The Long Game

brett niebling
13 min readMar 3, 2021

How two soccer coaches created a club of unstructured play to foster MLS talent.

SSA Snickers Cup Champions.

“It feels like we’ve been working on a 10 year R&D project.” -Chris Rue, Select Soccer Academy President, and PSG Academy Coach

Stories of innovation tend to start in unexpected places. For Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, it was a garage. For the McDonald’s brothers, it was a hot dog stand. For Chris Rue and Chris Niebling, it was a basketball court — unexpected in this case because they were coaching soccer. They could hardly suspect that ten years later they would be funneling professional talent to MLS clubs.

I. A game without play

In 2009 Rue and Niebling were both coaching at a travel club in Jupiter, Florida — both former All-State high school and Division I college soccer players who had long been retired but returned to their home town and fell into coaching. Rue took the nine and ten year olds, Niebling the elevens and twelves. As Rue handed over players like a baton pass, the two coaches conversed, and a strong bond developed between them. They knew these ages were vital to skill progression and fostering a love for the game that would lead kids to stay with the sport.

While they loved the challenge of fostering talent, they soon became frustrated by the travel system and the type of player it produced. By and large American kids don’t play enough soccer outside of practice. As Rue puts it, “Players didn’t have a strong foundation before joining travel. They needed a better understanding of the game. They simply weren’t playing enough.”

So why aren’t kids playing outside of practice?

Esteemed sociologists Sandra Hofferth and John Sandberg define unstructured play, or “free play,” as an “activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself.” For some, the loss of unstructured play for American children will not come as a surprise as the unwillingness to self-organize has been well documented by scientific communities. A study from sociologists at the University of Michigan comparing detailed records of how children spent their time in 1981 and 1997 found that time spent in any kind of play decreased 16 percent, and much of the play had shifted indoors, often involving a computer and no other children. As acclaimed social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written, “The trend has continued in the 2000s. Recess and free play time were reduced to make room for more standardized testing and academic work. Homework became common for even the youngest schoolchildren. After-school playtime morphed into structured activities overseen by adults.” As a result of stifled free-play, one survey revealed, “children themselves prefer to have adults organize their lives.”

Meanwhile Europe’s soccer powerhouses are strong proponents of unstructured play for its youth. A study of the German national team that won the 2014 World Cup examined the development path of players who made the national team versus other professionals who hadn’t. The “only big difference they could come up with was the guys who made the national team had a lot more time in unstructured small-sided play when they were young and continued with more unstructured play into pros.” A separate study in 2009 supported the idea that unstructured play was instrumental in the development of professional soccer players.

US Soccer Federation’s “Safe Places to Play” program transforming under utilized neighborhood spaces.

In light of such findings, and research correlating the decline in creativity with the growing restrictions of free play, a few American organizations have started to respond. Through Project Play , the Aspen Institute has partnered with professional leagues, such as the NBA and MLB to develop “play” programs as the professionalization of youth sport intensifies. But it’s too soon to tell if these organizations are attracting and producing the type of talent that proceeds to higher levels of the game. Which is ultimately what parents and players want.

Rue and Niebling shared many a pint after practice, exploring how they might foster the pick-up soccer environments found around the world, to supplement traditional club experiences. “Growing up in Florida, we reflected on the surf and skate cultures in our backyard. Admiring kids that could be left to their own devices and become really good. Pushing each other to improve, without a coach,” said Niebling.

Focused mainly on short-term growth, today’s prevailing coaching philosophy loses sight of long-term development. Before diving into skill building at a young age, we need to step back and ask ourselves some fundamental questions. What type of skills are we trying to develop at a young age? And how do we develop them? Although drills may be effective in teaching the hard skills, an overly structured environment fails to foster the relevant experience required in a game. As Harvard Professor of Teaching and Learning, David Perkins reminds in Making Learning Whole, “you don’t learn to play baseball by a year of batting practice.” Only through the trial and error of free play, can kids build a memory bank of responses needed to tackle real time challenges as they arise on the field. Developing an improvisational approach to the game is a crucial step in the fine-tuning that comes with drills at a later age.

Sadly, the current system of travel soccer encourages over-coached environments that dictate so much of what children are supposed to figure out — not just on their own, but together. Relinquishing control would remove the accountability of progress solely from these travel clubs, which of course is unnerving for parents who believe they’re ultimately responsible for their child’s development, and coaches who need to feel valued.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the rest of the world has cones, youtube and coaches too. Travel soccer practices don’t solve for what the U.S. doesn’t have: unstructured play.

II. Playing outside the lines

Then one night a light bulb went off when Rue and Niebling’s teams were invited to play a friendly against a girls’ team. But it was going to be a futsal match. “We assumed it would be a fun night for our lads, an opportunity to get another game in — but we were wrong. Our boys were absolutely dominated. I stood marveling at how technically sound they [the girls] were. But more importantly, they played the right way,” said Rue.

While futsal is gaining momentum in the U.S., it has been a popular development tool in Spain and Brazil for generations; in fact, many clubs in Brazil delay the transition to grass fields until players are twelve years old. Several benefits pay dividends for the country’s youth players down the road:

1 — Speed of Play: Court dimensions and a heavier ball create quicker play, expediting foot-eye coordination and on-ball comfort as players use all surfaces of their feet.

2–1v1: Players forced into more one-on-one situations, building confidence and developing the vital skill of winning individual battles to create team advantages.

3 — Repetition & Freedom to Fail: More opportunities to fail equals more opportunities to learn and make quicker adjustments.

4 — Goals: Smaller court dimensions mean constant counter-attacking transitions, where everyone can score.

5 — Competition=Fun. Combine the above, and intensity naturally rises, building camaraderie, autonomy, and communication skills.

Now consider the last time you played a pick-up game and ask yourself, “Were there lots of goals? Were players going 1v1 more than if they were in an official game? Was there freedom to try moves and fail? Were the games end-to-end, involving constant counter attacking? Was it fun? Was there trash talking?” Most likely, the answer is yes to all of these. Futsal clearly has unstructured play baked into its DNA.

Shortly after their boys’ butt-whipping, Rue and Niebling invited players on off-nights to a rarely used basketball court. They set up goals and brought a few futsal balls. Like any good start-up, they adopted a “test and learn” mentality to see what worked. To begin with, they dropped drills, opting just to play. Of course, suiting up on nights with little turnout, which was most that first year. But on good nights they created round-robin, winner-stays-on tournaments. Niebling brought a boombox to heighten the lively atmosphere, “They were having a blast. Competing, talking trash, going 1v1. They looked free.”

After that first year, Rue received a coaching job with Jupiter Christian School and they transitioned from an outdoor basketball court to an indoor one, some nights spent at church after-school programs working with ages 3–7. Word started to get around town there was an “open run.” To their delight, older players, including those coming home from college, showed up. “We loved seeing the older guys and girls interact with the kids. We didn’t have to ask for egos to be managed, or encourage mentorship. The older players took them under their wing. They enjoyed the competition, regardless of age disparities,” Rue said.

At this point another light bulb went off: age-mixed play. While most clubs separate youth players into strict age groups, the coaches were finding the quality of play wasn’t diminished, and older and younger players were benefiting for different reasons, parallel to those discovered in the research, “The Special Value of Children’s Age-Mixed Play”:

i. Benefits to Younger Players

  • Expedites learning. Toddlers with older playmates in an age-mixed environment scored higher in language, general cognitive, and motor development than those in an age-segregated one.
  • Expands learning. Children learn more from those who are older as it enables them to observe and emulate models of activities more advanced than their own.
  • Inspires Creativity. Older players inspire the imaginations of those younger.
  • Provides motivation & maturation. Children, by nature, want to do what older people — including older children — do; this is how they grow up.

ii. Benefits to Older Players

  • Strengthen weaknesses: They hone certain skills they otherwise couldn’t focus on while playing against age-mates (e.g. focus on dribbling and setting up younger teammates to score).
  • Fosters creativity. They experiment and play more joyfully, as there’s no pride to be gained by the older, larger, more-skilled child in beating the much younger one.
  • Strengthens capacities to lead and nurture. Experiences with younger children provide older players with opportunities to practice leadership and nurturance.

Another surprise came at the club level. Rue’s travel teams were improving significantly on grass, “I had one team that was losing games by ten goals before the winter holiday break. We played in the gym during the two months leading up to the spring season, and we started beating teams by multiple goals. I had coaches coming up to me asking me what I’d done.” And this was when Select Soccer Academy was born, a team-less club fostering talent through unstructured play.

III. The long game

Over the next few years, the two remained patient. They upgraded to a new location when Niebling received a coaching job with Palm Beach Day Academy. This change allowed them to attract players from down south. (Exceptional since, as Floridians know, the South never comes to the North.) “It’s the first time in my forty-plus years of soccer that I’ve seen kids from Broward and Dade travel to Palm Beach county to practice,” reflected Rue. They required players to pay a nominal fee, offering weekly rates of $25 or nightly fees.

The system of play had been for the most part perfected. Rue and Niebling would typically allow players to warm themselves up before letting them pick teams. They would keep time, manage disputes and injuries, and provide background music to contribute to the atmosphere. They learned that relinquishing authority was an essential ingredient. Letting go of their ego’s need to be “hands on’’ created a sense of freedom for players. The coaches instead focused on providing encouragement, and one-on-one direction — if needed — between games. But most importantly they were allowing kids to fall in love with the game on their own terms. With that, they asked parents to respect their only rule: no sideline coaching or cheering. For many, such a request might seem shocking, as parents have become notorious in youth sports for being increasingly hands-on: critiquing coaches’ tactics and aggressively pursuing better options to ensure their child “makes it.” Ironically, such a presence has shown to have the opposite effect. A 2013 study showed kids in unstructured situations were more daring and creative, but when parents were present, “the behavior of the children took on more expected and less imaginative traits.” The impact of SSA’s approach wasn’t lost on an eleven-year-old playing for Inter Miami FC youth team, “SSA is soo much fun. The coaches allow us to express ourselves. I love being able to play freely and be creative. They let me try new things during games. Playing freely and learning new moves and skills has helped me excel on grass fields too.”

Nonetheless, Rue and Niebling always had an ace up their sleeve: they aren’t a travel club. “We’re always very honest and transparent with parents. We want their kids to make better decisions on the field. And we believe this is the best supplement they could ever ask for. If they disagree, I’ll give them their money back,” said Rue. As for Niebling, “At travel clubs it felt like the tail was wagging the dog. They prioritize winning, as that leads to revenue. So their number one concern is the parents, rather than player development. SSA is prioritizing their kid 100%.”

And parents have good reason to trust them. As one parent told it, “The dedication of the coaching staff and their philosophy makes you want to be involved. They do this for the love of the game and for the development of the players. The kids love it; it’s about them, their memories, having fun with their peers.” SSA has the stats to back it up. In just ten years, nearly 350 boys and girls have played, of this group, approximately fifty with MLS Next, twenty featured in MLS youth teams and four pros (MLS, USL).

If a parent needed more convincing, they could also turn to the financial incentive. Typical travel clubs offer a couple practices per week. These practices put players in drills and a handful of game-like scenarios, followed by one game on the weekend, where not every kid will play the full time. USA Today noted on average club fees fall in a range of $2,500-$5,000 per year. This doesn’t include tournament fees, travel costs, hospitality and off-season camps. As expected, these fees are a huge deterrent for lower income families. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, only eleven percent of youth soccer players come from households earning $25,000 or less, whereas thirty-five percent come from those who make $100,000 or more. As the Aspen Institute’s research for Project Play showed, this contributes to kids’ dropping soccer by age eleven. Meanwhile, SSA fees come to $750 per annum. Their flexible pricing model offers pay-as-you-go options. The fee includes two nights of tournament style pick-up, and one their most popular installments, the “Snickers Cup,” whereby players pick teams and compete in five-minute games, winners-stay-on. Coaches keep track of the score. The team with the most points is crowned champion and celebrates with a recycled trophy filled with Snickers bars, returning the following week to do it all over again. Additionally, SSA takes players every summer to compete as formal teams in the World Futsal Championships at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex, outside Orlando, Florida.

There will be those who dismiss SSA’s philosophy and the value of unstructured play, pointing to growing MLS academies, but they overlook the precipitous drop in participation rates for youth soccer. In a recent three-year span, the percentage of 6-to-12-year-olds playing soccer regularly dropped nearly fourteen percent [NY Times, Report, Stats]. Also, the number of MLS roster spots for American-born players dropped from “52% six years ago to 37% today” and the national team failed to make the last World Cup.

Or critics might point to a crop of shining young stars, Pulisic, Reyna, Mckennie, etc. And perhaps they’re right. But there is one irrefutable truth that they and all players will recognize in SSA’s offering: ambitious players want to know what other talent is out there. They want to know how good they are, they want to improve, they want to be the best. The honest ones will seek SSA out because they get to see what lies beyond their teammates. Typically players are restricted to formal games to find out. And even still, it’s usually only a handful of times a year. SSA allows kids to see their competition beyond those games, and to try to make ground on them — or maintain their edge. There are great stories of when talent converges to sharpen each other’s knives. The Beatles spent their early years in Hamburg. Harlem’s Rucker Park provided a proving ground for NBA players. And surf legends dubbed the “Momentum Generation” met in Oahu.

Perhaps SSA will be one of those stories in years to come. As they approach a ten-year anniversary this winter, they’ve been recruited by the United Futsal Championship Cup Series to host a tournament featuring travel clubs across the country. SSA will showcase the talent they’ve groomed. There’s a chance the crowd will see some future pros in their lineups. But there’s a guarantee they’ll see a bunch of kids loving the game of soccer and playing the right way.

Chris Rue and Chris Niebling with an SSA player.

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brett niebling

Former D-I soccer player that pursued a pro career before transitioning into marketing. I maintain links to soccer through consultation for MLS and youth clubs.