November 18, 2007
From New Mexico to Old Mexico

How a small-town U.S. boy ended up on the Mexican national team.

By Mike Woitalla (Soccer America Magazine)

Even when Edgar Castillo was only 4 years old, he watched soccer games on television.

"He'd come over to our house to play with my boys," says Linda Lara. "If I turned on the television for a soccer game, Edgar would start watching. The other boys would go goof around outside or something, but Edgar would stay glued to the TV. He'd sit there, biting his nails, mesmerized by the game."

When he started playing for Lara's club, Strikers FC of Las Cruces, N.M., she noticed how different he was from the other youngsters who were playing their first organized ball.

"The little boys did the usual scrambling for the ball in a big bunch," says Lara. "Edgar would watch and watch and watch, then all of a sudden do something spectacular and score a goal."

Other 5-year-olds burst full speed ahead when they got on the ball, but Castillo would dribble calmly, tapping the ball just the right distance to the side to evade defenders.

"And he loved to get goals," says Lara. "Back then, we still used goalkeepers for the youngest age group. Even when he was only 5, Edgar knew how draw the goalkeeper in, fake him out, and shoot into the goal."

Castillo dazzled in games but amused his coaches in practice.

"It was really funny," said Lara. "He was horrible at drills. And he had an attention span of zero when someone was explaining something to him. But it was OK, because he didn't need to be taught. He played naturally."

With a brother one year younger, Noel, and another brother two years older, Juan Carlos, Edgar played soccer constantly at home.

"We used fruit baskets, rocks, the garage door - anything we could find - for goals," says Juan Carlos.

Inside the house, the boys crumpled up paper into a ball to play - and did their share of damage.

"They broke a lot of porcelain," says their father, Carlos. "My wife wasn't too happy about it. But it turned out to be worth it."

After Castillo graduated from Mayfield High School in Las Cruces, he and Noel attended Mexican First Division club Santos Laguna's open tryout for 300 young players. The brothers were among eight players offered long-term contracts.

Edgar debuted in the Mexican First Division in April 2006 at age 19. Last January he won the starting spot at left back.

Last August, while Carlos Castillo was busy laying bathroom tile he took a break from his job to answer his cell phone. On the other line was a friend from El Paso who said, "Congratulations! You're son made it."

"Made what?" Castillo asked.

The Mexican national team, came the answer.

Later that evening Carlos Castillo and his wife, Guadalupe, watched the Univision sports show Contacto Deportivo.

"They listed the roster and a picture of Edgar came on the screen," says Carlos. "We almost cried."

Coach Hugo Sanchez had included Castillo in his squad for a friendly in Denver against Colombia. With the Mexico down 1-0, Castillo entered the game in the 65th minute on the left side of midfield and nearly set up a goal.

Sanchez had used the game to test several young players for the Mexican U-23 team that will aim to qualify for the 2008 Olympic Games. Because it was a friendly, Castillo remains eligible for the USA.

TWO COUNTRIES. Carlos Castillo worked as a machinist in the Mexican state of Coahuila but knew he could earn significantly more money picking chili peppers in New Mexico. In 1983, at age 22, he immigrated to United States.

"I became a chili picker," he says. "I worked in the fields, picking jalapenos, red chili peppers, lettuce, onions. It was the easiest work to get. You made 30 or 40 bucks a day working in the hot sun. In Mexico, I got my diploma as a machinist, but I couldn't make that kind of money. I love green bills, not the peso. Mexico is beautiful, but it's poor."

Carlos Castillo eventually explored other work, such as construction. Now he specializes in remodeling homes and flooring.

"Tile, vinyl, wood, ceramic ... you name it," he says.

Carlos Castillo got a taste of the United States when he was a young boy. His family had moved to Southern California when he was 6 but moved back to Mexico when he was 10.

"I love the United States," says Carlos Castillo. "It's given me my living. We have a good life. Everything is great for us. But I am disappointed in U.S. soccer."

For however delighted Carlos Castillo was about his son playing for Mexico, the apathy toward his son by the U.S. national team program is hard for him to accept. He can't understand that his son could be picked for the Mexican national team but not impress the U.S. national team program.

U.S. coach Bob Bradley has within the last year invited players into training camps who have never played First Division ball, but neither Bradley nor any member of his coaching staff made contact with Castillo while he established himself as one of the top young players in the Mexican league.

Because Edgar has dual citizenship, he was eligible for Mexico's national team. And the fact that Sanchez courted him while his own country ignored him made the choice to represent the nation of his heritage an easy one.

"The other side never called," says Edgar Castillo, who was invited into another Mexico training camp in October and has a good shot at making the U-23 team. If he plays in Olympic qualifiers, he'll no longer be eligible for the USA.

"I am saddened that the United States has not recognized Edgar," says Lara, an elementary school teacher and family therapist for parents of disabled children, who paid for all of Castillo's trips to ODP tryouts. "When he was a kid, they always told us he was not big enough.

"But after all of his success in Mexico, one would have thought the U.S. national team program would finally give him a call. I realize that just because he's playing in the Mexican First Division doesn't guarantee him a spot on the U.S. national team, but it would have been nice if they had gotten in touch with him, to at least let him know they were aware of what he's done."

A QUIET LEADER. Castillo's role is one that the Mexicans call carrilero: a player who flies up and down the wing. The fact that he does this on the left side makes him all the more valuable.

When Santos extended its season-long winning streak to 11 games with a win against Pumas, it recalled an attribute that Lara recognized long ago.

"When something went wrong," she says, "Edgar would rise. If he got pushed or tripped, he'd respond with a goal."

Castillo played as a forward and attacking midfielder in his youth days. Santos put him at left back. Against Pumas, when Castillo gave up the ball deep in Santos territory, Pumas capitalized and equalized the game at 2-2. But with seven minutes left, Castillo stormed forward and set up the winning goal.

Off the field, Lara said Castillo, who was best buddies with her youngest son, Bingy, was as introverted as a child could be.

"He was so shy and quiet," she says. "He did whatever Bingy did. If you asked Edgar what he wanted for lunch, he said, 'What Bingy's having.' You'd give him a bunch of choices, and he'd say, 'What Bingy's having.'"

But on the field, Castillo took charge.

"He drove the team," said Lara. "If the team was losing, he was the one who got everyone else going and inspired them to come back."

When Castillo was invited to his second Mexico camp, Lara had just returned from taking her U-16 team to a tournament in Bakersfield, Calif., in hopes that they could get exposure to college coaches.

It was a typical trip for Lara. She paid most of the expenses herself. The entire team squeezed into two hotel rooms. For most of the boys, it was their first big trip.

"They spent the entire 14-hour drive staring out the window," she says. "When we got there, they stood for minutes and stared at the complex.

"We're a small town, far from all the areas where coaches scout players. So we keep trying to take them where they need to go so that they'll get looked at. Maybe Edgar's success will help the other players get discovered."

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

November 17, 2007
Go Abroad, Young Man?

Interest from foreign clubs in teenage American players is at an all-time high and an increasing number of youngsters are considering leaving their homes to pursue their soccer dreams aboard.

By Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America Magazine, November 2007 issue)

One day Francisco Lletget noticed something slightly odd about the way his son, Sebastian, was eating breakfast, so he approached and took a closer look. While scooping cereal into his mouth, Sebastian was tapping a soccer ball back and forth under the table.

"The thing about Sebi," says Francisco, "he always wants to play soccer. Even now at age 15, he still plays soccer in the house."

Francisco was the same way when he was growing up in Mar del Plata, Argentina, dreaming of becoming a professional soccer player.

"But my parents didn't support me in that dream the way I support Sebi," says Francisco. "They wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor. But whenever I opened a school book, I just started thinking about soccer again."

Francisco and his wife, Sara, immigrated to the United States when he was 20. The family lives in South San Francisco. Francisco works at the Oroweat/Bimbo bakery and Sara for the U.S. Postal Service.

Sebastian plays youth soccer for Santa Clara Sporting, about an hour drive from their home. His story serves as an example of how aggressively scouts from foreign clubs are pursuing young American talent.

Sebastian has played for the U-15 U.S. national team, but it was when he was playing with his local club, more than 5,000 miles away from London, that West Ham United scouts spotted him.

"I couldn't believe it when a scout from an English Premier League team came up to me and said he was interested in my son," says Francisco.

After Sebastian's third visit to West Ham, where he trained with its U-16 and U-18 youth teams, the club invited Sebastian to join its youth academy. At the same time, Sebastian received an invitation from the U.S. Soccer Federation to move to Bradenton, Fla., and enter its U-17 residency camp. But his parents' visit to West Ham had convinced them it would be the right place for him.

They toured the club, the boarding home where Sebastian would live, the school he'd attend, and observed the training he'll experience.

"Everything about it looked like it would be a good place for Sebastian," says Francisco.

Sebastian is in the process of acquiring an Italian passport, for which he is eligible because of his maternal grandfather. It will make him a European Union player, meaning he won't require a UK work permit if he's offered a pro contract down the road. Also, FIFA's ban on international transfers of minors does not apply to EU members.

(Another method of circumventing the ban is having the parents move as well.)

Making the decision for Francisco and Sara to send their son away from home easier was the West Ham Academy's long history of producing top-level players. Alumni who are top current England players include Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick. (Hammers Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters started on England's 1966 World Cup championship team.)

In fact, West Ham is one of the few English clubs that has drawn praise for its player development. Each English Premier League is required to have an academy, but so few players advance to the EPL that Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson recently said the academy system was "falling apart."

A STEP TO THE TOP? There are examples of Americans who went to Europe as teens and enjoyed successful careers.

Jovan Kirovski left California in 1991 at age 15 to join Manchester United. The inability to get a UK work permit prevented him from appearing for Man U's first team, but he played in Germany, Portugal, and after becoming a U.S. international, returned to England. Kirovski currently plays for the Colorado Rapids.

John O'Brien was 16 when he joined Ajax Amsterdam's youth program. He made a smooth transition to its first team, was a star for the USA at the 2002 World Cup, but retired at age 29 because of injuries.

More recently, New Jersey product Giuseppe Rossi went to Italy's Parma at age 13 and is now a leading scorer in the Spanish La Liga at age 20.

Of course, for all the success stories many, many more players who venture abroad won't make it as professionals. With that mind, players and their parents must carefully consider whether leaving home as a teen is a prudent choice.

For one, joining a pro club's youth system or even trying out can jeopardize a player's college eligibility.

If a boy receives expenses from a professional club for a visit longer than 48 hours, he will break NCAA eligibility rules. He can, however, regain eligibility if he repays the money. The NCAA sets no limits on self-financed tryouts.

A player interested in playing for a youth or amateur team of a professional club without forfeiting his eligibility is at the mercy of the NCAA's interpretation of the player's relationship with the professional club. If the professional club pays the player's living and travel expenses, it will likely render him ineligible for college, although reinstatement is possible.

"There are some gray areas when a player becomes part of a professional club's youth system," says Cal Berkeley coach Kevin Grimes.

Grimes says that about seven years ago the number of elite Americans who skipped college to pursue pro careers increased dramatically.

"There's no doubt that most of the top players aren't going to college," says Grimes, "whether it's to play in MLS or to go abroad. But some players still do go to college, make it in MLS and go abroad.

"I think it can be very difficult for a 17-year-old to move to another country. And even if a player only goes to college for a year or two, it may make the transition easier for him when he does go abroad."

Clint Dempsey, currently one of the most successful Americans abroad, spent three years at Furman University and four years in MLS before joining English Premier League club Fulham at age 23.

RESEARCH REQUIRED. Bob Jenkins, U.S. Soccer's director of player development and its U-18 national team coach, says young Americans have long aimed to play abroad, but recently the opportunities have increased dramatically.

"In the last year and a half it seems more and more people are showing up trying to place young players in Europe," Jenkins says. "Part of that is because some Americans are succeeding abroad. And the other reason is that the United States is kind of a frontier, because here foreign clubs can get players and not have to pay anybody."

While in other nations clubs that develop players can earn transfer fees or training compensation, American youth clubs don't. That has spurred some youth coaches to act as agents and work actively to find foreign clubs for their players, increasing the drive to move kids abroad.

One of the lures of leaving home is the notion that foreign clubs will accelerate the player's development.

"That's not always the case," says Jenkins. "I've seen players come back after a year with a European club and not be better than when they left. You cannot make a blanket statement that if you go abroad you'll be better off.

"Sometimes what a club has to offer looks good on paper, but either the training sessions or living conditions aren't optimal."

It's also important for players to know the club's track record of producing players for its top team and how many players from its youth academy play high-level ball with other clubs.

And how many players does the club bring into its youth program each year? An offer from a famous club may flatter, but realizing the club brings in 40 players from around the world each year puts the invitation into perspective. In some cases, a less glamorous club may have a more successful youth program.

Jenkins emphasizes it's crucial for players to understand the FIFA and national federation regulations when pursuing a move abroad. He cites a young player who joined a foreign club only to learn he wasn't eligible to play in competitive games.

There's also homesickness, the adjustment to a new culture, and the reality that the odds of reaching the top level are still minuscule even if one enters a club's feeder program. Most European clubs field youth and reserve teams while rarely promoting players to their first team.

"I always tell Sebastian, it's one step at a time," says Francisco. "He's still a long way from realizing his dream of playing pro soccer, but we believe West Ham is a great opportunity him."

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

November 11, 2007
Getting players to juggle

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

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing youth soccer coaches is getting their players to play ball on their own.

For sure, the first step is making practices so much fun that players fall in love with the sport. But children today have such a vast variety of pastime options that even those who are passionate about their soccer may need prodding to get the soccer ball out.

George Pastor, a former U.S. national team player, is the Coaching Coordinator of the Mavericks youth club of Northern California. Along with Technical Director Robert Sackey, they have done a remarkable job getting the club's young players to spend time with the ball outside of practice and game time.

When the girls on the U-13 Mavericks team coached by Pastor and Sackey were 9-year-olds, the coaches started setting juggling goals for the players, promising small rewards when they reached certain benchmarks.

"Juggling is great way to develop skills," says Pastor. "It's a simple way for players to get comfortable with the ball. Juggling helps with players' first touch. It develops their balance. It helps with shooting, passing and dribbling.

"It's a good way to train your weak foot. It also builds overall confidence."

Many of the 12-year-olds on the Mavericks can juggle the ball more than a thousand times. Three have hit 2,000. And almost all of them can tap the ball in the air hundreds of times.

But more important than the numbers is the fact that the juggling "contests" have inspired the children to play ball on their own. They even started having "soccer play dates." Pastor and other parents drive the kids to the park, but remain in their cars while the girls play games, juggle and goof around.

At the start, juggling five times warranted a celebration. As they got older Pastor and Sackey started emphasizing record-breaking.

Players who manage 50 juggles receive a FAB 50 Certificate.

Those who reach the Century Club receive a certificate and $5 Jamba Card.

Players who hit 500 earn a full-page Club 500 Certificate and a miniature replica World Cup soccer ball.

At 1,000, the players get a "gold" Millennium Medal and their picture on the club's Web site.

The Mavericks U-13 girls have also used their juggling skills - walk-a-thon style -- to raise over $10,000 for an upcoming winter trip to Sackey's homeland of Ghana, where he has been instrumental in launching youth soccer programs for girls. During their goodwill trip, the Maverick girls will practice and scrimmage with local girls, will distribute soccer equipment and supplies, and will help promote girls soccer in Ghana.

For Pastor, playing unorganized soccer was a natural part of his childhood. He spent the first six years of his life in Peru, "where you play as soon as you can walk." With his three brothers, soccer remained part of his daily routine after the family moved to California, and not until he joined a U-12 team did he play organized ball.

Pastor later starred at Cal Berkeley and played pro ball - outdoor and indoors - for eight years during the era between the NASL and MLS while earning seven U.S. caps.

Being a highly skilled player enables Pastor to demonstrate and help the players along. Sometimes he'll juggle with a player, keeping the ball up for her when it gets away.

If a coach doesn't have the playing background to demonstrate, Pastor recommends bringing an older player to practice to show the way.

"And the coach should learn to juggle," says Pastor. "It's never too late."

Other ways to get novice players going is to have them juggle with a bounce in between. Or have them drop the ball on their foot and catch it after a tap, eventually moving to two taps, and so one.

Throwing a ball to a player and having her hit it back into the coach's or another player's hands - a game they call "Vitamins" - also helps players get used to hitting the sweet spot on their foot.

The Mavericks usually spend five or 10 minutes during warm-ups working on juggling. As the players became more proficient, they'd even jog down the field while juggling. But playing on their own is the key ingredient.

"The main thing that we're trying to do is get them to enjoy the soccer ball," Pastor said. "So we look for whatever motivates them. For some it's enough to try to reach the next level. Others are motivated by the prizes.

"And the better they get, the more they want to juggle."

(Click HERE for more on the Mavericks' jugglers and their goodwill trip to Ghana. Mike Woitalla is the executive editor of Soccer America Magazine. His most recent contributions to the Youth Soccer Insider were "Best Practices" and "Time for a Children's Revolt.")

November 09, 2007
Josef Schulz Takes Dutch-Brazilian Approach

By Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America Magazine, November 2007 issue)

Josef Schulz once spent two years traveling the world scouting young soccer talent. But on this day, nine years ago, he was just taking a walk with his wife, Barbara, in their Boca Raton, Fla., neighborhood.

They stopped to watch a pickup game and Schulz spotted an exceptional 8-year-old.

"I asked my wife, 'Do I see this right or am I dreaming?'" Schulz recalls.

The boy was Josmer "Jozy" Altidore, a New Jersey-born son of Haitian immigrants whose family had relocated in South Florida. Schulz, in the midst of launching the youth club that would become the Schulz Academy, approached Jozy's father.

"You might laugh at what I am about to say," Schulz said to Joseph Altidore, "but one day your son is going to be on the U.S. national team. Bring him to our practice and see if you like it."

Schulz had six players and entered 3-vs.-3 tournaments. He eventually fielded full teams. In 2004, Altidore helped the Schulz Academy win the first of three straight Super-Y-League North American Championships.

The Schulz Academy now has about 300 players and fields teams in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy for U-16 and U-18 boys. In 2007 it was ranked 19th in Soccer America's Top 20 Boys Clubs.

"We try to teach offensive and attractive soccer," says Schulz, "and I am sure the combination of Brazilian Samba, and the method of Holland, which we teach since the beginning in our Academy, is a good mix for the future elite player."

Altidore joined the U-17 national residency in Bradenton, Fla., played in the 2005 U-17 World Cup, and became an MLS teen-age sensation for the New York Red Bulls. At last summer's U-20 World Cup, he scored four goals, and at age 17, appears on the brink of a full national team call-up.

Discovering Altidore confirmed the hunch Schulz had when he moved from Europe 15 years ago -- that the USA was the new frontier for soccer talent.

Schulz played 13 years of First Division ball in his native Austria while acquiring a doctoral degree in economics at the University of Vienna. At age 29, he left the field at Vienna FC to become its coach and general manager. He moved to Rapid Vienna and was its general manager and assistant coach as it finished runner-up to Everton in the 1985 Cup Winners' Cup.

Schulz had also started a sports agency. One the first clients was 1978 World Cup-winning Argentine striker Mario Kempes. The agency eventually represented 60 players and Schulz scoured the world for young talent.

Schulz first settled in Florida to launch an academy in Palm Beach Garden for youth players from countries around the world. He was then contacted by tennis guru Nick Bollettieri to create a soccer department at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. After a couple years, Schulz sold his interest in the academy and moved back to his favorite area, South Florida, where he believed he could develop future pros and national team stars.

"The multi-national influence in South Florida makes it an excellent breeding ground for soccer players," says Schulz, who speaks English, German, Spanish, Greek, French, a little Italian, and is working on Portuguese.

The Schulz philosophy is to focus on individual development until players reach their teens.

"Before that, we don't have team practices," he says. "We'll take 40 boys to the field ages 9 to 13, with eight coaches, and work on individual skills. When they play small-sided games, they're still in mixed age groups."

The Schulz Academy, many of whose coaches are imported from Brazil, has been consistently feeding players into the U.S. youth national team program. This year four players joined the U-17 national team residency: Zach Herold, Donovan Henry, Stefan Jerome and Brian Sylvestre.

"The key is knowing how much to coach a player," says Schulz. "With a guy like Altidore, why would I tell him what to do in a certain situation when he's better at it than I am?"

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

November 01, 2007
Improving skills on your own

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

A player can always improve his fitness by working out hard. He can comprehend certain tactics by studying the game. But how far he goes will be determined mainly by how well he has mastered ball skills. Those are acquired by playing, day after day, year after year.

A player who really wants to excel will spend as much time as possible playing small-sided games when he has playmates, and juggling and kicking against the wall when he's on his own.

I spent a lot of time hitting the ball against the side of the house when I was a growing up. If my mother complained about the noise, I'd hop down the retaining wall at the end of our property to the office-building parking lot.

I'd use that wall -- hitting the ball with both feet, seeing how long I could return the wall's passes without losing control. I found out later that so many pros spent lots of their childhood doing that.

Dennis Bergkamp, the great Dutch striker who scored and set up hundreds of goals for Ajax Amsterdam, Arsenal, and the Dutch national team, said that when he was a youth player at Ajax, they had little three-foot-high walls. He would knock the ball against the walls for hours. Every time he hit the ball, he'd know whether it was a good touch or a bad touch. He'd do it over and over, trying to establish a rhythm.

Whenever I saw Bergkamp slotting a perfectly placed ball past a goalkeeper or making a precise pass, I thought of him practicing against the wall.

Kicking against the wall is an excellent way to work on improving your weaker foot. You can back up and practice shots on goal, or move close to the wall and work on passing, because where there's a wall, there's a teammate.

You can practice trapping and work on your first touch by controlling the ball before you kick it, or hit it back first time.

Passing the ball against a wall from close distance takes timing and coordination. Hit the ball faster, and you've got to react faster and get a rhythm going. It almost feels like you're dancing.

Practicing the correct striking of the ball over and over helps it become second nature. It has to be, because in a game a player doesn't have time to think about his form or approach. Under pressure, everything is more difficult. Mastering technique while playing on your own is the first step to being able to do it right in a game.

(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.