Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Boot Ball

The anti-developmental scourge of youth soccer in America

Mark Caron
8 min readApr 1, 2024


It’s well past time to address the elephant in the room: Boot Ball.

What is Boot Ball?

For decades throughout the US, there has been the continued adoption of—and belief in—a game model (or strategy) centered around booting the ball up the field. I call this tactic “Boot Ball.”

Boot ball is ugly, inefficient, and worse: it prioritizes cheap wins at the expense of actual player development. It’s an anti-developmental scourge, and we should stop encouraging it at all costs.

If you go to any field in the US where soccer is being played, you can hear it too. You don’t even need to see Boot Ball to know it’s happening. Listen for coaches or parents shouting at their players to do things like:

“Boot it!”
“Send it!”
“Kick it!”
“Get rid of it!”

Get rid of it?! Why?!

The objective in soccer should be to keep the ball so that you can score. And if your opponent doesn’t have the ball, they cannot score.

If this is true, why would you get rid of the ball—sending it up the field for a 50/50 chance of losing the ball all over again?

After working hard to steal the ball from your opponent, why squander your moment in possession?

Playing Boot Ball is like running a Hail Mary play on every down on every possession in American football. It’s like throwing the basketball down the court every time you grab a rebound. With every aimless kick in soccer, you risk losing possession and putting your team under pressure again.

Boot Ball is a tactic based entirely on luck (or prayers) and high hopes that your bigger, faster players might be victorious at the other end of the field — somewhere closer to your opponent’s goal. That is, of course, if the opponent’s goalkeeper doesn’t scoop it up first.

Boot Ball vs Long Ball

Some people may have other names for Boot Ball. They may even incorrectly conflate it with other common tactics, like “Long Ball”, direct attacking, or counter-attacking soccer. But, there are very clear differences, some of which Pep Guardiola even clarifies toward the end of this SkySports interview reel.

  • Boot Ball is aimlessly or reactively kicking the ball down the field, often without attempting to control the ball or retain possession.
  • Playing direct or direct attacking is skillfully and purposefully passing the ball long to an attacker, often behind the opponent’s last line and sometimes “over the top”. Playing direct is sometimes referred to as “Route One” or “Long Ball”. As Pep said, “It’s another weapon.” But, the key differentiators are the ball control, awareness, and intent behind playing direct.
  • Counter-attacking is quickly attacking the opponent on the transition, typically from your team’s low block, and by playing as directly as possible. In other words, counter-attacking often employs Long Ball in order to take advantage of the opponent’s high line or their disorganization during the transition.

Where we went wrong

Just because Boot Ball sometimes looks like Long Ball to the untrained eye, doesn’t mean they’re synonymous. I believe this misconception is precisely where this anti-developmental approach to the game began: seeing “Route One” soccer in Europe.

Once the misconception took root, Boot Ball continued to spread because it happens to be incredibly effective at younger ages and lower levels — where gaps in individual skill can easily be papered over with athleticism and aggression.

And its popularity makes sense in the US, too, where sports, like American Football, are primarily about physical dominance rather than nuance.

“Let’s break someone’s clavicle. On three!” scene from the Kicking and Screaming movie

Some coaches may have tried to teach possession. But, when players lack skill and game intelligence and are making mistakes — because they’re learning — it’s easy to abandon “the project” and prioritize winning over development.

Winning is American.

We want results now.

So instead of passing or taking risks in our half, we encourage our players to just boot the ball up the field where we have less risk and a better chance to score. This strategy works well because we’re bigger, stronger, and faster. And the other team—using the same tactic—believes they lost simply because you had “the better athletes.”

If only they had your star striker or defender with the big kick.

With every win, this fallacy continues to be reaffirmed.

“Get the ball to the Italians!” scene from Kicking and Screaming

If only we had our best athletes

We favor certain player archetypes, like the tall kid, the aggressive kid, or the fast kid, precisely because they fit the mold of our brute-force tactics.

We cast aside or overlook the “unathletic” or diminutive kids (even before their growth spurts)—kids that could very well be the next Lionel Messi or Aitana Bonmatí if only you took a chance on them and taught them to play intelligently.

We do this while maintaining the incorrect belief that our US men’s soccer team (USMNT) hasn’t been successful because “we don’t have our best athletes playing soccer.” When, in fact, our USMNT players are every bit the athletes as their counterparts around the world.

We don’t lack athleticism. We lack the necessary skill and game intelligence because many of our players were brought up in an anti-developmental system.

This is also why the US women’s team (USWNT) is no longer as dominant as they once were. They can no longer rely purely on their athleticism — one of the early advantages gained from the prioritization of women’s sports decades ago in the US (i.e., Title IX). We no longer have that advantage. And I’m saying this as a massive USWNT fan.

A better developmental model

It’s time for a better game model and strategy that reflects a better overall developmental model. One that prioritizes fun and development over winning. And one that prioritizes possession and creative problem-solving over dumb luck.

In many situations in a game, this strategy begins with building out of the back on goal kicks or from a goalkeeper’s hands. And during transitions in play, possession starts with the composure of the player who won the ball.

Do our players have comfort on the ball, and can they recognize space to dribble or to find a teammate to pass to?

Teaching these skills requires a lot of patience.

We must avoid telling them to “get rid of it” simply because it feels more comfortable for us coaches (and parents).

They will make mistakes. We must allow them to make mistakes.

Players, coaches, and parents will share in those scary moments in front of our own goal. It’ll seem counterintuitive at times too. And we will—more than likely—get scored on occasionally as a result. We may even lose some games, because of those mistakes. But, we must allow them to make those mistakes. It’s part of the learning process.

We must continue to encourage them to be brave and practice (in a game) what we worked on in training. It’s about the long-term development — the “big picture.”

“For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.” — Ted Lasso

“I think that’s what it’s all about.” — Ted Lasso

Game objectives

We all want to win. I want to win as much as the next person.

But instead of making winning the main objective, make demonstrating the desired behaviors and actions the main objective.

For example:

“Let’s work hard for that win—remembering everything we worked on in practice this week. But regardless of the score at the end of the game, I’m going to be super proud of you all if you can build out from a goal kick twice. That’s our objective today. Let’s see if we can accomplish that, ok?”

Or maybe your objective for U7s is…

“I want to see each of you try that move we learned on Thursday. Do you remember it? Yeah?! I want to see everyone juke someone out at least once! And, let’s go out there and have fun playing beautiful soccer!”

As kids get older and more skilled, winning does become more important. However, the objectives must still be the focus, since they’re essential for a player’s and coach’s ability to assess (and promote) development.

Objectives will also become more complex with higher levels of play. For example:

“When we’re in possession in the opponent’s half, can we be brave and find moments for our fullback to invert alongside our holding mid? Let’s see how many times we can create that box midfield or 3–2–5 attacking structure. And, can we use that rest defense to hold them in their half?”

Or maybe you’re playing against a superior team (as Pep mentioned in the interview), and your objective for that week becomes:

“Can we stay organized in a low block? And once we gain possession, can we move the ball quickly, and then find the long pass to our wingers into the space behind their back line? Let’s see if we can time our runs like we worked on in practice too?”

Remember: the control, awareness, and intent in the pass are what separates direct attacking from Boot Ball.

I’m gonna be real

Sometimes my teams lose to Boot Ball teams.

Sometimes our opponent is bigger and faster, and they get that one lucky bounce (that one of my defenders misjudged), and then they’re off to the races.

Soccer is won and lost by mistakes, and there are a lot of mistakes in youth soccer. Boot Ball thrives on mistakes.

I hate it. I despise losing to Boot Ball because the other team walks away believing they had the winning recipe. Maybe they did? They won, right?

But it’s instant gratification over long-term progress.

The scoreline in youth soccer doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of the winning team. Sometimes, the team that lost actually dominated possession — passing around their opponent like practice cones — only to lose 1–0, because of one mistake following countless missed scoring opportunities. Sometimes dumb luck wins.

When this happens, I make sure the players (and parents) know I’m proud of them for trusting in the game plan and playing beautiful soccer.

Mistakes happen. We missed our chances.

And I have seen it many times over, season after season:

We will get better.
Our Boot Ball opponents likely won’t.