Last night, the United States Men’s Soccer Team somehow made themselves more of a punchline than they already were by losing to Trinidad and Tobago 2-1 and subsequently failing to qualify for next year’s World Cup. It was one of the most devastating losses in US soccer history and has left everyone scrambling to figure out why a country that has so many kids playing soccer still can’t compete with the rest of the world on the soccer pitch. There’s no one simple solution to fixing all of America’s soccer struggles but the current culture of youth soccer in Iceland might be a good indicator of where to start.
Iceland may not be a soccer powerhouse like Germany or Spain but it has been able to experience some real success, especially for a country of its size. Despite only having a population of 321,857, Iceland has more than 20,000 soccer players and 575 professional coaches in 90 leagues. Because of this huge participation and dedication to quality coaching, Iceland has had a high number of players join a team in some of the world’s top professional soccer leagues. How has Iceland managed to experience so much prosperity? By getting players on the right path from a young age through a combination of high-quality coaching and a focus on fundamentals.
Soccer clubs in Iceland begin training players before they even turn three. Coaches will use training regiments that are fun, creative, and safe for kids that age. As kids get older, they will get more experience with actually playing soccer and learning the necessary skills to thrive on the pitch. Iceland’s soccer clubs are all funded by the government, which means that all the facilities and fields are of the highest quality, instead of having to fight three other teams for the only remaining field at the local park.
The clubs also work to emphasize that soccer is not merely a hobby or even a sport, it’s a lifestyle. To demonstrate this mentality to the kids, players are encouraged not just get to know players in their age range but rather get to know players from every possible age range. Young players will often watch the older players to see how their game can improve with hard work and practice, while many older players are referees or coaches for the younger clubs. This builds community, which makes players more invested in soccer.
But perhaps the real key to Iceland’s success is the country’s emphasis on selecting and fostering great coaches who can help players reach their maximum potential. For these clubs, a coach is a mentor who develops very very young players while also constantly working to learn as much about the game and coaching as possible.
So if we want to be able to compete with the rest of the soccer-obsessed world, perhaps there has to be a fundamental change in the way the sport is introduced to kids and creating a culture that makes it so much more than just a game that they play in between football and basketball season. It won’t happen overnight but unless these drastic changes are made, things don’t look good.