How to win at soccer without really trying

By Lenore Skenazy

Why didn’t the American men’s soccer team make it to the World Cup? Simple: Because kids in America grow up playing soccer in shoes.

Oh, that’s not the whole answer, of course. But after literally decades of coaching youth soccer, Carlo Celli and Nathan Richardson (language professors by day) had a revelation. It came on a morning when they were about to put some talented 9-year-old boys through the usual drills.

But that day a couple of the boys happened to bring along their kid sisters. Another one had a friend with him who hadn’t played soccer before. The coaches’ plans went out the window. Instead, they threw up their hands and told the kids, OK, just play.

They thought it would be a wasted session. Instead, it was Edison flipping a switch.

The kids did “just play.” And in amazement, the coaches watched them becoming more creative in their moves than ever before. They were concentrating better. They were energized and excited. And when the hour was up, they didn’t want to leave. It was difference between practicing scales and jamming with friends.

That morning changed everything, as the coaches write in their new book, “Shoeless Soccer: Fixing the System and Winning the World Cup.” After a few of these free-form sessions, “we no longer needed to set up goals or even pick teams,” they write. “The kids arrived, organized themselves, and started to play and create their own games. A couple of parents stood to the side, in case we were needed, which rarely occurred.”

Celli realized that he should never spend “another minute lecturing the kids about strategies or running drills. As coach, I should let the kids play.”

His goal was not just to see kids have more fun. He’s a coach, after all. He believes in the game, not just messing around. But through fun, the kids were getting the lessons he couldn’t teach them formally. “As the kids were left alone, the quality of play actually increased.”

I spoke to Celli from his summer home in Italy last week. He grew up bouncing between there and the United States.

“When it comes down to it, I’m still that kid playing soccer in the street with my friends,” he said. “That’s where I really learned all I know about the game.”

Playing on asphalt or a patch of scratchy grass, far from any parent or coach, is how most of the world’s kids start playing soccer. But in America, Celli has seen the rise of what he calls the soccer-industrial complex.

At age 3 or 4 or 5, kids are already in a league. As they grow older, the distances grow, too.

What they’re actually learning, he said, is how to sit in the car.

In many American youth soccer leagues, he said, the price tag can reach $700 for a season. There are the uniforms to buy. The shin guards. The trophies. The team photos. The membership fees. And then there are the shoes, which Celli and Richardson have come to distrust.

“Pele learned to play barefoot. His name was ‘The Shoeless One,’” said Celli. Not that he really expects kids to ditch their shoes, but when you are barefoot and kick the ball with your toe, you don’t keep doing that for long, because it hurts. It’s basically stubbing your toe. Instead, you instinctively learn to kick the ball correctly.

But the less-is-more approach teaches kids skills that they can take off the field, too, like leadership, and self-control.

“If you have a referee, it kind of makes people think, ‘The game will be controlled. I don’t really have to behave myself,’ ” said Celli.

When the kids have to decide among themselves whether someone fouled, they become the adults.

Organized soccer is also strictly stratified by age, which makes no sense.

“When you’re a kid, you naturally admire someone who’s two years older than you. The adults are like aliens.”

In a gaggle of neighborhood friends, the younger kids copy the older ones. It’s a lot easier to try to keep up with a friend than to concentrate on a lesson.

Even in Italy, Celli fears the old, free-form, spontaneous street soccer disappearing.

“I went back to my elementary school and we saw all these after-school programs for kids,” he said. They’re run by adults. The kids are wearing shoes.

Watch out, Italy. When America goes shoeless, we’re coming for the Cup.

Lenore Skenazy president of Let Grow, and founder of Free-Range Kids.

More from Around New York