October 31, 2007

"Why are exceptional dribblers a rare commodity at the higher levels? Probably because players are so often discouraged from dribbling in their early years, which is like telling toddlers to shut up when they're learning to speak."

-- MW

October 29, 2007
Freedom of the Game

"Here in the United States, more kids than any other country in the world are playing soccer. In my opinion, they play soccer because of the freedom of the game, because they feel freedom to be creative on the field. They can express themselves on the field and freedom is something the kids love. We have to take advantage of that, and guide them to use that freedom in the best way."

-- New U.S. U-17 boys national team coach Wilmer Cabrera, the former Colombian World Cup veteran who moved to New York four years ago.


Cabrera becomes the first Hispanic head coach of a male U.S. national team at any age level.

Click HERE for quotes from U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati and Cabrera from the press conference announcing his hiring.

October 23, 2007
Tips from a Brazilian great

In an episode from UEFA's "Training Ground" series, Brazilian playmaker Kaka, who plays his club ball for AC Milan, gives a lesson on the defense-splitting pass in a three-minute video you can see HERE.

October 19, 2007
Reevaluating the Residency Program

In light of poor results at this year's U-17 World Cup, the launch of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, and MLS's move into the youth arena, it's time to reassess U.S. Soccer's 9-year-old Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla.

By Mike Woitalla (Soccer America Magazine)

The preparation process for the USA's first appearance at the U-17 World Cup, in 1985, didn't much resemble the current setup.

After state and regional tryouts, 30 players were told to pack for a trip to China, bring their passports, and convene for a final week of tryouts and games against local competition at the C.W. Post campus in New York.

"Then they put us in a room and told 18 of us we're going to China in two days," says Lyle Yorks, a starter on the team. "A few days later, we're in Beijing playing against Guinea in front of 80,000 people."

The team that Coach John Hackworth took to the 2007 U-17 World Cup in South Korea came out of U.S. Soccer's full-time Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla.

In preparation for the finals last August in South Korea, Hackworth's team played games in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, France, Belgium, Germany, Jamaica, Argentina, Uruguay, Japan, South Korea, Guatemala and Honduras.

The U.S. youth national team program had become steadily more ambitious following the 1985 world championship and the USA is the only nation to have appeared in each of the 12 U-17 World Cups.

Before the 1989 tournament, the U.S. U-17s traveled to Europe and Israel during their preparations. At the finals in Scotland, under Coach Roy Rees, it managed a historic 1-0 win over Brazil with a team captained by current UCLA coach Jorge Salcedo and marshaled by Claudio Reyna.

The 1991 squad was the first to reach the second round, by beating host Italy and Argentina. That the U.S. Soccer Federation was already investing more time and money into its U-17 program than most other nations stemmed from the fact that it could not, like traditional soccer countries, depend on the youth programs of professional clubs to feed players into the youth national teams.

And in 1999 the Federation took its commitment to another level by creating the Bradenton program, where players train year-round at the IMG Academy, attend a local high school, and are attended to by sports psychologists.

Besides preparing players for the U-17 World Cup and higher-level national team duty, Bradenton would also serve to send players into Project-40, the joint venture by U.S. Soccer and MLS to provide players an alternative to college soccer.

Coach John Ellinger headed the program from its inception until 2004, and the first class remains the most successful, based on U-17 World Cup results (fourth place in 1999) and the number of players who moved up the ladder. DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan, Bobby Convey and Oguchi Onyewu have played in the senior World Cup and remain national team regulars.

About 200 players have taken part in the residency program. The Federation says more than 70 moved on to MLS or European pro clubs. Fourteen players have made at least one appearance for the full national team, including Eddie Johnson and Freddy Adu. Johnson, from the Bradenton class of 2001, is the fifth Bradenton alum to appear in the senior World Cup.

Before the launch of Bradenton, five players from a U-17 World Cup squad made a senior World Cup squad: Tim Howard, John O'Brien, Claudio Reyna, Chad Deering and Mike Burns.

The Bradenton Program expanded in 2003 from 20 to 40 players, and the current class has 48. About half of each class is comprised of a younger age group for whom making a U-17 World Cup is less likely. Jozy Altidore is an example of a player from the younger group who made the U-17 World Cup squad, in 2005, while Michael Bradley is a "tweener" who didn't go to a U-17 World Cup but later played in the U-20 World Cup and for the U.S. national team.

TAJIKISTAN? It's unlikely that average Americans know much about Tajikistan, or have even heard of it.

It's one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics - a land-locked nation of 7 million people whose neighbors include China and Afghanistan.

But Americans who follow soccer very closely know of it now because Tajikistan was the first U.S. opponent at the 2007 U-17 World Cup.

"It was a nightmare scenario," says Hackworth. "If we lose, it's 'Hey, the U.S. lost to Tajikistan. How is that possible?' If we win, 5-0, nobody gives give you any credit."

It turned out to be the worst-case scenario. Hackworth's team lost, 4-3, to Tajikistan.

The USA followed with a 3-1 loss to Tunisia, but managed to finish second in its group thanks to a 2-0 win over Belgium before losing, 2-1, to Germany in the round of 16.

Three losses and one victory are hardly satisfactory results, but results aren't the only criteria in judging the Bradenton program, which is run on a budget of more than $2 million annually.

"The only reason why any country plays in this competition is for the development and experience factor," says Hackworth. "Sure, you want to win. And there was no one more disappointed with our losses than I was.

"But because of what those players went through, a couple of them, maybe more, are going to use this experience to springboard to another level, and ultimately that's what our job is."

Hackworth has now guided teams to two U-17 World Cups. His 2005 squad beat North Korea and Italy and tied Ivory Coast before falling in the second round to the Netherlands. Ellinger's 1999 squad remains the only to win a second-round game.

It may be too soon to judge the success of the first Bradenton classes under Hackworth, but the landscape of American youth soccer has changed since Bradenton's launch and its role is up for reevaluation.

"Bradenton was set up in the very early days of MLS when MLS didn't have a very extensive involvement in youth programs," says U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. "Some of the dynamics have changed. Super Y-League has come up since then. And we started the U.S. Soccer Development Academy program. MLS is now starting to be heavily involved in player development.

"But at this point, there's no short-term adjustment on Bradenton."

The players' experience, however, will change this fall as the program will field teams, playing a year up, in the new U.S. Soccer Development Academy, in which they and 63 elite clubs from around the nation will compete in U-16 and U-18 leagues.

"With the new Academy league, we will have a way to measure ourselves week-in and week-out," Hackworth says. "And our players will be competing against guys who are also aiming to be on the national team."

THE CONSTRAINTS. Scouting players in a nation as large as the USA has always been a challenge. And predicting which 15-year-olds will turn into stars is extremely difficult, because, well, teenagers are unpredictable.

Steve Nichols has coached Baltimore's Casa Mia Bays teams to four USYS National Championship titles in five years and the club is part of the Academy league.

"I think all in all Bradenton is good for the country," says Nichols. "But I do question it. They invest a lot of money in the kids, but are we putting our best players on the field or are we committing to the kids who are in there?"

D.C. United president Kevin Payne, also head of U.S. Soccer's Technical Committee, has had a number of Bradenton alums come to his club, such as Convey, Adu and Santino Quaranta.

"I've always felt if you leave out the extraordinary kid like, Landon or Freddy, DaMarcus or Convey," Payne says, "for the bulk of the kids that are in the U-17 program, I believe there are multiples of other kids in this country who are just as good, and maybe better. For whatever reason, they didn't get identified the same way."

It's a different process in nations that have the luxury of depending on their professional clubs' youth programs or have a smaller geographic range to view talent.

"My only criticism of Bradenton has always been that it almost by definition limits the number of players we look at," says Payne. "The whole educational component makes it a challenge to really churn through kids.

"Argentina, in a U-17 cycle, they'll on average bring 170 kids through their program. We're no- where near that number, but that's because of the constraints that come with that kind of setup."

In a traditional national team program, players come in and out of the pool. But Bradenton attendees have been uprooted from their homes and can't very well be sent back after a month or two, just as they've entered the school semester.

"We scout them from their clubs and bring them into residency," says Hackworth. "We keep them for a semester whether they're good enough or not, and sometimes it would be much better for the player and for us if we didn't invest a semester or a year. If we could tell them, 'You're not a national team player right now. You got some work to do. Go back and prove that you belong."'

Mike Matkovich, the Chicago Magic's Director of Coaching, believes that players undoubtedly benefit from their Bradenton experience, but says that identifying players for a program with so few spots remains the major challenge.

"The guys down there do a good job," says Matkovich. "Obviously you're always going to have success stories, your [Jonathan] Spector [who went from Bradenton to Manchester United], Adu, Beasley and those guys.

"It's the next tier guys who are the real test. Sometimes you get locked in at young ages. I think it's tough to know if you have the right guys. You're investing a lot of money in 40 guys at a very young age. How do you know if those 40 guys are going to pan out down the road? I think it needs to be expanded."

The Academy launch is a first step to expanding the Bradenton concept. Washington state's Crossfire Premier, which has joined the Academy, sent three players to Bradenton who played in the 2007 U-17 World Cup: Daniel Wenzel, Brandon Zimmerman and Ellis McLoughlin.

"I'm sure those guys in Bradenton do a good job," says Crossfire Director of Coaching Bernie James. "But we practice four or five times a week. Practice is practice. I think after all the years of playing professionally, coaching professionally, and coaching at the youth level, I've concluded there aren't many variations of practice.

"Where Bradenton has an edge is with all the international games they play and the competition in practice. In that way, I'm sure it's very helpful."

Chefik Simo played for the North Texas club Solar SC before attending Bradenton in 2000-01 and playing in the 2001 U-17 World Cup.

"I was playing youth soccer in one of the most competitive areas in the country," says Simo, who later saw action with the U.S. U-20s but whose career was shortened by car-accident injuries. "But at Bradenton, besides all the international games, we played against college teams and MLS teams. There was constantly good competition."

MEASURING SUCCESS. So how does one really measure the success of Bradenton's first nine years?

"There's obviously the results of the games," says Gulati, "but in a sense you can't properly evaluate some parts of it until a few years later.

"You look at all of it. You look at the preparation of the players, technically and tactically, and we let the experts do that. And also where the players end up.

"But it's always hard. It's not a question of is Player X a better player coming out of Bradenton than he was when he came in. The question is: Is he a better player than he would have been if he had done something else? And that's a very hard counterfactual to have an experiment for. It's an impossible one."

At least by fielding teams in the Academy league, the Bradenton boys will be consistently compared to the players from the nation's elite clubs. And those clubs will be measured against Bradenton in their ability to provide an environment that creates players for the next level.

"My own opinion is that one of the preferred outcomes of the Academy is that if it really works there's a lot less need for Bradenton," says Payne. "Maybe Bradenton becomes something a little bit different. Maybe it's not a pure residency camp, but something that's used to prepare for competitions like the rest of the world does."

Nichols believes that his Casa Mia Bays club already provides players an environment as beneficial to their development as Bradenton, where his club sent Onyewu, Alex Yi and Kyle Beckerman in 1999. But he feels he's had other players who have been overlooked. That's why Nichols believes the key to improving the performance of the youth national teams is better scouting.

"Hopefully with this Academy league we will touch many more players than we've ever currently touched," Hackworth says. "I firmly believe that. Does that mean residency becomes obsolete? It might. But right now, we're still in the beginning stages of the process and we need to see how it shakes out.

"Can we do on a local level what we do at Bradenton? That's the idea and the concept. There's pros and cons to Bradenton, but the way it is right now, our experience and travel is something you can't get anywhere else. And it's fully funded."

(This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

October 12, 2007
How Barcelona Spawns Stars

Barcelona can buy any player it wants, but maintains an ambitious and successful youth program.

By Mike Woitalla (Soccer America Magazine)

There's a large crowd of people in the plaza area surrounding Barcelona's Camp Nou Stadium, many of them are wearing jerseys with Ronaldinho, Messi and Eto'o on the back. But there's no game today.

It's a Thursday afternoon, the team is in Scotland for a preseason friendly, but that doesn't stop the crowds, who eat Spanish omelette sandwiches in between stadium tours and visiting the FC Barcelona Museum, which draws 1.2 million visitors a year, more than any other Barcelona museum.

Inside the league offices, behind the club store, sits Jose Ramon Alexanco, the director of Barcelona's youth program.

Alexanco's department has an annual budget of $10 million. But why does a club, which can buy pretty much any player it wants, try to develop its own players?

"It is very important that we have players who grow up in the club," says Alexanco, who starred for Barcelona in 1980-93, "so that they truly understand what this club is all about. We want players to understand its tradition and to truly be a part of the FC Barcelona environment."

The aim is that, from a program that fields 12 boys teams, from age 10 up, one or two players reach the first team each year. The club's entire annual budget this season is more than $400 million. It spent $100 million on players in the offseason. A player or two from the $10 million youth investment represents a solid return.

Sixty of the boys are from outside the area or from as far away as Mexico, Africa and Latin America, and live in La Masia, the club's residence hall. The club prefers not to bring players into residency until they're 14 years old, but there are exceptions.

The 10-year-olds - the Benjamins - practice four days a week for 45 minutes and play 7-v-7 games on the weekend. All of the older age groups play 11-v-11.

"They play the same system, in the 4-3-3 formation, used by first team," says Alexanco. "The developmental teams have to reflect the personality of the first team. That also means playing attacking, attractive soccer. That's what our fans demand and what we want to give them."

Through age 17, Barcelona fields two teams at each age group. Each team has two players for each position, and each player plays at least 45 percent of the games.

"We don't demand that the youth teams win," says Alexanco. "We demand that they play good soccer. We don't use the word, 'winning.'"

Not until after the players reach age 16 is there fitness training.

"That's when we start to concentrate on the technical, tactical and physical requirements they need for the first team. Before that age we mainly play soccer. Everything is with the ball. We work on skills and some tactics."

One of the most famous home-grown Barcelona products is Josep Guardiola, who last summer joined Barcelona's youth development program staff and coaches the "B" team. He noticed some differences from when he joined Barcelona's program in 1984 at age 13.

"The children are surrounded by their parents - and their agents!" said Josep Guardiola,. "When I was a kid, we didn't have agents and our parents weren't involved."

When Guardiola was 19, Coach Johan Cruyff brought him into the first team, which is now known as the "Dream Team," having won the 1992 European Cup and four straight La Liga titles.

Cruyff's philosophy continues to influence Guardiola and the club's approach to developing players.

"Our aim to is to help young players understand the game," Guardiola says. "Of course, there is the emphasis on the technical, where it all starts. But we want the players to learn how to think fast. We want them to learn how to run little, but run smart."

It's an echo of what Cruyff once said: "All coaches talk too much about running a lot. I say it's not necessary to run so much. Soccer is a game that's played with the brain. You need to be in the right place at the right time, not too early, not too late."

Guardiola's return to Barcelona's youth program serves as a reminder of one reason why the club strives to bring players up through its own ranks.

Barcelona, whose motto is "More Than a Club," is the flagship of Catalan pride. Cruyff built the Dream Team with Basque players and foreign stars such as Dutchman Ronald Koeman, Dane Michael Laudrup and Bulgarian Hristo Stoitchkov. Guardiola, the central cog of the Dream Team with his precision passes and graceful marshalling of the midfield, was born in the Catalan heartlands.

Spanish regionalism is part of what drives Spanish clubs' ambitious youth programs, their canteras. For Athletic Bilbao, which fields only Basque players, developing young players is paramount to its survival. At Barcelona, which continues to field a few Catalan players, including captain Carles Puyol, young players are also brought in from around the nation and the world.

And of Europe's major club powers, Barcelona may have the most impressive success rate of moving players from its youth ranks into the pro ranks.

Its 2006 Champions League-winning squad included four starters that had come through its program. About half the players who take the field this season for the Blaugrana are "home-grown."

There are veterans Victor Valdes, Puyol, defender Oleguer, midfielders Andres Iniesta and Xavi. Argentine Lionel Messi came to Barcelona at age 12. Mexican Giovani dos Santos, who made his first team debut this season, arrived at age 13.

Also on the brink of breaking into the first team is Catalonia-born Bojan Krkic, the Bronze Ball winner at the 2007 World Cup.

Barcelona also groomed Cesc Fabregas until age 16, when he was snapped up by Arsenal.

Choosing the right players for its youth program is the key to its success. Barcelona does not hold tryouts. They don't work, says Alexanco. Charged with finding the talent are the ojeadores, the scouts.

Barcelona employs 25 scouts throughout Spain, with at least one in each province. They convene twice a year at Barcelona, where the bosses reiterate the criteria and quality they're seeking in players.

Barcelona also works with about 30 youth clubs throughout Catalonia, and uses contacts throughout the world to find players.

"You have to have eyes everywhere," Alexanco says. "You need to see the kids who are playing soccer on the playground.

"We're looking for players who have technique and speed, and who look like players. And we're looking for players who offer something different."

(This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

October 06, 2007
American Exports Make Their Presence Known Overseas

The number of Americans playing for top-tier foreign clubs continues to increase. Click HERE for my column in the New York Sun on players like Giuseppi Rossi, who left New Jersey at age 13 and is now, at age 20, a leading scorer in the Spanish La Liga, and Edgar Castillo, the 20-year-old Mexican First Division starter.

October 05, 2007
Reviving The Pickup Game

Sam Snow, U.S. Youth Soccer's Director of Coaching, argues for the revival of pickup-game style soccer for in Soccer America's Youth Insider. Click HERE.