August 27, 2007
Is an elite team right for your child?

Soccer America's "Youth Insider" features an excerpt from Regan McMahon's excellent book, "Revolution in the Bleachers: How Parents Can Take Back Family in a World Gone Crazy Over Youth Sports."

Click HERE to read "Is an elite team right for your child?"

August 23, 2007
Ignored by USA; welcomed in Mexico

Edgar Castillo, who was born and raised in the USA, debuted for the Mexican national team on Aug. 22. The 20-year-old explained why he chose to represent his ancestral country rather than the USA: "I have dual citizenship. I am a Mexican-American. And I decided to play for Mexico because the other side never called me."

When Edgar was a young teen growing up in Las Cruces, N.M., his Strikers FC coach Linda Lara scraped up money to send him to ODP tryouts. She said the response she heard from ODP coaches was, "He's so small. He's so small."

But Castillo, now 5-foot-9, tried out for Mexican First Division club Santos Laguna in 2005 and has been a starter since January of 2007. Still, he received no contact from the U.S. national team program.

The U.S. national team fields players who are subs on their European clubs or see no league action at all. Yet its coaches don't even show interest in a Mexican First Division starter.

That just doesn't make sense.

(I wrote about Castillo and other Mexican-Americans heading south in the May issue of Soccer America: Young U.S. Talent Heads South).

August 22, 2007
The Game is the Best Coach Dept.

"I am grateful to my father for all the coaching that he did not give me."

-- Ferenc Puskas, legendary Hungary and Real Madrid forward.

August 21, 2007
The U.S. Soccer Development Academy's 64 clubs

The U.S. Soccer Federation has integrated the country's top youth clubs into the national team program. It's the Federation's first step in trying to take advantage of the strengths of American youth soccer while tackling its flaws.

Sixty-four clubs are fielding teams in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy U-16 and U-18 boys leagues, which kick off in October. After an eight-month season, winners of each conference meet in the Academy Finals at The Home Depot Center.

Northeast Conference
Club (State) Director of Coaching

Oakwood SC (Conn.) David Farrell
South Central Premier (Conn.) Bob Dikranian
Greater Boston Bolts (Mass.) John Kerr Jr.
Seacoast United (N.H.) Karl Edmonds
Albertson SC (N.Y.) Paul Riley
Blau Weiss Gottschee (N.Y.) Ben Boehm
FC Westchester (N.Y.) Sean Kenny
Met Oval (N.Y.) Giuseppe Balsamo

Mid-Atlantic Conference
Club (State) Director of Coaching

DC United (D.C.) John Maessner
Baltimore Bays (Md.) Steve Nichols
Potomac Soccer (Md.) Dave Kelley
Match Fit Academy (N.J.) Malcolm Murphy
New York Red Bulls (N.J.) Bob Montgomery
PDA (N.J.) Gerry McKeown
FC Delco (Pa.) Alan Mezger
PA Classics (Pa.) Steve Klein

Atlantic Conference
Club (State) Director of Coaching

CASL (N.C.) Jay Howell
South Charlotte SA (N.C.) Brad Wylde
Bridge FA (S.C.) Clark Brisson
Greensboro Youth SC (S.C.) Steve Allison
North Meck SC (N.C.) Bryan Thorp
Richmond Kickers (Va.) Leigh Cowlishaw
Richmond Strikers (Va.) Carlos Martinoli
VA Rush SC (Va.) Dave Dengerink

Southeast Conference
Club (State) Director of Coaching

Birmingham United (Ala.) Eric Dade
Clearwater Chargers (Fla.) Peter Mannino
IMG SA (Fla.) Tom Durkin
Kendall Soccer Coalition (Fla.) Victor Pastora
Schulz Academy (Fla.) Josef Schulz
AFC Lightning (Ga.) Bob Moullin
Atlanta Fire United (Ga.) Massoud Roushandel
Concorde Fire (Ga.) Gregg Blasingame

Great Lakes Conference
Club (State) Director of Coaching

Carmel United (Ind.) Russell Gee
Michigan Wolves (Mich.) Brian Doyle
Vardar (Mich.) Morris Lupenec
Empire United (N.Y.) Chris Apple
Cleveland Alliance (Ohio) Ali Kazemaini
Columbus Crew (Ohio) Sigi Schmid
Internationals SC (Ohio) George & Louis Nanchoff
Ohio Elite (Ohio) Tim Lesiak

Mid-America Conference
Club (State) Director of Coaching

U.S. national team (Fla.) John Hackworth
Chicago Fire (Ill.) Louis S. Mateus
Chicago Magic (Ill.) Mike Matkovich
Metro United (Ill.) Dale Schilly
Sockers FC Chicago (Ill.) David Richardson
Scott Gallagher (Mo.) Kevin Kalish
Solar SC (Texas) Kevin Smith
FC Milwaukee (Wisc.) Peter Knezic

SoCal Conference
Club (State) Director of Coaching

Arsenal SC (Calif.) PJ Brown
Chivas USA (Calif.) Dennis te Kloese
Irvine Strikers (Calif.) Don Ebert
L.A. Galaxy (Calif.) Trevor James
Nomads SC (Calif.) Derek Armstrong
Pateadores SC (Calif.) Mike Gartlan
Real So Cal (Calif.) Marwan Ass'ad
San Diego Surf (Calif.) Colin Chesters

West Conference
Club (State) Director of Coaching

Colorado Rapids (Colo.) John Murphy
Colorado Rush (Colo.) Tim Schulz
Real Colorado (Colo.) Lorne Donaldson
FC Portland (Ore.) Steve Elliott
De Anza Force (Calif.) Jeff Baicher
Mustang FC (Calif.) John Doyle
Crossfire Premier SC (Wash.) Bernie James
Washington Premier (Wash.) Reece Olney

August 20, 2007
Future stars at U-17 World Cup

The U-17 World Cup is underway in South Korea. American stars such as Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley made their first appearance on the world stage at the biennial tournament. This year's U-17 World Cup started poorly for the Americans, who fell, 4-3, to Tajikistan. Click HERE for video of game highlights.

ESPNU and Spanish-language Galavision are televising the U-17 World Cup games, which are also available on ESPN360.com.

Click HERE for the offical Web site of the 2007 U-17 World Cup.

August 19, 2007
BOOK REVIEW: 'Revolution in the Bleachers'

By Mike Woitalla (Soccer America Magazine)

"Come on," yells the parent to the child, "you're gonna be late for unscheduled time." That's from an anecdote in Regan McMahon's book, "Revolution in the Bleachers: How Parents Can Take Back Family Life in a World Gone Crazy Over Youth Sports."

So structured have our children's lives become, parents have begun scheduling unscheduled time! McMahon cites a study indicating that, since 1981, American children’s unstructured outdoor activities have decreased by 50 percent. Their playtime has dropped by three hours per week. Also, since the late 1990s, American schools have made drastic cuts in recess and P.E. classes.

What is on the increase, dramatically, is participation in organized sports, particularly soccer, which emerged as a convenient substitute for P.E. and for the unsupervised neighborhood play that American parents believe is no longer a safe option. But then “parents and kids began to see soccer not just as weekend fun but also a ticket to a college scholarship or even a career path. Consequently, the excitement over soccer went from passionate to frenzied.”

Along came the explosion of elite clubs and the proliferation of competitive tournaments. Children are joining travel teams and specializing in a single sport at younger and younger ages.

"We all know the many benefits of youth sports," writes McMahon. "But as youth sports have escalated in intensity, competitiveness, time commitment and parent involvement, certain risks are beginning to surface as well, from overuse injuries, stress and depression to inappropriate sideline behavior and fractured family patterns."

McMahon asks and investigates the key questions, such as: What drives the proliferation of tournament play? Are children being asked to play year-round because professional coaches rely on year-round play to make a living? Are parents driving the craziness?

For sure, any parent attempting to navigate the organized sports landscape will find of great use the guide that McMahon has created to "bring balance back into their kids’ lives and reclaim family life apart from the kids' team activities."

(The article first appeared in the July issue of Soccer America Magazine).

August 17, 2007
Best Practices

By Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America Magazine's Youth Insider)

What's really important about the U.S. Soccer Federation's ambitious move into youth soccer isn't just the U-16 and U-18 boys leagues of its new U.S. Soccer Development Academy.

For sure, taming the wild west of youth soccer that overburdens elite teen-age players is a crucial part of steering player development in a better direction. And expanding the player identification process by incorporating the nation's elite clubs into the national team program should decrease the chances of missing young talent.

But what will make the most profound impact is whether U.S. Soccer succeeds in its stated goal to change the approach to how the nation's very young players are coached. The Academy launch, stress its architects, is only the first step in their quest to change the youth soccer culture in the USA.

Specifically, U.S. Soccer aims to have youth coaches adopt the Federation's Best Practices Player Development Guidelines.

A year and a half ago, under Director of Coaching Education Bob Jenkins, the Federation published "Player Development Guidelines: Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States."

The booklet was created by the Federation's coaching education staff and men's and women's U.S. national team coaches. Unlike so much of the pseudo-scientific coaching literature that has turned youth soccer into an adult-dominated environment, "Best Practices" is plain common sense. It is a welcome response to the overemphasis on the coach's role as a "teacher," as an "instructor."

The inclination to constantly "correct" young players as they explore the sport may be driven by good intentions, but it neglects the important difference between learning and being taught.

"Young players should be allowed the opportunity to experiment, and with that, succeed and fail," says U.S. Soccer. "A coach's long-term goal is to prepare a player to successfully recognize and solve the challenges of a game on his or her own."

"Best Practices" helps youth coaches understand the different developmental stages of young soccer players.

The youth coach's role at the younger ages is simply to create an environment that gives children the opportunity to discover the joys of the game. Some children will decide the sport is so much fun, they'll start dedicating themselves to it so fervently that they will become exceptional players.

Unlike so many coaching guides that preceded it, "Best Practices" does not make youth coaching seem like a daunting task. Too often, coaching instruction has encouraged coaches to expect too much, too soon from young players.

The guide explains convincingly why an adult-dominated environment is not conducive to developing great players.

Here are a few excerpts from the "Best Practices" Guidelines on coaching younger players:

* A primary focus for the coach at the youth level, through the U-12 age group, is to provide an environment that comes close to simulating the "pickup" games of our youth.

* Coaches should think of themselves more as facilitators, monitors, guides or even participants.

* Coaches can often be more helpful to a young player's development by organizing less, saying less and allowing players to do more.

* Set up a game and let the kids play.

* Encourage the dribbler at the younger ages.

* At the younger ages (6 to about 10), soccer is not a team sport. On the contrary, it is a time for children to develop their individual relationships with the ball.

* Do not demand that the more confident players share the ball. Encourage them to be creative and go to goal.

* Coaches should avoid the impulse to "coach" their players from "play to play" in order to help them win the match. Coaches should not be telling their young players to "pass rather than dribble," to "hold their positions" or to "never" do something (like pass or dribble in front of the goal).

* The game is the best teacher for young players.

To download a copy of "Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States" for free, or for information on ordering printed copies for $15, click HERE.

Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches U-10 soccer in Oakland, Calif. He is co-author of Claudio Reyna's book, More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition.

August 16, 2007
Taming the Wild West

Creating the U.S. Soccer Development Academy is the USSF's first step in trying to take advantage of the strengths of American youth soccer while tackling its flaws.

By Mike Woitalla (From Soccer America Magazine)

If boys youth soccer continued along its current path, it's safe to say we'd be getting more of the same. Lots and lots of decent players, and a handful of brilliant players. Is that acceptable?

It shouldn't be. The USA is a giant country with tremendous resources and millions of players. There's no reason why it shouldn't be churning out world-class players the way countries like Brazil and Argentina do. But with all the growth at the grass-roots, with all the self-proclaimed highly competitive leagues and tournaments that spread through the nation like kudzu, with thousands of youth coaches earning good money to "teach" our kids how to play, how often do we produce the truly exceptional player?

Sure, we have more good players than ever. Guys who can play a role on the field and hold their own - those we have in abundance. But the rate at which we're producing players who hit the field and truly offer something extraordinary has not been increasing in proportion to the growth of the youth game.

Two decades ago, we had Tab Ramos and Hugo Perez. Why aren't we seeing scores of American players with such skill now? Why don't we have more players like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey?

Those are the kinds of questions that prompted Sunil Gulati, shortly after being elected U.S. Soccer Federation President in March of 2006, to launch a Technical Committee to review all the Federation's technical areas.

"Our players are not good enough at the highest levels -- we need to get better," reads the introduction to the Technical Committee's Player Development Report.

The report outlined changes the committee believed are needed at different age groups. Notably, for ages 6-12, the assessment summary included "Need more free play, less structure ... Encourage passion and experimentation." At ages 13-17 (the development stages): "Need to eliminate clutter in the environment -- elite players are stretched too thin."

These aren't revolutionary conclusions. U.S. national team coaches and the U.S. Soccer coaching staff have been saying such things for years. But the Federation has historically been reluctant to dive into the youth soccer arena -- a free market that now offers so many different programs promising players a path to glory that it has been described as the wild west.

Now the USSF is taking action. This fall it launches the U.S. Soccer Development Academy for boys -- its most ambitious move on the development front since it (in 1999) opened the U-17 boys residency camp in Bradenton, Fla., which houses 40 players. (The USSF is exploring a similar initiative "to enhance the development of female players.")

The U.S. Soccer Development Academy will be picking existing elite clubs to run Academy teams for U-16 and U-18 boys to compete in the regional leagues, providing opportunities for more than 2,000 players. Regional winners will compete in a national championship.

Up to 80 clubs will be chosen by U.S. Soccer's national team coaches. Players in the academy program will not take part in the Olympic Development Program, which is run by the state associations and U.S. Youth Soccer and has traditionally been the national team program's main source for discovering talent.

To counter the "growing trend of clubs playing an excessive quantity of games in lieu of consistent training patterns," academy teams will not play in any other leagues or State Cup competitions. Players will be allowed to play high school ball, for U.S. national teams and in a few other situations.

"It was never more clear to me that things in our youth soccer structure needed to change than at our first U-15 camp last summer," says U.S. U-15 boys national team coach Jim Barlow, "when about half of the players, on the very first day of national team camp, told their coaches that they were tired of soccer. Too many games, too many leagues, too many tournaments and camps, too much structured soccer had already taken its toll on this group of talented young players."

Bob Jenkins, U.S. Soccer Director of Youth Development, found that the club coaches whose teams participate in an excessive amount of competitions -- placing an emphasis on results over player development -- often agreed that their players were asked to play too many games. But they go along with it because the parents who pay them judge them on their teams' trophy-collecting ability and believe that if the children miss a showcase event they may miss a chance to be discovered by college or national team coaches.

The U.S. Soccer Development Academy will incorporate the elite clubs and their coaches but limit the number of games and travel while ensuring that the players will be seen by U.S. Soccer staff coaches and college coaches. The club coaches of Academy teams can now promise the parents that their children will be exposed to national team, college and pro scouts without traveling to an excessive number of events.

Included in the Academy structure: A minimum requirement of three training sessions and one rest day per week; academy teams will play 30 to 38 games per year (8-month season); the U.S. U-16 national team will compete in the U-18 Academy League; each player must start 30 percent of the time.

"One thing that's really important to understand," says Kevin Payne, the D.C. United president who heads the Technical Committee, "is that this is just one tactic in a very, very broad strategy. In the long term, we plan to work much more in the grassroots, at the younger ages, to change people's attitude about youth soccer and the process of youth soccer."

"We want to convince parents and administrators that there are ultimately more important ways to measure their kids' soccer experience than by placing value on wins and losses."

Although the Academy is focusing on the competitive U-16 and U-18 age groups, Jenkins says U.S. Soccer staff coaches will be forging relationships with the Academy clubs and offering direction that will impact the clubs' younger age groups. The aim is to change the focus at the younger age groups from competition to development.

"What we're doing at 16 and 18, that's our target area," Jenkins says. "Not that all the resources will go there, but that's what we want to get to for our clubs. Then you look at the younger ages and everything should logically fall in line to prepare the players to get there. The results are less important at the younger ages, if we're trying to get the kids prepared to play at the U-16 and U-18s. We didn't set up a competitive model for the younger ages because at that level we didn't want that to be the focus."

By August, the Federation will announce which clubs it has accepted for the Academy. Criteria for clubs selected to field Academy teams include a club's history of elite youth player development and past success in elite competitions. The regional leagues will comprise up to 15-20 teams and will play home and away matches against other Academy teams across a complete, eight-month season.

Well aware that one of the biggest problems in youth soccer are the high costs that shut out lower-income children, the Federation is prepared to make "pretty significant" financial contributions, says Gulati.

Payne says the MLS clubs will be fielding Academy teams and he believes that they are unlikely to charge their Academy players.

"The starting point which is the most important piece of the whole thing is," says Jenkins, "what is best for the players? What is the best model for helping to get these players the best opportunity to grow? When I have that in my mind it makes it much more clear as we move forward with this thing."

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

August 14, 2007
Capitalizing from the Corner

Excerpted from "More Than Goals: The journey from backyard games to World Cup competition" By Claudio Reyna with Mike Woitalla.

The corner kick is an incredible opportunity to score, and it's something players can practice on their own, because unlike a cross that you're hitting during the run of play, the corner kick is always taken from the same distance, give or take the few yards by which the width of fields varies from stadium to stadium.

Especially the day before a game, I make sure to take several corner kicks after practice to get into a rhythm.

Good corner kicks are very difficult for a goalkeeper to defend, if they're delivered where they present the greatest danger, which I think is at the edge of the goal area.

A ball with a lot of pace that comes in six or seven yards from the goal puts the goalkeeper in a quandary. He must decide whether he should leave his goal unprotected and try to grab it amid the crowd of attackers and defenders, or to rely on his teammates and prepare for a close-range header or shot on goal.

There are coaches who choreograph their attackers' moves on the corner kick. The taker signals a play, and the attackers make their planned runs, expecting the ball to arrive in a predetermined spot.

At the lower levels, plays can work because it's easier to lose your marker. But usually plays only seem to complicate matters without giving the attacking team an edge. Higher-level players have seen it all. And they know how to deal with picks.

And at a high level there's a lot of scouting, and plays don't surprise many teams. What's the point of working on a play forever when it becomes useless as soon as someone sees it? Besides, if the ball isn't hit well, nothing else matters.

Bottom line, there are key areas into which the attackers will be running, and the taker's main objective is to strike the ball well. His job is to put the ball into the danger zone. The guys on the receiving end are charged with darting around and losing their markers.

A quick little movement can be enough to evade a marker. The attackers who create a nightmare for defenders are the ones who are constantly on their toes, zig-zagging around to keep their defenders guessing. A lot of movement is crucial.

The only planning that really needs to go into corner kicks is ensuring that at least the three key zones are manned by attackers when the ball arrives. The near post, the middle, and the far post.

The first thing I'm concentrating on when I line up at the corner flag is to clear the first defender. There are few things more frustrating than watching a corner kick -- basically a gifted scoring opportunity -- end at the first defender before you've given your teammates a chance at it.

Basically, if I get it over the first defender, then I've done my job. After that, it all comes down to the timing of my teammates. I'm aiming into the zones where I expect them to come crashing in.

In the best-case scenario, a forward meets the ball for a header. But corner kicks also create fluke goals because of the chaos that comes when a ball soars so close to the goal. A sharply hit ball can create an own goal.

If the ball comes down by the near post, there's a chance that it can be flicked on to the attacker at the far post. If the ball is overhit, a teammate on the far post should be able to knock it into the goalmouth.

The worst corner kicks are when the taker is tentative and underhits it, and a defender cuts it off. If you're going to err, err in overhitting. An underhit corner kick can launch an opponent's counterattack.

Ask any goalkeeper what he would prefer, and he'll say it's the corner kick that comes in short and is cleared before it reaches the goal area. If the corner kick flies over everyone, it might still be headed back into the danger zone by a teammate at the far post.

A perfect corner kick dips just before it reaches the header. Without an arc on it, defenders have a better chance to get to it before it reaches an attacker.

Teams have to decide whether they want their corner kicks to swing in or swing out. The advantage of the in-swinger is that the curve on the ball enables the player heading it to guide it toward the goal. He's exploiting the momentum the ball already has. It's harder to head the out-swinger, because the player has to get more power on it. And it's easier for the defender to attack the out-swinging ball.

(Excerpted from "More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition" by Claudio Reyna with Mike Woitalla courtesy of Human Kinetics.)

New York Red Bulls captain Claudio Reyna played nearly 13 years in the top-tier leagues of Germany (Bayer Leverkusen, VfL Wolfsburg), Scotland (Glasgow Rangers) and England (Sunderland, Manchester City) before returning to his native New Jersey this year to play in Major League Soccer. He represented the USA in four World Cups, and captained the Americans to a quarterfinal run at the 2002 World Cup, where he became the first American selected to the FIFA World Cup all-star team.

August 13, 2007
Marketing to the youth crowd

Click HERE for a piece I wrote for the Oakland Tribune on pro soccer in the San Francisco Bay Area and marketing to the youth soccer crowd.