February 28, 2011
Westside Metros' Cony Konstin: 'Coaching is overrated'

Cony Konstin is the Director of Coaching of Westside Metros SC, a small club based in Beaverton, Ore., that has gotten national attention with the success of its U-19 Internationals boys team and has sent players to the U-15 national team pool. Previously, Konstin served as the Director of Houstonians FC, which became a model for inner-city youth soccer.

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

SOCCER AMERICA: If you had a magic wand, how would you use it to improve youth soccer in America?

I’d create “soccer courts” all over the place, where children can play soccer, or futsal, anytime. You don’t need a giant soccer field for that. There are so many abandoned tennis courts they could convert to multi-purpose futsal courts and let the kids just play.

Coaching is totally overrated. Players win championships, not coaches. Talent wins championships, not coaches. For the USA to create great talent we need to create an environment for kids, in the inner city and the suburbs, to play everyday.

In American youth soccer, you don’t step on the grass if it rains a little bit. They throw you off the field. How are kids going to become passionate about playing if you punish them for going on the field because you want to keep the grass green? Who cares if the grass is not green? As long as they’re playing and staying out of trouble, we should be happy about that.

SA: What do you at Westside Metros to encourage players to play on their own?

CONY KONSTIN: We try and create other environments so they don’t think they have to go to a grass field to play. We take them to play futsal on the basketball court, on concrete. We play soccer tennis on tennis courts. We take them to play on the beach.

We try and show the kids, “You can play anywhere.”

SA: What’s your criteria for coaches?

CONY KONSTIN: At our club I don’t give a damn if they have no licenses or a million licenses. Here’s my criteria: Do you care about those kids? That’s No. 1. Period.

Whatever knowledge and experience, we’ll throw it on the pile. But the first thing is, does this person truly care about the kids and are they willing to go the extra mile for them.

To justify all this pay-for-play they have to have all this criteria crap. In the end, the coaches are not going to make the players better. They don’t work with the kids seven days a week.

I used to tell people in Houston, “I have the best coaching staff in all of Texas.” They’d say, “Oh yeah, who are the coaches?” I’d say, “The players. Those are my coaches, because I have the best players. They teach each other how to play with their talent.”

Coaches are there in case someone gets hurt, to make a sub, manage the team.

In the end, the only way you’re going to have magical players is when kids start at 5 years old, playing everyday because they’re passionate about the game.

SA: Perhaps the most common complaint about the American youth game is its high cost. What does your club do to reduce or minimize costs?

CONY KONSTIN: We create profit centers to raise money to help offset costs. We have soccer schools, camps, 3-v-3 tournaments, raffles, auctions -- so we don’t put the burden on parents.

One of the club’s founding fathers is Denny Doyle, who’s now the Mayor of Beaverton. He and the other founders are frugal and visionary, with the aim to keep costs down and creating a diverse club that is a reflection of what America is. And that’s one of the reasons we’re successful, because the club is multicultural.

We bring kids in who maybe didn’t have the money to play and they help the team be successful.

The suburban kids and the inner-city kids go out there and make magic. It’s great to see – there’s no division when they’re on the field. They bust their tails for each other. And the beautiful thing is, off the field these guys become friends. They do things together and it’s very positive.

SA: Before joining the Westside Metros in 2002, you helped create Houstonians FC, which turned into a rec soccer program for 4,000 while its competitive teams excelled. What was the key to its success?

CONY KONSTIN: Houston Mayor Bob Lanier had a vision to start an inner-city sports program with the Parks and Recreation Department as a solution to gang and youth drug problems.

It started 100 percent Latino. And then as time went by we started to get an influx of Caribbean and African players. And then all of a sudden even the suburban kids wanted to join, because they liked the way we played.

By the time I left, we were multicultural -- a reflection of what the United States is. … Today several of my former players are coaches of the Houstonians.

SA: You have a long history of working in the Latino community and with inner-city kids. What prompted that?  

CONY KONSTIN: It has a lot to do with the way I want to see the game played and people coming together – because I grew up that way.

I was a city kid myself. I grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District [a largely Hispanic, working-class neighborhood]. I learned my soccer across the street in an alley and hanging out at Dolores Park.

My mother’s Mexican, my father’s Greek. I’m all messed up [laughs].

SA: The Super Y-league, U.S. Club Soccer and the U.S. Development Academy have joined U.S. Youth Soccer in the youth arena over the last decade. Has the increase in options for youth clubs benefited America's young players?

CONY KONSTIN: I think everybody should be under the Federation, period. I’m not a big supporter of having a whole alphabet of youth organizations out there. There shouldn’t be all these little fiefdoms.

That’s one of problems of soccer in this country. It’s so helter skelter, nobody knows what’s up or down.

And it’s so damn expensive. First you gotta pay to play, and if you’re really good you have to pay extra. That doesn’t make any sense.

There are a few individual people who have worked their butts off to do things for inner city kids, but as organizations with all this money -- I've seen very little of them rising to the challenge.

(Westside Metros Director of Coaching Cony Konstin is also a FIFA Futsal instructor, USASA national men’s select team coach, ODP coach, and International Director of Coaching for Tahuichi Academy in the USA.)

February 22, 2011
Reinventing the Soccer Ball

It seems to me that playing soccer with different kinds of balls is good for children's skill development. I don't have scientific evidence for this, but a lot of anecdotes from great players. Pele played with a grapefruit and a sock stuffed with paper when a proper ball wasn't available. Diego Maradona walked to school kicking an orange or crumpled-up paper. Claudio Reyna played one-on-one with his brother in the basement using a Nerf-type ball and kicked against the ball with one of those plastic bouncy balls you find in drug-store bins.

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

Many trace superb foot skills, especially among South American players, to playing futsal, whose ball is smaller and less bouncy than a regular soccer ball. (Ronaldinho, Robinho and Lionel Messi all played futsal as kids.)

One way to encourage youngsters to juggle is to have them try with something easy, like a small beach ball or even a balloon. Juggling a tennis ball or hacky sack must be great practice.

Balls that are softer than real soccer balls can be great fun to kick around and more practical in some situations, such as on playgrounds and playing indoors. (And obviously preferable for very young kickers.)

The ball that can’t do any indoor damage hasn’t been discovered, but I’ve rarely interviewed a successful player who hadn’t broken a thing or two in the house while a child.

Among the alternative balls to which I’ve seen kids take a great liking are the Coop hydro balls designed for water play. They’re soft enough to juggle in the house, perfect for barefoot play, and, of course, great to bring to the beach. (Fine for playing catch with in the pool, too.)

The Poof-Slinky company makes foamy soccer balls in two sizes that kids can kick against their bedroom door with minimal racket. The 7-1/2-inch Poof ball has the nice old-fashioned, black-and-white pentagons-hexagons and begs to be dribbled through a hallway, balanced on the foot, or shot at an improvised goal.

Both the Coop and the Poof are less bouncy and easier to control than those red playground balls -- also delightful to kick around -- commonly used for P.E. kickball and dodge ball.

New on the alternative-ball market is the innovative “One World Futbol” -- the super durable, virtually indestructible soccer ball invented by Californian Tim Jahnigen for a very good reason.

Watching a documentary on Darfur refugees, Jahnigen saw children playing with rag balls, cans and boxes. He realized not only did these kids deserve real balls, but ones that would last. (According to the “One World Futbol” web site, 20 million deflated balls are trashed each year in Africa.)

After the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, relief workers learned that one of the most common requests was for soccer balls. But aid workers also soon saw that regular soccer balls quickly punctured on glass or sharp rubble.

The One World ball never goes flat even if punctured and requires no pump or needle.

It’s designed to be distributed to refugee camps, United Nations hot spots, conflict zones and poor villages throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America, and one manner in which the One World balls find their way around the world is through the “Give one, Get one” program. You buy a ball for $40 and another one is donated to a child who can’t afford one somewhere else on the globe. (Or you pay $40 and donate both, or $25 to donate one.)

The One World Futbol is similar to a regulation size 5 soccer ball. Although perhaps not optimal for a full-field game when a regular ball is available, it does suit playing pickup games, passing around and juggling.

My panel of 11-year-olds who tested out One World Futbol said -- after futile attempts to prove it destructible -- it juggled similar to a regular soccer ball, they were intrigued by the back-story, and one pointed out, “You can also use it for four-square!”

(For more information on One World Futbol, go to: http://www.oneworldfutbol.com/)

February 10, 2011
Rush's Tim Schulz: USSF should play even greater role

In a new Youth Soccer Insider series, we're asking the leaders of U.S. youth clubs to address key issues on the state of American youth soccer.

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

Tim Schulz is the president and CEO of Rush Soccer, which has affiliate clubs in more than 20 states, representing 34,000 youth players. Schulz has coached at the Colorado Rush for more than 16 years and in 2005-06 served as U.S. U-20 women's national team coach. He is also a USSF national coaching instructor.

SOCCER AMERICA: Perhaps the most common complaint about the American youth game is its high cost. Will playing soccer continue to become more expensive or is any relief on the horizon?

The expense is getting bigger. As opposed to Europe, in the United States, the better you are, the more you pay. In Europe, the better you are, the less you pay.

SOCCER AMERICA: What is your club doing to reduce or minimize costs?

It’s important that a club provides many programs at many levels of play. The top players should be able to choose that they want to travel a lot. And the medium-level players should be able to choose that they want to stay in state and play in local tournaments. And the recreational player should be able to say "I just want to play in my local league." The program should allow a player and family to make a choice within their family if she wants to push further for a more elite type program.

Do we offset the cost? It’s foolish to say we give scholarships internally if money comes from within the club because all we’re doing is taking money from one family and giving it to another. You’re just shifting the dollars around.

The only way we can offset these costs is with grants and sponsorships. Then even with that, unless it’s earmarked for the elite athlete, we’re taking money away from the medium athlete and the developmental player.

It is an on-going problem. It is a challenge. But I think free enterprise allows us to stay competitive. For instance, if my neighboring club keeps the cost lower and the product stays the same, our players will leave and go somewhere else. So there is monitoring going on.

SOCCER AMERICA: The Super Y-league, U.S. Club Soccer and the U.S. Development Academy have joined U.S. Youth Soccer in the youth arena over the last decade. Has the increase in options for youth clubs benefited America's young players?

Absolutely not. I think this is one case where free enterprise does not apply. I believe in one federation almost dictating how we should operate and function.

It has confused the membership. I’m supposed to be an expert in this field and I’m confused.

SOCCER AMERICA: Should the U.S. Soccer Federation create a Development Academy on the girls as it did for the boys in 2007?

Yes, indeed. Not exactly the mirror image of the boys side but a very similar version.

SOCCER AMERICA: Have you seen significant improvements in youth coaching?

I think there’s a slow growth, a slow progress, a slow maturation buildup taking place.

Players who have gone through the college system and have played pro -- they have a natural background in the game -- and they’re getting into coaching side.

What’s unique about the United States is I think we’re very advanced in psychology, management, physical fitness, rehab -- so those things can transfer right over into soccer. Now we really need to learn the nuances of the game. The technical side and the tactical side.

The coaching has improved.

SOCCER AMERICA: If you had a magic wand, how would you use it to improve youth soccer in America?

I would have the [U.S. Soccer] Federation hire technical directors who oversee each and every single branch of our organization and allow him and her the power and authority to create a better infrastructure within U.S. soccer.

SOCCER AMERICA: How is that different than the Federation’s recent hiring of Claudio Reyna, April Heinrichs and Jill Ellis?

You just named three of them, [but] there's too many factions to oversee. There need to be more and they should be the be-all and end-all.

February 04, 2011
College dreams impact youth play

Ambitions to play college soccer can have a significant impact on a child's path through the youth game -- and the dream of a college soccer scholarship is undoubtedly one reason why parents are willing to spend so much on club ball.

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

Ambitions to play college soccer can have a significant impact on a child's path through the youth game -- and the dream of a college soccer scholarship is undoubtedly one reason why parents are willing to spend so much on club ball. We've asked Avi Stopper, the founder of college recruiting software company CaptainU.com, to address the issues faced by parents and players, and how clubs have become involved in college counseling.

SOCCER AMERICA: What are clubs doing to help players in their college choice and recruiting process?

AVI STOPPER: One of the benefits top youth clubs -- whose membership fees are often pretty substantial -- say they will bring when they’re trying to attract the best youth players is certainly a fair amount of college counseling. That comes in a few forms:

Guidance in how to deal with the process. Setting up “college nights,” where they bring in a panel of college coaches and the kids and parents ask questions. And the third is the network that the clubs say they have within the college ranks.

For some clubs they’re very tightly networked with lots of college coaches. Others maybe not so much.

SA: It seems a lot of decisions at the youth club level are driven by the desire to expose players to college coaches. But there are myriad tournaments and an increasing number of leagues to choose from. How should clubs decide which routes to take?

AVI STOPPER: There’s not really a formula, for better or worse. It’s more of a club-by-club decision.

I want to stress there’s not something inherently better in one approach from another. If you say there’s a specific strategy and you go down that road, you could be closing off other opportunities and, for example, serving only players of a certain socio-economic class.

It’s a question of what the club wants to be and what it believes best serves the needs of the kids.

There are clubs that don’t take the long cross-country trips. The vast majority of high school graduates go to college within 400 miles from home. So some clubs stay in their area. They decide, “We’re going to go to tournaments people can drive to.”

SA: Very talented players, even at very young ages, leave teams that don’t win a lot of trophies for more successful teams -- the notion being that they won’t have the college opportunities they’re hoping for if playing on a less successful team. …

AVI STOPPER: That’s certainly what the recruiting club will tell that kid. But that’s not necessarily the outcome.

It can happen that the superstar kid gets on a new team and isn’t getting as much playing time, which can start a vicious cycle. The confidence starts to fall when they play less, they don’t play as well, and so confidence falls even more.

I don’t think if you’re a good player you necessarily have to play for one of the big clubs. If you love being on your current team, your best friends are on it, you can still play in college if that’s your goal.

There’s also actually an advantage to being a standout on a smaller club, because there’s nothing a college coach likes better than finding a diamond in the rough on a “no name” team -- because there’s so much less competition from other college coaches than for a player on an elite club. In many ways that’s a winning strategy for college coaches. If you’re a kind of mid-major college team and try to recruit a kid who’s also getting recruited by the very top teams -- that’s a daunting proposition

Players can market themselves to college coaches irrespective of what club team they play on.

SA: What can players do who don’t play for clubs that get a lot of exposure to scouting college coaches?

AVI STOPPER: It’s true that the most prominent clubs -- on the boys side right now they’re the U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams -- get lots and lots of looks from college coaches.

If you’re not on one of those teams, for whatever reason -- they’re expensive, they’re pretty exclusive, they may be geographically inconvenient -- there are still ways to make a college team.

Sending videos is one great way. Playing for a club that goes to other tournaments is still a great way. College coaches still go to those and there are lots of coaches who are looking for diamonds in the rough.

You can go to a college camp during the summer. That gives you a lot of full exposure and the coaches might love you.

SA: The number of high school-age players courted by Division I coaches with scholarships must be quite small. Can you offer some perspective on college opportunities for the majority of promising youth players?

AVI STOPPER: One biggest miscalculations or misconceptions is you have to be in that group with Division I scholarship prospects -- or bust.

There are lots of great, rewarding college soccer environments for a very large spectrum of players.

Players who don’t get the attention the top group gets can fill out the rosters of the better teams. There are a number of levels of college ball and players who don’t go to the top college teams can have really awesome, successful college careers.

SA: Is there something out there for the talented player who doesn’t have the grades for college soccer?

AVI STOPPER: There are lots of opportunities. Divisions I and II have minimum GPA and SAT requirements and players must go through the NCAA clearinghouse. But there are many very good Division III and community college programs.

The community college environment in general is designed as a stepping stone -- and it can be so for soccer players, too.

(Avi Stopper is the founder of CaptainU.com, a college recruiting software company, and author of “Make the Team: The Art of Self-Recruiting.” He was the captain of the soccer team at Wesleyan University and coached at the University of Chicago.)