7/20/2010: NY Times- Dayton Dutch Lions Have Similiar Academy Vision To Dutch Champs Twente And Ajax (Who Are Highlighted In Following Article)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010 Ryan Kozlowski

Ajax Under-10's practice in their academy setting. Dutch Lions have a similiar vision for their academy in coordination with Dutch champs F.C. Twente. Read the following quotes for a better idea of the differences between the Dutch philosophy and academy setting compared to the American development of soccer players; and to envision what the Dutch Lions are attempting to create in Dayton.

Quotables from New York Times article "How A Star Is Made" by Michael Sokolove on the Dutch Academies of Ajax. A similiar setting in regard to these quotes is what the Dutch Lions want at their academy in the U.S. in partnership with top Dutch academy F.C. Twente:

In the U.S., we think of money as corrupting sport, especially youth sport. At Ajax, it is clarifying. With the stakes so high — so much invested and the potential for so much in return — De Toekomst (The Future) is a laboratory for turning young boys into high-impact performers in the world’s most popular game.

On play in the academies there:

Through age 12, they train only three times a week and play one game on the weekend. “For the young ones, we think that’s enough,” Riekerink said when we talked in his office one day. “They have a private life, a family life. We don’t want to take that from them. When they are not with us, they play on the streets. They play with their friends. Sometimes that’s more important. They have the ball at their feet without anyone telling them what to do.”

By age 15, the boys are practicing five times a week. In all age groups, training largely consists of small-sided games and drills in which players line up in various configurations, move quickly and kick the ball very hard to each other at close range. In many practice settings in the U.S., this kind of activity would be a warm-up, just to get loose, with the coach paying scant attention and maybe talking on a cellphone or chatting with parents. At the Ajax academy, these exercises — designed to maximize touches, or contact with the ball — are the main event. “You see this a lot of places,” a coach from a pro club in Norway, who was observing at Ajax, said to me. “Every program wants to maximize touches. But here it is no-nonsense, and everything is done very hard and fast. It’s the Dutch style. To the point and aggressive."

Dutch way of looking at soccer:

“Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer,” calls the Dutch approach “physical chess,” and the Dutch can be quite haughty about it. They abhor the cloying defensive tactics associated with the Italians and the boot-and-chase way the English played for years, and it has been observed that they sometimes appear more intensely interested in the artfulness of a match than in the result.

Dutch playing philosophy from former great and Dutch footballing philsopher-king Johan Cruyff:

“Don’t run so much,” he once said, meaning that players often cover lots of ground but to no effect. “You have to be in the right place at the right moment, not too early, not too late.”

Type of player and this play is adopted around the world:

Other nations and professional clubs around the world play in a manner similar to the Dutch — including, not coincidentally, Barcelona, one of the most consistently successful clubs in Europe, and where Cruyff played after leaving Ajax and then coached for eight seasons. What this type of play demands is the highest order of individual skill: players with a wizardlike ability to control the ball with either foot, any part of the foot, and work it toward the goal through cramped spaces and barely perceptible lanes.

The main difference on how U.S. players are developed compared to players in the Netherlands:

How the U.S. develops its most promising young players is not just different from what the Netherlands and most elite soccer nations do — on fundamental levels, it is diametrically opposed.

Americans like to put together teams, even at the Pee Wee level, that are meant to win. The best soccer-playing nations build individual players, ones with superior technical skills who later come together on teams the U.S. struggles to beat. In a way, it is a reversal of type. Americans tend to think of Europeans as collectivists and themselves as individualists. But in sports, it is the opposite. The Europeans build up the assets of individual players. Americans underdevelop the individual, although most of the volunteers who coach at the youngest level would not be cognizant of that.

The American approach is the more democratic view of sport. The aspirations of each member of the team are equally valid. Elsewhere, there is more comfort with singling out players for attention and individualized instruction, even at the expense of the group. David Endt, a former Ajax player and a longtime executive of the club, told me, “Here, we would rather polish one or two jewels than win games at the youth levels.”

Americans place a higher value on competition than on practice, so the balance between games and practice in the U.S. is skewed when compared with the rest of the world. It’s not unusual for a teenager in the U.S. to play 100 or more games in a season, for two or three different teams, leaving little time for training and little energy for it in the infrequent moments it occurs. A result is that the development of our best players is stunted. They tend to be fast and passionate but underskilled and lacking in savvy compared with players elsewhere. “As soon as a kid here starts playing, he’s got referees on the field and parents watching in lawn chairs,” John Hackworth, the former coach of the U.S. under-17 national team and now the youth-development coordinator for the Philadelphia franchise in Major League Soccer, told me. “As he gets older, the game count just keeps increasing. It’s counterproductive to learning and the No. 1 worst thing we do.”

College Soccer Is Often Times The Wrong Way To Develop Players

The U.S. diverges all the way to the last stages of a player’s development. In other places around the world, the late teenage years are a kind of finishing school, a period when elite players grow into their bodies, sharpen their technical ability and gain a more sophisticated understanding of game tactics. At the same time, they are engaged in a fierce competition to rise through the ranks of their clubs and reach the first team (the equivalent of being promoted from a minor-league baseball team to the big-league club).

An elite American player of that age is still likely to be playing in college, which the rest of the soccer-playing world finds bizarre. He plays a short competitive season of three or four months. If he possesses anything approaching international-level talent, he probably has no peer on his team and rarely one on an opposing squad. He may not realize it at the time, but the game, in essence, is too easy for him.

Of the 23 players chosen for the U.S. team going to the World Cup, 15 of them played at least some college soccer. Among the 8 who went straight into the professional ranks are several of the team’s most accomplished performers, including Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Tim Howard, and promising players like Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley (son of the head coach, Bob Bradley). Did they rise to the top of the American talent pool because they bypassed college? Or did they skip it because they were the rare Americans good enough as teenagers to attract legitimate professional opportunities? The answer is probably a little bit of both. But you will find no one in the soccer world who says they would have enhanced their careers by staying in school

Improvements Are Always Achievable, Nothing Should Be Left Alone Or Ignored

Ruben Jongkind, a consultant who mainly works with Dutch track athletes, was altering the posture and gait of a 15-year-old recently acquired from another Dutch club. Jongkind told me that while the boy was actually quite fast, he did not have enough range of motion in his vertical plane. “He was running like a duck, shuffling,” Jongkind said. “That takes more energy, which is why we have to change his motor patterns, so he can be as fast at the end of a game as the beginning.”

Jongkind had been working with this player for several weeks and said he had progressed to “consciously able but not subconsciously able” to run with the desired form, meaning that in the heat of competition, he reverted to his old form. I pointed out that a fast but flawed runner in the United States would likely be left alone. “Everything can be trained,” Jongkind said. “You should always try to make an improvement if it’s possible.”

Some American clubs at the MLS-level have redeveloped at top levels, but haven't done the same at the lower levels:

Efforts to change American soccer culture are largely occurring in the older age groups. Some of the most talented players are being extracted from a deeply flawed system, but only after they’ve been immersed in it for many years.

I was at the youth academy of D.C. United — one worn artificial-turf field, no locker rooms, a world away from De Toekomst — on what turned out to be a moment of triumph for one of the bedrock franchises of Major League Soccer, the top U.S. professional league. Just the day before, the team announced that it signed its best youth player to a pro contract. Andy Najar, who was 17 and immigrated with his parents from Honduras as a teenager, was inserted straight into D.C. United’s starting lineup right after dropping out of high school during his junior year. The signing drew only modest press coverage, probably a good thing for the team and an instance of pro soccer’s still-under-the-radar status in the U.S. being of benefit to the league. (The parade of players graduating from high school and jumping straight to the N.B.A. proved controversial enough that it’s no longer allowed.)

Najar is showing what picking out the best at the top levels can do (has 3 goals already on the season including one this Sunday against the LA Galaxy). Imagine what could happen with kids starting even younger with professional development:

Are American Talents Like This Missed?

As we approached the field where our 5-year-old was to play, he spotted him right away and said, “There’s the guy!”

I couldn’t tell for sure, but it seemed to me that the guy, Délano van der Heyden, born in September 2004, might actually be small even for a 5-year-old. The ball at his feet came up almost to his knees. He was “playing up,” competing against boys as old as 9. When the game started, he was exactly as advertised: remarkable. Délano kept up with the other boys, a few of whom fell on contact and had to be attended by coaches, which he never did. He showed the ability to kick with either foot. He could receive the ball with his back to his offensive end and turn, with the ball still in his control, and head toward the goal.

De Jong kept up a running commentary as we watched, becoming increasingly excited. As Délano cleverly dribbled around a bigger boy who came charging at him: “You see, they will try to physically dominate him, but he will always seek a football solution. He always has a plan.” As the concentration of other boys drifted: “He is not looking at planes in the sky; he is looking at the ball.” At halftime, as Délano conferred with his father, who was coaching his team: “You see how nicely they are talking? You can tell he comes from a good nest.” Later, after Délano weaved through three boys and blistered a shot just wide of the goal: “This is unbelievable! At this age, I’ve never seen a player like this!”

Here's a video by the New York Times on the Ajax Youth Academy.


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