July 30, 2011
Voices from Ajax Amsterdam: 'Everyone here wants the ball'

Ajax Amsterdam, having produced players from Johan Cruyff to Wesley Sneijder, is considered by legions of American youth coaches as a model for youth development.

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

Much of what happens at Ajax would be impossible for a U.S. program to replicate. Ajax has the pick of the best young players from a soccer-rich nation. That it consistently promotes players to the senior level is to be expected. Lots of coaches -- and their clubs -- would look quite good if they only had to coach their country’s top youngsters.

Ajax covers all costs, so the academy isn’t limited to those who can afford it.

Still, checking out how top clubs around the world approach player development can provide some ideas on how we coach American children.

Last season, Ajax won its first Dutch league title in seven years, prompting Andy Murray of the British magazine FourFourTwo to visit the Ajax academy, which is called De Toekomst (The Future).

One of his impressions: “There’s no screaming coaches, pushy parents or berating of officials.”

“It’s not a crime to lose nor is it about being champions in your age group, but being in the first team, and winning trophies there. To be a star you must overcome disappointment,” Ajax general manager David Endt told FourFourTwo.

Jan Olde Riekerink, Ajax’s Head of Youth Development, said, “We always look for [soccer players] first, but to stay up with the modern game we must develop athletes to compete at the top international level. But enjoyment must come first. That’s the basis for all our coaching: if they don’t have fun, we don’t do it. We don’t make them run in mud just because it’ll make them stronger.”

Also quoted is 19-year-old Dane Christian Eriksen, a star on the current Eredivisie championship team: “[Soccer] is about more than running. Everyone here wants the ball.”

It needs be noted that Eriksen arrived at De Toekomst at age 16 when he was already a star on the Danish U-17 national team and was also being courted by several of Europe's top clubs, and that Ajax reportedly paid Odense BK more than $1 million for him.

Last year, Michael Sokolove wrote an in-depth article for New York Times Magazine on De Toekomst. He quoted youth coach Ronald de Jong:

“I am never looking for a result — for example, which boy is scoring the most goals or even who is running the fastest. That may be because of their size and stage of development. I want to notice how a boy runs. Is he on his forefeet, running lightly? Does he have creativity with the ball? Does he seem that he is really loving the game? I think these things are good at predicting how he’ll be when he is older.”

Sokolove reported that through age 12, players train three times a week and play one game on the weekend. “By age 15, the boys are practicing five times a week. In all age groups, training largely consists of small-sided games and drills in which players line up in various configurations, move quickly and kick the ball very hard to each other at close range. In many practice settings in the U.S., this kind of activity would be a warm-up, just to get loose, with the coach paying scant attention and maybe talking on a cell phone or chatting with parents. At the Ajax academy, these exercises -- designed to maximize touches, or contact with the ball -- are the main event.”

About 200 boys, from ages 7 to 19, train at De Toekomst. Some players at each age group are cut each year. They are said, writes Sokolove, to have been “sent away” -- and new prospects take their place.

July 24, 2011
Keeping faith in the volunteer coach (Q&A: AYSO's George Kuntz)

We spoke to George Kuntz, who was recently named AYSO's Player Development Technical Advisor, about the challenges of creating a soccer environment that suits recreational players and those who have the potential for excelling at the highest levels.

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

SOCCER AMERICA: The message American parents seem to be getting nowadays is that if their children aren’t getting professional coaching -- if they’re not paying a lot for coaching -- they won’t become great players. …

It seems to be the American way that if it costs more, it’s better. It’s not true in this case.

If you can create good environments, even as a parent coach, you’ll have kids who are excited about the game. They’ll be motivated to play more soccer, to watch more soccer. And that’s the key -- creating an evironment in which they enjoy soccer so much they'll want to play more.

SA: Obviously club coaches have a vested interest when they argue for the importance of professional coaching. But can a legitimate case be made that experienced coaching is crucial at the introductory stages?

If we have all our “best” coaches coaching these players in AYSO, U-5, U-6, would that be the answer? I really don’t know. In fact, it might go the opposite direction, because they could be forcing our kids to do things they really don’t want to do. It could be too regimented and the children wouldn’t want to play.

A lot of coaches without much or any soccer experience do a great job. They do their homework, do research, take our courses. They get everyone involved at practice, lots of touches. They’re engaged in making their kids better. …

And my sense is there are a larger number of parent-coaches who have played. …

Are [paid coaches] really giving them something better? I’ve been to their practices. It just depends on who you get.

SA: Coaches with a soccer background can overcoach, but volunteer coaches who are new to the sport might be especially prone to overcoaching because they know traditional American sports in which coaches play a larger role. …

We overcoach. We know we overcoach. We have for the most part well-educated parents who are coaching our kids and they want to give them as much information as possible.

But they’re saying things on the sidelines that have no application or cannot be understood during that millisecond when a player has to make a decision on the ball. It makes no sense to yell out things when the kids are supposed to be making decisions on their own.

Figuring out how to make the best decisions comes from reacting to where their teammates are, where the opponents are – and requires improvisation. That only comes in playing. The coaching part comes in training at practice.

SA: How do you address that in coaching education?

: When I do all these coaching education courses -- and I do a lot of licensing -- I stress that if they set up a 4-v-4, or 2-v-2 game, they’re doing the right thing. Just let them play. Create an environment -- you don’t even have to be the referee -- just monitor that environment and let them play. Create small-sided games.

We tend to want get elaborate. We tend to want to do more. We tend to want to have the newest exercise. But it’s not that. It’s getting kids to want to play. Setting up separate play dates and those types of thing.

Play dates, jamborees, whatever you want to call them. There has to be a way for a coach to set up another day or one of their practice days where the kids are just playing. No rules, no conditions, no restrictions –- just set up little games. Not 11 vs. 11. Not 10 vs. 10. Small games next to each other, 3 vs. 3 or whatever. Not in a structured environment.

At the same time, we educate coaches on how to incorporate age-appropriate technical exercises. We all know how important individual technique is.

SA: One of the toughest decisions parents are faced with is when to move their child from recreational soccer to club ball. When is the right time?

I’ve gotten that question so many times. I’ve been on both sides because I’ve also been involved in the club thing for a long time.

It is a complicated answer, because every player grows differently.

I tell parents, You know your child better than I do. Are they mature enough? How do they handle criticism? How do they handle success and failure?

For some kids, it’s very difficult to handle success and failure. Do they just enjoy playing? Sometimes they’re really close to their friends and don’t like to play with outside groups who aren’t their friends.

Some kids are very independent. They want to play on the best team possible. The parents know those types of things. When they don’t, I say they need to spend more time with their children.

There are a lot of factors. Physical development. Mentally, are they more mature? If they’re not physically or mentally prepared, they could be stepping into a storm, because the club environment can be very difficult.

Maybe they need to spend another year or two developing and having fun with their friends and then they decide.

SA: What impact do you aim to make at AYSO?

The main focus is better educating the coaches so we can get better training for the kids. And to keep them having fun. Being challenged and having fun keeps them in the game. There are too many kids who have just stopped playing for various reasons.

SA: Can you leave us with some thoughts on how coaches can do a better job?

I don’t think we encourage kids to really try things. That’s where creativity comes from.

We tend to hold the kids back. As coaches, we should allow kids to do more. We should expect that they can do more. Because they’re intelligent.

We keep telling kids they can’t do this or that. Allow kids to make mistakes. Tell them you don’t care if they make mistakes.

Kids can pick up things really quickly. Instead of holding kids back saying they can’t -- encourage them. If they struggle, you can always scale it back to a simpler form.

(George Kuntz, AYSO’s Player Development Technical Advisor, is also head coach of UC Irvine's men's team, where he's been at the helm since 1994. He previously coached the women’s team at Pepperdine after starting his college coaching career at California Lutheran University in 1988. Kuntz served as the Director of Coaching for the California Youth Soccer Association-South for eight years and also served as Hawaii Youth Soccer Association Director of Coaching.)

July 19, 2011
Do we get another Mia?

One thing great soccer players have in common is that they grow up with a favorite player or two whom they idolize and emulate. In the backyard or on the field, they pretend to be that player, mimicking his moves or trying to score the way their hero does. They wear his number, perhaps get a replica jersey, or even a similar haircut.

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

Watching masters at their craft and trying to imitate them is, no doubt, a pretty good way to improve. And having a hero in the sport they play surely increases children’s enthusiasm for it.

But despite soccer’s popularity among American girls, we know they watch less soccer than the boys do and are less likely to embrace a soccer role model.

Before this Women’s World Cup, if you surveyed American girls on their favorite female player, Mia Hamm would be by far the most common answer, even from girls much too young to have watched Hamm in action.

Hamm peaked more than a decade ago and retired in 2004. The young girls who name Hamm know her from books, YouTube, or because they’ve heard her name a lot. They’re long overdue for a new female soccer hero.

Has this Women’s World Cup created one?

Thanks to the USA’s dramatic win over Brazil in the quarterfinal, mainstream media coverage of the U.S. women finally came close to what we saw in 1999 when Hamm and Co., won the title on home soil.

The replays of Abby Wambach and Hope Solo’s feats against Brazil were replayed so much that you can expect their names to be remembered.

Wambach scored again in the semis and the final, when she also hit the crossbar with a thundering left-footed strike. What also endeared one to the 31-year-old Wambach was how she reacted to her misses. The 5-foot-11 striker didn’t swear or pound the ground when her shots went off target. She actually smiled before sprinting back into action, as if she was thinking to herself, “That didn’t go so well. No biggie. Maybe next time.”

That Solo is a goalkeeper limits her impact. But for keepers she was terrific. I didn’t see her scream at her teammates as is so common among keepers who want to deflect blame when scored upon or for some reason don’t understand that making saves is in their job description.

Lauren Cheney was for much of the tournament the main orchestrator of U.S. attacks. She scored twice and assisted on three goals in Germany. She plays smart soccer and, at only 23 years old, could get even better.

Megan Rapinoe, the 26-year-old winger who set up Wambach’s last-gasp goal against Brazil, two others, and scored against Colombia, has fan-club potential – because when she gets the ball one expects that something exciting could happen. She was used as a sub until the final, when she set up the first U.S. goal.

And then there’s Alex Morgan. The Californian played in five of the USA’s six games in Germany – coming off the bench each time. She scored the final goal of the USA’s 3-1 win in the semifinal against France and in the final, which she entered at halftime, she put the Americans ahead with a terrific left-footed strike and later assisted on Wambach’s goal with a well-placed cross.

Since debuting last year Morgan has scored nine times, including a crucial goal in the World Cup qualifying playoffs against Italy. The 22-year-old Californian, the youngest member of the U.S. squad in Germany, has only started two of the 24 U.S. games she appeared in.

The Japanese, of course, came back and won from the penalty spot. We’ll see whether the magazine covers and talk-show appearances that popularized the ’99 women will be there for runners-up.

The WPS -- Morgan plays for the Western New York Flash – doesn’t get much attention. But 2012 is an Olympic year. Morgan should surely be a starter from now on and should be the frontrunner, when the spotlight does shine again on the U.S. women, to be the next Mia.

July 07, 2011
Wilmer Cabrera: U.S. boys are immature

For the 13th time in 14 appearances, the USA returned from the U-17 World Cup in Mexico without a win in the knockout stage, losing 4-0 to Germany in the round of 16 after going 1-1-1 group play. We spoke to Coach Wilmer Cabrera about his team's performance, the future of the U-17s residency program in Bradenton, and player development in the USA.

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

SOCCER AMERICA: Are you confident that the players you took to Mexico were the best in the USA at this age group?


SA: Now that you’v

e had a week to reflect on your team’s performance in Mexico, what’s your impression?

The same impression I had at the beginning of the tournament. We have a group of players who cannot yet compete at the highest level with the top teams in the world.

At this age, our boys in the United States, they’re very young, they’re immature. At this age in the top countries, they’re already men. They’re more mature. They’re more professional. They have a more professional mentality.

That is something you cannot manage in practices. You have to live with that. It’s a big advantage the other countries have over us.

[Editor’s note: In group play, the USA beat the Czech Republic (3-0), lost to Uzbekistan (2-1), and tied 0-0 with New Zealand.]

SA: You mean because in other countries they’re already with pro clubs …

In other countries, like Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina -- at that age, they’re more survivors. They have to suffer more. They have to mature earlier.

In Europe, they’ve been in competition and are being developed at younger ages. In Germany, the best athletes practice soccer. That’s the most important sport for them. They know that’s their life. That’s their future. Over here guys, they’re teenagers and they practice soccer for fun.

That’s a cultural environment and we cannot change that in moments or days, or because there’s a tournament.

SA: That makes it sound like we shouldn’t expect better results from the USA at a U-17 World Cup …

Unless we have an unbelievable team where we have six, seven very skillful players who can make the difference on the field. But we don’t have those types of players. I haven’t seen those players yet.

SA: Producing players for the full national team is supposed to be more important than results at the U-17 level. Do you believe your team includes players we’ll see excel at the higher levels?

Yes. I hope. But they need an environment where they can reach their full potential to succeed for [pro] clubs and the national team.

In Bradenton, the Federation has created a good environment for the players to practice everyday and to change their mentality. The players need to continue being in an everyday soccer environment. If they don’t, there will be a crucial gap in their development.

I have examples [from the 2009 team]. Juan Agudelo, when he left the Bradenton residency program, he went to a good environment with the New York Red Bulls. He started to practice with the pro team and playing with the reserves.

I know Luis Gil is in a good environment [Real Salt Lake]. I know Jack McInerney is a good environment [Philadelphia Union].

[Editor’s note: Agudelo, Gil and McInerney were on Cabrera’s first World Cup team, which lost its opener to Spain and reached the second round with 1-0 wins over Malawi and UAE, before falling to Italy, 2-1.]

SA: And what about the USA’s results in Mexico?

Overall we reached our expectations. I saw the team playing to its full potential. Playing with a good level of concentration. With good ideas of soccer. But also with the limitations we found a long time again.

SA: What sort of limitations?

A good mentality to score goals, for example. Even though we dominated almost every game in shots and possibilities, we don’t finish correctly.

Against Germany [4-0 winners], the Germans had 18 shots and 14 of those were on goal. For us, we had 22. We had more than they did, but only 8 of ours went on goal.

You can say, that’s my job as a coach. That’s my responsibility to work on. We do work on finishing all the time at Bradenton.

The problem is finishing under pressure when it really matters. We need these types of competition more often. We need to put them under pressure so they can develop better.

We don’t have that type of competition here.

SA: U.S. Soccer launched the Development Academy fours years ago. How does that affect the U-17s?

The benefits of the Development Academy don’t make a big impact on our age group because we’re looking at the younger players.

For example, the next class we’re bringing in are the ‘96s. The Academy U-16 teams don’t have many ‘96s. And if they have '96s, they don’t start.

We bring in players from the Development Academy who haven’t played one game. We are talking about bringing in players to play for their country who are not starters in their U-16 Development Academy teams. That’s the reality.

That’s not the Development Academy’s fault. It is very well structured and I believe in the Development Academy. I believe it’s going to be a big solution.

Obviously the clubs that belong to the Development Academy have pre-Academy teams, U-15s and U-14s, but they don’t compete at as high a level as the Development Academy teams.

And the Federation continues to emphasize how important it is for clubs to work with the younger age groups.

SA: What do you say to those who suggest that the Bradenton Residency, which was launched in 1999, is no longer necessary?

When clubs provide the same or a better environment, then we won’t need Bradenton.

In the meanwhile, we don’t have other places where we can develop the players in an everyday environment. So we need to have Bradenton.

SA: Which teams impressed you at this U-17 World Cup?

The Germans were one of the top teams I’ve ever seen. The Mexicans were very well prepared and went in as favorites. The level of Uruguay was very high. Obviously Brazil is very good. Those were the most balanced teams.

SA: Those teams also demonstrated exceptional individual skill …

They have more technique. We have kids who don’t start practicing soccer everyday until they come to Bradenton. Do you realize that?

The first time they practice everyday is when they come to us. It’s not the players’ fault. It’s cultural. It’s the system and we cannot change that from one day to the next.

SA: Of course we’re inclined to compare our progress to our neighbor and archrival Mexico, which beat Germany and reached the final. What’s the key to its success?

Mexico prepared its players by playing in a reserve league. They were playing against professional clubs’ U-20 teams. The clubs were helping with that.

For me, I asked 10 teams from MLS to have friendly games with their reserve teams and only the Philadelphia Union accepted.

It’s a cultural thing. We have to grow, little by little. And I’m not blaming anybody. It’s the system. It’s cultural. I’m part of this culture. I can’t change what I cannot change. I want to try to help where I can.

(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.)

July 01, 2011
When They Were Children: World Cup Women

The curb in front her house was an important part of Carli Lloyd's skill development.

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

“I used to kick the ball against the curb for hours daily,” says Lloyd, the central midfielder who helped set up both goals in the USA’s 2-0 opening win at the Women’s World Cup. “I swear that curb helped my first touch.”

Lloyd and her U.S. teammates share what they consider valuable childhood experiences in the "U.S. Women's National Team 2011 Handbook," which profiles the players who are currently aiming for the world title in Germany.

Forward Alex Morgan, the youngest player on the U.S. squad at 21, scored six goals in her first 14 games for the USA, including a crucial strike in a World Cup qualifying clash with Italy. At Cal, she 45 goals in 107 games.

“My dad bought me a Kwik Goal when I was 10, and since then I have gone out and done shooting and finishing while he acts as the keeper,” she says. “That’s most of the reason I feel so comfortable in and around the box.”

Midfielder Lori Lindsey says, “Dad, thanks for building all those goals in the backyard!”

Defender Stephanie Cox made use of her school gym:

“Hitting the ball against the wall at the gym helped me develop the technical ability with both feet that has helped me excel to this day.”

Rachel Buehler, who patrols the central defense and scored the Americans' second goal in its 2-0 opening win over North Korea, credits pickup games with the neighborhood boys.

"I lived in a neighborhood of mostly boys and fearlessly joined in all of their athletic games,” she says. “That is where I truly learned how to tackle.”

Backup goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart recalls that, “I never played on a girls team until I was 10 years old and continued to play on boys teams through high school. That forced me to be tough and to hold my own, plus it taught me to bounce back quickly.”

Lindsey had no problem finding a place for extra practice and is thankful to, “My brother Chris for the countless hours of fast footwork drills in our living room … and for always letting me play on his older boys team without giving me a hard time.”

Also benefitting from sibling soccer was defender Heather Mitts:

“I had many one-on-one soccer battles with my brother Brian that would typically lead to fights. I attribute my toughness to him.”

Midfielder Shannon Boxx fondly recalls playing for the same Torrance United team for seven years.

“That helped me build confidence,” she says. “I feel like I got a head start on understanding soccer and it started with that team. They really wanted you to learn how to play. And it wasn’t all about winning, it was about learning, too.”

Right back Ali Krieger says her father, Ken Krieger, was her club coach for 13 years with the Prince William Soccer Incorporated Sparklers.

“[He’s] one of the best teachers of the game I’ve ever met,” says. “He basically molded me into a well-rounded player at a young age.”

Midfielder Tobin Heath of New Jersey calls the PDA soccer fields, “The best place ever and where I learned to play the game.”

Lindsey Tarpley thanks her family for “the two-hour care rides each way to club soccer for all the ODP practices and tournaments.”

Becky Sauerbunn credits her Ladue High School soccer team for “showing me that soccer can be many things, but in the end should always be fun.”

And the grandmother of goalkeeper Jill Loyden, the U.S. starter during World Cup qualifying, gets credit for launching a dream.

“When I was 11 years old, my grandmother took me to the Summer Olympics in Athens, Ga.,” Loyden says. “I was able to attend the women’s soccer final in which the USA won the first ever gold medal for that event. Ever since then, it became a dream and a mission to become part of the U.S. women’s national team.”

(The “U.S. Women's National Team 2011 Handbook” is available at the USSoccerStore.com)