February 25, 2008
A Different Approach

A replica of the French federation's youth development program may not be feasible in the USA, but some key aspects of the system are worth considering.

By Mike Woitalla (from Soccer Magazine, February, 2008 issue).

The first page of the newspaper needs to be crumpled up and squeezed tightly, because that's the core. Wrap three more sheets around the core and tape a big cross around the orb.

Masking tape will work, but athletic tape is best. Add three more sheets of newspaper. Then wrap tape around it until you can't see any of the newspaper.

Mark Hackett constructs such balls with the players on his U-12 Downers Grove Roadrunners team in Illinois, where weather conditions mean that outdoor soccer on many days of the year just isn't possible. The idea is that they kick the ball around in their homes.

"It's springy enough that you can kick it off the wall," he says, "but it doesn't bounce away from you so much that you start destroying things. They can tell their parents that it's safe to use in the home."

Of course, there's no guarantee against broken vases and such, but so far Coach Hackett hasn't gotten any parental complaints. And from what he can tell, his players have not only taken to newspaper ball, they love it.

"They can play in the basement," Hackett says, "kick it off the wall and it doesn't make dents. It's pretty easy to control. You can pass it around, play one-on-one."

I met Hackett as he was leaving January's National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) Convention, where thousands of coaches congregated, looking for new ways to create better players. Hackett, also an assistant coach at Elmhurst College, didn't get the newspaper idea at the convention, but said he picked up some coaching techniques from the presentations in Baltimore.

For me, the most intriguing NSCAA guest was Gerard Houllier. The Frenchman was popular among the attendees, who seemed to know him mainly from his six-season stint at Liverpool that included a treble title win in 2001. My interest was in Houllier's role in the French soccer federation's youth development system, considered Europe's most successful.

After winning two league straight titles with Lyon, Houllier recently returned to the French federation as Technical Director - a role he held for eight years from 1989.

The session titled "French Player Development" sounded like it would be a lecture, but instead the 1,000 or so in attendance saw Houllier instead run an on-field demonstration. The hour-long session consisted of various go-to-goal games. There was no barking from the 60-year-old coach, who sprinkled his comments with smiles and chuckles.

Afterward, Houllier fielded questions on how the French federation created a system that helped France win the 1998 World Cup, the 2000 European Championship, and produced players such as Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and William Gallas.

"What we did is create elite centers for players between ages 13 to 15," Houllier said. "The best train together. When the best train together, they improve. We put the stress on skills. Skills, skills, creativity. It's not a physical program. Just skills."

Houllier calls the centers pre-academies, because it's at age 15 when players enter the pro club system.

The venture began with the establishment of the Clairefontaine national training center outside of Paris in 1988. Clairefontaine served as the pilot program. Now there are 10 centers throughout France. They are financed by federal and local government funds, and by the federation.

"The pro clubs like it," he said. "They're not really equipped to do that sort of thing."

The elite-center players don't compete in league play together.

"They go back home and play with their teammates, even if it's a small club," he said. "There's no uprooting. Even if they're scoring 10 goals with their club, that's OK. It makes them confident."

Houllier reacted in disbelief when he was told that in the United States there are such things as state cups for U-10s.

"In France we have regional competition for under-16," he said. "The first national championship is under-18. There's no such competitions before the age of 14. Winning is part of the development of players. But winning for winning's sake, no."

Houllier points to France's qualification for the 2008 European Championship, clinched in November on a goal by Henry, as an example of the system's success.

"It was a symbolic goal," he said. "[Hatem] Ben Arfa, who is 20 and was at Clairefontaine, passed the ball to Henry, who was at Clairefontaine 10 years earlier."

At the elite centers, Houllier says players train once a day only, even when they're out of school.

"It's not overloading the training," he said. "What we noticed is that those players who are better scheduled suffer fewer injuries."

The emphasis on technical skills, he says, also prevents injury.

"If I pass the ball to him," Houllier says, pointing at a reporter, "and his control is not good, there's a fight, a tackle. If he controls it well, he avoids that."

The French federation has 15 national coaches and about 120 regional coaches who select players for the elite centers.

"So from about 300 kids, we take 20 players for that age group," Houllier says, "and for three years they train together."

France is only twice the size of Colorado, so its federation doesn't face the geographic challenge the U.S. Soccer Federation must cope with as it tries to identify and develop talent.

The other dramatic difference is that the elite players in France don't have to pay their own way. On that front, there is good news in the United States and it comes from Major League Soccer clubs fielding youth teams.

The New York Red Bulls, Chicago Fire and Chivas USA, which field teams in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, have created cost-free youth ball for elite players. Other MLS teams are folowing suit.

The advantages of youth soccer in which parents don't foot the bill goes beyond creating opportunities for low-income players. It also takes the focus off short-term results, because coaches are judged by their employers - the franchise, not parents - on how successful they are at producing players for the top level.

The ultimate success of any youth development program, however, depends on the soccer environment players are in at the very early ages.

The French federation leaves that in the hands of local amateur clubs - until the players pass through the U-12 level - but makes clear the kind of coaching it advocates.

"At that age, I would say dribbling is No. 1," Houllier says. "Dribbling is also control of the ball. And at that age it's about skills and fun. Fun, enjoyment is very important. To bring the desire, the passion for the game." Getting youngster to play around the house with a newspaper ball sounds like a fine example.

(This article originally appeared in the February 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

February 20, 2008
The New Generation

Top picks in the 2008 MLS SuperDraft include members of Generation adidas, the program that offers tuition grants to players who skip college ball or leave before completing their NCAA eligibility. In the March issue of Soccer America, Mike Woitalla spoke with four of the highly touted MLS newcomers about their youth soccer experience.

Roger Espinoza (Kansas City)


He grew up in the Honduran harbor city of Puerto Cortes, playing pickup games in the street and on bumpy dirt fields. But until he was 12 years old, when his family of eight moved to Colorado, Roger Espinoza never played on an organized team.

Colorado Storm coach Rafael Amaya, recognizing an exceptional talent, took Espinoza, who spoke no English upon his arrival, under his wing, guided him to a private school and on to a successful college career.

"I didn't know anything about junior college or Division I," Espinoza said. "He [Amaya] is the one who would tell coaches you need to ask this guy to come play for you. They never saw me play, but they took me because Rafael recommended me."

Espinoza helped Yavapai College and Ohio State to junior college and Division I national championship runner-up finishes, respectively.

"Playing on bad fields in Honduras really helped me with skills," he says. "When I came here and played on fields where the ball doesn't bounce away, it was easy to control it really well."

Espinoza had the kind of skills most coaches would recognize as optimal for a central midfield playmaker, but Amaya figured Espinoza would go farther if he developed into a more diverse player, so he started the left-footer out at left back, then moved him into the left side of midfield.

"Kids like that love to be the No. 10," says Amaya. "But if a young player gets to the pros and can only play in the middle, his chances of breaking in are slim."

Espinoza worked odd jobs and was a constant help on fund-raisers to finance his youth soccer expenses. His mother is a chef at a casino and his father works construction, but he was out of work for three years after an on-job injury that broke his leg in 27 places.

"I went pro because it's always been my dream and because my family needs the money," says Roger, who signed a Generation adidas contract with one year of college eligibility left.

Chance Myers (Kansas City)


For the second straight year, the MLS Draft's No. 1 pick came out of Southern California youth club Pateadores. Maurice Edu earned 2007 Rookie of the Year honors playing for Toronto. Now Chance Myers, picked by the Kansas City Wizards, aims to make an impact in the pros after playing two seasons at UCLA.

Edu and Myers played for Pateadores coach Mike Gartland, who also serves as their agent through Proactive Sports Management, although Edu was on an older team. Myers played with Edu's brother, Reggie, who plays at the University of Evansville.

Steve Shak, the top MLS pick in 2000, also played for the Pateadores.

Myers moved into a defensive position when he arrived at Pateadores after playing center midfield and forward for So Cal United.

"The team had a different structure and Mike Gartland put me at right back," says Myers. "But I love to get forward. I love to combine with the right mid, center mid and forward."

Myers says he was totally surprised to be the No. 1 pick ("I'd be happy going last"), but then he's long underestimated himself.

The first time he went to a traveling team tryout, after playing AYSO, he stayed in the car figuring he didn't have a chance until a coach cajoled him to the field.

"After Edu, I feel some responsibility to live up to being selected," says Myers. "But I am just looking to do what I can do."

Ciaran O'Brien (Colorado)


His father's long professional career ended a couple of years before Ciaran O'Brien was born, but he still got plenty of early exposure to the pro game, thanks to his older brother, Leighton, a star of the USL-1's Seattle Sounders.

As a teen, Ciaran hung around with the Sounders and at times trained with them.

"Being around the game with my brother, being in the locker room with the Sounders - the guys were all my mentors -- it shows what a young guy has to do to make it in professional soccer," says Ciaran, who played two years of college ball, at the University of San Diego and UC Santa Barbara. "Now it's down to me."

(Ciaran's older sister Erika played college ball at Florida's Barry University.)

Leighton, 12 years Ciaran's senior, was league MVP with Seattle in 2002 and helped them win titles in 2005 and 2007. Ciaran and Leighton were coached by their father, Fran, an Irishman who played seven seasons in the North American Soccer League and whose three caps for Ireland included an appearance against England at Wembley.

"Everyone says if I'm as good as my dad was," Ciaran says, "I'll be a great pro. And that's the goal."

Fran was a busy, skillful midfielder who scored 32 goals in 175 NASL games after arriving in the league from Irish club Bohemians in 1978.

"Ciaran's a different player than I was or than his brother," says Fran. "but he's a midfielder who scores goals, and that's one of his greatest attributes."

Brek Shea (FC Dallas)


Asked about her son skipping college to enter pro soccer, Kirstin Shea-Brekken quickly interjects: "Delaying, not skipping."

Brek Shea, 17, was the second pick in MLS's 2008 SuperDraft, which he entered after changing his mind about attending Wake Forest University.

"The decision wasn't that hard for my dad," says Brek. "My mom, it took her a while." Charles and Kirstin are professor and senior lecturer, respectively, in Texas A&M's Department of Health & Kinesiology.

"It's very tough for me, especially," said Kirstin. "But I didn't realize he was playing at such a high level. I think he knows he's going to go to school later on."

FC Dallas-bound Shea, a 6-foot-3 defender/midfielder who left home at age 15 to join the U.S. Soccer's U-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla., shone at the MLS Combine before the draft.

Growing up in College Station, Texas, Shea had to commute to Houston to play elite club ball for the Texans, which he joined at age 11 after starting out with local club Brazos Magic. It was a 90-mile drive each way, up to three times a week for practice, plus games on weekends. Charles did the driving.

"Brek would do homework on the way down and sleep on the way back," says Kirstin. "The hardship was on my husband, but he loved it. He was very supportive from day 1."

Brek played baseball, swam and was on his high school football team before joining the Bradenton residency program.

"The first word he said was ball," says Kirstin. "His very first word. Before mom. He always liked to kick a ball around. He excelled at lots of sports, but had a passion for soccer early on."

(This article originally appeared in the February 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)