Since I began working for US Soccer as a national staff instructor, I have had the privilege of being part of a series of positive and sweeping improvements to how we train our youth coaches in the United States. US Soccer has highlighted all these sweeping changes with a very simple, yet elegant formula:
Better Coaching + Better Environment= BETTER PLAYERS
With the recent introduction of new, veteran European leadership at Soccer House, US Soccer has embarked on and even bolder and targeted campaign to improve youth soccer coaching at the grassroots level, to ensure that the formula pays off.
The systematic restructuring of the license pathway is first and foremost. The new European approach worked out the changes from the top to the bottom. For the first time ever, at the pinnacle of the coaching education pyramid there will be a Pro License. Underneath the Pro, there will be two A License pathways, one geared to prepare coaches to work at the senior level and the other to prepare them to work at the elite youth level. The B license has now become the top youth license and the standard which all US development academy coaches must possess. The C remains the gateway to the national licenses.
These changes in content and outcome have also included additional course content and work that reach beyond the training ground and extend to leadership, player and team management, and development of a performance environment. Once the outcomes at the top of the pyramid were defined, the Coaching Education Staff embarked on a second phase of restructuring at the base of the pyramid. That final phase will now connect the F, E, and D (grassroots licenses) to the national C, B, and A.
The restructuring of the lower licenses, dealing with players U6-U12 will be one of the most dramatic changes made yet to how we develop young players to prepare for the adult game (11 v 11). With last year’s launching of the Small Sided Initiatives (platforms for 4 v 4, 7 v 7, 9 v 9 to be age appropriate), there was a need to retool the F, E, and D to also become more age appropriate and better prepare coaches to teach the game to match the needs of the new small sided game standards.
In addition to grafting small-sided games concepts into the new course curricula, US Soccer have also opened up the licensing pathway to ‘lateral entry,’ meaning that if you are a working U12 coach, there is no need for you to begin your licensing pathway at the bottom (U6), but rather seek the education and the licensing for the age which is appropriate to you. This specific tailoring of licensing courses to match coaching levels, will now ensure that candidates working with our youngest and most precious player resources, will be able to train and learn in a more focused environment that centers around the needs of the players they are actually working with and better achieve the desired outcomes for those ages.
By 2017, the transformed licensing pathway will be complete and have its first generation of graduates applying their knowledge at the grassroots and elite youth levels. It will be very interesting to begin tracking the youngest categories of our players (U6-U12) to see how the new methodology boosts their knowledge of the game and their technical ability. It will also be quite interesting to see if five years down the line, we begin to truly create a new and distinct ‘profile’ of American player, perhaps one made in the image of Christian Pulisic; a sound technician with superb decision making ability.
As with many of the great ‘movements’ to impact a national style, it will take time, patience, adaptability, and faith in the philosophy to reap the benefits of change. As a part of the staff who helped shape the new curriculum, I am hopeful that the changes will bring great results. As an active club Director and coach, I am now accountable for their implementation and challenged every day to translate them onto the training grounds. Time will tell, but I think we have made some positive choices to achieve generational change. Better coaching is on its way, next we will have to tackle the problem of the environment.
In my last piece, I wrote about my visit to Shimizu S-Pulse, in 2011, Afshin Ghotbi’s first season at the helm of the club. Last week, I had another rare privilege to visit with Afshin and learn from him, only this time, at the conclusion of his tenure at S-Pulse. It was a fascinating glimpse into the process Afshin takes his staff and players through, in order to prepare for a match.
During my visit to S-Pulse, I got to see the finished product of a training session, but more recently, I got to see the nuts and bolts of the process of team preparation. During Ghotbi’s recent visit to southern California, he was gracious enough to visit the youth coaching staff at Eagles SC in Camarillo, an elite youth club, run by none other than former MLS Cup and Open Cup Champion, Steve Sampson. It was very refreshing to see that a top caliber, international manager like Afshin would make time to do a presentation for youth coaches, and spend time answering their questions, in a very intimate and open setting. It shows how genuine Afshin’s football and personality have remained through the years, never losing touch with his roots in the game, and never losing respect for those in the craft, regardless of their level or status.
The audio-visual presentation was the quintessence of modern management methodology. With regards to content, it could have drawn top-billing at any international coaching symposium; but, as I mentioned in my previous piece, Afshin Ghotbi is not just knowledge and organization. He is an excellent communicator. He has a knack for packaging an idea or a goal into a series of visuals, which paint a clear picture of roles, responsibilities, and function.
On the technical side, it was impressive to see how information and data from opposition scouting reports was married into tactical field diagrams, to give players and staff not only a visual of how an opponent functions, but an idea of when they actually hit peaks and valleys of performance within a 90 minute match. Equally impressive for its attention to detail was how, even the physical height of opposing players factored into diagrams of set pieces. Frankly, the only detail about opposing players that was not in the slides was their sign of the zodiac!
When it came time to preparing the staff for training sessions, I was especially enthralled, since my job as a coaching educator is to improve the quality of training that coaches are able to produce. I’m a big fan of diagrams, but Ghotbi added a whole new dimension to the art. Each activity of the practice session was laid out with painstaking details, with regards to spacing, timing, duration, and players involved. Nothing was left to chance or random act. During my actual on-field observations, I noted how impressive the intensity, sharpness, and flow of the sessions were; now I understood why. The economy and high productivity of the training was a direct result of the meticulous staging, planning, and delegation that the manager prepared for his staff. Not one to spare a detail, he even required players to check in with the staff more than an hour before training to make sure that proper adjustments could be made to ensure that the right combination of players was able to be maintained to maximize awareness and tactical effectiveness.
Last but not least, in terms of the psycho-social side of the game, again, no detail was spared. Afshin showed he is also a fantastic motivator. Players were encouraged to view videos of positive performances in specially designed screening rooms, one of many technological innovations he brought to the club. Video clips and pre-match movies were interwoven with specific messages and goals for each and every match. One could sense that preparing for each successive match under Afshin was a new adventure, a new mission, as he likes to put it; and that ensures that the group can never go into a downward spiral of performance, even in the most adverse of times. It’s no coincidence that S-Pulse was able to stay in the top half of the tables and reach a cup final, with so small a budget, and with so many young and inexperienced players. As I said before, this is a testament to Afshin Ghotbi’s ability to ‘man manage.’ No matter if there were seasoned international veterans or newly promoted youth academy players in the side, each not only knew his purpose, but ‘believed in’ it and went out and lived it on the pitch and bled for his teammates.
In a day and age in which so much is made of ‘the acquisition of talent,’ and ‘big summer signings,’ Afshin is both a throwback to a bygone era and, at the same time, a glimpse of the future of the game. He has the core principles and tireless work ethic which built the modern game, yet at the same time he has the global outlook and tech savoir faire that is now at the cutting edge of coaching.
In every sense, Ghotbi is ‘modern football’ at its best. In my view, he would be the perfect choice to manage a progressive –minded MLS club or a top domestic European club, looking to break barriers and reach a new peak of performance and results. His innovations have been widely imitated already in Asia, but would have an even greater ripple effect here in the U.S. where our top league is in desperate need of a new standard of management in order to better serve and develop our players. With a manager like Afshin Ghotbi in the MLS, Jurgen Klinsmann could rest a bit easier that his top picks would be in good hands on a daily basis here at home.
Afshin Ghotbi’s place in the history of South Korean soccer folklore is assured; he was, after all, a member of the national team’s coaching staff at the 2002 World Cup, the first of three stints with the Taeguk Warriors. He would argue that there is much more to come in the future whether in Korea or Japan, his current place of employment.
That has been temporarily put on hold as his new career in the J-League coincided with the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11, just five days after his first game as head coach of Shimizu S-Pulse. He has to wait until April 23 before the season starts again.
His career was already full of drama. The 2010 World Cup was the first since 1994 that didn’t have the Tehran-born tactician on the bench, though he was in the country, researching current trends and future opponents. His dreams of going to South Africa with the Iranian national team were looking good with nine minutes left against his old friends in South Korea in the final qualification match in June 2009 but a late Park Ji-sung goal put paid to Persian hopes. That game was overshadowed somewhat by some of the Iranian players wearing green wristbands to support protests against the regime back home.
It was ironic that it all happened in Seoul World Cup Stadium, just a 10-minute drive along the Naebu Expressway (traffic permitting, of course) from the Grand Hilton Hotel, Ghotbi’s home for much of the period from 2000 to the summer of 2007.
When Guus Hiddink was appointed coach of South Korea in December 2000, he recruited Ghotbi, who went to the 1998 World Cup with the United States, as a technical analyst. It was during this time that his reputation as a forward-thinking tactician began to spread as the Taeguk Warriors made it to the semifinals. Ghotbi was back in Korea in October 2005 as a coach under Dick Advocaat. When that particular Dutchman headed back west after the 2006 World Cup, the Iranian-American remained as Pim Verbeek’s assistant coach until it all ended in the summer of 2007 and the Asian Cup.
It was then that Ghotbi went back to Iran for the first time in 30 years to lead Persepolis to the 2008 league title thanks to a last-minute goal in the last game of the season. The next year, he was appointed head coach of the Iranian national team. He fell just short of rescuing the stuttering qualification campaign for the 2010 World Cup but did take the team to the 2011 Asian Cup. That continental quest ended in elimination in the quarterfinal by ― you guessed it ― South Korea.
Now he is in Japan with Shimizu, a team based in the city of Shizuoka, and dealing with the aftermath of what happened last month.
“We were preparing for our first home match,” Ghotbi said. “We had a training session in the Shimizu S-Pulse stadium in the morning of March 11 and returned home to pack to travel to the team hotel for the match. Then, my house started shaking and rolling. The intensity grew with time, and it seemed to last forever. The house started to make cracking sounds and I thought it was going to collapse. I have lived through a few earthquakes in California but this was on a different scale.”
“This tragedy has affected everyone in my club, as our training ground and club house is only approximately 100 meters away from the ocean so the images of the tsunami shook the nerves of our players and their entire families. People were sad, terrified and concerned about the well-being of their families, community and nation. Our foreign players were perhaps more scared as they were influenced by foreign media and embassies.”
Soccer obviously comes a very distant second in such circumstances and fans will have to wait seven weeks after the first game of the season to see the second. This lengthy break presents practical problems for coaching staff too. Like most teams, Shimizu has been playing charity matches that not only raise money for victims of the disaster but also give the players something to focus on.
“Overall, we have tried to make the best of a very difficult situation using this tragic time to improve our team,” said Ghotbi. “Given the circumstances, the players have shown great resilience, fighting spirit, and improvement. The club has done a great job to be proactive in raising money for the victims with charity matches, fund raising functions and events.”
By John Duerden, Contributing writer (firstname.lastname@example.org