May 20, 2011
Anson Dorrance: 'Coaching is stealing best practices'

Twenty years ago, Anson Dorrance coached the USA to victory at the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1991. During his 1986-1994 national team tenure he coached the USA's first generation of great female players, including Mia Hamm, April Heinrichs and Kristine Lilly, who also played for him at the University of North Carolina, where Dorrance is aiming for his 22nd national title. We spoke to Dorrance upon the USSF's unveiling of its "U.S. Soccer Curriculum" for youth coaching.

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

SOCCER AMERICA: What differences do you see in the players coming to college soccer compared to 10, 20, 30 years ago?

The top players are similar. But the average players right now are so much better than they were.

While the average player is much better, I would be hard-pressed to tell you that players coming into college are more effective than April Heinrichs, or Michelle Akers, or Carin Jennings-Gabarra. The truly elite player we had back in the day would still, if they were young enough, be able to compete as starters on our full national team today.

SA: What about their attitude?

We have a psychologist at the university come in on a regular basis and describe the generation we’re coaching to keep us abreast how this group wants to be treated.

And it changes regularly, every five, 10 years. All of us who coach are making adjustments with the current population we’re working with. …

I’ve had to change the way I communicate with my players, so now I’m attached to my BlackBerry, text-messaging, hoping I’ll learn how to type faster on that thing!

SA: Alarm bells have gone off about American women’s soccer because other nations have caught up and are producing more skillful teams than the USA. Looking back 20 years, what should we have been done differently?

Trust me, if we had done what’s being put in place now, [a curriculum] for Zone 1, the U-12 level and below, and Zone 2, the teenage level, there’s absolutely no question in my mind we’d be at a different level.

SA: So you believe the “U.S. Soccer Curriculum” that Youth Technical Director Claudio Reyna created will have an impact?

What I like about what Claudio has done is he’s designed it for our unique soccer culture. Elite coaches will benefit from it. But it’s also something you can hand to a parent coach at the U6 level without any soccer knowledge at all – and just by following this recipe, this cookbook, we’re going to be developing soccer players at a faster and higher level than we’ve done with our traditional methodology.

So I absolutely love the document. I love the way U.S. Soccer is presenting it. I love the fact that the Academies are going to use this as their player development bible. I love the fact that we’re trying to finally coordinate the entire country underneath a collection of soccer principles that are viable and proven worldwide.

SA: What makes “The Curriculum” so valuable?

There’s nothing in the document that I think is particularly profound. From Barcelona to Arsenal to Tahuichi, I don’t care where you’re from, these are principles that we all agree on -- and Claudio has done a great job assembling it for all of us.

Coaching is stealing best practices. All of us steal best practices from great teams or whoever our mentors are. That’s what I like about this document. This is almost a collection of proven best practices from all of the elite player development platforms in the world. It’s assembled in a document an educated coaching population can follow.

SA: No doubt there’s much to be said for Barcelona’s playing style, its philosophy, and the success of its youth academy. But Barcelona also employs scores of scouts and the players who enter its program arrive with exceptional skills, such Lionel Messi, who was already a terrific 13-year-old player when he entered La Masia …

We’re not going to slough off the responsibility for developing great players by saying the raw material at Barcelona is so much better so we’ll never catch them.

Back in the old days, the European basketball coaches used to come over to this country and see the Dean Smiths and all the great coaches. They’d ask, “What should we do in our practice sessions?” -- and Dean Smith would tell the European coaches, “Work on the fundamentals. … dribbling, shooting, etc, etc.”

So these European coaches went back within the confines of their unique player development environments -- which were not like the American playgrounds. And they developed players who are now complete players in the NBA.

I think we have a similar potential. Our potential is to steal some of the stuff Barcelona is doing and inject it at all levels of our culture. We’re going to take responsibility for our development.

SA: Why are the U.S. women’s and girls national teams no longer as dominant?

We’re not as slick as we should be. We’re not as technical as we should be. We’ve relied on the classic American mentality and American athleticism because our genetic pool is so large, but we’re just not as polished and not sophisticated enough.

As a result these other countries, who could never get on the field with us, like a Mexico, now actually can steal a game from us. We have to get back to work.

SA: Perhaps there wasn’t enough criticism of how the U.S. was getting results so we ended up with a playing style that relied too much on athleticism rather than skill …

Part of our evolution as a soccer culture is to be self-critical. That’s the first step and it’s starting to change. I genuinely feel a lot of what’s going on right now is tremendous for us and in the next eight years we’ll see a significant difference in the way Americans approach a game.

On the men’s side, too, it’s no longer good enough just to get a result.

We still want the result, but we want to dominate more of the game, have more of the ball, play a certain way. Our expectations are changing in a very positive way.

SA: It seems to me that relying on size and athleticism to win seems to be an even bigger problem on the girls' side than on the boys’ …

Yes, it is. And a part of the reason is the girls don’t watch the game. And honestly not too many of their coaches do either.

And the game they should watch, in all deference to where ever our top women’s teams are, is the men’s game. The men’s game is the university for the women’s game. We should be studying the men’s game the way anyone would study at an institution of higher learning.

We’ve got to learn from the men and part of the way to learn is to watch. But we don’t and as a result we lack sophistication, we lack problem-solving, we lack ideas in the final third.

And the way we survive in the women’s game is with raw athleticism. We overpower another player and blow it into the goal -- and that’s not going to cut it anymore.

SA: Have you seen an increase in women coaches in recent years?

I haven’t really seen an enormous change, but I’m convinced that U.S. Soccer hiring April Heinrichs [Technical Director] and Jill Ellis [Development Director] will make a difference.

The model I’m using is Germany, where they now have 17 full-time people within their own federation who do nothing but the development of women’s soccer in Germany. They’re hiring former full international players, from Tina Theune-Meyer and Maren Meinert on down, who are responsible to develop their age group.

Now that we’ve hired two full-time people who are embedded in U.S. Soccer you’re going to see some changes. Women will see there’s a career option for them when they see full-time people whose entire commitment is women’s development.

Now, an athletic director at the collegiate level will always try to hire a woman first, but unfortunately not enough of our elite women players are staying in the game as coaches. Women have to see this can be a legitimate lifetime profession for them.

SA: What's the difference between coaching males and females?

We could go on forever on that. ... You want a sound bite?

SA: Sure ...

I hate giving sound bites, because everyone will take exception, but I’ve been taken exception my whole life so why make an exception now?

Basically women are easier to coach but harder to manage. Men are more difficult to coach but easier to manage.

Without giving you my book report on it, it basically boils down to those cliches.

(Anson Dorrance, a member of the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame, is in his 33rd season as women’s head coach of the UNC Tar Heels, with which he’s won 20 NCAA Division I crowns and one AIAW title. He was coach of the UNC men’s team in 1976-1998. He was coach the U.S. women’s national team in 1986-1994 and lifted the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991.)

May 15, 2011
U.S. Club Soccer has changed radically in 10 years

This year marks the 10th anniversary of U.S. Club Soccer, which since gaining U.S. Soccer Federation membership in 2001 has served as an alternative to U.S. Youth Soccer. We spoke with U.S. Club Soccer chairman Phil Wright about the past, present and future of the organization that now has member clubs and leagues in 50 states, runs national and state cup competitions, a player identification program (id2) and the girls Elite Clubs National League.

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

SOCCER AMERICA: I’ve heard it said that U.S. Club Soccer’s aim is to drive U.S. Youth Soccer out of business. …

That’s never been our goal. That’s not our goal today. We started out as a lobbying body just trying to effectuate some changes in USYS, which didn’t seem to have listening ears.

I think it’s important to say that many people in USYS have the same goals for soccer in this country as those of us at U.S. Club Soccer.

There are many wonderful people in USYS who love the game, give countless hours to the game trying to work on player development. I think we have more in common than we have differences.

SA: What are the differences?

I think the biggest difference is structure. They have a huge bureaucracy and they have 55 different associations and it’s very hard to get things done. It’s very hard to have a commonality in 55 different state associations with a huge bureaucracy.

We have very little bureaucracy. We have a staff of 17 to 19 people. We really count on our local partners, our clubs and local regions to help us with what works in their region.

We try to be very flexible and try to adapt. We make as many mistakes as USYS. The difference is we can fix our mistakes really quickly.

SA: What drove the creation of U.S. Club Soccer?

U.S. Club Soccer grew out of a meeting the U.S. Soccer Federation had in 2000 when they brought in directors of coaching from different size clubs from different parts of the country that had all put a number of players on the youth national teams.

They wanted to talk us about player development. What were we doing that we managed to develop so many players for the youth national teams and what did the Federation need to do develop more players.

Out of that there came a recognition that we needed to form an organization that was club-centric. Our belief was that clubs develop players, well-run clubs develop good players -- so we needed to provide an avenue to developing more successful clubs in the country. That’s how we started.

SA: How different is U.S. Club Soccer than you would have imagined it to be a decade ago?

We’ve changed radically over the 10 years.

We started out with the intent of being a lobby -- just to really lobby for change in the game with USYS and the Federation.

We discovered pretty quickly that without being able to register players and competitions, we really had no clout, and we were not getting listened to at all. We weren’t effectuating any changes.

That’s when we hired Bill Sage as our CEO to get us through the political steps of becoming part of the Federation, being able to register players and having competitions.

We needed to have some sort of program for the league players, and the one thing we really disliked about our competitor was the cost of ODP. So we went – which is also part of our style – and asked the Federation, “What can we do to help?”

We’re proud members of the Federation. Not because we agree with everything the Federation does, but we believe if you’re part of the organization you should support it.

They said they really needed help identifying 12- and 13-year-olds – so we started our id2 program with the idea that it would not cost the kids anything.

SA: What about the impact of the USSF in 2007 launching the Development Academy league on the boys side?

We were marching along in a growth pattern and we were involved in the process of helping the Federation develop the Academy program. Quite frankly, we thought they would probably have us run the Academy. Most of the clubs in the Academy were our members. The Federation chose to do it themselves. We were disappointed. We disagreed with them on it, but that was the decision they made.

That has caused us to make changes because it’s taken many of the top clubs out of our organization. …

Now we’ve got to help build what’s under the Academy. So that’s our current focus. The national premier leagues, taking those clubs that are not in the Academy, building quality regional leagues throughout the country, which would be feeders into the Academy, and doing pre-Academy age groups, which may or may not have Academy clubs in them. …

We’ve had to be very much like an entrepreneurial business. We’ve had to adjust two or three times. So we’re not where we’d thought we’d be because the landscape has changed significantly.

SA: At its beginnings, U.S. Club Soccer’s mission appeared to be to serve the very elite clubs, but it has since expanded into to pretty much all levels of American youth soccer …

It’s broader because there was a recognition that elite clubs have to have connections with the grassroots. Without that connection we all just become clubs that steal players. We didn’t think that was really our ideal model and certainly not the only model. There needs to be a place for clubs to develop players, so we did expand into the recreational area.

The point that I want to stress is we didn’t do this for economic reasons. It wasn’t, “Oh good, we can get a bunch more kids and get money.” It was that we need to have some of these 6-, 7-, 8-, 9-, 10-year-olds connected to these elite clubs for development purposes.

SA: In my interviews with youth club leaders, there’s a near consensus among them wanting just one entity, i.e., the U.S. Soccer Federation, running the youth game -- instead of what they see as a turf war. Is there an upside to competing organizations?

Generally, competition can be a positive. I think we have made the other organizations better. And they in turn have probably made us better.

But I wouldn’t disagree with those statements that at some point it would be beneficial for it to come together.

Essentially, at some point it would great to have one entity running all soccer in the U.S. and, in my opinion, that entity should be the U.S. Soccer Federation. That being said, the competition U.S. Club Soccer has created has been good for the game at this time.

Our model may be the best chance of getting some things done that need to be done. Once that happens, it might make sense for U.S. Soccer to take over.

SA: What’s an example of how U.S. Club Soccer improved how the youth game is organized in the USA?

When we launched, we hired a business partner to run the business side of things and we told them we want this to be 21st century.

You have to be able to get passes off the computer. You have to be able to get stuff fast. Paperless to the extent possible. Online background checks. … That has created change.

Other organizations realized "we better go there, too."

SA: Why do you think that U.S. Club Soccer succeeded in attracting clubs to play under its umbrella?

We introduced flexibility, such as club passes so players could play up in their clubs and come back down. ...

I’m from Northern California. I played CYSA. My youth coach is a CYSA Hall of Famer. But [CYSA-North] was almost the poster child why U.S. Club Soccer was created. You had nine districts and the rules were if I wanted to call up my friend Ben Ziemer and have a friendly over in Sonoma, I had to get permission from my commissioner and he had to get permission from his commissioner – just to go play a friendly.

They made it very easy for U.S. Club to really grow in Northern California because they had so many rules that didn’t serve any purpose.

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

If I had a magic wand, players wouldn’t be paying to play competitive soccer. That’s really the biggest problem we have. Players are paying too much money, so we’re losing players we shouldn’t lose.

SA: Is there a solution without a magic wand?

We have to create more fans so that MLS becomes successful economically.

And then more MLS clubs will have free youth programs, and I think eventually the MLS clubs will have satellite youth clubs.

So the San Jose Earthquakes will have Earthquakes in San Jose, but they’ll have Earthquakes in Sacramento, in Santa Rosa, Fresno … And the Galaxy and Chivas will have a bunch of satellite clubs, because we’ve made the game economically successful.

This is the potential long-term solution, which might make some club directors unhappy.

SA: And how can youth clubs help make MLS successful economically?

I’ve always told my competitive brothers and sisters, pay attention to our recreational players. That’s our fan base. We have more than 3 million players in this country, but we don’t have 3 million competitive players.

In the rest of the world, if you have 100,000 fans in the stadium, it’s not 100,000 competitive soccer players. There’s probably 2,000. The other 98,000 were very average players, but they loved the game.

We can make more soccer fans by the way we teach the game when they’re 6, 7, 8, 9.

To give the kids the love for the game it’s really important to expose them to someone who has that passion for the game -- and hopefully that’s the people who are involved in our clubs.

(Phil Wright has served as a U.S. Club Soccer Board of Directors Chairman since 2003. He is a USSF A licensed coach and the former President and Director of Coaching at San Juan Soccer Club in Sacramento, Calif. He was named NSCAA National Youth Coach of the Year in 1997 in the competitive boys category.)

May 05, 2011
The latest coaching recipe

For the second time in six years, the U.S. Soccer Federation has produced a handbook designed to improve youth coaching in America. Claudio Reyna, the USSF's Youth Technical Director, unveiled the "U.S. Soccer Curriculum" in April. It offers specific, age-appropriate guidelines on how to run practice sessions throughout a season. The aim -- besides turning the USA into the soccer world power it certainly has the resources to become -- is to coach children in a way that helps create an American style of play.

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

The first sentence of the “Curriculum” addresses what we’re shooting for: "All teams will be encouraged to display an offensive style of play based on keeping possession and quick movement of the ball.”

And Reyna remarked in his presentation that our nation should strive to play soccer that is enjoyable to watch. Amen.

The key to achieving these goals is how our players are coached at the youngest ages. This too was addressed in U.S. Soccer's "Player Development Guidelines: Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States." That document was produced during Bob Jenkins’ tenure as Director of Coaching Education and Youth Development and complements the “Curriculum” perfectly.

The “Curriculum” is full of color-coded graphs explaining how much emphasis to put on which components -- technical, tactical, physical, psychosocial -- at each age group. And includes exercise diagrams and practice plans.

“Best Practices” explains in detail the coaches’ relationship to the young players and the perils of overcoaching:

“Coaches can often be more helpful to a young player’s development by organizing less, saying less and allowing the players to do more. Set up a game and let the kids play.”

This should be a mantra for youth coaches, especially in a country in which so many children are coached by soccer novices so heavily influenced by coach-dominated American sports.

The “Curriculum” includes the statements, “Players must learn to find solutions without constant coaching” and “Keep the essence of the game in the majority of the practices.”

The diagrams in the “Tactical Terminology” section and the “Technical Terminology” glossary should serve the novice and intermediate coach well.

Indeed, the “Curriculum” is supposed to serve newcomers to the sport as well as the elite coach and director of coaching. But when it comes to the novice coach, it’s important to realize how difficult it can be for volunteers with little coaching, teaching or soccer experience to run a practice.

Just imagine this situation. After a day of sitting in a classroom and obeying adults, a bunch of 6-year-olds arrive at soccer practice full of energy. The novice coach is placing the 16 cones for exercise No. 1 -- but these cones soon turn into hats and Frisbees. And that’s before coach has divided the players into four groups to put on their bibs. So the coach -- being watched by the parents -- gets nervous and starts barking, which makes it worse.

Novice coaches should strive to run practices such as the ones outlined in the “Curriculum” -- but they shouldn’t be discouraged if they can’t orchestrate a Barcelona- or Ajax-like training session on their first tries. So I would like to see one more statement made to the newcomer coach to preface all coaching handbooks, clinics and courses …

“If all you do is set up goals and let them play, you’ll be doing a good job. As you build up the confidence and skill to incorporate more sophisticated facets into a training session and still keep the kids engaged and active, here's what you can do ..."

“U.S. Soccer Curriculum” is available for download HERE.

“Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States” is available HERE.