Developing Players, Beautiful, An Honor, An Obligation

Developing Players, Beautiful, An Honor, An Obligation.

Based on my observations of youth soccer and futsal in Midwest and above, contrasting it with world class academies, I strongly believe that in Midwest and above:

a) Technique is significantly undertrained
b) Small group tactics are almost entirely ignored
c) Physicality is over valued
d) Systems of play (4-4-2 and such) are significantly over focused

Here, some fun and great feedback from one of the best in the world:

level ground = technique ages 7-14
level 1 = physical ages 14-17 (quick, strong)
level 2 =tactical (where, how) (yes to ages 16+, but matures much later)
level 3 = competitive, age18+, how much do I want to be successful

Love the Beautiful Game,
Ilir Lushaj


Assessing Youth Soccer Joy and Development, and The Need For Change

I would like to discuss and assess today Joy and Development of youth Soccer in the USA. It’s extremely important that I share first that these are very complex issues and I will not claim that simple answers will “fix” the problem. I will simply state some clear facts and make the case that there is a need for change to increase Joy and to increase Development. I will go as far as to say, those should be the two things we measure at all times in youth soccer and in that order.


What Are We Addressing? Joy & Development of Youth Soccer in USA.

Why? With millions of youth soccer players participating in this sport, today I want to do my best to assess and address the joy and the development that takes place during youth soccer and the need to adjust based on the best assessment criteria.

Who is Involved? Players, coaches, parents, referees, organizations.

What is the Criteria to Measure Joy & Development Based On? Let me first clarify that the criteria of my assessment in soccer joy and development (and I am assuming in any other area) will be based in 4 areas: opinions, experience, standards, research. It is VERY important to understand each of the 4 in this criteria are valued for what they are and offer. 

  • Opinions: are to be respected and everyone is entitled of course to their opinion. However, the weight that opinions carry when it comes to making decisions, is the and should be the smallest, since it does not provide enough meaningful reasons for a decision to be made. So, when one wants to suggest “a way” for joy and development, it will be very difficult to convince most (and me) with just an opinion. 
  • Experience: carries a bit more weight, because it does matter, since it captures and describes the “real” environment. However, it remains low when it comes down to making deeply educated decisions. This is rightfully so, because experiences have many, many variables, so it is difficult to assume that is the way, but of course there is a lot to learn from.
  • Standards: hopefully are based on some research, experience and such. Therefore, many times (but not always), carry a good weight when it comes to adhering to standards. For example: it is an established standard of this game that training sessions should be 60-90 minutes long. 
  • Research: is a great way to extract real quality information. One can choose to ignore research of course, however the value of opinion, experience or standards is lower than research, if the effort remains to learn, grow, innovate and continue to move forward.


Research on Joy:

  • There is some evidence that in US Soccer, 7 out of 10 drop out of soccer by age 13
  • There is some evidence that 1.2 million kids have quit sports (not soccer but all sports) since 2019
  • Some evidence suggests that 70% of kids drop out of sports by age 13

While there are many reasons listed (including that when kids are much younger they do many sports and eventually drop out of some), the most common is “I don’t enjoy it anymore.” Here is some more research, some evidence suggests that 1% of players goes pro and 0.5% get injured, so only about 0.5% reach that. 

Research on Development: 

  • Number of Registered Youth Soccer Players in USA: Even though there is an estimated 2.5 – 3 million registered youth soccer players in US, they are still not able to produce higher level players.
  • Number of Registered Players in Croatia: For a simple analysis, Croatia had around 6 thousand registered players in 2010.
  • Number of Pro US Players in Europe: According to an ESPN report, during the 2022-2023 season, there were 26 players from US playing in top European Leagues
  • Number of Pro Croatian Players in Europe: According to Yahoo news info, Croatia had 407 players playing in the top European Leagues during 2024. In addition, according to total croatia news, Croatia is the 8th largest exporter of soccer players

Possible Solutions Based on Research:

Action Item: Develop this concept to build success by:

  • Establishing standards for coach requires and maintain high standards
  • Create possibilities where there is a lot more educational possibilities for all and make it possible 
  • Project & Clarity: Make youth soccer a project with clear goals for all ages and developmental guidelines. Provide 100% clarity what are clubs, coaches, and all to establish and by what age and how it will be measured. It is time to have full clarity here. It is true, there will always be some variables here, but we must start with clarity.

Action Item: build a 3, 5, 10, 20 year project, with details and based on respected research not replicating another system.

  • Sustainable: create a system that avoids burning out youth players with extreme  distance travel. This is complex of course, but the value surpasses that, and a must for young kids.

Action Item: build a project where players receive great competition but without traveling thousands of miles a year.

  • Build a Player Culture Where Work & Education is Valued and not Secrets: create clarity that technical improvements is not something one can get done in one week, but instead work and work. Clarify the process of technique, individual tactics, small group tactics, large group tactics and systems of play and strategy. When you watch teams play, it is very clear that the 4 early building blocks above are really underdeveloped.
  • Measure Joy & Development: regularly and improve it each year
  • Futsal & Soccer Development: According to the talent code, Futsal is one of the greatest accelerators toward soccer development, it is time US Soccer honors and respects evidence. “From Pelé onward virtually every great Brazilian player played futsal as a kid, first in the neighborhood and later at Brazil’s soccer academies, where from ages seven to around twelve they typically devoted three days a week to futsal.”

Notice, I could have said most greatest world soccer players come from Futsal, but instead I am providing clear evidence in an effort to provide clarity.

I must confess that it is always harder to build a building that discusses it. The same applies for quality soccer. However, it is time we create a project, take risk, do something different, innovate versus replicate and above all, speak with *humble) facts.

Love the beautiful game, Forge yourself.

Ilir Lushaj


Kids Are Magic Soccer Players


Fact 1 – Youth Athletes – It is estimated there are around 60 million youth athletes
in USA (across all sports:
Fact 2 – Soccer Players – It is estimated there are around 4.2 million soccer players
(youth and adults, around 2.5 million male players and 1.7 female players). Worth noticing here
that US women’s soccer has achieved a lot greater success and achievements compare to men’s
soccer, where clearly the team is trying to do well, but they cannot yet.
Fact 3 – Using Basketball as an Example – men's teams have won 16
Olympic gold medals and women’s team have won 9 Olympic gold medals. Similar patterns
follow other sports.


Argument 1: Is it a player problem that we are not seeing players that can perform at the
beautiful world class level in large numbers and not just a few? Probably not, if I had to just
consider the % of player problem:
a) from the top players, this would be the 1-3% of players, that show very high motivation and
level but somehow can not self-push all the way or maybe do and are there already.
b) from the lower level players, perhaps another 2-3% that just does not push all the way
Question: what about the other nearly 95%? This is where impact is and where teams and
leagues are filled with, to make the bulk of the sport.

Argument 2: Is it a system problem? Let’s assess a few concepts, before we answer this
a) Consider This Fun but Huge Fact, Before You Even Read More and Reflect:
“2013 Sky Sports reported some staggering statistics around UEFA Pro license holders. Spain
has 2140 holding the world’s top qualification, Germany has over 1000, while England has just
203. With regard to the UEFA A license (the second-highest qualification), Spain is again top
with 12,720 coaches, Germany has 5500 while England has just 1161.”
How many UEFA pro coaches in USA? I don’t know, but if I had to estimate, would have two
* not many
* respect the few that are sacrificing on their own to bring this level of coaching here, much
respect to Jesse Marsch.
b) The Belgium Blueprint:
* Assessing Situation & Research + Developing a Model + Holding & Demanding The
* Outcome:
c) Germany Development:
c) Clarity – A Fun Exercise:
* Consider USA soccer federation for a moment to be a company, and the academies, education,
analysis, and more to be departments. Is there clarity? Are all working toward some overlapping
cause? I have no answers to offer, this is for all to think.

d) Is this a common mistake:
* Is it simple to solve such a problem? Maybe, but probably not. Opinions are simple, projects
are not. This is not a linear problem, there is a lot of elements, but the purpose of this article is to
identify the biggest ones.
* How do we pursue the goal to be a world class soccer power? I believe it will be a mistake to
pursue with claiming experience, approaching with entitlement, demanding it with arrogance as
the way to get there. It has to be done in a way that we can sustain long term (see all facts here)
and some of those paths are: passion, clarity, unity, work, education (and from there analysis and
Argument 3 – Is it a Club’s Problem? there are of course several clubs that do amazing
things. Yet, the system is so much larger, that the impact of those clubs remains very small.
Argument 4: Are There Other Factors? yes, but I would argue that, they are additional
factors, not the cause. One example would be, that we have so many competing sports. But
again, I believe this is not a reason why great players are not developed from those that do


There are many paths/ways to climb a mountain, so many possibilities, and I will not claim
we know, but here some humble principles (not methodologies) that could potentially bring a
new and better perspective:
a. Coach Education:
* making coaching education number 1 top priority to organically ignite long term change.
* creating a very, very, very clear outline and demanding very high level coaching licenses at
youngest ages
* offering a lot of free coaching models of great level as an entry
* offer a lot more ongoing opportunities for growth at a system and not individual level

b. Unity:
* Connecting all pro academies, where the overlapping factors not only is player/team
development (more at youth but also adult), but this is demanded.
c. Standards:
* promotion & relegation: it is time to give the same message that is given to all disciplines: you
must always grow. This idea that one can just be there, is not how anything else works.
* demand very high coaching education, by that I mean equal or better than top Euro academies.
d. Values: I believe we need to instill in youth players that, it is a better way to think “I value
work, learning, unity, growth, therefore we can do great things” versus “ we are great and can do
great things.” The first has depth and can sustain, the second has no roots and eventually falls. In
my opinion, if all else is forgotten, this should not. What one values, growth, so valuing growth
is a solid path toward achievement.
e. Growth – Open Mind: it is amazing how humble most (not all) top coaches or highest
performance are. At a personal level, I have seen this with some of the most amazing word futsal
national team coaches (first team), or an amazing speed skater Olympic gold medalist.
Demanding an open mind, has to be more than placed on a frame on the wall or on policies, it
has to be build in.
e. Youth Project:
* Time to start meaningful youth projects, was 50 years ago, ok 25 years ago, ok now.
* This has to be both, developmental & analysis, so all have an opportunity to develop but also
an opportunity to move up based on merit, those that earn moving forward, move forward.
Again, collaboration and competition, not just one or the other.
* Simplify, the idea of so many, and so many takes away from meaningful. Place emphases on
very clear systems, example: one national program only, where the best go, one regional with
regions and many local.

Final Reflection

These things are not linear, but are actually very complex. But at the end of the day, kids are
magic, and we owe it to them to offer more substance and quality and less fillers. At least for the
95%, in the end the environment will always win. This can be a negative or the biggest blessing,
depending on how you view and what you do with the environment.
By Ilir Lushaj
UEFA Futsal Coaching Diploma
USSF B Coaching Diploma
October 1 2023

“Excellence is the sum of the millions of small, moving & honest actions”

The Beauty Of Authentic Soccer & Futsal Development

May 2 2023

Soccer has always been referred to as the beautiful game and of course Futsal remains a brother with soccer. One can argue that Futsal is soccer on “ice”, due to its speed, creativity, the number of top soccer players developed and amazing excitement. Both games are beautiful, and for the purposes of this writing, I will refer with the beautiful game for both sports.

So what is the beauty of authentic soccer and futsal development? Is it the uniforms, the buildings, the repeated word “development”, or wining a trophy? No, regardless how much effort is put in all else, the beauty of authentic soccer and futsal development lives in the beautiful and creative play. Playing beautiful, is a form of communication, a form of expression, a beautiful piece of art. And no one can make beautiful art simply by talking about art, in the end everyone will want to see what was produced. Here I am not referring to wining but the process of development and yes performance as well. In order to cultivate beautiful and creative play, the training environment has to display these strong qualities.

a. Coaching Education

b. Training Details

c. Work Rate

d. Level & Impact of Correcting

e. Teaching Methodology

f. (and most importantly) Passion

So, while the field quality matters, status of league play matters, and many other things matter. What matters the most is a player that aims to build beautiful play and a coaching environment that provides authentic training. Life has an amazing balance here, this is not a process that can be taken or given, only earned. One, can not simply claim they have coaching education or they are good in details. Instead, coaching education is something one can very easily read on the training pitch and coaching details are mirrored clearly during competition (games).

If soccer and futsal are the beautiful game, player are the artist that make beautiful art and authentic coaching is a beautiful action. Passion remains the anchor that will move mountains, and make what seems impossible, possible. Live and breath what you love and give all you have. You may or may not win the trophy, because in life there are no guarantees. But you will have the best trophy ever, a beautiful life.

Forge Courage




Learning or Maintaining?

Sep 29 2022

Love The Beautiful Game

Soccer and Futsal training is one of the most beautiful gifts for players, teams and coaches. How much time in training is spent in learning and how much in maintaining? To answer this question, consider these facts:

a. How much information is new to the players? To be clear, by information we do not refer to coaches talking, but to quality of information. By new, we refer to details to an existing concept or a fully new concept. 

b. What is the level of difficulty? By level of difficulty, we refer to ability to do something without having to engage the brain, or not be able to process, or having to engage the brain and yet succeed.

c. Is learning passive or active? This is truly a huge part of learning. While one can use many methods to teach, ultimately teaching has to be active and active all the time, in order players to retain information.

While there is a time for maintaining of course, it is very fair to say that the part that goes most ignored is not maintaining :). It is learning that goes unchecked and if this is the case, how will players grow? How much will they grow?

Forge Your Feet Only By Forging Your Mind,

llir Lushaj


For The Love of The Game: The Current US Soccer & Potential for Excellence

The Current

  1. Strengths and Weaknesses 
    •  Strengths: physical level of players
    •  Weakness: technical & tactical level of players
  1. The Big Experiment: The team is going in with the same sense of entitlements, and looking for results, instead of gratitude and focusing on the process.  Any experiment would eventually require changes, and by that, I mean real changes that carry depth, not superficial ones that don’t touch the root of the problem.
  2. Approach: the approach is too goal focused instead of process focused, we want to be the best, and want it today without placing the seeds for success, there is no 1-, 3-, 5- and 10-year-old plan. 
  3. Beating the Uncomfortable with Comfort: we continue to show up to win without looking at how much we are putting in.
  4. Individual Versus Collective Effort: key importance to create a team culture where all is united
  5. The No Street Blame: yes it is definitely true that kids not playing in the street, causes a loss to the sport and player development, but hockey and football is not being played on the street either, gymnastics is not played on the street in Rumania, the best school fo music in New York is not being practiced on the street, so let’s tackle the problem why not being able to develop as the primary tool of player development, then look at other supplement like the street.
  6. Klinsmann: it was fair he eventually had to go, but even more fair that he had to come, it was a move in the right direction. Not succeeding it means we go further forward and look to hire a top tactician at international level.

The Future

  1. Project: Initiate a 12-month project on coach education to reflect three key points:
  2. A clear licensure education to reflect updated curriculum
  3. An ongoing continuing coach education process based on quality
  4. A high standard coaching education minimum requirement (to be set very high) for ages 5-12
  5. Set clear tactical and technical standards and provide games and environments to support
  6. Emphasize work ethic, nothing happens unless the work is done
  7. Project D:  Create a clear standard on all academy clubs, hold them responsible to hold standard.  The level of development must be pressed very strong here, so academies are the ones that deliver.
  8. Project E: Creating 300 centers in the USA, channeled to 36, channeled to 4, channeled to 1. Each free to members, paid staff for talent assessment.
  9. Create one system not 100 levels, a universal system where teams move up or down based on performance not ability to pay for their place.
  10. Project F:  Hiring 5 top international coaches to coach these teams and assist with coach education:
  11. USA National Team
  12. USA National U21 Team
  13. USA National U19 Team
  14. USA National U17 Team
  15. USA National U14 Team
  16. Project G: Set goals for National U14, U17, U19, U21 and Final Team, and focus on the process that achieves those goals. 
  17. Project H: Create a research-based taskforce, whose role is to assess all every 3 months and come up with suggestions.

Eventually, it is a matter of time before USA becomes fantastic and plays the best soccer at the international level.  This will take time but will have with all the players and their love for the game.

Ilir Lushaj

Forge Excellence 

The True Value

The true value of work is a measure of purpose, passion, education, work ethic, unity. Top level will always create and create, grow and grow, learn, reflect and correct, like “writing music” always focuses on creating and building quality versus self-promotion. The measure is now how loud one “plays the drums”, but what kind of quality is in the music. A great factor that can impact this, is the audience, it’s a must to understand “good music” versus “loud drums.”

I recently, listen to the 2018 Nobel Prize discussion. One of the scientists there said, “we have a theory we believe, and we spend the rest of our lives to prove ourselves wrong.” What a way to grow. This seems like great way to approach coaching also.

Forge Excellence