Lekeito, a small and beautiful fishing village on the Atlantic coast. It is central to everything and close to nothing.  Although a mere 30-40 miles away from Bilbao, Viktoria, or San Sebastian, it can only be reached by incredibly windy two lane roads (think “Road to Hana with sheep”) Also problematic as I set out alone into the pitch black rainy Euskadi night for another 9pm kickoff: the car’s sometimes genius-sometimes worthless GPS couldn’t seem to find the Mendizzorota Stadium,  not even when I fed it the latitude and longitude coordinates manually.  So instead I am using Google Maps on my phone, which is fine as long as service doesn’t drop on those remote country roads, and as long as I can keep the phone from falling off the dashboard as I navigate one hairpin turn after another.

50 minutes of pitch black driving has taken me exactly 20 miles from Lekeitio, and my GPS has spit me off the hillsides and smack dab into…. Downtown Eibar!  I wouldn’t get to see the famed underdogs play on this trip, but thanks to the fact that I did not blink, I did see their town.

From Eibar I jumped on the Tollway.  If you drive in this part of Spain you will recognize two things:

  •  If you want to drive anywhere in a hurry (or even at a reasonable pace), you need to pay for the privilege.
  •  It is SO worth it.  At least you are paying for well built, well surfaced, and well signed and marked roads.  In Basque country, you are also paying for the countless tunnels that cut through the endless series of mountains and valleys.

Almost two hours after setting out, I arrive at the Mendizziota Stadium to find a phenomenon never encountered before or after during my time in Spain: A destination with simple and easy parking. Whether there is simply no parking available (Montserrat Abbey, The Game of Thrones Stairs,  and all of Girona), or it’s 20 flights of steps from where you want to go (The Basque Seaside villages, the GOT Stairs… again) or the parking spot is exactly 2 inches wider than the width of your car (our accommodations in Barcelona and San Sebastian) or the ticket machine won’t take your credit card because you have no resident Tax ID Number (Bilbao… hint…M12345678 will work) parking is always an adventure in Spain.

But not here! The approach to the Stadium is on a wide access road with free street parking all along.  Just pull up, park, and walk 5 minutes to the stadium! It was simple enough to make me paranoid.  I half expected my car to be towed for some unknown infraction after the game, but no… it was right where I left it.

About the Medizorrota:  of all the stadiums I went to in Spain, and compared to all the stadiums I have been to in England and Germany, this little gem and the little club who play there make more noise per capita than any other I have been to.  The fans are loud and they never. Ever. Ever. Stop!  As luck would have it, I was very close to the Alavés socios section, and they were awesome. No soccer tourists. No artificial plastic capos. No craft beers or garlic fries.  This was the real deal.  And unlike in many stadiums I’ve been to in England (Liverpool excepted) the fans in the main stands were not chiefly made up of the “Prawn Sandwich Brigade” that Roy Keane so detested.  These folks were jumping up and down and singing with the socios, including the 70 year old lady next to me who invited me to sit next to her when she saw that I was sitting in the only seat in the stadium that had a leaking roof above it. She told me (in halting Spanish, it was not the native language for either of us) that I was in her son’s seat.  He stayed home because the kids were sick and the wife has on call at the hospital.

The game on the field was top notch.  Both these teams were in the relegation zone and the level of play was so much better both tactically and technically from what I see week in, week out from the Sounders and MLS.  Anyone who says that MLS teams could compete with the lower half of the La Liga table… well, they are dreaming.

Two random notes about Las Palmas:

  • By the end of the game, their gray and yellow away kits had really grown on me
  • On the way out I passed the Las Palmas team bus, resplendent in team logo and colors. Might they be doing better in the league if they flew from the Canary Islands instead of driving?

The drive back was much easier than the drive in.  I knew where I was going, plus at 11:30 pm on a Saturday night, the roads were empty.  The only time Spaniards seem to be in a hurry is when they are driving, so it’s nice to have the roads to yourself instead of having someone crawling up your backside and qacing their hands in the air because you aren’t touching bumpers with the car in front of you.

Real Sociedad 0 vs Malaga 2 – La Liga Matchday 15

Highlights Here


The last hurrah. San Sebastian is a beautiful city and we found a cozy Little hotel  about two miles from the stadium but only a ten minute walk to the old town (don’t let anyone tell you I am a bad husband).  I headed off under cloudy skies for what was unusual on this trip:  An afternoon kickoff.  The club website would not take my credit card for some reason (If you are reading this, Real Sociedad; I’m still waiting for customer service to reply to my email!) so I left quite early to try and snag one of the few remaining single tickets that the website had teased me with.

It was a long but easy walk along the river.  No matter how many times I do this, it never gets old.  I love approaching soccer stadiums on foot, especially for the first time.  I love to watch the locals going about their game day routines. Arguing with friends in the cafes, stopping for a newspaper, wandering with their kids in tow….. Love it.

Once inside I realized one reason tickets were scarce:  One entire stand behind a goal was completely missing!  (They had played Zenit midweek.  I know the Russian fans were hardcore, but this was too much!) The guys next to me explained that they are rebuilding the stand one side at a time, adding seats and eliminating that scourge of soccer stadiums worldwide: the running track. Apparently it has caused a lot of confusing and displacement among the season ticket holders, and at least three people challenged me as to whether I was in the right seat or not. (I was. Go find your own!)

Real Sociedad, who were in fact the highest placed team in the table that I saw on this trip apart from Barcelona, put in the worst performance I saw while in Spain.  Mind you, I am not forgetting my first match where a La Liga team conspired to lose to a Segunda B team at home! Other than the handy right back, a local boy whose last name, Ordiozola, was a typical Basque mouthful, this team laid one big giant egg (Maybe… just MAYBE on the day an in-form MLS team could have come away with something here). Poor in all  thirds of the field against a Malaga team that was very happy to play the “smash and grab” role on the road, Sociedad put themselves in trouble time and again with the only poor play out of the back I had seen in Spain.  Play out breakdowns led to one penalty goal and one rebound off a penalty goal, and Malaga enjoyed a rare away win (or, if you like, simply a rare win).  My road warrior talisman credentials were on the rise once again!

While not the loudest fans in general (I think the new stadium will help in this respect) the folks in San Sebastian can certainly whistle the loudest of any fans I had ever encountered.

So that is it… The soccer portion of my 12 days in Spain.  I have been on similar soccer trips to Germany and England.  All were incredibly rewarding and worthwhile.  But in terms of the pure soccer, I have to say that Spain is now at the top of the pecking order for me. The technical and tactical ability were second to none.  None of the stadiums are anything fancy.  No fan zones, no restaurants, team stores that are closed by the final whistle… but you can’t smoke in most of them and if you are in Basque Country you have that much needed roof overhead.  What else can you ask for?

A trip like this is a “must do” for any coach or fan of the game and I highly recommend it.  For me, the late kickoffs in Spain were an extra bonus, as it eliminates the “soccer or tourism: conflict you can otherwise run into.

I will be back.


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: 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: Short-Short-Long

IN: Up-Back-Through

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 your lesson plan according to this magic formula, check all these boxes, and 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”

Screenshot (108)

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

Screenshot (109)

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.