The key to producing adaptable footballers is to first make coaches adaptable

In part two (of three) of our interview with MLS Technical Director of Youth Development Fred Lipka, he speaks about adaptable coaches and the challenges of working in a country where football is not the dominant sport.

Fred Lipka has a very clear vision of the attributes the top footballers of the future should possess.

Top of that list is adaptability. He also makes it absolutely clear that to teach and produce players who are adaptable requires adaptable coaches.

He said: “Adaptable, I think the coach has to be adaptable first.

"The leaders have to be adaptable otherwise they are not leaders, they are not problem solvers they are only a cook with a kind of a recipe in front of them.

"We want to develop cooks, chefs to be able to evolve the recipe not only to apply the recipe they have been given, creating/designing their own drills or games with specific constraints and variables in link with the problem to solve."

Lipka is keen for his coaches to be hands off to allow young players to discover solutions rather than be told them.

But while many prefer their kids just to have fun and let the tactics wait until they are playing at a senior level, Lipka believes tactics can be dissolved into practices to given them purpose.
He explained: "We don’t have a specific age to talk about tactics, it is how do you train tactics in a very simple way by putting the emphasis on crucial cues related to each moment. What to observe (opponents, space, mates), when? Etc…. Tactics and knowledge of the game is everywhere and everytime.

"With one-two combination play - to do what? We have to give meaning to the training session.
"A pass, a long pass, it is a long pass to do what? We have to put the tactical meaning in every single session from U8 to U21.

"So each time the degree of complexity, degree of intensity, the degree in the link of phases, the degree of time, space and control the coach is going to give is completely different.
"That is why before it was no, no just technique. Yes we have to teach technique but we think now technique without meaning means nothing.

“The ECFL is very challenging. The coaches re-start from scratch. We coach them about the knowledge of the game. They also have to know themselves how to coach, from starting asking questions to becoming experts in stimulating kids through games or pedagogical processes we’re going to use, analysing the game in a different way, not always being focused on the ball.
"Be focused on the guy who is away from the action.
"How to try to develop players who can play without too much emotion and being able to pick up all information and disseminate information. It is a broad objective."

Lipka is fully aware of the size of the task he faces as MLS Technical Director of Youth Development.

His remit is to develop coaches to identify and nurture talent and help clubs create elite pathways for academy stars to get first-team opportunities.

It sounds straightforward, especially in a league with a waiting list of expansion teams desperate to fill up their rosters and a nation hungry to cheer on homegrown stars.

As Lipka discovered, there were a number of barriers that needed to be tackled - like promoting club Academies in a country where College provides entry to pro sports - and still need to be overcome - like opening pathways for players from deprived urban areas.

He said: "Our presence is a constant miracle because nothing is done in terms of culture and urbanisation.

"Nothing was present to be successful but now I can see the ground is shaking with soccer. People want to play soccer. Kids want to play soccer.

"I think we struggle in terms of organisation. In Europe we are used to frameworks where the FA and FFF are in charge of everything and make the decisions.

"Here football development is a kind of business. It is a big business and everyone wants to keep their business and I understand that.

"I am sure you heard about the pay-to-play model. It is now free to be part of the MLS Academies but in the other clubs they pay-to-play. $4000 on average in a non-MLS club.
“This adds to a sociological issue as not enough kids from low-income homes have the opportunity to play because of the cost level.

“A big problem here is the knowledge of the kids. Knowledge of the kids is being able to know and to understand and see a player between U11 and U17.

"You have kids that are not the same, who do not grow at the same pace, at the same stage. Because this culture is driven by parents and the parents in the very successful clubs. “Successful clubs here mean winning, winning state championships or whatever the level.
"It means the coach only picks the players that are able to help him to win today and not tomorrow. It is as simple as that.

"The culture is too much the culture of winning because of the economic model. Sport is a passway to College. So at 18 the object is not to be a professional footballer it is to go to Duke or Stanford.

“I would say it is changing. Over the last two years, we have shifted the power. With the homegrown player contracts we are getting where we can capture the most precocious talents.
"So now college is a kind of safety net for players who are not ready or are still not, culturally speaking, completely convinced by the pro pathway.

"I can understand that and we also have a lot of work to do in our clubs to change this and also with the first-team to become more aspirational.

"But what we have done, what all the clubs, not only in the MLS, have done in five years, no country in the world has achieved in terms of organisation, evolution, progression, mindset change, change of habit, change of culture.

"I don’t tell you everything is perfect but credit the MLS to believe."