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  • Peter Green

Kids already know how to play possession soccer


My family and I recently watched the movie, "The Book Thief". Set in Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the movie tells the story of a girl, Liesel, who is maybe 14 years old by the end, as she experiences small town life in Nazi Germany during WWII. Along with her best friend, Rudy, Liesel is often seen playing soccer in the streets throughout the movie. More specifically, she is shown playing "keep away" with her friends: one friend is in the middle, and the rest of the friends form a rough circle and keep the ball away from the person in the middle.


The Director of Flagstaff Revolution, Kirk Kinsey, was recently visiting Israel with his family. While on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, he saw a group of Palestinian children playing outside the Dome of the Rock temple. They had a soccer ball and when he looked closer, he saw they, too, were playing "keep away" with the telltale circle of kids and the one scrambling kid in the middle trying to intercept the ball.


There are likely thousands of other examples of this timeless game being played throughout the world and across time. And the most curious thing, even more than it transcending time or cultures, is that no one ever had to teach these kids how to play "keep away": they've always just done it. Kids already know, instinctively, that possessing the ball is better than not possessing it, and no kid needs to be taught how to play a street game that reflects that.


Revolution plays a lot of "keep away"

If you've been with Revolution for a while, you've probably noticed that we play a lot of "keep away" as part of our training. The modern soccer term for "keep away" is a "rondo", where there are 3–5 players making up a circle and 1–2 players inside the circle. Beyond that the rules are effectively the same as the game 4- to 40-year-olds play in the street and in parks all over the world: those making up the circle have to pass the ball and move in order to maintain possession while also staying tight and not expanding the circle. Any player with possession who loses the ball to someone in the circle switches places with them.


Despite its lowly inspiration, rondos can get fancy. Coaches can modify the parameters of the rondo to emphasize different things: one-touch passing, finding the third man, switching play, defending as a unit, etc. But the basic premise remains the same—keep the ball. All the other constraints simply help teach kids new ways to do so effectively.


If you're new to Revolution, it's likely your old club didn't practice many rondos. There's almost no chance your recreational league used rondos at all. While some clubs and leagues in the US are starting to incorporate possession play and the training to build it into their players, many still don't tap into playing "keep away" as part of their practice routine, much less their club philosophy. If the rest of the world effectively starts playing a form of possession soccer in the streets by the time they're in elementary school, why doesn't the US?


The US is behind the world in natural soccer development

One possibility why the US hasn't valued possession play is the lack of an organic, deep-rooted soccer culture in the country. My family and I lived in Mexico for five years, and we could count on one hand the number of times we saw someone throwing around an American football. We had a couple of baseball fields in town and we saw them in use maybe a half dozen times. But, naturally, there were pickup soccer games at every neighborhood park at least five nights a week. The reverse is the case in the US, of course; in most parts of the country, over the last few generations, more kids would throw a football in the streets or have a catch with ball and mitt or shoot hoops on their driveway than kick a soccer ball around. The lack of an organic, pervasive soccer culture in the US can easily contribute to the fact that US children don't naturally know how to play "keep away" with a soccer ball, especially since there's no real equivalent in other American sports. Further, those kids end up having coaches who didn't play "keep away" with a soccer ball. As a result, they all build and play in systems that don't value possession play.


Another possibility is the hubris with which US soccer has approached the sport. From club to collegiate to pro and national team soccer in the US, those in power have often concluded that they should be smart enough to figure out the best way to play the game. They've eschewed adopting the successful strategies of other clubs and countries, saying things like, "US players have a unique makeup" and "our players are bigger and faster, so we should use those traits, rather than technical skill or a superior system, to our advantage". So while they know (perhaps vaguely) who Johan Cruyff may be and they've certainly heard of Barcelona, they conclude that that style of success is not for them. Even if they don't completely plagiarize tiki-taka-style play, neither do they particularly adapt its goals or its methods for their purposes. (Indeed, many Americans think tiki-taka is possession for the sake of possession, that it is encompassed entirely by playing "keep away". There's much more to it than that; if you're unfamiliar, give the link above a look for why possession play is so much more than just possessing the ball.)


How Revolution turns "keep away" into a club system of possession play

At Revolution, we aren't the largest club in numbers, and as a result we don't often have the biggest or strongest or fastest players. (There are some exceptions, to be sure, but I'm speaking in general terms.) But that's okay because we're building a system that allows all sorts of kids to succeed in their role by relying on their teammates. We aren't building the largest club: we're teaching kids how to play soccer together intelligently and how to enjoy the sport through excellence in execution. And we're doing it by tapping into that primal game your kids all already know how to play: we're teaching them possession play by starting with "keep away", in practices, scrimmages, and official matches.


It's not a gimmick; we simply acknowledge that the best teams in the world play this way. While other youth clubs are content to dump the ball to their star player and let him run circles around the competition, we realize that there's a reason the best teams in the world don't do that. At some point, physical and mental development will allow the competition to catch up and that star player will no longer be able to dictate the game. At Revolution, we're happy to look at how the best teams in the world play—all of which incorporate possession play—and tailor our system to doing that in youth soccer. We know that gives our kids the best chance for long-term success, both in the Revolution system as well as wherever their soccer career takes them.


And it starts with the humble, timeless game of "keep away".


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