woman playing soccer ball on grass

What is pickup soccer? The foundation of every soccer player

“Kids don’t play soccer on their own and we have to do something about it”. I’ve heard this from every coach I’ve talked to. While kids don’t play as much as they used to, it’s not completely true. I keep hearing from my players that they play pickup soccer at recess. Or that they play after school or in their backyard. Or they play for the school team. The value of unstructured play or mismatched competition is incredibly high. We will explore where to find these games, the benefits of playing and how to make most out of it. Regardless of the format (5v5, 6v6 or 10v10), the location (grass, turf or futsal) or even the game (soccer, skills challenge or soccer tennis), the value of playing soccer outside of the regular practices and games will develop the players in a different way.

“Edgar Davids wanted to play in the local neighborhood. I told him that we had training every day and that we couldn’t go and play with kids in the street. So he told me ‘You’ve changed! You don’t remember your neighborhood and what you did before.’

Once or twice, I went with him. But he did it often. It was impressive because we were having fun, but it was also crazy to go, after training , playing on the tarmac with the kids. He did it a lot and had great technique”

Zinedine Zidane, soccer legend, about Edgar Davids playing pickup soccer during their time in Juventus (1996-2001)

Where to find pickup soccer?

  1. Facebook Groups! I know that it sounds like I have not been online for the past decade, but there really are more pickup events on Facebook than any other place. Especially if you are a parent looking for games for your kid – where do you think other parents are active? Not Discord or SnapChat or TikTok, but Facebook. Alternatively, look for MeetUp events created by folks. Obviously many groups just communicate over WhatsApp, WeChat, Viber or even regular group text message chat. However, they are usually private and can’t just find them online.
  2. Individual practices at the nearby field. Get a ball and do some kicking at the goal. It is unlikely that anybody is going to kick you out, such as school custodian or something like that. However, if they come and ask you to leave, it is a prefect opportunity to start a conversation. “Sorry, I didn’t know it is not public. I’ve seen others play. Do you know when and where people play pickup games nearby?”
  3. Stop by around fields and parks. I often go for a run or a bike ride, and when I see a soccer field, I go close to check out if anybody is playing. Often times there is nobody there, but sometimes people play.
  4. Start your own! If you already have 3-4 friends that might want to play, create your own group. If you really want to get awareness, do the things above, such as creating a Facebook or MeetUp groups. The important thing is to get the contacts and keep them posted. Then, you might want to consider joining a league if the commitment is high and the quality of players is similar. If the group becomes large enough, you might need to think about renting a field and getting insurance. If the group becomes enormous, you can create a league on your own or at least a tournament. It can become a fantastic soccer side hustle.

Benefits of pickup soccer and unstructured soccer games

Sometimes parents ask me if their player has to come to practices in order to play in games. I often compare soccer to piano. If a piano recital is the game, soccer practice is the piano lesson, then piano practice are backyard and pickup games. You don’t go to the recital if you haven’t taken lessons. You often don’t do recitals if you have practiced on your own either. However, for some reason parents think that it’s ok to go only to the games and not to the previous steps. As coaches, we show drills and technique, correct mistakes and build platform for individual and team development. But it is up to the players to get repetitions until they get fluidity, instead of trying those movements for the first time with an opponent sprinting straight at them.

How to make most out of pickup soccer?

Pickup games can be great, but they can be annoying. Sometimes people want to take it too seriously or to goof off. Players often play dangerously or don’t try at all. Finally, the difference in skill levels can make it a bad experience. However, there are some ways to make the most out of it, even in these situations.

  1. Play against worse players than you. You have to practice controlling the ball and play possession with purpose and intensity. If the opponent is faster, stronger and better than you, then you will likely try to get rid of the ball whenever you can.
  2. Play against better players than you. If you play against better player, they will attack your weaker spots. You want that to happen at pickup games and on at championship finals! So, position yourself to be there and lose the ball multiple times, until you get the movements perfect.
  3. Pick an uncommon position for you. If you usually play as a left back, try playing as an attacking midfielder. The position will force you to learn new things, such as do more scanning or pass with one-touch passes.
  4. Try unconventional things. I am talking about trying crosses or through passes, or other things that you usually don’t do. It is at pickup games that I learned many of the moves I do now at regular games, such as the la croqueta.
  5. Play in bad weather and weird terrain. When the weather gets bad, like rainy soccer season or the soccer pitch covered in snow, many people stop playing pickup soccer. But the pros are still playing and they get used to it. If you want to get used to playing through rough weather, including heat waves, you have to at least play low intensity pickup.
  6. Don’t be afraid to lose the ball. Yes, there are some folks that keep on screaming at their teammates during pickup games like their life depends on it. However, just brush it off and be ok with losing the ball. The only way to grow is to play with some risk in terms of the result.
  7. Stay safe! The most annoying thing is to get injured during a pickup game because of some reckless challenge. Silly thing like that can make you miss soccer for weeks and more. There was one time I saw a player doing rough challenges at a pickup game. He kept doing it even though some of his friends told him to stop. I just moved across the pitch to play in an area as far away as I could. Eventually I stopped coming to those pickup games because it was too risky for me.

How much unstructured soccer is played?

“Just 27% of children said they regularly play outside their homes, compared to 71% of the baby boomer generation.” While nobody is particularly surprised to see the difference for soccer kids in the USA, it is really important to think about the consequences. Playing outside will bring some challenges that the kids will need to learn to handle. I am talking about social challenges of not getting a field or a ball, or enough players, or older kids taking over the game… So many issues can arise that the players will learn from. However, I focused on the soccer skills that will be gained by playing pickup games, as well as how to make the most out of it. I keep playing today, well past my prime soccer days. I love it and I hope you will, too. Happy soccer!

four women embracing each other while smiling

The Decline of USWNT Dominance at Women’s World Cup 2023

Since its inception, the Women’s World Cup has been a stage where the world’s finest female football talents converge to compete for glory and showcase their skills on the global stage. The United States Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) has enjoyed an unprecedented era of dominance. They won 4 out of the 8 World Cups so far, placing in the top 3 on all of them. The biggest US soccer superstars ever have achieved their heights with the USWNT. However, the 2023 Women’s World Cup has marked a significant shift in the landscape. The team faced an unexpected exit in the early knockout phase. People are shocked and the US public is disappointed. Let us look into the evolution of the Women’s World Cup to understand the reason for the decline in USWNT’s dominance.

A Glance Back in Time: The Evolution of the Women’s World Cup

The Women’s World Cup, first introduced in 1991, marked a pivotal moment for women’s football. The inaugural tournament, held in China, opened a window to a previously unexplored arena for female athlete. The rise of women’s soccer worldwide is undeniable. Over the years, the tournament gained momentum, attracting growing interest and showcasing exceptional skills and determination.

Throughout the tournament’s history, the USWNT emerged as a powerhouse, securing four titles – 1991, 1999, 2015, and 2019. Their triumphs not only highlighted their dominance but also played a crucial role in elevating the popularity of women’s football worldwide. The team’s relentless pursuit of excellence made them a source of inspiration for aspiring female athletes everywhere.

Sport dominance is not normal

Nobody in soccer has had as much success, closest being Brazil National Team between 1958 and 1970, winning 3 out of the 4 titles. Basically, that is a statistical anomaly, not just in soccer, but overall. During that time, every kid played soccer for endless hours on the streets of Brazil. That team had one of the best players of all time, and definitely the best player of his time – Pele. Unlike today, the players of the team were mostly playing in the national league in Brazil and could time their form for the World Cup. While that was a hard period for the country, the national team was a unifying opportunity for the nation. It is impossible to imagine such dominance in today’s world of soccer. The clubs have so much money that it always take precedence over the national teams.

For people outside of soccer, the USWNT looked like the US Dream Team with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in it. In fact, it is with great confidence we can say that the US had 12, if not 14, of the 15 best basketball players in that era. Let us be honest, even in the best years that couldn’t be said for the USWNT. So, while the dominance is clear, we shouldn’t overplay it. We will likely refer to the titles in 2015 and 2019 as the “golden generation”. Furthermore, it is important to understand that it is not normal to have that kind of talent when the competition is the most popular sport in the world. If the activity is underwater chess or pickle eating, that might have limited competition, but not soccer.

The Shifting Landscape: Why USWNT’s Early Exit is Not Entirely Surprising

Something has changed and let us take a look at it. While the USWNT’s history of success is undeniable, it is essential to acknowledge that the global women’s football landscape has evolved dramatically since their first triumph. Over the past few decades, investment, development, and increased support for women’s football have led to significant improvements in team dynamics, tactics, and overall competitiveness. Several factors contribute to the decline in USWNT’s dominance:

  1. Rise of Competing Powerhouses: Countries like Germany, France, and England have invested heavily in women’s football. They have talented squads capable of challenging the USWNT’s supremacy. These teams have honed their skills and developed tactical strategies that enable them to contend at the highest level. The best soccer clubs in Europe are competing in the UEFA Champions League with their women’s teams and they want to win. So, they leverage their fanbase, finances, scouting and coaching systems, as well as medical teams, infrastructure and knowledge.
  2. Development of Youth Programs: The success of the USWNT inspired countries to invest in robust youth development programs. As a result, younger soccer players have gained access to higher levels of coaching, facilities, and competitive opportunities, accelerating their growth and contributing to the overall elevation of the sport. In fact, the USWNT has supported growth of women’s soccer in countries like China, Japan and Jamaica. Not surprisingly, their women’s teams are ranking higher than the men’s national teams.
  3. Globalization of Women’s Football: The expansion of international talent pools has diversified the competitive landscape. Players from different continents now compete in top leagues around the world, sharing their experiences and learning from one another. This cross-pollination of talent has fostered a deeper understanding of the game and led to increased tactical innovation.
  4. Strategic Adaptation: Teams that once struggled against the USWNT have evolved their strategies to neutralize their strengths and exploit their vulnerabilities. This has led to more evenly matched contests, challenging the USWNT’s dominance and raising the overall level of competition. As any other national team, there are highs and lows when it comes to talent. Without dominant attacking superstars, it is obvious that it is hard to score goals even if the team dominates in other aspects of the game.

The Natural Progression: Other Teams Catching Up

The USWNT’s early exit from the 2023 Women’s World Cup should not be perceived solely as a decline in their abilities. Rather, it serves as a testament to the sport’s global growth and the natural progression of teams worldwide. The rise of other competitive squads is a testament to the effectiveness of investments, dedication, and long-term planning put forth by various nations.

As other teams have caught up, the overall quality of the Women’s World Cup has significantly improved. The unpredictability of matches, the emergence of new stars, and the increasing competitiveness have led to a more engaging and captivating tournament. It’s better for the fans, for the players and for the rising popularity of the sport.

Path forward for the USWNT

The 2023 Women’s World Cup has marked a turning point in the narrative of USWNT’s dominance. While their early exit might come as a surprise, it is vital to understand that the evolution of women’s football has led to a more competitive and diverse landscape. The rise of other teams is characterized by enhanced development programs, strategic adaptation, and tactical innovation.

The US Soccer Federation needs to reexamine the way to develop players. The importance of creating technical excellence and superstars is the way forward and there has to be a plan for that. The system doesn’t support that at the moment and it’s only a matter of time before it will become apparent that a team can hold for a draw, but a moment of brilliance will make the difference at a knockout match.

As we move forward, the legacy of the USWNT remains intact, as they have played a pivotal role in shaping the present state of women’s football. Their achievements have inspired generations and paved the way for the growth and recognition of the sport on a global scale. The 2023 Women’s World Cup serves as a reminder that no team’s dominance is indefinite, and as the sport continues to flourish, new heroes will emerge, each contributing to the tapestry of women’s football history.