The Myth of Possession Soccer

But I also think we played a bunch of cowards.  The best team did not win today…They didn’t want to open play.  They didn’t want to pass the ball…They didn’t want to play great soccer.

          - Hope Solo, following a quarterfinal loss in the Olympics to Sweden on penalties.

At every level in every sport, teams are not evenly matched.  The advantage may be physical (size and/or speed), or it may be technical.  In some cases, one team holds the advantage in every category.  In soccer, this plays out all the time.  From youth to professional teams, this advantage is most noticeable in one statistic.  In any game one team can be seen easily winning the “possession” battle – keeping the ball much longer than their opponent.

Part of the beauty of soccer, however, is that the scoreline may not reflect that advantage.  The “inferior” team may fight tooth and nails and prevent the better team from scoring – and may even win.  While many fans of pro teams abhor teams and coaches who employ defensive, counterattacking tactics designed to stifle opponents, the reality is that the nature of the game allows for multiple interpretations of how to play.

All they do is dump and chase.  I hate that.  Our girls don’t do that.

     - A Soccer Mom, discussing her perspective on another team’s tactics at a recent soccer tournament (she apparently didn’t notice that her team’s goalkeeper either punted the ball or played every goal kick long).

At the younger ages, I do think the vast majority of youth coaches interested in developing young players focus on a “possession-based” style, one that features short passes and the infrequency of long balls “over the top.”

My intention here is not to wade into the debate regarding styles of play; I just want to point a couple things out.  The first is perspective.  The Soccer Mom I heard clearly believed (perhaps only because her coach told her so, or perhaps she is clearly accustomed to watching her daughter play inferior opposition) that her daughter’s team played something akin to Barcelona.  From her perspective, the opponents were simply defending aggressively and then hoofing the ball long (objectively, it was a pretty ugly game from both sides.)

The reality is that most teams manage to “play possession” when playing “lesser” teams.  When the opposition is better, those short passes sometimes go out the window.  It’s reality, and while a purist may not like it, the game then provides another lesson for kids.

If a team of kids is matched up against a group with superior skills, they have to adapt in order to compete.  It’s natural.  They have to react and defend intently.  This is nothing against Long Term Player Development (LTPD); the need to compete and play against superior opposition is vital to LTPD.

Yes, players need to understand how to implement the techniques they learn in games; but they also need to learn how to work hard against teams better than them.  It’s how players ultimately improve (though it may not be as pleasing to the eye in the short term).

Particularly at the youth level, parents typically want to believe that their kids are improving their skills.  And while competitiveness is often considered the final stage of youth development, it is essential.  Committing to defend against a better opponent, determination to not give up, willingness to improve – these are elements we want to see in children as they grow and mature into adulthood.  These are life lessons offered by sport.

The best teams in the world have to deal with inferior opposition that bunkers in and defends.  But they don’t call them cowards.  

- Alexi Lalas, on Twitter, responding to Hope Solo’s comments.

All parents want to see their kids play “pretty” soccer.  Sometimes, it just doesn’t happen – a player’s touch may be off, or the opponent may be better.  In those moments, young players need to learn how to adapt to the situation and figure out how to compete.  Regardless of how it looks, these moments should be embraced as learning opportunities by parents and coaches.