Playing in the United States, Spain, and Serbia

Playing in 3 different countries has really expanded my mind and my abilities in the way I think about and play fútbol. I had no idea how different playing in each country would be. It’s been so fun but also a big challenge adapting to the new styles of play and culture in each place. However, this has only made me a better player and helped me understand the game from a different point of view.

In this post, I will be describing the differences and similarities in the style of play, training sessions, formations, and player characteristics of North American, Spanish, and Serbian fútbol. What I’ll be sharing is a generalization of the countries’ type of play from my point of view (Obviously, there are teams and players in each country that play differently from what I am describing). I hope y’all enjoy this post and learn something new!

College Soccer in America

Style of Play: College soccer in America is known to be very direct with players kicking it long or into space for attackers to run after it. Possession isn’t drilled into our brains and playing out of the back (passing with the keeper) isn’t common. It’s a very forward-thinking mentality. There is also a huge focus on the tactical side of soccer. The tactical side of soccer encompasses: the team’s objectives, organization, mental resilience, formation, and positioning. Therefore, focusing on the little details like following rebounds, immediately winning the ball back after losing it, positioning during set-pieces, defensive shape, and winning each 50/50 battle are instead ingrained in our brains. These details are what win games in college soccer, not teams who play the prettiest soccer. College games are intense physical battles and definitely not the best looking at times.

Example of the Long-Ball style of play at CSULA

Players: College soccer players are aimed to be very athletic, fast, strong, dynamic and fit. These qualities help shape them into the direct style of play and intense physical playing demands. Players in the United States also have a very strong mentality and attitude– like you’re going into war every time you step on the field.

Formations differ immensely throughout college soccer and there is not a most common formation that is used. For example, teams use a 4-4-2 (4 defenders, 4 midfielders, and 2 forwards) with a diamond, box, or straight line formation in the mid-field. There’s also the 3-5-2 (3 defenders, 5 midfielders, and 2 forwards) or the 4-3-3 (4 defenders, 3 midfielders, and 3 forwards) that are popular and also have many different positional variations.

Examples of different types of formations used

What I’ve come to realize after playing in Europe is that the college season in America is so dang short, only about 3 months. It is so hard to become a passing team in that short amount of time. In order to be a passing team, you have to build a certain type of chemistry on the field that can only be created with time. Time in which you do not have in a college season. I believe that’s one of the reasons why college soccer is so direct. In Europe however, the season is 10 months long. Therefore, there is plenty of time to transform the team into a passing team because you and your teammates have so much time to gel.

Training: Training in college is extremely demanding. Practices were 2-2.5 hours long, 5 days a week, in addition to weight lifting 2 days a week. In college, typical training sessions included a passing drill, a possession game, defensive and offensive shape, shooting/crosses, and free kicks/ set plays. We worked incessantly on how to move defensively as a unit and how to defend/attack our opposing team’s formation. Because each team’s formation is unique, we practiced each week how we would defend and attack the team we were playing that weekend. In addition, most days we would break into two groups–defense and offense to work on position-specific drills separately.

Physical fitness is also prioritized and many practices involved intense running/sprints. In addition, sprints are used as a form of punishment and discipline if practices were not good enough or to ensure players follow certain rules (ex: being on time, having the proper gear, etc).

Futbol in Spain

Style of Play: Fútbol in Spain is known for its “tiki-taka” style which entails quick passes and keeping possession. It’s pretty to watch and extremely fun the play when you get the hang of it. “Build up from the back” is a common practice used where you start possession from the goalkeeper and pass your way up the field through the defense, midfield, then forwards. Goal-keepers are required to be good with their feet and are involved in the passing in order to maintain possession. The goal in Spanish fútbol is to keep passing the ball from side to side until there is a break in the defense or an error in which you can create a goal-scoring opportunity. The technical side of fútbol is emphasized more than the tactical side (like in the United States). For example, developing individual skills like dribbling, passing, a good first touch, and proper shooting technique is the main priority. In addition, defending with a “high press” is also very popular in Spain. This requires each player to mark an opposing player very tightly in a 1v1. This is especially used while defending restarts and goal-kicks. This is very different from the American style of defending which usually focuses on defending the space instead of the player.

Example of my FC Malaga team playing the “tiki-taka” style

The most traditional formation in Spain is the 4-3-3 (4 defenders, 3 midfielders in a triangle formation, 2 wing attackers, and one central attacker). Many teams use this formation as it allows a lot of freedom and movement for passing spaces.

The 4-3-3 Formation

Players: They are extremely skilled and technical with the ball in Spain. Unlike players in America, intense physicality or fitness isn’t the main asset. Being smart and letting the ball do the work is how they play. They are very calm on the ball and move with this certain creative flow.

Spanish players also love to “flop” and be dramatic if they get hit or fouled. This was something the other American players and I had a hard time getting used to because we are so conditioned to be incredibly physical and not show signs of injury. We would get so annoyed every time a Spanish player fell to the ground screaming. It’s comical because, in the United States, we actually do the opposite of flopping. If you get fouled, many players do whatever they can to continue bulldozing through the play and stay on their feet instead of going down (which also isn’t the smartest move).

Training: our practices were 90 minutes long, 5 days a week, and focused on “rondos”, passing drills, different possession drill variations, shooting/crossing, and small-sided games. Passing, maintaining possession, 1 to 2 touches, and keeping the ball moving was the main focus of practices. These drills were played with high intensity and meant for us to get our conditioning in while playing. We hardly ever did sprints during practice and conditioning was never used as a means of punishment. We also did injury prevention-type weights 2 days a week in addition to our fútbol practices.

Futbol in Serbia

Style of Play: The Serbian style of fútbol is kinda like a combination of the American and Spanish styles. Passing, possession, and “playing out of the back” are encouraged, but also the forward mentality and long-ball play are also utilized. We want to keep possession, but also frequently hit long balls to the forwards. The typical formation is also a 4-3-3 like in Spain, and I actually don’t think any team in our league plays with another formation. In addition, in combination with the Spanish and United States styles, defending in Serbia uses both the “high pressing” and defending space methods.

Example of the Serbian style of play– passing with a forward mentality– with my ZFK Masinac Trace team

Players: Similar to Spanish players, Serbian players are also skilled with the ball. They are less interested in physicality and more interested in technicality. They aren’t the fastest or fittest, but they are quick and skilled enough to maneuver and body their way out of situations. Serbian players are also less theatrical than Spanish players when it comes to getting/drawing fouls, but definitely more dramatic than Northern Americans lol.

Serbian players have a very relaxed mentality when it comes to playing. They don’t have the same ‘fight till the death mentality’ American players have. They like to play for enjoyment. Another difference that was really noticeable to me when I first arrived was that Serbian players don’t communicate on the field as much as Spanish and North American players do. This was really frustrating and confusing to me at first because I perceived their lack of communication as that they did not care or want to receive the ball. I am constantly talking and giving directions on the field, so this was a shock. However, now I know that this is just a cultural difference.

Training: Training in Serbia is lighter than in America or Spain. We practice 90 minutes a day, 5 days a week, but do not have additional weight training or do much conditioning (this might be different among other teams). In training, we typically do speed and agility warm-ups, a passing drill, “rondos” and possession games, and position-specific preparations. Breaking into 2 groups– defense/offense and doing separate drills is popular in our everyday practice routine. We also work religiously on the passing movements going from the goalkeeper, through the defense and midfielders, and to the attackers.

I hope you fútbol nerds enjoyed learning more about what it’s like playing in these different countries! And to those who don’t have much fútbol knowledge, I hope the videos and pictures helped it make some sense haha. I’m also very excited to see what next season brings! Maybe I’ll be playing in a different country and can share the differences and similarities of what that place offers. Thanks everyone for reading, I really appreciate the support. Until next time!


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Adyson Willett

A professional soccer player and blogger from the United States.

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