Tony DiCicco's Tip of the Month May 2000

For May, Tony answers specific questions.


First let me say what a great job you did with the women's U.S. Soccer team. As soccer parents we sat and watched with excitement as your team won game after game. Good job!! My question is about substitutions. I'm a new coach and currently I have a group of U-15 yr. old boys enrolled in an indoor league. I'M having trouble knowing when to substitute. The proper, best or smartest time to send a player or hole group of players in and out. Currently I send a group (all) (5 on goal) out every 2 to 3 min.'s.

Thank you for your kind words concerning the success of the USA Women's National Soccer team last year during the Women's World Cup. They are truly a special group and I am very proud to be on the eteamz Board of Directors with Co-Captain Julie Foudy. The ability of coaches to make timely and appropriate substitutions is a key to a team's success. I am very proud of how I utilized super-sub Shannon MacMillan in the World Cup. Our winning goal against Germany was via a corner kick taken by Shannon as she entered the game. Her first touch was an assist to teammate Joy Fawcett who scored the winning goal. The indoor game is somewhat different. Because of the pace of the game and the physical demands (the game is played at full speed), substitutes are not only necessary but a key tactic of each game. The best way to substitute in the indoor game is to:

  1. Make changes every 90 seconds to 2 minutes max.
  2. Have a player to player change. In other words have one defender change with the other defender each shift. This eliminates confusion. If you have 3 defenders for the 2 spots on the field that create a rotation every minute so that no one is on the field for longer than 2 minutes.
  3. Substitute when in possession of the ball not when defending except possibly for the forwards recovering back to defensive positions.
  4. Substitute so that the player coming off the field goes to the door closest to their own goal and the player going on leaves from the door closest to the opponents goal. If done properly, some breakaways can occur.
  5. Impress on the entire team to stick to the quick shifts. If will make a big difference at the end of the game when everyone is fatigued.


I coach middle school soccer. My background is a father coach who has received my D license and hopefully my C this summer. I don't feel comfortable with my knowledge when and if I need to make strategy changes during the game. I feel very comfortable with my knowledge when teaching the kids tactics and techniques, its just game time. How do I get that knowledge? Congratulations on your season. I have a 10 year old who just loved to watch the ladies win.

First of all congratulations on achieving the 'D' license and good luck going for the 'C'. I think just learning from the licensing program will offer a lot as far as game tactics. Think of a game as a story in which you can write you own ending. Now of course this isn't always the case, but often it is and coaches can impact a game to that extent. Strategy involves pre-game, during game and even post-game. I think you are asking basically about during game strategy so let me concentrate on that. During the game, assess your team's match-ups. Is there anywhere on the field that one of your players dominate the opponent or is being dominated. If either exists make adjustments to exploit the match-up or to switch match-ups to neutralize a negative match-up. Assess what is working for your team. If flank play is working, then play to that style. If direct play is working than play to that style or if a possession game is keeping their attacking personalities from getting into the game then play possession. Many coaches don't watch the game long enough to evaluate these trends within a game. They are too busy, playing the game for their players by yelling on every touch. At some level, a good coach must detach him or herself from the game so to analyze it and really see what is going on. What type of defense is the opponent playing? What system are they playing? If you are playing with a 4 back defense and they are only playing 1 attacking player then it doesn't make sense to keep 4 defenders back. Rotate one into the midfield or at least encourage one or two to get forward and join into the attack when possible. Evaluate during the game what is working for the opponents. If there short passing game is tearing apart your midfield, then play a lower restraining line (the line of engagement from a defensive stand point. Like a half court defense versus and extended defense in basketball) and allow them possession in their own defensive third, and pick them up with a high pressure defense when they come forward out of their own defensive third. Obviously, these tactics have to be trained into your team. Finally, remember that it's usually small adjustments that make the big difference.

Formation choices

How should I decide on what formation to choose? We use the 4-4-2 but have lost lots of low scoring games, such as 2-1,1-0. So I was thinking of a change we play the offsides trap very well and seem to stay organized well but have a problem finishing on offense. Thank you for your time, anything you can suggest would be greatly appreciated. This is a question I am asked often. Do I choose my system based on my players? Do I choose my players based on my system? Do I choose my system based on our opponents? My answer is general so interpret it for your best use. I believe at the lower levels, you choose a system based on your players. If I have 2 dominate attacking players, then I would probably play 4-4-2 or 3-5-2. If I have only 1 dominate attacking player, I may choose to play a 4-5-1 and allow freedom of runs out of midfield which can be very difficult for defenses to pick up. If I have 3 excellent attacking players then a 3-4-3 or 4-3-3 may be best for our team. You can assess this throughout your team and identify where you are very strong and are also vulnerable. Last summer I wanted to allow Michelle Akers to play 90 minutes whenever possible. Yet, I understood the limitations of her Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Her best position was as a holding fielder. I also wanted to play with 3 forwards because of our personnel and because no one else in the world played it so whenever they played us, they had to make adjustments. The system that I settled on was a 4-3-3. At the higher levels many coaches including me choose players to fit a system and style of play. I would look for athletic players (speed was a key) that had a mentality to compete and also had soccer technical abilities and some tactical understanding. I say some, because I always felt I could teach tactics but couldn't easily impact athleticism or competing mentality. The 4-4-2 is a symmetrical system and therefore is an excellent teaching system. There are 2 defenders, 2 midfielders and 1 forward on each side. Therefore whatever you teach on one side is also imprinted on the other side. If you are having trouble scoring, evaluate the following:

  1. do you have the right personnel in attacking positions. Are they athletic, opportunistic, compliment each other, willing to take risks?
  2. are you getting enough players forward into the attack? In a 4-4-2, your flank midfielders should rotate into the forward attacking positions and your outside backs should rotate into the midfield. So even though your start in a 4-4-2, on attack it could look more like a 2-4-4 or 3-4-3.
  3. is there an attacking scheme that your players understand and play to. On the USA Women's team, we tried to beat teams down the flank (athletic speed) and then cut back crosses to a group of players sprinting into the penalty area. Obviously, it's more sophisticated than that, but you need to work through (not too long, it can be boring) some attacking patterns of play and imprint them into your teams mind. Hopefully this will translate to the game.

Set Positions for Young Players

I know your feelings on categorizing youngsters to a certain position but what about Cup Teams. In our area, 14 and under seem to be already stamped to a position. Good or Bad, your opinion please. Thanks a lot for your column. I'm a 55 year old father of an 11 year old and am an ass't coach on indoor team, in house team, and a travel team. Never played the game when I was young but totally enjoy watching these youngsters develop from 5 and up

This is a good question and one that I feel strongly about. At 11 years old or 12 or 14, players should be able to play different positions. Sure, they may have a strongest position, but to not teach players how to play other positions limits their potential for the future. Look at my World Championship team, Brandi Chastain was a forward on the '91 World Championship Team. She played the '96 Olympics and the '99 World Cup as a defender. What this means is she is a soccer player. Soccer players understand the game, can play and adjust to any position and therefore give themselves the best opportunity to fit into a team. In '96, we needed a defender and Brandi Chastain was ready and willing to play that position. She became a starter and an Olympic and World Cup Gold Medallist. Michelle Akers went from forward to holding midfielder. Christie Pearce went from forward to defender. Joy Fawcett played both outside back, center back and outside midfield and center midfield in the '99 World Cup. Coaches don't limit your young players to learning the game of soccer from all positions. Players, don't ever tell a coach you can't play there. Tell them, you feel most comfortable here, but am willing to learn and will play anywhere.

Set Plays

Do you have any recommended reading on set plays for offense? Seems the only items I've come across are x v y type discussions, and not a more definitive for facing a flat or split 4 defense, the following is recommended. When you say set plays, you are referring to dead ball situations like fouls around the penalty area or corner kicks etc. However, I am also reading plays like we would see in basketball (pass here, go set a pick, pop out if your defender follows the cutter etc.). If that is what you mean, that is a difficult thing to do in the flow of player for soccer. However, there are patterns of play and recognition of situations that soccer players need to be taught. Let me give you an example: If I am an outside back and I pass to my flank midfield and he has no pressure on him then I follow my pass and over lap him because the player defending him now has a 2v1 to deal with instead of a 1v1. From there if the defender moves even slightly with my overlapping run, my midfielder will take off with the ball right to goal. If the defender stays and prevents penetration of the ball, then the overlapping run is on to receive the pass. Obviously, this is an over simplification, but the game of soccer has patterns of play, of support, of runs and the more sophisticated the players are the more they all read the same thing and it looks like a organized play. This may sound like a plug (maybe it is), but I have just finished a 3 tape video instructional series with Brandi Chastain, Janusz Michallik, Jay Heaps, Lorrie Fair and Amanda Cromwell. This series will go over patterns of play and how to coach them. It will be out by summer so look for it or check back with me through my eteamz address. It also addresses how to play against a flat back four or a sweeper etc. I hope this helps and I wish you the best with your team.

Good luck to all. Thanks for writing tm me on

Tony DiCicco

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