Lacking Subtlety

March 18, 2008 at 5:21 pm Leave a comment


Brazilian U-17s showed an understanding absent in U.S. playersBy Jay Martin


It was a tournament that featured the best U-17’s from the United States against four teams from Brazil. Each ODP Region sent its best. Yes, there were a few players missing, and the U.S. players had not had much of a chance to play or practice together, but the results still were a problem. The young American players struggled against Brazilians of the same age. Three of the four Brazilian teams were from professional clubs (Guarani, Corinthians, Mogi Mirim and the amateur ALEC, the host team). The host team was beaten by all four American teams and Region IV even won three of four games, but there was a huge difference in the way the Brazilians played and the way the Americans played.

After a great year in 2002 for U.S. soccer, our soccer community felt very good. We felt good about where we were internationally, how far we have come in the last few years and how well we fared in the World Cup. We began to look forward to bigger and better results on the international stage. The Torneio Aguas de Lindoi de Futebol Internacional showed all who attended that in spite of these lofty accomplishments and expectations, we are not there yet.

Coaches in most other soccer-playing countries admit that American players can compete very well internationally until the ages of 15-17. Why? Why do our players from 15-17 begin to fall behind international players in other soccer-playing countries? It appears that significant changes must be made in our soccer culture in order for Americans to compete at the highest level.


Jay Vidovich (Wake Forest), Doug Allison (Furman) and Paul McGinlay (Trinity of Texas) led the Region III delegation. When asked about the differences between the Brazilians and Americans, these coaches concluded:

The Brazilians were comfortable with the ball. Their technique and first touch were superior. That allowed the players to focus on the tactics of the game.

The Brazilians demonstrated a superior tactical understanding of group play (i.e. defenders, attackers), possession play, playing without the ball and an overall better understanding of the game. For example, the Brazilians continually attacked with five or six players. The American teams attacked with two or three players.

The Brazilians had a better understanding of and were able to read the critical moments in a game. They understood when a risk was worth taking at both ends of the field. And their overall gamesmanship was far superior to the U.S. boys.

The speed of play of the Brazilians with the ball and without the ball was vastly superior to the efforts of the Americans. The Americans simply could not play at speed.

The Brazilians demonstrated a high work rate. In spite of the perceptions of many, the Brazilians work very hard. They work hard individually and together. They know when the game demands a high work rate and play with great effort.

The Brazilians demonstrated sophistication in the attacking third that the American players did not. The Brazilian teams never settled for dumping the ball into the box. They would try to combine with teammates to get into the box. They demonstrated a “patient urgency” that allowed many more dangerous opportunities in the final third.

Every thing about the Brazilian teams was more intense,” Vidovich said, “from game preparation (warm-up), to individual defending to an urgency to attack the goal.”

Allison added, “Their knowledge of the game and gamesmanship was much better than that of our kids. But it was their passion to play, their desire to become a professional that really separated the Brazilians from the Americans.”


We all know that social and culture factors influence how different countries play soccer. It is clear that Americans cannot play like the Germans, the English or Brazilians and we should not try. We don’t want to replicate the Brazilian societal situation to make our players better. But, the disparity was huge. The challenge for the American coach and club is to improve the play of our youth players within the parameters of the American society.

We can do it. We must have a better understanding of the final product. What do our players need to compete at the highest level? How can we create an environment that will allow the players to reach a proficiency at the international level?

The biggest difference between the Brazilian players and the American players was that the Americans did not demonstrate any understanding of the subtleties of the game. And that affects what coaches do during every training session.

Subtleties of any game usually are developed “in the sandlot” when the players are young. We all learned how to play sports as we grew up by playing with other kids in the neighborhood. We learned what we had to do to win. If you lost, your team was off the court or field.

These are the same subtleties American basketball players learn on the street and that is what separates our basketball players from players from other countries. These are the same subtleties that allowed Germany to defeat the U.S. at the World Cup.


Subtle is defined in the dictionary as “mentally keen, crafty, not obvious, delicately skillful.” A subtle event during a soccer game is something the player should just do. These skills are developed over time and from many different types of playing experiences. These skills are not teachable. They must be learned by the player.

Since players today do not play “in the street” any longer, the coach must create an environment in training to allow the learning process to happen. For example, any activity that is competitive in training will help the player learn how to win or to survive. Therefore, almost all training activities can be made competitive.

Even a shooting drill where the losing team does extra running or push-ups will add urgency where subtleties can be learned. Or, a continuous game with three teams in which two teams play and the third team runs around the field. The first team to score one goal wins and stays on the field. The losing team changes places with the third team and runs around the field while the other two play.

There are many subtleties that are necessary for a player to be successful in a soccer game. In Brazil, the American players did not show to the ball properly, did not receive the ball properly, did not make the runs that the situation demanded and in the final third were content to dump the ball into the box.


The Brazilian players did not make a mistake. The increased time this gave the Brazilians and the time lost by the Americans caused a huge disparity in play. The Brazilians had time to play the game, the Americans did not. American players cannot compete internationally when they play this way.

So, we know where we are. Now we must begin to understand where we must be. This applies to coaches at all levels. Certainly all of our players will not play at the highest level, but it is the responsibility of all coaches to provide an environment in which all players will get better. It is the responsibility of all coaches to ensure that their players begin to learn and understand the subtleties of the game.


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Sandlot Soccer

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