Rene Meulensteen played an integral part in four Premier League title winning teams at Manchester United during his tenure as Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant manager from 2007 to 2013. He briefly served as Head Coach of Fulham during the 2013-14 season and achieved some notable results including a draw at Old Trafford. However, he was sacked in February 2014, many feel prematurely, and replaced by Felix Magath whose disastrous tenure not only saw the Cottagers relegated from the Premier League but fighting relegation from the Championship before he was relieved of his duties.
In his new role as a consultant for the Philadelphia Union, where he is involved in all aspects of the club from the first-team to the draft strategy to development programs and working with the club’s USL PRO affiliate, the Harrisburg City Islanders, Meulensteen attended the US Soccer Development Academy Showcase in December where many of the top youth clubs in the country were represented. The soccer he observed was energetic and athletic. However, the game was played at a frantic pace. Meulensteen feels the elite Academy teams need to play with more composure. He saw flashes of really good play, but that disappeared quickly and descended back into a frenzy.
The overall consistency in the play is lacking. In response to my questions about starting tactical training at a younger age, Meulensteen said skills training comes before tactical training. American soccer clubs need to make training sessions for the 6-9 year-old and 9-12 year-old age brackets to be focused on skills. As the identity of the players improves past the age of 12, tactical awareness can grow. At that point, Meulensteen would suggest youth coaches begin to teach tactics.
Top attacking players have an element of unpredictability, offered Meulensteen. Those players learn multiple skills at a young age. If those skills are not developed at a younger age, pass and run ends up being the default “skill.” The decision making process is taught to those who already have skills, and around the age of 15, 16 or 17, they learn the importance of defensive responsibilities.
In response to my question about the US’ acceptance of change when compared to the English FA, the Dutch coach had many favorable things to say about the US. Without directly addressing the part of my question related to the English FA, Meulensteen stated the USA is very open to change and has a willingness to absorb and learn.
Overall, the Dutch coach believes that the grassroots of the sport is still developing rapidly but the overall structure is still lacking. As the development of facilities takes place and coaching techniques evolve, an improvement in the overall level of youth play will follow. Ultimately the United States will develop more creative attacking players and more tactically aware midfield and defensive players.
Speaking to reporters at the NSCAA Convention last week in Philadelphia, Meulensteen focused his conversation largely on player and youth development programs and where the United States stands today. When he witnessed soccer camps in the US in the 1980’s, Meulensteen said that you’d have baseball and American football parents dropping off kids at soccer practice. Now you have a soccer generation taking kids to soccer practice. The culture has changed around the sport in this country as a result. We are into our second generation in the States where soccer is a relevant sport in our lives.
With the number of well-funded elite academies growing and so many European clubs investing resources in the American youth soccer market, the game is expanding with new developments in the States at the clubs and camps level. With a growing professional game thanks to MLS and the rise of NASL and USL-PRO, Meulensteen feels the future is very bright.
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