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Play like the USA: Use the through ball

We took some inspiration from the USWNT’s win v. Colombia to draw up some ideas for how you can practice or coach through balls.

Colombia v USWNT Photo by Jeremy Reper/ISI Photos/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, we here at Stars & Stripes FC asked you guys in a Community Corner if you had some suggestions that you would like to see. One of the things the community was interested in was something about advancing one’s own game or getting some ideas for coaching someone else. That gave me an idea. What if I took clips of play from the United States national teams — essentially the highest level of play in the sport — and condensed it down into something that anyone could practice? That’s exactly what we are going to try and do today. I’ll show you a clip of some play, then turn it into a drill, and then show how you can use those skills in a 3 on 3 pick up game. If it works out, maybe we’ll come back and go over some different concepts.

For this first try, we will discuss the through ball. Through balls themselves are honestly pretty straightforward: a through ball is just a pass played in front of an onrushing teammate. If you can kick a ball, you can do a through ball. The difficult thing with through balls isn’t the act of doing it. The difficulty is in setting that pass up. If you and your team can’t create opportunities to play a through pass, you aren’t going to do it. And that’s a shame, because these passes can be really powerful. Take this clip from the WNT’s victory over Colombia.

That’s the game’s opening goal and it actually features two through balls. First, Lindsey Horan plays a through ball to Megan Rapinoe so that Rapinoe has space in behind the Colombian defense. Then, with the defenders scrambling, Rapinoe plays a square pass into the path of an onrushing Samantha Mewis, who then scores.

It’s a really good goal that comes from good play. And, the key bits of power and incisiveness come from the power of both through balls. There’s two parts to making a through ball work and both aspects work around anticipation. The passer needs to put the ball where they anticipate their teammate to go, while that teammate needs to anticipate the pass and make a run. If you miss one or the other, you either just waste energy or turn the ball over. But when it works...well, you can see how strong it is from the clip. The first through ball lets Rapinoe start moving early, using momentum to beat past the defender (something she wouldn’t be able to do on pure physicality anymore now that age and injury are taking their toll), while the second ball exploits the space that opens it up.

The Drill

Now, we are going to take that same kind of movement from the WNT and use it to make a drill to practice these exact skills. I’ve got three versions of the drill that focus down on the basic skills necessary to set up a through ball. These are designed to be as simple as possible. For the first drill, you only need 3 people (or at least 2 people + a cone to stand in for a defender). The other two versions each add a layer of complexity to really hone in on the basic ideas.

The drill starts with a player on the ball (P1) with a defender in front of them. The player passes to a teammate (P2) who is up the field, on the wing, and then P1 makes a run past the defender, up the middle. When P2 gets the ball, they immediately play it square into the path of P1. From there, P1 goes to goal.

The second version adds a little wrinkle, this time requiring that P2 start ~ level with P1 and run up the wing to where they receive the ball. The third version adds onto that again by adding another defender.

On the surface, this drill just looks like a simple give-and-go. And well, yeah, that’s what it is. But there’s also more to it. One of the key ways in modern soccer that players progress the ball is by moving it from inside, to the outside, and back inside. Like a zig-zag motion. By going outside-inside, it allows you to find an open player and then move the ball back into a threatening place in the middle. And once you can identify opportunities to go outside-inside, you can combine with other players to make it happen. The player who starts the play doesn’t have to be the one receiving the through ball at the end. Indeed, that’s what happened with the WNT, with Mewis finishing up the play instead of Horan.

Make it Useful

One thing I want to do in any of these pieces that I may do is try and put take the lessons from the drills and put them into a scenario where they can actually be used. And this lesson happens to be one that can be put straight into a 3 v. 3 pick-up game.

So we’ve got blue v. red again, with us still following a player on the blue team. This time, we’ve got just one version and we’ll be going step-by-step, breaking it down.

So, the scenario starts with a player (P1) on the ball and pretty far away from goal, their teammates up the field. The defending team has a good defensive shape, covering the goal and both of the advanced attacking players. From there, one of the defending players comes towards P1. The attacking player (P2) behind that defender goes out wide in order to get open. Before the defender can threaten the ball, P1 plays the ball out to P2 on the wing and runs up the middle. The third attacker (P3) realizes the play and decides to cover for their teammates, and the defender marking them follows. Now, P2 has the ball. The last defender realizes that this is dangerous, and shifts over to try and protect the goal and maybe recover the ball. But P2 plays a through ball in front of the onrushing P1 for an easy tap in.

As you can see, it’s basically just the drill all over again. But that just goes to show that, while this is a simple play, it can be very effective.

So there it is. That’s how you can play through balls like the USA. If you guys liked the drill or had some thoughts, please tell us about it in the comments below. If you actually try some of these out, I’d especially like to hear it! If you like the piece and want to see more of this sort of thing in the future, let us know.