Is the U.S. Behind Technically? 4 Questions to Consider in the Analysis of How We Match Up in the Soccer World

[Originally Published on The Special Ones] Anyone who watches the U.S. National Teams with a critical eye has surely contemplated the discussion of a potential technical deficit compared to the rest of the world. On both the men’s and women’s side, the typical American team displays unparalleled passion, courage, desire to win, and most often fields fit, strong athletes. That’s a given when you see a group donning the red, white, and blue. Where does our nation stand with the ball at our feet, though? Before we can answer that question, it is valuable to delve into a deep analysis of soccer technique.

1. What does it mean to have good technique? Technique is simply about execution, either athletically or with the ball. Good technique is consistent, efficient, and precise. There are certain techniques—such as running form or striking the ball with the laces—that experts have studied, broken down, and developed a common understanding of what works best for most people. However, technique doesn’t necessarily need to be uniform. I would argue that as long as a player is achieving the desired results, that individual is entitled to a personal style that can still be great technique even if it looks different than what is traditionally taught. An awkward-looking player may have great technique, as long as it is consistent, efficient, and precise. There is no “right” way to execute a technique. And there is no magic behind good technique. It is created through repetition and focus until the movements become habitual. 2. How do we define technique vs. skill? The best differentiation I have heard when it comes to technique vs. skill is: “Skill is the application of technique.” A player may have perfect technique, but is unable to perform those techniques at speed or under pressure. Or, he/she may decide on the wrong technique to achieve a desired result. Those players lack skill. A skillful player can successfully execute various techniques to bring his/her vision to life on the field. It is very possible to have good technique and lack skill, but all skillful players must have good technique. 3. What is a “technical” player? Here is where I often find that misunderstanding occurs. I believe that a “technical” player is a player who builds his/her game primarily around skill. Many extremely athletic players may have good technique, but might not be considered “technical” because that is not the primary arsenal they employ in a competitive contest. A technical player is one who uses the ball, as opposed to his/her body, more often to achieve the desired result. Technical players may have a range of ability when it comes to actual technique or skill—the distinction means only that those are their primary weapons. 4. How do we use the term “creativity” when it comes to soccer? Identifying a creative player is perhaps where I most often have disagreements in this discussion. To me, creativity is purely about solving problems in unique or unexpected ways. A player can have poor technique, lack skill, but be creative, just as a very skillful player with wonderful technique might not be creative at all. Creativity accounts for how a player approaches the game. Typically, creative-minded players use skill and impressive technique to carry out their vision. But it is wrong to assume that a flashy player is creative or that a player who employs simple techniques is not.

Common misunderstandings to note: *Being good at freestyle does not necessarily mean a soccer player has good technique on the field. Although freestyle is extremely impressive, it is a completely different sport from soccer. *Being tricky or flashy is entirely different than having good technique, being skilled, or being creative. Some players do moves just to entertain. There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t be fooled! *Some of the simplest players are actually the most skilled; they are so skilled that they make the game look easy. *Players or teams who play at a very fast pace may appear to lack skill or good technique. It’s important to take into account when a style of play or decision-making is impacting how skillful players look.

Now let’s talk specifics.

USMNT: Simply, we have years of catch-up to do. In the men’s game, we are up against countries that have been honing certain skill sets for hundreds of years, while we are relatively new on the scene. No, the USMNT is not woefully lacking in the basic techniques necessary to play this game. However, we lack in two areas: the ability to remain technically sound at the highest level and speed of play, and players who can be special in important moments. We are on the verge, but we are still not a top team in the world. The next level for the USMNT will be to be able to control the game by using the ball. This requires the execution of techniques at much higher speeds and more consistently than the team has been capable of doing in the past. This will be helped, in part, by both the rise in level of MLS, and American players taking their trade abroad. The top teams in the world all have a few players who have that extra gear—not necessarily their speed, but in terms of skill level. At the World Cup, even our star players (with the exception of Tim Howard) were in survival mode. We will have arrived when playing a team like Belgium or Germany is within the team’s technical comfort zone. On top of that, then we need 2-3 players who are able to go beyond and bring some extra brilliance—not a random one-off, but players who can be relied on to be skillful enough to find a way to make it work on the field.

USWNT: We see very much the opposite of USMNT in the women’s game. Female players in the U.S. have had a huge head start on the rest of the world. Are other countries catching up when it comes to technique and skill? Absolutely. But that is expected as increased respect and financial investment result in better women’s programs and leagues. More female players around the world now have experience playing and training at a higher level and the technical gap will continue to close. I would argue that although the USWNT’s greatest advantage is on the athletic side, there is an enormous depth of female American players who are some of the best players in the world in terms of technique and skill. The team has faced some criticism at times for playing a very direct style, which sometimes sacrifices technical quality to maintain a dominant record and play at a speed that most opponents can’t match. It is also important to note that the USWNT often faces far inferior opponents, which has lead to decision-making strongly weighted towards more risky or flashy plays. Removing tactical decisions and style of play from the equation, I would argue that on the women’s side, the U.S. has the greatest depth of players with outstanding technique in the world.

The “Greats”: I’m curious to know your thoughts about some of the greatest ever to play this game! Please comment below and rank these players (1 low-10 high) in each of the three categories: technique, skill, and creativity.

Cristiano Ronaldo Messi Ronaldinho Zinedine Zidane Andrea Pirlo

Marta Carli Lloyd Louisa Necib Kelly Smith