Interview by Mike Woitalla for Soccer America
Bobby Howe played top tier pro ball and coached youth soccer in England before arriving in the USA in 1977. As a U.S. youth national team coach in 1986-93, his players included Claudio Reyna, currently U.S. Soccer's Youth Technical Director. In Part 2 of our interview, we asked Howe, who has been deeply involved in the American youth game for nearly three decades, about the past, present and future of the U.S. game, including his views on the U.S. Soccer Development Academy's ban on high school ball.
SOCCER AMERICA: What’s the main message you’ve tried to convey as a coach of coaches?
BOBBY HOWE: Whatever you do in a session, don’t contrive something that doesn’t look like soccer. If it looks like soccer, it probably is. But don’t look at a particular topic you want and take the soccer out of it. Don’t make it a mystery. It’s just a game. Think of the game and the ingredients of the game and inject those ingredients. ...
I always say to coaches, “Know who it is you’re coaching.” That’s the most important thing. What’s the age group? Know their characteristics. The personality of the age group. What excites them? Know the gender. Know the level they’re playing in.
If you understand who it is you’re coaching and understand the level they’re playing at, you can control the demand you have.
SA: The U.S. Soccer Federation is now much more involved in the youth game, with the launch of the Development Academy league, and last year unveiled the “Curriculum” it wants youth coaches to follow. How different is Claudio’s curriculum from what the Federation was trying to implement when you were a youth national team coach and U.S. Soccer Director of Coaching Education?
BOBBY HOWE: I don’t think it’s a great deal different. The philosophy Claudio is espousing is a philosophy we had in the 1980s with respect to what you do with the youngest players. And recognizing that the youngest players are not mini-adults, they’re kids. It’s not that they shouldn’t be doing anything. But what’s important is that the programming, the types of games they play, provide opportunities for them to learn from the game, and to explore and use their imagination as opposed to being too structured, as we have seen from time to time with inexperienced coaches.
SA: So if the philosophy is not that much different, why haven’t the results been more satisfactory?
BOBBY HOWE. When I was director of coaching with the U.S. Soccer Federation and Washington Youth Soccer, the position is director, not dictator, so you can highly recommend and sometimes the stuff you recommend actually bears fruit. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Things do change but they change very slowly. Hopefully, Jurgen Klinsmann and Claudio will be able move the country in a more single direction.
It seems a lot of different entities are trying to achieve the same goals and I think if there were a measure of consistency with good programming and good evaluation, I think we wouldn’t be wasting all these players that we do to create the top of the pyramid.
SA: What’s your opinion on the U.S. Soccer Development Academy’s ban on high school play?
BOBBY HOWE: I think for the very, very best players it wouldn’t be great for them to have a steady dose of training on a daily basis with high school, because there’s no doubt that too much playing at a level that’s significantly lower than the level you’re used to can affect performance.
I do remember when I was at school I played for … something similar to the Academy type of thing, but I was still able to go back and play school games. I trained at a higher level when it was necessary, but was allowed to go back and play at school.
I think what happens here is you have three months of training five days a week and a couple of games a week of playing games at an inferior level. I think the fear of the Academies is that it’s too much time at a level of play that could cause the better players to pick up bad habits. From that point of view, I can understand where they’re coming from.
On the other hand, high school is very much of the social fabric in the United States. The letterman’s jacket, the standing within the school. So from that point of view, I think every now and again it doesn’t hurt for these players to go back and in play high school – but I don’t know what sort of system could be created that would enable them to do that.
Too much high school in one big dose, to the exclusion of playing anything else, or any other level, is not good. But on the other hand, if you could intersperse high school play with Academy play, work out the schedule with sensible communications, I think you could do both.
(Editor’s note: Howe’s club Emerald City FC is not part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy.)
SA: What’s an example from your youth experience that you think was crucial to your success as a pro player?
BOBBY HOWE: When I was 15, I was playing in the third team at West Ham United and we -- the other 15-year-olds, a couple 16-year-olds, a couple 17-year-olds – were playing against semiprofessional players in a league. Imagine that experience as a 15-year-old playing against semiprofessional players who didn’t care that you were 15!
We have to try to, if we possibly can, replicate those experiences for the better players.
SA: What are some things you would like to see implemented more widely at the very young ages?
BOBBY HOWE: We need to continue the movement for younger age groups to play smaller-sided on smaller fields. So they get a great many more touches and face simpler decisions when they have the opportunity to play the ball distances they can see. …
I’d like to see at the younger age groups they take goal kicks from the edge of the penalty box instead of the goal area. Even on a smaller field, when the goal kick is taken from the goal area, the other team can just camp out on the edge of the box.
I also agree with Claudio 100 percent that there’s too much emphasis on winning games at younger ages. It’s crazy.
SA: What’s an example of the detriment?
BOBBY HOWE: What happens is the coaches are selecting the biggest players they possibly can at younger ages because they are effective and have more chance of winning games and more chance of keeping their job as an 8-year-old coach -- which I think is crazy.
SA: What’s pleased you about the growth of the American game?
BOBBY HOWE: The introduction and success of MLS has been very big. The professional clubs must lead the way. I think we’ll see an improvement gradually in the standard of MLS. I’d like to see that gap close between MLS and the top European clubs. That can be a slow process and it needs to be done sensibly, but I’d like to see a loosening of the purse strings so we can watch these stars a little more live rather than just at exhibition games. …
The game has grown incredibly. So many kids play soccer -- even more reason do the right thing. We’re getting all these kids to turn out and play. Let’s not turn them off.
* Read Part 1 of the Soccer America interview with Bobby Howe HERE.
(Bobby Howe, during his playing career, lined up with England greats Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Jimmy Greaves at West Ham United. Howe came to the USA in 1977 to play for and coach the NASL’s Seattle Sounders, and since the 1980s has been deeply involved in American youth soccer. He was U.S. U-17 boys national team assistant coach in 1986-89, U-20 boys national team coach in 1989-1993, and U.S. Soccer Director of Coaching Education in 1996-2000. He served 12 years as Washington