March 26, 2011
Tom Howe: Coaching good soccer takes patience

Tom Howe helped found St. Louis' Scott Gallagher SC in 1976 and coached future stars such as Tim Ream, Brad Davis and Pat Noonan. One of his alums, Cal coach Kevin Grimes, calls Howe "a legend, one of the best youth coaches ever." Last year, after Scott Gallagher merged with Busch SC and Metro United, Howe left and started a new club, Woodson City Rangers. Howe, a St. Louis product himself who starred at SIU-Edwardsville and played in the old NASL, spoke to us for the Youth Soccer Insider's ongoing interview series with leaders of U.S. youth clubs.

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 wish everybody would try and play like Barcelona. If all the clubs across the country did that you’d have some pretty smart players when they hit the ages of 18, 19, 20.

And there’d be more people wanting to watch soccer in this country. Barcelona’s the best team I’ve ever seen. They’re just fun to watch.

Another thing about Barcelona -- they don’t have a lot of these gigantic athletes who everybody wants to get these days.

SA: What’s the key to playing like Barcelona?

The ability to play in tight spaces. You spend tons of time playing in small, tight areas, and then when you get on the big field it’s not a big deal.

I think more teams need work on the possession game. All the best teams in the world over the years have been great technical teams – like Spain, Barcelona. Teams like that play the best soccer.

At the youth level, too many people play more to win. My point is, if you teach your kids to play like Barcelona you’re eventually going to win.

SA: But while you’re learning to play like that you might not win …

That’s exactly right. Learning to play like that takes a long time, but once you get it, you’re going to be good. The problem is a lot of people don’t have the patience.

You tell your young players don’t boot it no matter how much pressure you’re under. We want you to get good at this. And at a certain age, you know what, they learn how to deal with it.

Look at how many players we have in this country. At this stage we should be a lot better than we are.

SA: Over the years, have you seen American youth teams playing better soccer?

At the youth level, I still see a lot of long balls -- not from all teams. There are more and more better teams each year, but I wish more would try to play good soccer.

We play against teams that boot the ball a lot, and they might beat you. But they won’t beat you five years from now.

You’re going to lose until you get to a certain age. Then you get to a certain level you’re going to be really good. You’re going to play the game the right way – and it’s a beautiful game when it’s played right. I don’t think it’s such a beautiful game when it’s played in a different way.

I can hardly watch college soccer except for a couple teams. Akron -- I like watching them play. They play well and they won the national championship playing like that. Why do a couple of teams play like that and nobody else does?

SA: Tim Ream is a remarkably good young American defender in that he relies more on smarts than brawn and keeps possession for his team after he wins the ball. He said you were his biggest influence as a coach in his youth days …

He was on one of our last really good [Scott Gallagher] teams. He said that because he learned that at Gallagher, where we made our defenders pass it out of the back. We’d get criticized for passing too much.

I think when you play like that you get good at it. I think that’s the proper way to approach it. Timmy’s just a very good passer out of the back. I think that’s why Timmy’s so calm on the ball. He’s been doing that since he was little.

SA: Why did you leave Scott Gallagher to form a new club?

A few other guys and I were with Gallagher from the beginning and it was a real close-knit club. Everybody was really good friends. In the last seven or eight years it just became a business. To me, it’s just not Scott Gallagher anymore.

SA: The trend does seem to be creating big, “all-service” clubs that are clubs-slash-leagues – but you’re going with the small club model …

And we’re going to keep it small.

SA: What about the economies-of-scale rationale that by putting as many players under the same umbrella as possible you can cut costs?

I’ll tell you this, when you have the kids on the 10th and 11th team, and they’re all paying the same, something’s wrong because they’re not getting the same training.

I just don’t like it. All those guys running the big clubs, they can say what they want, but they’re all making a lot of money. And the more players they bring in, the more money they make.

SA: How is your new club, Woodson City Rangers, dealing with the challenge of youth soccer’s high costs?

We’re about $300, $400 a year – and that’s real low. We’re just trying to keep it as low as we can. That’s what we want to stay with.

SA: One of the reasons youth soccer costs so much is the tournament industry. What’s your opinion on that issue?

I’m not a tournament guy at all. To me it’s a waste of time. I’d rather stay home.

I couldn’t care less about going to tournaments. After the first day you’re watching your team and it’s no longer your team because they’re too tired to do anything.

We used to restrict the tournament play because some coaches wanted to go to tournaments all the time and hardly ever practice. They go to tournaments to improve their record and be able to say, “We’re 32 and 2.” That’s too many games.

By the time kids are in eighth grade they don’t even care about going to tournaments. They’re just burned out with them.

SA: What’s the right approach to tournament play?

You’ve got to practice, practice, practice – and maybe go to a couple tournaments.

We put a lot more emphasis on practice sessions and league games. Practice is when you learn to play. Games are like the test. And you don’t want to have three or four tests in two days.

If you go to a special tournament and play a couple of games, that’s OK. But they’re so expensive and if you’re playing three or four games in two days, especially at the older ages, physically I don’t know how that can be good.

(Tom Howe is the Executive Director of Player Development of the Woodson City Rangers. He was was a founding member of the Scott Gallagher SC, which won seven national championships and 14 regional titles under his direction. A collegiate All-American at SIU-Edwardsville, Howe played professionally for the St. Louis Stars, Denver Dynamos and Minnesota Kicks. He also coached at SIU-Edwardsville, Western Illinois, Florissant Valley Community College, Southwest Missouri State University and Saint Louis University.)

March 18, 2011
Hassan Nazari: 'Good players always want the ball'

Hassan Nazari, who played for Iran in the 1978 World Cup and 1976 Olympics, founded the Dallas Texans in 1993 after coaching youth ball in the highly competitive Metroplex for eight years. The Dallas Texans have long been ranked among the top clubs in the nation for sending players to the college, pro and national team level, and for their success at national competitions. The club, which has affiliates throughout Texas, in Oklahoma, Florida, Canada and Ghana, has its own field complex and indoor facility in North Texas, where it's launching a residency program.

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

SOCCER AMERICA: How does your club select players for the top teams?

It is always easy for a coach to say who is good. It’s a little more challenging for a coach to say who is going to be good.

Obviously, when the players come to our club at 7 and 8 years old, we believe in our coaches, who can recognize talent.

It’s so many different things. The decision-making, intelligence, quickness, how comfortable they are with the ball. And a standout can do one or two things extremely well.

Also, do they want the ball? The good players always want the ball.

SA: What role do tryouts play?

The world is so small now. We compete with so many teams, there are lots of games going on around us. So when the players come to our tryouts, they’re usually not unknown to us.

It’s extremely rare to come across players at a tryout whom you haven’t seen before.

SA: What does your club look for when it hires coaches?

There are several things. Knowledge. Having a little playing background helps a lot. And accountability. For me it’s always about accountability. People in a decision-making position always have to be accountable.

We also look for specialists at age groups. Somebody who’s a great U-10 or U-11 coach might not be a great U-18 coach.

SA: What do you mean by “accountability”?

We monitor the people who are in charge and watch how they make a decision for this and that.

At our club if someone is in charge of something and that thing doesn’t go well or doesn’t improve as much as we want -- we’re not going to give him another position making decisions.

SA: How do you judge the coaches at the younger ages, when results are not the best indication of how they’re developing talent?

When we hire a coach, we look at the team when he takes the first step.

Throughout the year or season we watch that team. And we always compare that team, individually and as a group, to where it was from the first day that that coach took charge.

We look closely at the team on first day, then in the middle of the season, and at the end. Are the players individually improved? Are they playing better as a team? This is how we judge that coach.

Now, whatever anybody says, at the end of the day, success in the sport is about winning trophies as well developing players. It comes together.

You cannot say, this coach is not winning, so he’s developing players. Or this coach is winning, so he’s not developing players.

At one point, it comes together and we expect that at the higher age groups.

SA: Is there a specific age when you start giving more importance to the results?

We are looking at two things from the older age groups. One, how many of our players break into the professional level. How many players get to college and play. How many realize their dream of getting a college scholarship. And all of that.

Two, how successful we are when we go to certain tournaments and compete with the rest of the country.

We have about 15 players playing professionally in MLS and Europe.

[Editor's note: Dallas Texans alumni Clint Dempsey and Ramon Nunez played for the USA and Honduras, respectively, at the 2010 World Cup. The Los Angeles Galaxy's Omar Gonzalez was MLS 2009 Rookie of the Year. Alejandro Moreno has won MLS titles with Los Angeles, Houston and Columbus.]

SA: The Dallas Texans waited until the U.S. Soccer Development Academy’s second year, in 2008, to join the national league run by U.S. Soccer. What’s your assessment of the Academy now?

I think it’s a good start. I think the USSF has done a great job creating that league. Definitely it’s very, very competitive and very good. It’s all good.

It’s also important to recognize the Academy clubs that aren’t affiliated to MLS.

There are individual [non-MLS] clubs trying to do the right thing, trying to invest more in their players. They are building facilities. Some already have facilities. They’re hiring good coaches. They have connections with professional clubs around the world. I think they’re trying to do the right thing. You never really have enough of a good thing.

We have to recognize that as well. ... We're one of the few clubs whose players play in the Academy free of charge.

SA: Should the U.S. Soccer Federation create a Development Academy league for girls?

There’s no doubt, yes. I believe everything has to come from the Federation.

Eventually probably it’s going to go that way. But it needs to be started when it can be done right and can stand on two feet.

Our girls teams will compete in U.S. Club Soccer's ECNL [Elite Clubs National League] next season and that's also very exciting for us.

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?

It all depends. In North Texas, we’re very fortunate that we play in very strong leagues in boys and girls, so there was not really too much of a need [for other options] for the North Texas teams.

But because this country is so huge, in some places the competition is not as good league-wise so probably that’s not a bad idea for certain areas. However, I think too much of it is not very good either. We cannot just keep creating league after league after league without giving up something.

One thing that makes the USSF Development Academy very good is by going to that, the kids don’t have to go to ODP. The kids don’t have to go through certain things. The Development Academy created something very unique and very competitive. At the same time they took something away that the kids don’t need to do anymore.

I think it’s a little different in ECNL because you still have to go through all the other stuff as well as playing in this league.

SA: Do you think youth soccer has improved significantly in the last couple of decades since you’ve been so heavily involved?

This is a great question and a loaded question as well.

If you look at the society, every aspect has improved since 20 years ago-- science, fashion, medicine, technology, and obviously soccer.

We have to ask the question, Have we improved enough? Could we have been a little further along?

Yes. There a lot resources in this country to give our kids more advantages than everybody else.

(Hassan Nazari is the founder and director of the Dallas Texans. His career with the Iranian national team, for which he started all three games at the 1978 World Cup, ended with the 1979 Islamic revolution. He continued playing for clubs in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar before moving to Dallas, where he played for the USL’s Dallas Americans and started his youth coaching career.)

March 13, 2011
Know They Keeper

Coaches must adjust their approach to the individual. Some keepers might need the soft touch to get in the right frame of mind. Others might require a rousing pep talk. Some keepers might fall apart if they are given a direct, honest critique without plenty of compliments to go with it. Others are fine with a harsh, straightforward assessment. So how does the coach know what's best for each individual?

By Tim Mulqueen with Mike Woitalla (excerpted from "The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper")

It starts with close observation. The coach pays attention to the players at every practice and game, as well as off the field.

After a keeper has a poor outing, recall what the warm-up was like and what your pregame conversations entailed. If the keeper had a standout game, ask yourself the following: What did we do before that match? If the keeper had a real nervous outing, try to recall what the pregame was like that time.

You might even keep a notebook that details your training sessions and reminds you of what you’ve been telling a keeper.

Don’t be afraid to seek advice from others, such as the players’ previous coaches. They might provide valuable insight.

And above all, speak with your keepers. Get to know them. Ask them about their off-the-field life. Find out if they have any worries about family, school, and so on. Let them know you care about them.

If something is bothering your keeper -- maybe his girlfriend just broke up with him -- talking about it might help him clear his head and get ready to focus on the play.

Find out if your keepers have any issues with other coaches or teammates. The more information you gather, the easier it will be to get your keepers on the right track -- and you’ll be forging a solid relationship with your keepers.

Honesty solves a lot of problems. So get feedback constantly. A week into the season, ask the keepers to voice their opinions on practices and your coaching. This doesn’t mean you always have to make changes, but you’ll gain the keepers’ respect, and perhaps you’ll identify something that might be done differently.

(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.)

March 10, 2011
Tab Ramos: Keep the parents at bay

Tab Ramos, considered one of the USA's most skillful players ever, played for the USA at three World Cups, two Copa Americas, and in the Olympic Games. Two years after retiring in 2002 from a playing career in Spain, Mexico and MLS, he founded the New Jersey youth club NJSA 04. In 2008, he coached the NJSA 04 Gunners to the U-14 U.S. Youth Soccer national title, marking the first national championship for a New Jersey club in two decades.

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?

Wow. I’d have to think about that …

One of the things that’s been most important for our club is, from the first moment, eliminating parents’ opinions from what we do.

The opinion of the parents of the players here is completely irrelevant to us. And that’s been a good formula for making this club a real soccer club.

SA: What would be an example of detrimental parent interference?

There are a thousand things. But I’ll start with an example of a parent who had the right attitude.

On our U-16 [U.S. Soccer Development] Academy team we have a great player who starts all the games. He’s been at our club for four or five years and just about every year previously he’s been a substitute. He did not start. He happened to be on the team that won the national championship, but he didn’t start.

It’s the perfect case of a parent who figured it out the right way. This boy’s father is a soccer guy. He kept his son at the club even though he wasn’t starting. He could have moved him somewhere else and started for another team. He stayed here while he was a substitute -- trying hard all these years. Now he’s 16 -- in the year that it really matters for him -- and starts every game.

I think that’s the right formula.

SA: And the wrong parental approach …

For most other cases, parents will be looking only at two things.

No. 1. Whether your team is winning the games. So if they’re not winning the games, then obviously it’s time for Johnny to move somewhere else -- to the team that just beat us.

No. 2. The huge effect that the parents have on the kids when they drive home. When the parents get in the two front seats of the van and little Johnny’s is in the back. And he hears the parents say, “Well, the coach this … the coach that … He only gave him five minutes. … And I was timing the first half, and he only put him in this position. …”

All that negative talk instead of saying, “You know, that’s great, you only played five minutes but you tried as hard as you can. Maybe if you keep trying hard, the next time you’re going to play more and impress the coach.”

I think parents are very protective of their kids and obviously everyone should be, but when it comes to sports, I have yet to meet a coach who doesn’t want to play a good player a lot of the time. So chances are if your son is not playing a lot, he doesn’t deserve to play at this point.

SA: Since you started the club eight years ago, what have you discovered is a good strategy to providing the children with optimal coaching?

At our club now, we believe the best thing is have people who are experts at certain age groups.

We keep our staff at the same age groups year-to-year, so the kids go through coaches like they go to school. First grade you have Mrs. Whatever, second grade you have Mr. Something Else.

We’ve been able in less than eight years to identify coaches that we have fit into certain age groups better than others. They teach the game better, and we’ve kept them in those age groups.

SOCCER AMERICA: You were perhaps the first big teenage star in American soccer, playing in the U-20 World Cup in 1983 at age 16. Looking back, how different is youth soccer now in the USA?

It’s so much different and so much better. It’s more organized. There are more people involved in soccer who know what they’re doing and leading the way in many good clubs.

Before, you rarely had someone who knew about soccer unless it was a parent of someone.

Not to say there aren’t a lot of things wrong with youth soccer, but we’ve come a long way since when I grew up playing.

Soccer has become a huge sport and kids have great choices and opportunities to play for some great clubs who are going to give them an opportunity to advance.

SA: So you’ve seen significant improvements in youth coaching?

I think it’s improved tremendously. There are so many people who have played the game. So many people who have taken their coaching licenses, learning the game, studying the game.

There’s so much soccer available on TV now, which is huge for the development of the kids as well. Watching the Premier League or La Liga, whatever, there’s always soccer on TV. There’s exciting soccer with good players.

All those things have had a huge effect.

SA: For sure a very positive of recent years is that Barcelona, which plays entertaining and successful soccer, is being watched by American coaches …

The effect that Barcelona has had on world soccer and will have over the next decade is huge. We were just getting to the point of where it’s almost like to step on the field you needed to be 6-foot-2, and that was all that mattered.

SA: And Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi all stand barely 5-foot-7 tall and finished top three in the 2010 world player of the year award …

Being a 5-foot-7 guy, I can tell you that if I have a 5-foot-7 guy and a 6-foot-2 guy who play exactly the same, I’ll take the 6-foot-2 guy. But now I know that it’s OK for me to take the 5-foot-7 guy who can play better than the 6-foot-2 guy.

Not only do I know that, but everybody knows that. That you’d rather have the guys who can play first, and size is second. And I think Barcelona has had that effect on world soccer.

SA: So do you think this has an effect on American youth soccer where an emphasis on results so often leads to a playing style based on a big, strong kid in the back booting the ball up to the big, strong kid upfront?

At the youth game it continues to happen. I can tell you at the Development Academy level you rarely find teams who don’t want to play. They all want to play. They want to go forward. Some teams obviously have better players than others, but for the most part it’s really been a good experience.

We had a webinar the other day that [U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Director] Claudio Reyna ran and it was basically more about playing offensive soccer and getting the outside backs coming out of the back and becoming part of the offense, and that kind of thing.

I think it’s the beginning of a lot of changes and a lot of exciting stuff that’s going to be happening down the road and I think we’re going to be developing a lot better players.

SA: One of the side effects of youth soccer’s incredible growth is the emergence of competing organizations. What are the pros and cons of that?

It’s difficult because now we’re talking about business, companies trying to make money from it.

I think personally there’s too many competitions, but the fact that U.S. Soccer has its own league [Development Academy] makes it simpler at least at the older age groups.

Players are starting to figure out the Academy is the place to be.

The rest are always going to have as many leagues as possible. Businesses are always going to be out there trying to make money, create competition and trying to sign up teams.

SA: It seems that the USA is producing more “good” players than ever. That our role players are better than a couple of decades ago, but the country doesn’t produce truly exceptional players at the increased rate we would expect …

I think exceptional players are not developed. I think they’re born.

An example: At my club, players who’ve been training the same way for six or seven years, who've been taught the same things for six or seven years. Who have had every single aspect of their game put in front of them the exact way -- and they’re completely different players.

Some can make perfect passes, an excellent through ball. Some can’t complete three passes in a row to a teammate 10 yards away.

How do you explain that? I think some people just have god-given talent and some don't.

(Tab Ramos, the President and Executive Director of New Jersey club NJSA 04, was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2005.)

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)

March 02, 2011
Equipping keepers the right way

From head-to-toe: What goalkeepers should wear at practice and games ...

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

During training, goalkeepers should be dressed for maximum protection: long pants, long sleeves, and shin guards. I prefer that keepers always wear shin guards at practice, not only to protect them from injury, but also because they have to wear them in games and should be used to them.

Long pants are especially important at the lower levels of competition, where practice fields can be hard and rocky. There’s no reason to risk scratches and scrapes that can be prevented by covering up the skin. During games, keepers can wear shorts if that’s what they’re most comfortable in. But if the game is on artificial turf, the keeper should use long pants.

Some goalkeeper jerseys and pants come with padding. These may be good options if the padding does not constrict movement and if the keeper feels comfortable wearing them. Fortunately, the technology has advanced in recent years, and padded wear (e.g., elbow and hip protection) isn’t as bulky as it used to be.

For the most part, any equipment that prevents injury and doesn’t impede a keeper’s movement is beneficial. You can let a young keeper wear elbow pads at practice if it makes her feel more confident. However, knee pads really don’t offer much protection. In addition, allowing keepers to wear knee pads can send the message that it’s OK to fall on the knees, encouraging a technique that is not only improper but may also lead to injury.

Keeper gloves are a necessity, and various types are available. In general, keepers should look for gloves that help kill the pace of a hard-hit stinging ball without giving up mobility. The modern foam palm provides shock absorption without causing the keeper to lose a feel for the ball. How thick a glove the keeper wants is a matter of personal preference.

The average youth keeper will probably be fine in a relatively thin glove. Goalkeepers often switch to thicker gloves when they reach the highest levels, where shots fly much faster.

A club or a keeper coach may have various types of gloves that keepers can try out. At a store, keepers should try out the various gloves and have someone toss some balls to them—while doing as little damage to the shop as possible!

After determining how thick a padding you like in the palm, what matters most is the right fit. The gloves shouldn’t be too tight. Fingers in a glove, like toes in a shoe, need a little bit of wiggle room in front. But there shouldn’t be too much room between the fingertips and the end of the glove. The extra material gets in the way and can impede the keeper’s ability to get a good grip on the ball. If there’s so much extra fabric that it can be bent back or folded over, this indicates that the glove is too big.

The choice of what kind of cleats to wear depends in large part on the playing surface. For higher-level keepers who play on nice grass, screw-in cleats are the best option.

Goalkeepers cannot afford to slip when they take those few crucial steps before getting to the ball. Because keepers don’t have to run all over the field, they can afford to wear screw-in studs even when the field isn’t perfectly soft. And they need the extra grip that the screw-in studs offer. Younger keepers, who often play on fields that are harder than elite-level fields, will usually find that molded cleats suffice. But they should never wear flats or artificial turf shoes when playing on real grass because this will result in a loss of traction.

Without good traction, the keeper won’t be able to dig in and get a good push toward the ball. The keeper will also have difficulty trying to explode off the line or change direction quickly and jump.

Because teams play on various fields throughout the season, a keeper may want to own more than one set of soccer shoes: molded for hard grass, screw-ins for softer fields, and artificial turf shoes. (Molded cleats can work well on modern artificial fields, which have more give than the older synthetic turf fields that were more like carpets than grass.)

The bottom line is that keepers can’t risk slipping or falling. I always have my players come to the field early so they can test their cleats on the game field before the warm-up. This gives them plenty of time to change into the best shoes.

(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.)