"You cannot separate the skills of the game from a players physical abilityideally, you combine the two," Sampson says. "The best soccer players in the world have great physical speed as well as great speed of thought. They can perform soccer skills quickly in game situations, under an opponent's pressure. Like other elite athletes, the very best soccer players work on technique daily, fine-tuning their skills, even at the professional level."
Sampson says the best way to master those skills is to break them down to their most basic form first. "For any exercise, move from the simple to the complex," he says. "Begin with an easy drill and gradually make things more difficult as your proficiency increases. That is how to develop the speed of thought to perform moves in complex situations."
Sampson considers five skills crucial to a soccer player's success-finishing (or goal scoring), passing, dribbling, collecting and receiving, and tackling. Here he offers advice on mastering them.
1. Finishing/Goal scoring
"Finishing is one of the most difficult soccer skills and is considered the most exciting part of the game," Sampson says. "A great goal-and likewise a great save- are two actions that can change the course of an entire game."
You can score from one of three situations: off a dead ball, while possessing a moving ball and off a cross pass. Use Sampson's finishing drill to find the net in each instance.
"Passing is the simplest fundamental in the game, but also one of the most important," Sampson says. "The ability to play the ball from one player to another while maintaining possession under pressure gives you the ability to get behind defenses and score."
Without accuracy, a young soccer player's game suffers. Sampson explains, "A high school player's ability to make short range, mid-range and long-range passes with great precision is the key to success. If he can't play an accurate ball to the appropriate place on the field, it will be tough to be successful building the game from the defensive third to the attacking third of the field."
Making a good pass is more than sending a ball in the receiving player's direction when he breaks open. "Getting the ball to his proper foot is critical to maintaining the rhythm of the game," Sampson says. "It prevents him from breaking stride when he receives the ball just like finishing, passing accurately with all parts of your body is a technique you must master-inside the foot, outside the foot, top of the foot, head and even with the chest or thigh."
The Deep Ball
According to Sampson, finding players who can play the ball over 30- to 50-yard distances with accuracy is the biggest soccer challenge in our country. "It is a lost art even among the best players and a skill that must be constantly and repeatedly trained. Youth coaches don't focus on it enough," He says.
Sampson thinks the cross pass is another area of weakness in the American game. "I believe our players lack the ability to cross balls from wide angles, with great precision and velocity, to a specific target in front of the goal," he says.
Use the Finishing Drill to improve the precision of your crossing. Work on delivering the ball with accuracy and velocity at each level, while another player works on redirecting the crosses into the goal.
"As a player becomes a more proficient at the game, he will learn to keep possession of the ball under an opponent's pressure using all surfaces of his feet, including the sole," Sampson says. "It is extremely important to be confident dribbling with both feet."
The creativity of today's players has made dribbling exciting. However, Sampson warns that "dribbling must always have a purpose and direction or else it is counterproductive."
Simple: Practice dribbling with all surfaces of both feet-inside, outside, top and sole-without pressure in an open space.
Complex: Confine an area with cones and dribble through the space while a defender applies pressure.
4. Collecting & Receiving
Sampson hates to see a good pass neutralized by a poor receiving attempt. He says, "A good pass does not end until it is properly collected and received. A ball that isn't received well and protected is one easily given up to the opponent."
Without collecting and receiving skills, teams find themselves stuck on the defensive end of the field. Sampson says, "Like passing, the ability to receive and control a teammate's pass, with or without the pressure of an opponent, is crucial to building the game from one end of the field to the other."
To complete the reception of a ball, a player must effectively prepare the ball-ideally with one touch. Sampson: "The ball should always be prepared away from where the opponent is closing you down. This buys you time to make a good decision with the second touch and gives your teammates time to get into proper passing positions."
The more touches it takes for you to control the ball, the easier it is for an opponent to win possession. He adds, "Players who have great control can make the ball die at their feet. Since you aren't always going to receive a perfectly passed ball at your feet, determining what body part to use is critical," Sampson says. "You have to control the ball with all parts of your body to compensate for imperfect passes."
Simple: Have a teammate softly hit balls to you. Receive them with all parts of your body without pressure.
Complex: Receive and absorb hard-hit balls with all parts of your body with an opponent applying pressure. Focus on absorbing the balls velocity and work toward controlling it with only one touch.
"A player's ability to come from a standing position and place his body behind the ball to take it from an opponent is extremely beneficial to a team," Sampson says. "You put your team in a good position any time you win the ball that way."
In tackling, Sampson points to three areas of focus-timing the tackle, where your foot makes contact, and making contact with the ball first. He says, "I see a lot of young players make the same mistakes. They end up getting called for making contact with the player before the ball or having their foot go over the ball, which is a serious offense. Also, a new rule makes tackling a player with the trail leg illegal, so they have to be aware of that now."
Simple: Have a teammate dribble the ball toward you at a slow pace. Initially delay and then time your tackle to win the ball. Practice tackling with both feet, always contacting the ball first.
Complex: Have the teammate increase his speed, and work on tackling from all angles, except from behind. Like other Elite Athletes, the very best soccer players work on technique daily, fine tuning their skills, even at the professional level. Forward Landon Donovan tallied 12 goals and 10 assists in 2005, leading the Galaxy to the MLS Cup Championship.
The Finishing Drill
This all-encompassing drill can be tweaked to work finishing skills from the simplest to the most complex. Variations are unlimited and benefits are invaluable.
Assign a point value to different areas of a goal (see diagram). Take 10 shots from each part of your foot-inside, outside and top-using both feet for each variation. Aim for the two-and three-point areas, which are the hardest to defend.
Begin with the simplest situation-score off a dead ball; then make it harder-score off a moving ball; and last, work from the most complex situation-score off a cross.
"Although there are few instances in a game where you have a dead ball without a wall, start simple with the dead ball version," Sampson says.
Simple: Begin with a dead ball at the 12-yard spot with no wall. Perform 10 shots on goal. Vary the angle of the shot as you progress.
Complex: Add a wall to the drill and increase your distance from the goal. Use a five- or six-player wall when shooting straight on, a three- or four-player wall when shooting from a 45-dgree angle, and a one- or two-player wall when shooting from a 70-80 degree angle.
Simple: Play the ball into the penalty box and take shots on goal straight on.
Complex: Play the ball into the box and shoot from a 45-degree angle on the left and right sides. Increase difficulty again by playing the ball from the 25-yard line, making sure to strike it before you reach the 18-yard line.
Off a Cross Pass
Learning to redirect a ball toward the goal off a cross is a difficult, yet crucial task. "A soccer player needs to be proficient at finishing off crosses from different heights with all parts of his body," Sampson says. "You have to be able to handle the ball at every level. You have to redirect balls that are waist-high with a volley or side volley. With ones that are chest high, you probably need to collect the ball with one touch, and then finish. Eye-level balls must be redirected toward the goal with the head."
Simple: Stand inside the six-yard line. Redirect balls toward the goal as a teammate crosses them to you from the right and left.
Complex: Have a teammate cross the ball to you at ground-, waist-, chest- and eye-levels. redirect the ball appropriately, depending on the height of the cross. Bump the degree of difficulty by increasing the distance from the goal from 6 to 12, 18 and then 24 yards.
Each variation can be made even more complex by adding a defender to the mix. Do not drill against pressure until you have become skilled without it.