April 15, 2009
MLS Shakes Up Youth Game

North Texas provides an example of how the youth landscape is changing now that MLS has entered the fray.

By Mike Woitalla (from the April issue of Soccer America)

A Dallas Morning News article in March revealed how crazily competitive youth soccer is in North Texas, where 195,000 children play the game.

A Web site that offers up-to-the-minute scores and field conditions hosts forums in which parents spread rumors, sound off on coaches and players, and pick fights with each other. Some 12,000 users have posted to its forum bulletin boards and the site averages 2.5 million page views a month.

"The clubs are so powerful that people usually have to succumb to their whims," Matthew Shipley, who founded TurfMonster.com in 2004, told the Morning News. "People need an outlet when they don't like a coach or think they are not getting what they signed up for or not getting their money's worth. …

"It's just nasty out there. That's why Turf Monster exists in North Texas."

One forum asked which were the most-hated teams. It attracted 4,500 views in less than two weeks before Shipley pulled it.

"It just got too filthy," said Shipley on the vitriol aimed at a team of 9- and 10-year-olds. "I have language filters, but there are too many ways around it."

It's such an environment that Major League Soccer's FC Dallas entered when it launched an ambitious youth program two years before MLS, in 2007, mandated that all its clubs field youth teams.

"The idea is the clubs begin to develop players who have the professionalism instilled in them from a younger age and that helps them develop the technical and tactical development of the game," said Alfonso Mondelo, MLS's technical director of player programs.

It is, of course, the model used around the world, to different degrees of success. When a club promotes a player to its pro team, it saves the money it would have to spend buying a player. And if it sells one of its own products, it earns a transfer fee that helps pay for the youth program.

There's also the notion that pro clubs can do a better job at producing high-quality players because they would be focusing on long-term development rather than scorelines at the young ages. And pro clubs can give opportunities to players who can't afford the high cost of American youth soccer.

But the entry into the youth game by MLS clubs was not universally applauded. Fearful that their talent would be lured away by MLS clubs, some youth club leaders went as far as to threaten boycotts of MLS games.

One Dallas-area director of coaching, who says his club used to purchase FC Dallas tickets and distribute them to its players, says he now pushes the delete button when he receives queries from the MLS team. His beef is FC Dallas isn't just fielding a few elite teams, but it's growing so big that it will destroy smaller clubs.

Chris Hayden, FC Dallas youth director of coaching, doesn't see it that way.

"I don't see FC Dallas working as super club with a monopoly on the Dallas market," he says. "I think there are a lot of very qualified people who work in all of these different clubs and they'll continue to flourish. We're just trying to create a link from our youth system, which is big and growing, to the pro team.

"We're not the biggest club in Dallas. Our goal is not to be the biggest club or to monopolize the area. We want to provide quality coaching for players who want to be a part of FC Dallas."

While its elite teams use the FC Dallas facilities in Frisco, its younger teams are spread around the metroplex.
"A lot these kids are playing in their neighborhoods," Hayden says. "They're not traveling great distances. They're playing with their friends with a coach they like. They enjoyed their first experience with a FC Dallas team, and they want to be part of the club."

By 2007, FC Dallas laid claim to being the "first fully integrated vertical player development system in MLS." It now has 600 players of both genders at the U-7 to U-10 level, and 1,200 players from U-11 and U-19. In 2008, it began fielding teams in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, the 74-club U-15/16 and U-17/18 league now in its second season.

FC Dallas is one of 10 MLS clubs that compete in U.S. Soccer Academy. (The Kansas City Wizards are slated to join 2009-10.) Not all are as ambitious as FC Dallas. The L.A. Galaxy, for example, fields only Academy teams, plus a U-20 squad that competes in the USL Super-20 League.

The 40 players who play on FC Dallas' U.S. Soccer Academy teams, the FC Dallas Juniors, do so free of charge – an expense that Hayden estimates at $8,000 to $10,000 per player, per year.

Hayden stresses that his U.S. Soccer Academy players' expenses are funded by club ownership, not from the fees of the clubs' other players.

In fact, one of the most welcome aspects of MLS clubs' entry into youth soccer is they're creating opportunities for players to play elite ball without charge.

"It makes a huge difference," Hayden says. "It opens up your player pool. You don't have kids who can't play because of finances. If it wasn't funded, we would not have the same group of players, because there would be some who couldn't afford it."

This would seem to be a cause to celebrate, but youth clubs competing with the MLS clubs see themselves at a disadvantage.

"We have found a way through our affiliations and sponsors – tournaments and camps we do — and a lot of sacrifices from our coaches, to make our [U.S. Soccer] Academy teams free of charge," says Hassan Nazari, the director of the powerhouse Dallas Texans. "But we are fortunate and I feel sympathy to other clubs that have to compete with this type of thing. I am not criticizing the MLS clubs. But what they can offer to the players makes it difficult to compete."

As far as complaints about MLS teams taking players away from other clubs? That tradition long predates MLS's youth programs. As one longtime youth coach put it a few years back, "There's more poaching than coaching in youth soccer."

Hayden says that 40 percent of the club's Academy players came from within the FC Dallas youth program. Others made the team in the same kind of tryout other clubs hold. And, FC Dallas Juniors discovered players through Sueno MLS — the nationally televised player search from which Jael Barrera and Noel Luna landed on the U-17/18 squad. Gabriel and Ramiro Funes were selected but are currently in Argentina training at River Plate.

In addition to impressive performances in Academy play — FC Dallas Juniors are dominating the U-15/16 Texas Division that includes area giants Andromeda, Solar and the Texans – FC Dallas Juniors Alex Molano and Jose Perez are now in the U.S. U-17 national team Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla.

Hayden looks forward to the day when youth players from his club break into the first team.

"It's very important for FC Dallas to have a Dallas influence," he says. "To have kids who grew up here play for the city's pro team is very good for the team, and that goes for all MLS cities."

To help other clubs cope with Academy costs, U.S. Soccer, with the U.S. Soccer Foundation and Nike, has launched a scholarship program.

For sure, MLS clubs that cover their youth players' costs have an advantage over the youth clubs that struggle to meet travel and coaching expenses. But MLS should be hailed for the opportunities it's creating for young players.

"FC Dallas is lucky to do that," says Kevin Smith, Coaching Director of Solar SC. "Maybe there'll be one day when we get there, you know? The good thing about Dallas is it's a soccer hotbed, and there's a lot of quality kids, and they can't all go to FC Dallas."

(This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

April 02, 2009
Encouraging the Pass ... When the Time is Right

One of the biggest mistakes youth coaches can make is to force a passing game on children too early. So how can coaches encourage passing without impeding their players' development?

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

One of the biggest mistakes youth coaches can make is to force a passing game on children too early.

Discouraging dribbling in the early years is like telling toddlers to shut up when they're learning to speak. Young players should dribble as much as possible -- because dribbling is the first step to mastering all ball skills.

Coaches should resist temptation to shout at young players to pass the ball. U.S. Soccer's Best Practices Player Development Guidelines stress that coaches should "Encourage the dribbler at the younger ages ... Dribbling, at the younger ages, is the child's attempt to gain control over the ball. Controlling the ball is the primary skill that every other skill in soccer depends on. ... Do not expect him or her to look to the pass or to pass with any level of competence or awareness, until he or she has mastered this skill."

Of course, passing is an integral part of soccer. So how can coaches encourage passing without impeding their players' development?

BE PATIENT. Children will naturally, but slowly, begin to comprehend the benefits of sharing the ball. Even if the adults do nothing to encourage passing, players will begin to ask each other for the ball. They will learn from each other and from the game.

PLAYING ALONG. When coaches play along with their teams at practice, they can constantly demonstrate passing. And when coaches pass the ball back to the player they got it from, they send the message that sharing pays off. A coach, or an older player invited to take part in practice, can play a neutral role in games. The neutral player doesn't defend or score, but gives his or her team a better chance of keeping the ball.

POINTS FOR PASSING. Scrimmaging and small-sided games should be the main part of practice sessions. Demonstrate the wall pass - or give-and-go - and tell the children that whenever they complete a wall pass, it counts as a goal.

TEAM HANDBALL. Now and then during scrimmages, switch from soccer to team handball, which is like basketball with soccer goals.

It is very difficult for novice players, while they're trying to control the ball with their feet, to see where their teammates are. In team handball, they can look around when they have the ball in their hands for a teammate to throw it to. The player with the ball and those who wish to receive a pass start becoming aware of positioning.

The rules can vary. It can be that players are allowed three seconds and three steps whenever they get the ball. You can let them throw the ball into the goal when they have a scoring opportunity, or require that they drop it and shoot.

For older kids, it can be that when players in possession are tagged, they must turn the ball over to the opponent.

5-v-2. One of the standard warm-up games is the 5-v-2, or some variation of numbers in a loose circle playing keepaway from the players in the middle. When this is too difficult for novice players -- one sign is that players want to be in middle because it's so easy to get the ball -- use a variation in which it is "Keepaway from the Coaches." The coaches make half-hearted efforts to cut off a possible avenue for the player with the ball so that he looks for a passing option. "Keepaway from the Coaches" can be played without the circle but in the confines of the penalty area or a cone grid.

TWO-TOUCH IN MODERATION. Limiting players to two touches during scrimmages or small-sided games might be the most popular method of encouraging passing and has its benefits. But don't incorporate it in practices when your players aren't skillful enough to cope with just two touches. It is extremely difficult to make a good first touch, see where teammates are, and execute a well-struck pass. Just as teachers don't teach children algebra before they can add and subtract, coaches should always consider their players' stage of development.

If a couple of minutes go by and the players struggle to complete passes, you know it's too early.

And when it seems the right time to introduce some two-touch play, don't overdo it.

You don't want to discourage individual creativity or risk-taking. Imagine how many thousands of times Lionel Messi or Marta tried to dribble past other kids and lost the ball before mastering their amazing dribbling moves.

Also, remember that you want the majority of your practices to simulate game situations. It's unreasonable to restrict a player from using a few extra touches if it's effective.

Two-touch serves some valuable purposes. It forces players to focus on their first touch. It's crucial for players learn that trapping a ball dead is not as effective as a first touch that positions the ball so that they can pass, shoot, or embark on a dribble with the second touch.

But two-touch should be used sparingly and not at all before the players master the ball skills to cope with its challenges.