April 20, 2007
Do we want Robinhos or Robots?

How over-coaching and the emphasis on winning stifle young American talent.

By Mike Woitalla, Soccer America Magazine

The little boy dribbled and kept dribbling. He had taken the ball away from the midfield pack and zoomed toward his own goal. This surprised the other children and allowed him to keep the ball to himself for much longer than any player had managed during this U-8 game.

Having put some 15 yards between himself and the other players, he slowed down and seemed to marvel at all the territory he now had to himself. He started making a wide U-turn and flashed a big smile.

He moved down the sideline and back into the other team's half, then put his foot on the ball and stopped. When a couple of his little opponents approached, he accelerated toward their goal and took a shot that nearly scored.

What creativity, improvisation and savvy! And in his smile was the joy of soccer.

So how did his coach react?

First with red-faced screams of ''You're going the wrong way! You're going the wrong way!'' Then furious shouts of ''Pass it! Pass it!'' -- a chant that several parents took up -- followed by head-shaking in frustration.

Of course, the coach was shouting instructions to all his players throughout the game. That's the norm in youth soccer, in which misguided coaches -- and the other adults on the sideline -- believe they're helping children become better soccer players by telling them where to run and when to pass.

But what really irked the coach about the clever boy's maneuver was it was risky. A misstep and he could have provided a scoring chance for the other team.

And, absurd as it is, there are adults -- lots and lots of them -- who place great importance on whether their 7-year-olds beat another team of youngsters.

Youth coaches who want to rack up wins discourage their players from taking risks, such as dribbling the ball out of the back, by ordering them to boot it up-field or out of bounds. ''Clear it!'' they shout.

''The emphasis on winning is a detriment to young players because it prevents us from developing technically proficient players,'' says U.S. U-17 national team coach John Hackworth. ''And we're not giving them the ability to make decisions. You can't find a youth soccer game where the coaches aren't screaming the whole time, telling kids what they should do and how they should do it.''

If players aren't allowed to make mistakes and take chances when they're exploring the sport -- if they're constantly being told what to do -- how can we expect them to develop the soccer instincts they'll need to make the split-second decisions that are so much a part of the game?

''They hear 'Clear it ... Get rid of it ... Pass it ... Kick it up line' so often that by the time they're 13 or 14, when they get the ball and they don't hear the instructions, they don't know what to do,'' says Tab Ramos, the great U.S. midfielder who is now a New Jersey youth coach.

Telling young players what to do with the ball, bossing them around to stay in certain positions on the field and taking strategic advantage of the bigger, stronger kids are ways of increasing a team's chances of winning.
But at what cost?

''If you want your 8-year-olds to win tomorrow, you're going to address that group differently than if you say, 'I want my 8-year-old to win when he's 18 years old,''' says Bob Jenkins, U.S. Soccer's Director of Coaching Education.

It's not just that the coaches are obsessed with winning -- there are the parents. A coach of a U-9 team told me that if his team compiled a 12-1 win-loss record, his parents would want to move their children to the team that went 13-0.

Ramos encourages his younger players, the 9- and 10-year-olds, not to kick the ball out of bounds when they're under pressure in their own half.

''We want him to find a way out of it,'' Ramos says. ''Half the time, he's not going to come out of it and very often he's going make a mistake that's going to cost a goal. But this is when players should be allowed to take the risk so they develop their skills.''

Too few coaches are willing to provide such learning experiences because they can lead to losses.
''A lot of parents are living through their children,'' Ramos says, ''and for them it becomes a matter of them beating the other coach because that's the guy who beat them three years ago when their older child played.''
Hackworth, who doesn't believe in assigning positions to players under age 10, proposes eliminating the ''ultra-competitive premier flight'' until at least U-12. And even then coaches should still resist becoming results oriented.

''We want competition,'' he says. ''They'll always be competition and it's not bad. The bad part is the emphasis on winning.''

That emphasis often results in coaches putting the physically advanced kids in particular spots. For example, a big guy in back who's instructed to boot the ball to the speedy guy up front. This denies smaller players opportunities to play significant roles while bigger players can rely on their athleticism instead of developing their skills.

Aime Jacquet, who coached France to the 1998 World Cup title and has also been in charge of France's renowned youth development program, said he investigates youth teams with winning records and if he discovers they won by relying on big players, he fires them.

If a coach isn't obsessed with results, he's more likely, when they're at the age level in which assigning positions is appropriate, to expose players to different roles. Keeping a player in the same position all the time won't help him adjust to new challenges when he moves to higher levels.

''Worrying too much about winning and losing gets in the way of development,'' says Manfred Schellscheidt, head of U.S. Soccer's U-14 program. ''There are always shortcuts that you can find to win the next game. That doesn't necessarily mean you'll be winning five, six years from now.

''The kids all try to win anyhow, so I don't think we need to add to this.

No kid ever steps on the field and says, 'Today I'm going to lose.' They're naturally competitive. We should be concerned about the players' performance, not the final score.''

Coaching soccer really isn't that complicated. When children first become involved in organized soccer, the coach's job is simply to create an environment that gives the children a chance to enjoy the sport. It's such a wonderful sport that setting up goals and letting them play usually does the trick.

It should also be an environment that allows them to be creative, to express themselves and to bring their own personalities to the sport.

No doubt, the USA has produced legions of good players. But how many great players have come out of our youth ranks?

How many excellent American dribblers are there? How many American players can dazzle fans? How many defenders do we have who can play their way out of trouble, who can consistently contribute to the attack? How many American players can dictate the rhythm of a game?

Far, far too few.

And one wonders how many players with the capacity to bring individual brilliance to the field have had that hammered out of them by their screaming coaches.

(This article originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of Soccer America.)

April 19, 2007
Money Ball

The rise of paid coaches is just one reason why it commonly costs an American child thousands of dollars a year.

By Mike Woitalla, Soccer America Magazine

There are a lot of ways to spend lots of money on youth soccer.

You can send your 3-year-old to soccer ''classes'' for $30 a session -- if they don't conflict with his Ring Around the Rosey and Duck Duck Goose lessons.

For $75 an hour, a coach with licenses from three different countries can teach your 8-year-old ''technical ball skills in a nurturing one-on-one environment'' at a park near your home.

Got a spare $180? Hire a ''fully qualified coach'' to come to your kid's soccer game and produce a thorough evaluation of her talent.

Parents can eschew such expenses and kick the ball around in the backyard with their children. But other costs are unavoidable for the parents of children involved in competitive youth soccer.

Elite soccer clubs charge as much as $2,000 just to cover coaches' salaries and the club's overhead costs. On top of that are uniform and travel costs, and league registration fees.

A typical annual expense for a 13-year-old playing for an ambitious travel team is about $3,500.

Depending on how intent the club is on traveling to showcase tournaments, on how far it gets in state and regional tournaments, and if the player is invited to participate in the Olympic Development Program, it's possible to spend $5,000 to $10,000 annually on a child's youth soccer experience.

When youth soccer was taking hold in the USA in the 1970s, one of its highly touted attributes was affordability. You can outfit an entire soccer team for the price of one football helmet, boasted the advocates of this wonderfully democratic sport.

But in the early 1980s, youth soccer went pro. That is, clubs in youth soccer hotbeds around the nation began paying coaches to run clubs and train teams.

Derek Armstrong, the Coaching Director of the Nomads in La Jolla, Calif., figures he was the first paid youth coach, having been recruited from England in 1981 at an annual salary of $17,000 ($38,000 in 2006 dollars).

The club's founder, real-estate developer Joe Hollow, paid Armstrong to turn the upstart Nomads, who had depended on parent coaches, into a fully staffed, multi-team organization. By 1985, all Nomads coaches were paid.

Other clubs around the nation followed suit, especially in Dallas, which became a magnet for former professional players -- often major foreign stars who had played in the NASL.

By the mid-1990s, Dallas-area select clubs employed more than 100 coaches, a number that may have doubled in the last decade with the rise of girls soccer.

Last year, the Dallas Morning News reported the salaries of the area's highest paid youth coaches. It listed 12 who earned more than $60,000 annually.

Sam Snow, U.S. Youth Soccer's Director of Coaching, estimates that about 10 to 15 percent of the approximately 300,000 youth coaches affiliated with USYS are paid for their services.

''The beautiful game has been commercialized,'' says Manny Schellscheidt, head of U.S. Soccer's U-14 program. ''It's pay for play.''

THE PERILS OF PRO COACHES? When Schellscheidt coached the Union Lancers to McGuire Cup (U-19) national titles in 1987 and 1988, he noticed he was among the last of the volunteer coaches at the elite youth level.

''Children's playtime for enjoyment has been turned into to paid-for, organized labor camp,'' says Schellscheidt. ''In labor camp, children's imagination and ingenuity and self-expression are not required nor welcomed.
Instead, drills, instructions and lectures fill the agenda.''

He accuses ''self-proclaimed experts of selling false hopes and dreams and expectations'' to kids and their parents.

''Paying $5,000 to $10,000 to play youth soccer, that's not good,'' says Schellscheidt.

But Schellscheidt concedes that there are paid coaches who do ''a wonderful job with kids.'' He says that many coaches wouldn't be able to dedicate their time to youth soccer without compensation. While coaching the Union Lancers, his job at a tool and die factory enabled him to coach as a volunteer.

''The young guys who want to coach youth soccer can't make ends meet unless they are subsidized,'' he says.

But with parents paying serious money for their children's soccer come expectations that may not be in the best interests of the players' development, especially when they believe scorelines are the overriding indicators of good coaching.

''There's no greater issue facing anybody than that issue,'' says former U.S. Olympic national team player Don Ebert, who has been the Irvine (Calif.) Strikers' director of coaching for 14 years. ''We have made a concerted effort to educate our parents. We have moved to a development first-and-foremost format in our club.''

Doing so comes at the risk of losing players to other teams with better records. And losing players means losing income.

The competitive structure only makes it more challenging to convince parents to focus on development over scores.

''With my 17s, we start emphasizing the importance of trying to win,'' says Ebert. ''But we have State Cup in this stupid state for U-10s. We have a U-9 State Cup!''

The Dallas Classic League uses a promotion-relegation system for its eight age groups, beginning at U-11.

''The expectations and high pressure start at U-11,'' says Horst Bertl, coaching director of the Dallas Comets. ''If you say let's play nicely and not worry about winning, and you end up in the third division, the talent you have on the team will probably get recruited away.''

Recruiting -- or player poaching -- is a major issue that also drives the excessive travel of many clubs. Several coaches who believe their kids play too many games admit they go to some tournaments mainly because if they didn't, they'd lose players to the clubs that do go, because the other teams invite them as guest players or because parents believe they'll miss a chance to be spotted by a college scout.

YOUR MONEY'S WORTH? There's no denying that many paid coaches work hard for their pay. Bertl coaches four of his club's teams, each of which practice twice a week.

His U-17s alone may play more than 30 games a year, including trips to tournaments in California and Florida.

He takes teams abroad, to places such as Germany, Argentina and Costa Rica.

''When I have a team that pretty much stays together for eight years,'' he says, ''their parents become a tight knit group, the players develop strong camaraderie -- they don't leave no matter how much other clubs recruit them
-- and when they 'graduate,' they say, 'What a ride. What a great eight years.'''

Bertl keeps track of their school grades and arranges college counseling sessions for the club's players.

''A vacuum was filled,'' Armstrong says about the emergence of elite youth clubs and pro coaches in the USA. ''In other countries professional clubs handle the development of kids.''

But when pro clubs run youth teams, the players are spared exorbitant fees and the coaches are judged by how many top-level players they produce, not the scorelines.

Some clubs do offer scholarships to talented players who can't pay the fees. If they help the team win, kids who can pay will flock to the club. But for every child who can't afford the fees, money must be raised to pay for the coaches, the facilities, travel, etc.

Shortly after joining the Nomads, Armstrong became a part-time college coach -- he's won national titles at UC San Diego -- so that he wouldn't have to depend too much on his Nomads' salary, because he wanted to keep players'
fees down.

The Nomads, who employ 15 coaches at about $30,000 a year, charge annual fees of $1,200 -- among the lowest for elite clubs. They raise money by hosting tournaments and spend at least $100,000 on scholarships, which they call work programs because recipients work at the tournament or on chores such as field maintenance. An array of fund-raising projects help pay for travel.

''Half our kids can't pay,'' says Armstrong. ''We've tried very hard not to be registration fee-based.''

The median household income, before taxes, in the USA is $51,000 for non-Hispanic whites, $36,000 for Hispanics and $31,000 for blacks. Those figures indicate that large sectors of the American population cannot afford elite club soccer for their children.

As the American youth soccer system is now, those children's hopes of aiming for the highest levels are at the mercy of coaches who believe they should be welcomed.

(This article originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)

April 18, 2007
The African Connection

The increase in immigration from Africa has created a burgeoning source of talent for the U.S. youth national team program.

By Mike Woitalla, Soccer America Magazine

About two million people fled Sierra Leone during the decade-long civil war that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and destroyed two-thirds of the nation's infrastructure. One of the refugees was an 11-year-old boy named Israel Sesay.

Sesay moved to Washington, D.C., to join his father, who had left the West African country when Israel was 6 months old. The father, working several jobs, had little time for Israel, who eagerly awaited the arrival of his mother.

But shortly before her scheduled departure, she died of a heart attack.

The little enjoyment that Israel found in the crime-ridden neighborhood that was his new home came by playing pickup soccer in a parking lot. There he was spotted by an acquaintance of Festus George, a Maryland youth coach.

George, who himself left Sierra Leone, in 1990, welcomed Israel into his team and into his home. When his wife, Sarah Motley, learned that a friend of Israel's had been gunned down in front of his apartment building in D.C., she decided he wouldn't go back.

''When I found out his living situation in D.C., I told Festus that under no circumstances would he live like that anymore,'' says Motley.

With Israel's father's consent, George and Motley adopted ''Izzy.''

''All the atrocities that he's been through and that he's seen,'' says George, referring to the civil war that was recently depicted in the movie ''Blood Diamond.'' ''He's been through a lot. He's been through hell.''

George says Izzy was somber and quiet. But he studied hard and excelled on the field -- so much so that in the middle of 2006 he joined the U.S. U-17 national team residency program in Bradenton, Fla.

Sesay is one of nine players in the 40-player program who are African immigrants or sons of African immigrants.

They aren't the first in the program. The most famous, of course, was Freddy Adu.

Adu came to America from Ghana through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery Program, which issues 50,000 green cards annually through a lottery for which about 10 million people apply.

That program is one reason why emigration from Africa to the USA has increased dramatically.

Only about 100,000 Africans immigrated to the USA from 1961 through 1980, but nearly 900,000 have arrived since 1981. According to the Center for African Refugees & Immigrants, more than 175,000 were refugees.

The U.S. national team program has also increased its efforts to uncover players from immigrant communities.

''We've really tried to go outside of the normal lines evaluating players,'' says U-17 head coach John Hackworth, who is preparing the squad for the U-17 World Cup qualifying tournament in April. ''We are looking much harder. There's no question that there is a significant talent pool in this country, both in Hispanic community and in the African-American community. Those two demographics are areas that we feel we needed to do a better job scouting.''

Hackworth points out the players who spent their early years in other countries often have exceptional ball skills because they played endless, unorganized soccer.

''There's no secret to that,'' says Hackworth. ''That's how you become a good soccer player.

''Whether it was Freddy Adu or Alex Nimo or Abdus Ibrahim -- all these guys -- they kicked anything they could. They played anytime they could and that ball was the one thing in their whole world that was their prize possession.''

In fact, most the African players never put on a uniform until they joined an American youth team. Adu never even played with shoes on until he joined a Maryland youth club.

''The first time I put on a pair of cleats they felt so funny and uncomfortable I took them off after a few minutes and played barefoot again,'' said Adu.

The closest Alex Nimo ever came to wearing a uniform was when he used chalk to write the No. 9 -- for Ronaldo -- on the back of a T-shirt he wore when he played, often with kids twice his age, on the dirt streets of the Buduburan refugee camp in Ghana.

Nimo, who arrived in Bradenton early this year, was born in Liberia just months after its bloody civil war broke out in 1989. While he was still an infant, his family arrived at Buduburan, where 50,000 Liberians lived behind walls that were guarded by tanks.

After eight years, the Nimo family was granted political asylum and landed in Portland, Ore. Alex joined FC Portland, to whose practices he would get by taking three buses to meet his coach for a ride.

Ethiopian-born Abdus Ibrahim, whom FC Dallas picked in the 2007 MLS SuperDraft, first experienced organized soccer at age 11 when he arrived in Minnesota, where his father and older brother had moved years earlier.

Four years ago, Charles Renken moved from Zambia to Southern Illinois, where he and his two brothers were adopted by Seth and Pam Renken. Renken joined Scott Gallagher SC and is now, at 13, the youngest player in Bradenton.

''Their comfort level on the ball is probably the thing that separates them the most,'' Hackworth says of the players from Africa. ''And the same can be said for a lot of our Hispanic players. They've just grown up playing %96 this love affair between a kid and the ball. When they're very young is the most important time for that love affair to take place.

''The range of a pass, the finesse, but just in terms of being comfortable with the soccer ball and being able to play without thinking about taking their first touch, because they know where their first touch is going.''

Kofi Sarkodie and Amobi Okugo were born in the USA to parents from Ghana and Nigeria, respectively.

Gale Agbossoumonde was born in Togo but spent most of his early years in a Benin refugee camp, where one of the few diversions for youngsters was soccer. He and his brothers came to New York through the Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement program.

Christian Ibeagha was born in Nigeria and settled in Oklahoma. Axel Levry fled Ivory Coast, where civil unrest has displaced about 750,000 people in recent years, and settled in Maryland.

U.S. U-17 assistant coach Tim Mulqueen works closely with immigration lawyers to help get citizenship for the foreign-born players the program identifies. He says they've identified about 30 players, about half from Africa and half from Latin America, who have the potential to play for the U-17s but aren't eligible yet.

By creating a roster of players from diverse backgrounds, the U.S. program is replicating some of the world's greatest teams, which field combinations of European, Latin and African players.

''We've got a variety of players who bring different personalities and different technical ability, and that really helps our team,'' Mulqueen says. ''It's a nice balance and nice mixture coming together, and they all provide something different to the team.''

Says Hackworth, ''They have these different backgrounds, but the one thing that unites them is the game, and they rally around that.''

He adds that the immigrant players' humble, appreciative and hard-working approach is a positive influence on their teammates.

''Axel Levry tells me thank you every day,'' says Hackworth. ''I actually tell him, 'You can't tell me thank you anymore.'

''And then he'll say, 'OK, coach. Thank you. Thank you so much.'''

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

April 17, 2007
Where Are America's Black Coaches?

By Mike Woitalla (From the April 2007 issue of Soccer America Magazine)

LEADERS OF THE NSCAA Black Soccer Coaches Committee hail the increase of black players in mainstream American soccer -- but now await an increase in opportunities for black coaches. Hylton Dayes, the chairman of the BSCC, is the head coach of the University of Cincinnati and a Region II ODP coach.

''I got here in 1982,'' says the Jamaica-born Dayes, ''and I think the African-American, or player of color involvement, has increased ten-fold.''

Forty percent of the 40 players in the U.S. U-17 residency camp in Bradenton are black, including nine from the African immigrant community.

''You look at the percentage of those at Bradenton,'' Dayes says, ''the percentage playing college soccer, the percentage playing in really good club teams, and it's definitely worth noting.''

Besides Caribbean and African immigrants' affinity for the game, organizations like Soccer in the Streets, America Scores and Starfinder have helped spread soccer in the inner cities, says Dayes.

BSCC senior advisor Lorne Donaldson, a former APSL head coach and now director of coaching of the youth club Real Colorado, says youth clubs have made greater efforts to discover talent and scholarship players who can't afford the fees.

''It's so competitive now, the youth clubs are so highly structured and it's such a business now, they're trying hard to find players who can help them win,'' Donaldson says. ''And most of the top clubs are not in the hood, so they even help the players with transportation.''

Donaldson commends the U.S. U-17 coaches who are identifying talent and says that the quality of American coaches has risen to a point where they can overcome the skepticism of African and Caribbean fathers who in the past wouldn't trust their sons with American coaches.

However, Dayes and Donaldson lament the lack of black coaches in the U.S. national team program and in MLS. Not a single black coach has been among MLS's 59 head-coach hirings in 12 years.

Dayes said the BSCC has worked to educate coaches, encouraging them get their licenses, network, and put themselves in a position to get an opportunity -- but frustration is building.

''Look at how many ex-professional players we have in this country of color,'' Dayes says. ''We're talking about qualified coaches who deserve a chance.''

Donaldson says, ''I don't think it's intentional. But I think it's in the subconscious. Year after year we sit around wondering when someone is going to get hired. We've gotten to the point where we believe we have to at least start saying something.''


''Too often in this country, youth coaches sacrifice learning skills for winning games. Often coaches won't let players take chances by passing the ball around a lot. The quicker you get the ball forward, the less likely it is that it will be stolen and lead to a quick counterattack. While valid, this shortsighted philosophy can be counterproductive to developing athletes who can play the game with the same grace, skill, and power that has come to typify the U.S. women's national team.''

-- Mia Hamm ("Go For the Goal: A Champion's Guide To Winning In Soccer And Life")

April 03, 2007
MLS YOUTH INITIATIVE: Innovation or Replication?

The USA, with its ever-changing demographics, is too big and too diverse to believe the current system can uncover all the soccer talent. ...

So does MLS's Youth Development Initiative signal the great new era of American soccer?

Read Mike Woitalla's Soccer America Magazine article HERE!