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March 29, 2007
Youth Soccer Turf War

By Mike Woitalla

Do players benefit when an increasing number of organizations compete for a piece of the American youth soccer pie?

''National youth championships in the USA are the most ludicrous thing I've ever heard in my life,'' says Horst Bertl, the Dallas Comets longtime director of coaching. ''Whoever thinks these up should be stoned.''

That would take a lot of rocks, as recent years have seen a flood of new competitions promising national crowns to children. Youngsters still in elementary school can now aim for national titles.

The granddaddy of the national championships is US Youth Soccer's McGuire Cup, crowning U-19 boys teams since 1935.

By 2001, USYS had national championships for six age groups for both boys and girls, from U-14 to U-19, the path to which comes through 55 state and four regional cup competitions.

US Club Soccer has the National Cup for U-12 to U-17 players, in addition to the Champions Cup promising the title of the ''best boys or girls club in the United States,'' and a regional Youth World Series from U-8 to U-13.

The Super Y-League has its 10 North American Finals, from U-13 to U-17.

There's the recently launched U-17 Red Bull National League. And now USYS, which also has a national championship for ODP teams, plans to launch a national youth league.

Why would USYS create yet another? Youth clubs already have plenty on their schedule, including showcase tournaments, not to mention old-fashioned league play in their community.

Larry Monaco, the USYS president, attributes the decision to ''listening to the marketplace.''

''More and more elite teams are saying we need another avenue for better competition and more competition,'' he says. ''We think we can provide a better product, and, to be quite frank, we have the national structure in place. We think we can provide a better, more consistent product.''

Bertl objects to national competition for fear of player burnout from extensive travel -- it's a huge country! -- and too many games. Including high school soccer, his boys play as many as 70 games per year. Some elite players who make national teams play up to a 100.

And in a youth hotbed like North Texas, Bertl says teams already play in a satisfactorily competitive environment. What players need is rest.

''These boys are still growing,'' he says. ''They need some time to be kids.''

Bob Jenkins, U.S. Soccer Director of Youth Development, advocates playing 30 quality games a year as opposed to 70, and playing more locally rather than traveling all over the place.

Jenkins says youth club coaches often agree, but ...

''The structure isn't set up for that,'' he says. ''It's much more set up to win and keep your job, rather than develop players.''

If they're not out trophy-collecting, the paid club coaches fear they'll disappoint parents and lose players to rivals.

''If you take almost anyone of the initiatives out there, whether it's a tournament, or it's a league, an ODP, whatever it is, as a stand-alone event, it makes perfect sense,'' Jenkins says. ''It's when you start putting one on top of another, or one next to another and another and another -- it becomes a real issue for me.''

When Bob Gansler was the U.S. U-20 coach, he said the USA was ''suffering from a huge case of tournamentitis,'' and cited a need for quality over quantity.

Nearly two decades later, Gansler, who has been U.S. World Cup coach, U.S. Soccer technical director and an MLS coach, remains convinced that increasing the number tournaments ''makes no sense.''

''Good players need good competition,'' he says. ''And, of course, you need some tournaments, but not the prevalence you have today, especially if they're set up for the wrong reasons û because they're cash cows.''

Mistrusting the impetus for launching tournaments is why Dallas Texans coach Hassan Nazari welcomes USYS's plans to create a national league.

''What makes a USYS tournament unique, is it isn't sponsored by any club,'' he says. ''There is no conflict of interest. And USYS has very good experience because it does the regional championship and they do the national championship, and you really don't question their motives.''

Others, however, believe USYS's motivation stems from a desire to prevent other organizations from entering what it considers to be its turf.

''They're continuing to attack everyone who's not USYS,'' says Gary Sparks, the Premier Competition chairperson of Southern California's Coast Soccer League, which has 1,900 teams, more than 180 clubs and more than 30,000 players.

When CSL affiliated with US Club Soccer and the Super Y-League, Sparks says USYS's Cal South tried to create a league to lure clubs away from CSL, even though CSL is also USYS affiliated.

''I don't know why they react like that,'' Sparks says. ''Maybe they don't understand it, and think our clubs are going to abandon USYS.''

CSL uses USYS to run its leagues within Cal South, for its national state cup tournaments, to give players access to USYS ODP, and Cal South offers coaching clinics.

US Club Soccer provides a convenient roster and registration system for clubs traveling to out-of-state tournaments. Super Y-League affiliation allows clubs to compete in its regional tournaments in a quest to reach its national championship, while the CSL Premier League doubles as qualifying play for the Super Y-League North American Finals.

Also, CSL players are eligible for the Super Y-League's ODP and US Club Soccer's id2 -- two programs that can lead to national team program selection.

''We like to offer our members all we can possibly offer them,'' Sparks says. ''It serves a great purpose to belong to all three because our members benefit from every single option open to young players in the United States.''

That US Club Soccer and the Super Y-League created alternatives to USYS ODP has been seen as a threat by some USYS leaders.

''I think there probably is a turf war, fortunately or unfortunately,'' Monaco says. ''Clearly there is competition, like in any marketplace. We just have to put out a better product. I hate to say it's like any business, but it is and we just have to learn to compete.''

US Club Soccer and the Super Y-League tout the advantages of their identification programs -- lower costs to players and less reliance on tryouts compared to USYS ODP.

''We feel by merit that we have a great national youth league, we have a tremendous national network of highly qualified technical directors and coaches involved with us to help the national teams [identify players],'' says Matt Weibe, managing director of the Super Y-League.

He believes USYS should be more concerned with serving its recreational constituency than competing with his organization, which focuses on the competitive clubs.

''USYS has served a great purpose for the game in the country for the last quarter century,'' Weibe says. ''They have brought the grassroots numbers up to 3 million. But their focus over the last seven years has been on less than one half of one percent of their membership [the elite players].

''Instead of worrying about elite-level players, and going out and formulating competing leagues to what we're doing, and spending 99 percent of their time on that, they should be focusing on how to get 3 million recreational players to 6 million recreational players.''

US Club Soccer, which sanctions leagues and tournaments including the Super Y-League, has a similar take on USYS and the state organizations under its umbrella û that by having to serve its recreational teams it can't provide optimal service to elite clubs.

''Now there's competition in the youth market,'' says Chris Baer, US Club Soccer's Midwest Representative. ''Previously as a competitive club you had one point of access in terms of your programming. What it gives now is an alternative and choices. Self-determination. More freedom.''

But US Club Soccer is also in the lucrative tournament business, creating more choices for clubs on where to direct their players' money. The more teams they entice, the more income.

As a result, clubs face an array of choices on where to send their teams - and to whom the checks will be written.

For Sparks, he believes his coaches won't see much merit in jumping aboard the new USYS national league. His clubs already have access to good competition. In other parts of the nation, clubs may welcome the new league.

For sure, American youth soccer now requires coaches to sift through myriad options and decide what's best for their players.

''I was fine when there was just USYS,'' says Biff Sturla, who coaches teams for Pennsylvania's Lower Merion SC and FC Delco. ''And it's fine that there are a lot of choices now. But it changes yearly and you have to do a lot more homework.

''We sit down before the season and assess all our options. Call other clubs and find out what they're doing. Then we decide where to send which teams. It is a turf war, but eventually the clubs figure out what's right for them. And when they get on the field, the kids don't know who's running the competition.''

(This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)















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