By Mike Woitalla (from the December issue of Soccer America)
Tony Lepore spent a decade as an elementary and middle school guidance counselor before dedicating himself full-time to youth soccer.
"I've always come at this with a child development perspective and I think in youth coaching that's important," he says. "It's not just about knowing the game, but knowing kids. I've always come at this with a kids-first perspective."
Lepore is the Director of Scouting for the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. In that role he oversees three other full-time scouts and about 60 per-diem scouts who are searching for boys with youth national team potential among the 74 clubs that field 148 teams in the Academy's U-15/16 and U-17/18 leagues.
The scouts also serve as technical advisors to the clubs, encouraging them to follow U.S. Soccer's "Best Practices" guidelines at all age levels. The aim is to steer youth clubs away from coaching approaches that are detrimental to optimal player development.
At the younger ages, 6 to 12, Lepore says, "It's still too results-driven and not enough small-sided. There's still too much teaching positions too early. Not enough variety. No enough free play."
Lepore, 41, played college soccer at Keene State and semipro ball with the Cape Cod Crusaders and New Hampshire Phantoms. He coached high school ball, was New Hampshire's ODP Director of Coaching and the DOC of Seacoast United.
While with Seacoast, Lepore would go into the community to train rec-team coaches. A big part of that was to encourage an "age-appropriate philosophy."
"I'd talk to them about how to make it fun, and how to accept chaos and tolerate chaos, and assure them, that's how it's supposed to look," he says.
Through the U.S. Soccer Academy, launched in 2007, Lepore and his staff provide feedback to elite clubs, who are evaluated and even put on probation.
"It's objective and non-judgmental," he says. "Clubs have been really open to it. ...
"There's still some teams out there getting results but the soccer's not so good. Maybe it's too direct. Maybe it's too safe. And it's not in the best interest of development."
Overcoaching, Lepore says, is an issue that comes up frequently.
"I think that's become all too common in the American youth soccer culture, where coaches are too involved at game time," he says. "We're saying, listen, now you've got a better balance of training to games, we want you to use that time to prepare guys for games and don't be so involved in every play from the [sideline]."
Lepore stresses that many clubs are "approaching it the right way."
"A positive for us is when we see clubs looking at individuals first rather than the team results," says Lepore, citing clubs that move exceptional players into the older age bracket even though that could mean fewer wins for teams they left.
Lepore became enchanted with soccer as a young boy when his father served as a financial manager for the Hartford Bicentennials, which played in the NASL in 1974 and 1975. The team was coached by Manfred Schellscheidt, who has since become a mentor to scores of American coaches and currently heads the U.S. U-14 boys development program. Lepore reunited with Schellscheidt when Schellscheidt brought him into the USYSA Region 1 boys staff.
Lepore has also worked alongside Schellscheidt with the U-14s and continues to work under Jim Barlow with the U-15s.
The Academy scouting system enables players to be identified and move straight into national team camps, a more direct method than the ODP ladder. Lepore and his network of scouts hold weekly conference calls, submit player evaluation forms and are in constant contact with youth national team coaches.
"We're still looking for guys who are good with the ball, who show a comfort level on the ball," Lepore says. "We're looking for technical players first. And at the younger age group we're not going to scratch off the list any guys who aren't getting it done athletically right now. But also we're not ignoring the guys who have something athletically.
"There's no real formula. The evaluation sheet we have, of course, looks at guys in terms of technique and decision-making, and then athleticism, and we're also trying to get a feel for their mentality. How competitive are these guys? How focused are they? How much impact do they have on a game?"
(This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)