Coaches Corner:
Long Balls and Big Spaces

By Mike Singleton, Director of Coaching, Mass Youth Soccer

If one reads through the technical reports that come from our National Team coaches after events, there are some glaring commonalities that warrant our attention at the state level. Rather than list all the commonalities, I am focusing on one that is seen clearly across all age groups and genders.

National Team players in our country are not particularly skilled at accurately playing long passes. In my experience with regional, state and club teams as well, I can say this difficulty runs across all of our players. What concerns me about this is that I rarely see efforts being made to focus on this weakness.

Remembering back 10 years ago when coaching a BU16 club team that was a competing for the regional title, I was shocked one day at practice when I asked them to play 25-yard passes accurately (within two steps of receiver) and at pace. The majority of these players eventually played college soccer at decent levels, yet they could not hit quality long balls consistently — even without pressure.

The same can be said of Regional teams I have seen in the past few years. I guess I should not be surprised, since our National Team coaches are seeing this as well.

In hopes of improving our players’ abilities in this area, I ask, “How often have you built in long passing into your training?” Whether it be lofted long passes or passes on the ground, please test your players and determine their current level of ability in doing this. Even without pressure, I am betting that you will be surprised at what you see.

The good news is that there are easy fixes to this problem, as it is easier to teach players how to hit the ball, and when/where to strike it, than it is to ask them to learn how to make creative runs off the ball.

As with all technical skills, repetition is key. Starting about 20 yards away, we can work on improving pace and accuracy of passes. Then, we can gradually increase distance and pressure. It is best to always include a moving ball when training this skill, and in games you could even reward points for accurate balls that travel over 25 yards.

I am sure that most of you know many ways to reward long passing and I strongly encourage all of us to make an effort to improve this. We will be doing so at ODP, and only through an aggregated reinforcement of the importance of this skill to players will we be able to make an impact.

One common coaching maneuver that may be hurting the development of this long passing is our overuse of small spaces. Take some time to watch other coaches run training and see how few fields are set up that allow players to be able to even attempt a 30- or 35-yard pass. We seem to place an over-importance on tight spaces, hoping to increase speed of play. Speed of play is certainly a needed area of focus; however, we can still focus on that in a bigger space and provide the chance for longer passes.

If a player is constantly playing 6v6 or more in a 25-yard grid, how will that player develop the ability to play long balls? We often talk to players about, “Using the space they have.” The problem is that we have jammed these small spaces so full of players, that there isn’t any space to use.

The use of the long ball to relieve pressure is a key component of our game. The use of a long ball to initiate a counterattack is also a phenomenal skill that would be great for all our teams and players to possess. Our grids and our training games need to provide the opportunity for these skills to develop.

With so many parts of the game to focus upon and the limited time we have with players, I know we face great challenges in covering all aspects of our game. I stress this aspect as it is a weakness of our National Teams at all levels. If we would like to help our players stand out and reach these higher levels, helping them develop such a unique and special skill is clearly one way to do just that.