December 12, 2007
'Coaching has to be natural'

World Cup vet and former pilot Wilmer Cabrera aims to take U.S. Soccer's U-17 program to new heights.

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

After his long playing career, Wilmer Cabrera stepped straight into a new job: commercial helicopter pilot. Usually before takeoff at least one of the passengers would say, "You sure look like the soccer player Wilmer Cabrera."

The World Cup veteran would acknowledge that he'd heard it before, then aim for the skies above Colombia's mountainous terrain.

The piloting came about because Cabrera, while still playing in the Colombian league, reunited with a friend who started a helicopter service.

The friend offered lessons, and Cabrera, who had always had the urge to fly, saw a career opportunity for his post-playing days. He learned to pilot the Hughes 300, Robinson 22 and Bell 206 L3.

Cabrera's pro soccer career started at age 17, with Santa Fe de Bogota, but at his older brother's insistence he continued his education and earned a business degree.

"I owe a lot to my older brother," says Cabrera. "He was the one who made sure that I knew the importance of studying. He was my advisor, counselor, father and coach."

Seven years his elder, Cabrera's brother, Jorge, gave up his dreams of soccer stardom after their father left the family because Jorge had to become the family's breadwinner.

"Jorge was a very, very good player," says Wilmer. "Better than I was."

But Jorge watched proudly as Cabrera became a key figure on the Colombian national team that enjoyed its most glorious era in the 1990s, qualifying for three World Cups after having failed to reach the previous six finals.

Cabrera was part of the 1990 World Cup squad, missed the 1994 finals with a knee injury, and played all three games for Colombia at the 1998 World Cup.

Born in Cartegena but raised in Bogota and Cali, Cabrera played street soccer until joining a neighborhood team at age 9. His success as a teen for Santa Fe led to his U-20 national team selection and he was part of its 1985 and 1987 U-20 World Cup squads.

Cabrera started as a center forward, but ended up playing all positions besides goalkeeper.

"From the day I started playing," he says, "I was always paying close attention to the coach. I asked a lot of questions about tactics and always wanted to know what the coach wanted from us. I was very interested in the elements of all positions.

"Whenever I played a position, I would first concentrate on the main role of that position, then I would see what else I could contribute. If I played right back, I would identify my main opponent - whether he was right- or left-footed, how fast he was. I would concentrate on locking down my area of the field. Then I would see how I could enter the attack, with or without the ball."

His versatility made him a valuable player for country and club - he spent eight years with powerhouse America de Cali - and helped prepare him for a coaching career, which started when he co-founded the Chico Futbol Club in the mid-1990s.

Chico FC, which he helped reach Colombia's top tier, was built upon a player development system in which teens from across Colombia moved into its residency camp.

The model was similar to U.S. Soccer's U-17 residency academy in Bradenton, Fla., which Cabrera is now in charge of, having been hired as U.S. U-17 head coach in October.

COMING TO AMERICA. Although his piloting work went well, it infringed on his family time. As he looked for other opportunities he was drawn to the United States. In 2003, he moved to the New York area with his wife and three children.

"Since I moved to this country, I've had a goal," says the 40-year-old.

"First, learn English. Then try to share my experience as a World Cup player through my career with the kids over here."

He came out of retirement to play for the USL's Long Island Rough Riders, an idea that MLS Director of Player Programs Alfonso Mondelo proposed as way to familiarize Cabrera with the U.S. game. Cabrera began coaching Long Island youth teams and took on a U-16 boys team at Queens club BW Gottschee. Its director of coaching, Ben Boehm, says Cabrera was one of the best coaches the club has ever had in its 50-year history.

"The best way to describe him is he likes players to make decisions," says Boehm. "He likes players who are composed on the ball, can make good decisions, and he works in that direction. He has a very good, consistent methodology, which is very important with young players. He had our team playing real good ball. The guy is just a good coach. He's an excellent teacher."

Cabrera mastered English, passed the U.S. Soccer Federation's B and A license courses, worked in the Region I ODP program, and last January became a member of the U.S. Under-18 men's national team staff under Bob Jenkins, the Federation's director of player development.

Cabrera was also hired as MLS manager of fan development, working on Hispanic grassroots and youth programs.

PREPARING FUTURE STARS. The United States is the only country to have qualified for every U-17 world championship since FIFA's youngest boys championship was launched as a U-16 championship in 1985. In 1999, the U.S. Soccer Federation created a full-time residency program for the U-17s. More than 40 players in their mid-teens reside at Bradenton. In addition to preparing a team for U-17 World Cup play, the environment at Bradenton aims to prepare the youngsters for the U-20 and full national team play, and pro ball.

Cabrera is the first U-17 coach since Bradenton's launch who has had extensive experience in the professional game. He is also the first Hispanic to head a male U.S. national team at any level.

"I'm glad the U.S. Soccer Federation has put him in that position, not because he's Hispanic, but he comes with a certain style and feel of the game," says Boehm. "You get all different types of coaches and there are lot of good coaches around, but he's definitely what we need more of in this country. He knows the type of player he's looking for. He's not looking for a player who's just an athlete, he's looking for the guy who's the soccer player."

Cabrera's appointment is one of three national team coaching hires by U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati since his term began in March 2006. (Bob Bradley became men's national team coach in December 2006 and Gulati named Pia Sundhage women's national team coach in November 2007.)

Cabrera played against the USA four times in his career, including a 4-1 win in the third-place game of the 1995 Copa America. Gulati was also familiar with Cabrera from having tried to sign him for MLS in the late 1990s when Gulati was MLS deputy commissioner.

"The obvious influence of South American is something that weighed into our decision," Gulati said of Cabrera's appointment, "but it wasn't the primary factor. We wanted someone who would be a very good coach, could work with young players, and the fact that he does bring a different attitude and different background is a huge plus for us.

"The fact that Wilmer is bilingual and played for the Colombian national team is a huge plus in a lot of our outreach program issues, and something that I think we'll continue to focus on. But primarily he has been hired because he was a technically gifted player and a very good coach with a lot of promise."

COACHING PHILOSOPHY. Cabrera was one of the most admired players on the Colombian teams of the 1990s that included such flamboyant players as Carlos Valderrama, Faustino Asprilla and Rene Higuita. Cabrera was considered the team's gentleman - humble and well-spoken.

After reaching the second round of the 1990 World Cup, Colombia disappointed in the 1994 World Cup when it entered the tournament as a favorite following a stunning 5-0 qualifying win in Argentina and a long undefeated streak.

Colombia was also widely hailed for its playing style - a possession game combined with an explosive frontline. The team was notable for its highly technical players in all areas of the field and its effective passing game.

"We didn't have the speed or athleticism to run back and forth the whole time," says Cabrera. "So we would pass the ball 30, 40 times consecutively, making the other team run a lot. And we played a smart zone defense. We knew each other's movements so well. It was unbelievable."

Cabrera says the main difference he sees in American soccer compared to his native land is that in Colombia children see soccer as their only path to a better life.

"In the United States, you don't have to play soccer to survive," he says. "The approach with these kids has to be different, and the process has to be different because they have a very good education and I love that. We have to take advantage of the fact American kids want to be No. 1.

"I don't have any doubt about their decision to try to play soccer at a high level. My job is to offer them the tools to understand that at the highest level the game is competitive, and that you have to be a professional beyond the field. It is a lifestyle. That means a lot of sacrifice, but also a lot of passion."

Cabrera also appreciates the USA's diversity - "We have to take advantage of all the different kinds of players" - and its huge player pool.

"In the United States, more kids than in any other country in the world are playing soccer," he says. "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."

Boehm says that one of Cabrera's outstanding skills as a coach is being able to create a competitive environment in which the players work hard while enjoying themselves.

"I think this has to be natural," says Cabrera. "The kids come to you and they expect you to show them everything. It's not like that. They have the tools, they have the passion. You only have to be the guide for them.

"You only have to give them confidence, possibilities, make them have fun - and show them that they can have fun and be competitive, and that they can trust what they have. That's the way I learned and that is the way I'm going to try to teach."

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

December 10, 2007
U.S. Youth Soccer 'renews focus'

John Ellinger has coached some of the most brilliant young American players in the nation's history and brings vast experience to new USYS Technical Director role.

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

He guided the USA, with Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, to fourth place at the 1999 U-17 World Cup. As U-17 national team coach for seven years, a span that included the launch of the Bradenton residency program, Ellinger also coached the likes of Freddy Adu, Bobby Convey and Eddie Johnson.

But Ellinger believes the United States can produce exceptional players at a more impressive rate. And after a three-year stint as an MLS coach, Ellinger has returned to the youth game to help make that happen.

Ellinger has been hired by U.S. Youth Soccer as Technical Director, a newly created position for the nation's largest youth sports organization, whose membership comprises 3 million players and 300,000 youth coaches.

His responsibilities, as described by USYS, include "all aspects of the association's coaching initiatives, including a renewed focus on player development with consistent themes and coaching education.

"The department will collaborate with technical and coaching education experts at the state and club levels, ensuring that U.S. Youth Soccer maintains the relevancy of its programs and events, and the association's storied player development and identification programs."

Ellinger, 56, arrives at USYS with extensive coaching experience at various levels. After coaching the University of Maryland-Baltimore County for nearly a decade, he served as Director of Coaching for the Columbia (Md.) Soccer Association, where he won two USYS National Championship titles with the Columbia City United boys team.

He coached the Washington Diplomats of the APSL and served as assistant coach with the Columbus Crew during MLS's inaugural 1996 season. As U.S. U-17 coach from 1997 until becoming Real Salt Lake head coach in late 2004, Ellinger ran the Bradenton residency program that was attended by more than 100 players during his tenure.

The first group, which entered Bradenton in 1999, was the most impressive.

"You're talking about some gifted and creative players," Ellinger says of Kyle Beckerman, Beasley, Donovan and Convey. "These are guys who in their early training were exposed to the right kind of environment. They were players who had ideas of how to play that not many other players had."

Ellinger's two-plus seasons as MLS head coach gave him further opportunities to evaluate the quality of the American player.

"The pool of the middle-of-the-road player who can do enough to be successful at that top level for a couple of years has gotten much deeper," he says. "But it's the players who can come into the league the first year, be starters, have an impact - we have to do a better job of developing those players."

Ellinger believes youth coaching has improved immensely, thanks to U.S. Soccer, USYS and NSCAA coaching education programs.

"So players are getting better coaching," he says, "but are these coaches the ones who get them at the younger age levels? That's always a concern."

USYS collaborates with the USSF on coaching courses and advocates competition guidelines for its 55 state associations, but the recommendations on crucial aspects of player development aren't always followed at the grassroots levels.

"The hardest word to spell in youth sports is probably 'mandate,'" says Ellinger. "You throw out there what states and leagues should be doing at certain ages - age-specific priorities - and hope most states, most leagues and most clubs follow those kinds of notions."

Ellinger will be evaluating how states run their competitions, coaching education and Olympic Development Programs.

"We'll try to reinforce what's going on in states that are following the recommendations put forth by U.S. Soccer and U.S. Youth Soccer," he says, "and looking at those states that aren't and saying, 'How can we get this information to your coaches in a way that's positive and effective?'"

USYS believes with Ellinger's leadership it can improve the experiences of recreational and elite players - and truly special players will come out of the youth ranks more frequently.

"As players go through various age groups, they should be allowed the creativity and the ability to not worry about making mistakes," he said. "They need to be allowed to get forward, take some risks, and make decisions in all three areas of the field."

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

December 05, 2007
'Artistry and Potential'

"At a youth soccer game you'll probably hear parents and coaches on the sidelines yelling, 'Pass the ball! Pass the ball!' ... When we continually tell our young players to pass the ball, we're not allowing them to develop their full potential, especially those who have the ability to take their opponents on and beat them one-on-one. As a result, we run the risk of diminishing a player's artistry and potential."

-- Tony DiCicco, who coached the U.S. women's national team to the 1996 Olympic Gold Medal and the 1999 Women's World Cup title. (from "Catch Them Being Good: Everything You Need to Know to Successfully Coach Girls.")

December 01, 2007
Coaching with Cones

By Mike Woitalla (Soccer America Magazine, 2002)

Near my house, there's a wonderful park with two playgrounds and a pond with geese whom you shouldn't feed, because they get aggressive and chase toddlers in hopes of a handout. There's a meadow large enough to handle three soccer practices for young children.

Here come the coaches and the cones. Not a few cones for goalposts, but orange funnels everywhere. What will they do with them?

The 6-year-olds arrive and provide an answer. Megaphones. Put your mouth at the narrow end and howl. And hats. See the little coneheads scamper. But that's not what they're really for. Let the overcoaching begin.

The coaches start directing the kids to line up behind that cone, run to that one, slalom between those, and so on.

One coach has a whistle around his neck and a clipboard. What could be on that clipboard? A practice plan in case he forgets what he's doing this afternoon? Notes on the 6-year-olds' progress?

The children, as they wait in line to navigate the cones, fiddle with their shinguards, wrestle or gaze at the pond. When they take their turn, most are befuddled by the drill.

Perhaps novice American coaches embrace intricate training schemes because traditional American sports often require coaches to choreograph much of what players do. Or do coaches believe that if it's not complicated, it can't be effective?

At last year's NSCAA convention, a couple of coaches told me they were disappointed in a "clinic" given by Aime Jacquet. They said it was "so basic" and he didn't do "anything special."

Jacquet coached France to the 1998 World Cup title and oversees France's amazingly successful youth player development program.

Bruce Arena, at the height of his success with entertaining, dominating Virginia, was asked about his practice sessions. The secret he revealed: "We spend a lot of time practicing playing soccer."

What a relief when the coaches at my park finally let the kids play. But they had reduced the game into a reward for putting up with all the cone nonsense.