January 28, 2011
The Beginnings of Barcelona's Superstars

The world's three greatest players have a few things in common. Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi all stand barely 5-foot-7 tall. They're teammates at Barcelona and they all came out of the club's youth program.

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

The trio finished tops in voting for the 2010 FIFA Ballon d’Or, the world player of the year award won by Messi.

2010 World Cup champs Iniesta (age 26) and Xavi (31) joined Barcelona at age 11 and 12, respectively. Messi (23) arrived from Argentina at age 13.

One person who had a close eye on all three of them during their youth days is Albert Benaiges, the coordinator of Barcelona's youth teams, which spawned seven players who played for Spain in its World Cup final win.

After the Ballon d’Or honors, Benaiges recalled his impressions of the trio in their early years.

“No one back then knew they would be world-class players,” he told Germany’s Kicker Magazine. “For sure, Messi’s great talent was already apparent. Also in Iniesta and Xavi one saw early on that they offered something special -- or else we wouldn’t have brought them in.

“But anyone who says that when he saw those three players at age 11, 12 and 13 he knew they were future superstars is a liar.”

Benaiges says that it’s at age 16 when they can predict if a boy might mature into a very good player.

“Before that age it’s nearly impossible,” he said.

Benaiges does recall that Messi was incredibly fast with the ball. That even at 11, Xavi almost never lost the ball. And that Iniesta was a sensitive, considerate boy – shy but always willing to help others.

Messi, during one year, played for teams at five different levels within the club – and never complained whether it was with the A team or C team – always giving his best.

Regarding the type of training Barcelona youth players receive:

“Technical skills we can improve up till the age of 13,” Benaiges says. “But every pro was born a soccer player. Instinct and game intelligence we can’t create. Both of those come within.”

Asked what is trained, Benaiges responded: “Only technique and tactics, not fitness, which they can catch up on later.”

The ball is the focus:

"The most important aspect of our program is always ball work. In all the exercises they do, whether it's physical preparation or any other kind of training, the ball is always there."

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif.

January 24, 2011
New leaders aim to boost girls soccer

The first ear-piercing wakeup call for U.S. women's soccer came at the 2007 World Cup, where a dazzling Brazil outplayed and routed the USA, 4-0, in semifinals.

Last year provided more examples that the benefit of the USA's huge head start in the girls and women's game was evaporating. The USA lost to Mexico for the first time ever, and at the U-17 World Cup, it wasn't the Americans being hailed for skillful, entertaining soccer -- but South Korea, North Korea, Japan and Spain.

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

Tony DiCicco, coach of the 1999 World Cup-winning U.S. women, said, “On the girls’ side, our players are not smart players, they lack sophistication, they're not technical enough" – and he blamed the youth soccer structure, which he referred to as a big business.

The U.S. Soccer Federation, which four years ago became ambitiously involved in the youth arena on the boys side with its launch of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, and last spring appointed Claudio Reyna as Youth Soccer Technical Director, is now taking on the youth game on the girls' side.

For the first time, U.S. Soccer has appointed full-time positions to oversee the women's youth national team program and the programs’ overall development.

April Heinrichs, the former U.S. women's national team captain and coach, was named Technical Director. Former UCLA women's coach Jillian Ellis, who has also coached the U.S. U-21 women, is Development Director.

A key part of their task will be assessing the youth club environment. “We’ll go out and see exactly what is being done, then evaluating and getting feedback,” says Ellis.

But they already know what a key focus will be.

“You’re going to hear us shout from the top of every tall building: technique, technique, technique,” says Heinrichs.

Says Ellis, “We've all come to the agreement that technical development is the greatest need. The simple message is spend half of your practice doing technical work.”

That other nations would improve may have been inevitable. That they’re producing more skillful teams than the USA -- whose participation figures and investment in girls and women's soccer are unmatched -- demonstrates that something had gone wrong somewhere at the American youth level.

Heinrichs starred on the U.S. team that won the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991. And she coached the USA in 2000-2004, winning the gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games.

“I think in the women’s game we identified our great qualities and they became our strengths, going back to the 1980s and 1990s,” she says. “And now some of our strengths have evolved into weaknesses that we want to address.

“We are tough psychologically, competitively, physically. When we got into a sticky situation we could default to the physical. We could default to the psychological.

“Now we need to default to a little more possession and control the tempo of the game. Sometimes we just need to hang on to the ball. And because of our lack of technical skills in some situations we can’t.”

As they evaluate the youth soccer landscape, another key issue is the number of games.

“I certainly think the volume is an issue,” Ellis said. “You can play 80 games a year but it’s not going to get you technically proficient. We’ll look at the ratio of match play to training. You have to look at how many games our youth players are playing and at what level.

“There are enlightened people out there who are changing those. I think there are people who are recognizing that four games in two days are just too much. You definitely want to tap in and encourage that type of thinking."

Game and tournament overload was one of the issues that led U.S. Soccer to launch the Development Academy for boys.

“We need to get the training-to-game ratio correct,” Heinrichs said. “We need to consider more festivals, where they come in and play two games.”

The boys Academy’s other charge was to influence the approach its member clubs took to the pre-Academy ages -- de-emphasizing results at the young ages and emphasizing player development.

Whether the Federation should launch a similar program on the girls' side is something Ellis and Heinrichs will consider.

“We talked a little a bit since they’ve been appointed about the Academy on boys' side and the pros and cons of that,” said U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. “We’re encouraged from what we’ve seen on the boys’ side and certainly are looking seriously at the possibility on the girls’ side and are open to that. We’ll address that in the months to come.”

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif.)

January 20, 2011
Coping with too many games

The turf war between youth organizations ensures an endless fountain of championships and the tournament industry has made playing three to four games in one weekend a common part of youth soccer. We asked Dr. Dev K. Mishra what coaches can do to when their teams are faced with game overload. Dr. Mishra, the founder of SidelineSportsDoc.com, is an orthopedic surgeon who has served as team doctor at the professional, national team, college and high school level.

Interview by Mike Woitalla (From Soccer America's Youth Soccer Insider)

SOCCER AMERICA: Despite the fact that the U.S. Soccer Federation discourages youth teams from playing multiple games in a weekend, youth coaches continue to send their teams to tournaments that require three of four games in two days. …

So much is out of the coaches’ hands. There are certain tournaments that they feel obligated to participate in either to enhance the stature of their team or to expose their players to the best competition, and maybe to college coaches. They are doing what they feel is best for their players and are generally not in control of the tournament schedules.

The multiple-game in a short period tournament format doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.

SA: Besides the fact that player-development experts say the practice-to-game ratio is out of whack in American youth soccer, what do we know about the perils of squeezing in too many games?

There is some good research on injury rates from multiple matches in a short period of time from the professional ranks.

“The American Journal of Sports Medicine” recently published a well-conducted study out of Glasgow Celtic over the course of two seasons ("Effect of 2 Soccer Matches in a Week on Physical Performance and Injury Rate"). In a very sophisticated way, they took a look at performance parameters and also at injury rates. The variable was the amount of time between games.

Bear in mind these are really high-level professional athletes with access to probably the best medical care that you can find.

They found that for the performance parameters there were no significant differences related to time between games. They attributed this to training methods, nutrition, and some other recovery efforts they did between matches. But the injury data was really different.

Essentially what they found was a six-fold increase in injuries if the games were played less than four days apart.

It’s hard to fully apply those findings to youth sports, but it’s reasonable to assume that if there’s a proven higher injury rate for four days or less apart for professional players than at least to some extent that same rationale would be applicable to youth players playing two games in one day or three games in a weekend.

SA: So what can a youth coach do to help ensure the health of his or her players when faced with such a schedule?

The coach will need to go into a tournament with the awareness that some players will need to be subbed out more frequently and get some rest.

Hopefully, the coach will be able to take as large a roster as possible and be able to have a player rotation – either per game or within games and give certain players rest.

The coach would need to take injury complaints seriously and have a really low index of suspicion when a young player says that they’re hurt. Or if they’re just not functioning at their maximum – at that point they probably need a little bit of rest even if they’re not injured -- because the risk of an injury is high if they’re not playing at 100 percent.

SA: How about pre- and post-game?

The pre-match preparation is going to be important. Some of the things that have been suggested are to modify training and decrease physical intensity going into a multiple-game situation.

You want to really pay attention to the pregame nutrition and hydration too, generally emphasizing carbohydrates and minimizing fats. It can make a positive difference even in the young players.

And pay attention to the postgame as well. After that first match research shows that the first 20 minutes are the best time to re-hydrate and get some carbs and protein back in the body.

Also, the team should engage in some form of cool-down.

At a lot of the larger, more reputable tournaments there will be certified athletic trainers on site and players, if necessary, should utilize the professional trainers to help them with injury recovery. Ice, massage and active stretching.

Icing down sore areas such as thigh, hamstrings, calf, knee, ankles can help recovery.

SA: Are there methods used at the higher levels that youth coaches can look to?

There are some modalities from the collegiate or professional teams used after a match that might not be available to youth teams, but some of the things mentioned above can definitely help.

Deep tissue massage has been helpful to promote muscle recovery if someone’s got soreness in the thigh or their hamstring.

And the old standby for doing a post-match dynamic cool-down and a passive stretching routine can be helpful.

For a lot of these things we don’t have hard science behind it in terms of the youth sports experience but we have good science behind it in terms of adult athlete experiences. I think we can reasonably say that these things will help and certainly not hurt the young athlete who has to play in multiple games.

SA: I’ve heard some people defend the tournament format of several games in two days by saying they played pickup soccer all day when they were kids and it wasn’t a problem. Is that a fair comparison?

My personal feeling is that we see far fewer injuries with pickup games and unorganized play than organized play. But I don’t have hard evidence to support that. That’s based on personal experience.

I think the opinion is shared by a number of sports medicine professionals but to my knowledge it has not been proven scientifically.

There’s so much subjectivity when you talk about playing pickup soccer or an organized practice, the definitions can be very blurry and overlap each other considerably.

My personal feeling as someone who sees kids every week in my office, is that the injury patterns that you would get from playground sports compared to an organized youth sport, no matter what the sport, is the injury patterns tend to be very different.

In organized sports we see more overuse type injuries. Things that can go on and last for weeks and weeks and be very nagging. We see other types of injuries like ankle sprains, ACL tears, shoulder dislocation that tend to be very sport-specific as opposed to free-play injuries.

SA: It would seem that an organized play environment – especially a tournament with several games in a short period of time -- creates intensity much different than the atmosphere at pickup games or practice and could contribute to increased injuries. …

The fact that teams line up against each other with uniforms, the game on the line and maybe with a trophy at stake, whatever the sport, introduces a level of competitiveness and intensity that’s totally part of human nature. It’s not a bad thing. It’s generally a good thing. We all have our own kids engaged in those activities.

But it does introduce something in terms of the physical demands that translate to injury.

If you’re playing in a park and you don’t feel like playing, you go sit down and wait for the ice cream truck or something. So there’s self-regulation that takes place before an overuse injury happens.

(Dev K. Mishra, the founder of SidelineSportsDoc.com, is an orthopedic surgeon in private practice, Burlingame, Calif. He is a member of the team physician pool with the U.S. Soccer Federation and has served as team physician at the University of California, Berkeley.)

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif.)

January 01, 2011
Is that a keeper? Spotting potential

When I first saw Tim Howard at a camp I coached in Metuchen, N.J., he was 12 years old. I may not have said to myself, "Here's a kid who will play in the English Premier League." But I really did see the potential for greatness.

By Tim Mulqueen (from "The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper")

Very few goalkeepers will stand out as Tim did at such a young age. He displayed good footwork even before he began regularly doing goalkeeper-specific training. Players that young have much learning to do and will mature physically and mentally in many ways.

Already a big kid with exceptional athleticism, he displayed a healthy level of competitiveness. How does a coach measure competitiveness? Not by whether the player curses or gets upset after giving up a goal. A sure sign is when the kid tries as hard to make the save in the final repetitions of a rigorous drill as he does during a scrimmage.

Even at that young age, Tim always had the drive to succeed. He didn’t just go through the motions during the more repetitive and less glamorous aspects of training.

After the first camp Tim attended, he started coming to my weekly goalkeeper training sessions. He was always ready to give his best, always eager to get better. I also immediately noticed that Tim showed respect for the other players and for the coaches. No matter how competitive or athletic a player is, a goalkeeper must learn proper technique. And that requires listening to coaches and taking advice.

Perhaps most importantly, it was obvious that Tim loved soccer and he loved playing goalkeeper. He continued playing in the field in high school, which is one reason why he reads the game so well, but from the first time I saw him it was clear that he embraced the goalkeeper position.

The key to spotting potential in young keepers is to look for their strengths. When I look at boys or girls playing the position, I don’t pick them apart, detailing all their flaws to myself. I focus on what they bring to the table. I assess what they do well and consider how to build on that. And I ask myself some key questions:

Do they enjoy playing the position?

Are they brave enough for it?

Do they have the athleticism goalkeeping requires?

Are they coachable?

Being “coachable” means being eager to learn, ready to listen, and willing to work hard. No other position in soccer demands as much one-on-one time with a coach as goalkeeping does. Those youngsters who relish the intense training are those with the best shot at greatness.

(Excerpted from “The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper” by Tim Mulqueen with Mike Woitalla courtesy of Human Kinetics.)

U.S. Soccer Federation coach and instructor Tim Mulqueen has been goalkeeper coach for U.S. national teams at the U-17 World Cup, U-20 World Cup and at the 2008 Olympic Games. He’s been a goalkeeper coach in MLS, for the MetroStars, and the Kansas City Wizards when they lifted the 2000 league title.