When I was a youth coach my primary goal was to develop all players as midfielders, knowing full well that most of them were going to end up in different positions more appropriate to their abilities. I felt strongly, however, that midfield training would help all immensely, because when any player at any position has the ball, even for an instant, s/he is the quarterback, or the decision-maker. What s/he decides to do, no matter where s/he is on the field, can in turn decide the outcome of a game. Because midfield instruction emphasizes technical expertise, tactical awareness (vision), and overall strategic savvy, I felt that this was the best way to develop players. (And it worked – on one nationally competitive girls’ club team I coached from the age of ten up, 9 of the players went off and got put at center midfield on their high school teams, though they might be fullbacks, centerbacks, or wings on our team). The more skillful and savvy decision-makers you have on your team the more good decisions they will make, thereby giving your team a better chance to win. Appropriate player technical development will also lend a team more variety in its approach to the game.
Currently, the Revs have only one player who could be described as a legitimate playmaker, the recently arrived Carles Gil. The Revs’ academies, where in principle this type of player should be developed, have been around for years. They are chock-full of talented, disciplined, hard-working athletes, but as yet they seem not to have turned out even a single potentially competent professional-level field general. Considering the effort and resources the Revs have put (and are putting) into the Academy programs, I would consider this record (or lack of it) a major disappointment. Finding and developing a homegrown player like Michael Bradley has to be possible in an area as large as greater Boston. We are, after all, a soccer hotbed.
In recent years, I have seen a couple of Rev academy demonstrations at youth clinics. For the most part, coaches used 5-minute-long, high-pressure drills emphasizing physical and mental endurance, with some technical practice, especially inside of the foot passing. I am sure that other activities addressing other technical needs are used in the Revs’ programs, but the emphasis instructors placed on the 5-minute drill at these clinics I attended made me fear that the other aspects of preparation for possession play are given short shrift. These drills were designed to improve overall conditioning and performing under pressure, with secondary emphasis on skill improvement. They did little to create the technically sophisticated player (Federico Higuain of the Crew comes to mind) the Revs so desperately need. I was disappointed that no basic technical advice was given by any clinician at these clinics, given that youth coaches were the targeted audience. Sophistication of play begins with and depends on firm mastery of basic technique.
When Thierry Henry was playing for the Red Bulls, he would flash a move a Rev defender probably had never seen before and likely never would see again. That’s technical sophistication.
Over the years, the academies have developed two players who moved onto the Rev roster: Scott Caldwell and Diego Fagundez. Both are good team contributors, but far from the midfield decision-maker the Revs desperately need to complement Carles Gil. The Rev organization might claim they do the kind of technical instruction needed to develop a field general, but the proof is in the pudding. I hope they’ll start using their new $35 million training facility to full advantage, understanding that the foundation of individual (and team) improvement begins, as it does in all sports, with a big dose of technical instruction.
Here’s how I would run the zoo (and this applies both to youth instruction and coaching at the pro level):
1) Teach players technique on an individual basis (control with the head, chest, thigh and all surfaces of the foot; passing; dribbling; heading, kicking and shooting for power). Even for pros, regular, targeted practice of each technique is vital.
Note that deft control of the ball and accurate passing are absolutely key to the possession game. Mediocre technique in these regards is what leads to the ball ping-ponging back and forth between teams, especially on artificial turf.
2) Polish this individual instruction in small groups (pairs, threes).
3) Play all types of small-sided possession (keep-away) games. A lot of two-touch.
4) For game coaching: practice possession in every third of the field (defensive, midfield, offensive).
5) In all pre-season and friendly games, play from the back as a rule, adding the long ball here and there to develop field awareness and offensive variety.
Whether you play the piano, write books, or paint pictures, the better you get technically, the more you enjoy the activity. Same with a player in any sport. The more s/he improves technically, the more s/he will enjoy the game. Enthusiasm and the corresponding player energy become contagious, especially when technical improvement is reflected by successes on the scoreboard.
Carles Gil stuck out like the only unsore thumb in the Minnesota game. He was the only player on the field who was visibly comfortable playing on the artificial turf. His ease on this speedy surface is a clear sign of his mastery of basic techniques. As a result, he was largely responsible for the Revs’ overall ball possession, especially in the second half when the Revs dominated. His assortment of short and long passes always seemed to connect to a wide-open Rev receiver, and his assist on the first goal was first-rate.
It was great for the Revs to finally get a first win under their belts. Given that Minnesota is likely not in the top tier of MLS competition, though, acquiring that new designated player from Europe is still critical, as a first-rate midfield partner would give Carles more freedom to concentrate on offensive responsibilities. This second skillful player might be all it takes for Rev success.