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October 25, 2011
Tab Ramos: 'I know what Jurgen's looking for'

No other coach of a U.S. national team on the men's side had as illustrious career in the U.S. jersey as new U-20 boss Tab Ramos, who played in three World Cups, two Copa Americas, the Olympics and the U-20 World Cup. One of the most skillful players in U.S. history, his dribbling skills have arguably yet to be matched by an American player. Upon retiring in 2002, Ramos 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. He served as assistant coach to previous U.S. U-20 boss Thomas Rongen.

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

SOCCER AMERICA: How valuable to your new position is your experience as a coach in grass-roots youth soccer?

TAB RAMOS:
I think it’s incredibly valuable to learn the game from the beginning. From being on your knees and throwing the ball to 8-year-olds so they can hit a volley to helping Thomas [Rongen] coach the U-20 team. I think I was able to see everything in between. In the end, I think all the experiences will come in handy at different times.

SA: What's your overall impression of the player pool for the U-20s?

TAB RAMOS:
Overall we have a good core of players who will be important at the start. Obviously this going to be a process of over a year to select what the main group is going to be that we’re going into [U-20 World Cup] qualifying with.

SA: What are some of the general characteristics of this age group? They’re adults but also just coming out of youth soccer …

TAB RAMOS:
You have a wide range of experience among the different players. We have guys who have been overseas and have been playing, not necessarily in first division ball, but they have been playing pro for a couple of years.

You have guys who have never done it, who are now freshmen in college.

You can have seniors in high school. So you have wide range of talent to choose from. Obviously in the end you want to choose the most talented players who can play the way you’d like to play. But at the same time experience becomes a very important part of the selection process.

SA: U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Director Claudio Reyna has talked about the national teams at all levels, from Jurgen Klinsmann’s senior team on down, playing similar styles and in a similar system. How does that affect your task?

TAB RAMOS:
We discussed that a lot. I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to go with Jurgen [as assistant coach] on the last few trips and I sort of know what he’s looking for and the type of player he’s looking for.

One of the most important things with this particular team is to win games, to get us to the [U-20] World Cup and to do the best we can.

But at the same time, one of my jobs is to try to develop players so when they get to the senior team they can play the same way we want to play on the senior team.

SA: How would you describe what Klinsmann is looking for?

TAB RAMOS:
I’m sure Jurgen would be able to explain that better. But I think it’s pretty clear that he likes the teams to play out of the back. He wants people who are confident on the ball and confident to be able to make a difference in the game.

He wants guys up front who are direct, who want to go for goal, who want to make an impact on the game.

Not that other people aren’t looking for these things, but I think sometimes we find a lot of coaches who may say that’s how they want to play, but when it comes time to play the game -- you find them playing with one forward on top all by himself.

I think this is something Jurgen has been trying to do different. He’s been trying get more people forward. He’s been trying to give confidence to players to make a difference.

And the youth national teams will try not to be any different.

SA: About half the players who were part of the last three U.S. World Cup squads had played in a U-20 World Cup. How valuable is that U-20 experience?

TAB RAMOS:
Very. Basically it’s the same thing. Preparation is the same thing. You have the scouting component. You have the fitness component.

The players are a little younger, but particularly the U-20 national team should be able to prepare a player for going into the senior team and not miss a beat.

SA: What memories do you have from playing in the U-20 World Cup in 1983 in Mexico at age 16?

TAB RAMOS:
I took an elbow to face and got a broken nose against Ivory Coast [a 1-0 U.S. win].

But I have great memories. We opened against a very good Uruguay and lost 3-2. We lost the last game against Poland [2-0].

It was my first experience of what to me was real soccer. Making it to the youth national team is very special. I hope all the players coming into camp feel the same way I did when I played.

(Tab Ramos, the new U.S. U-20 men’s national team coach is also President of New Jersey club NJSA 04, which he founded. He was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2005 after a playing career for the USA that included three World Cups, two Copa Americas and the Olympics. He played club ball in Spain (Figueres & Real Betis) and Mexico (Tigres), in addition to his seven years with the MLS's MetroStars.)

October 20, 2011
Cruyff: 'Everyone grows'; Coaches' sons; U.S. Foundation grant cycle opens

Johan Cruyff, speaking with Rob Draper of the UK's Daily Mail, recounted seeing Pep Guardiola for the first time - shortly after Cruyff had been named Barcelona coach and Guardiola was a "scrawny teenager" in Barcelona's youth team.

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

The Barca youth coaches told Cruyff that Guardiola was “one of the best."

But over the next year, the Dutchman said he looked for Guardiola in the reserves and didn’t see him:

“So then I looked at the first youth team, and he didn't play in that team. And eventually I found him in the third youth team.

“So I said to the coaches, ‘You said he was the best one!’ And they said, ‘Yeah, but physically …’ I said, ‘Put him there (in the reserves). He will grow. Don't worry, everybody grows.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, but we will lose.’ I said, ‘If we lose, we lose. We need to create players.’ And he did very well.”

With Guardiola as playmaker, Barcelona won six La Liga titles and the European Cup.

“The people who control the ball very well, they're the most important players,” Cruyff said. “And weak, smaller players, to survive they had to have a better technique than the others. Normally everyone grows -- some a little later, some at different times, but everybody grows. A lot of things will change but the base of soccer is always technique, always should be technique.”

Now in his fourth year as Barcelona's coach, Guardiola's titles include two European Cups, three La Liga titles, a World Club Cup and the Spanish Cup -- with a team famous for 5-foot-7 stars Leo Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi.


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COACHES’ SONS. Among the 36 players called into to the U.S. under-15 boys national team camp at The Home Depot Center is Jonathan Klinsmann, son of U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Jonathan, a goalie, plays for the Irvine (Calif.) Strikers. The camp is being held under the direction of U.S. Soccer director of scouting Tony Lepore.

The sons of Jurgen Klinsmann’s two predecessors were also part of the youth national team program.

Bob Bradley’s son Michael, a starter at the 2010 World Cup who has made 62 U.S. appearances and scored 9 goals, was in the U.S. U-17 Residency Camp in 2002-04. He was a starter on the 2007 U-20 World Cup team, scoring in a round-of-16 win over Uruguay. The 24-year-old midfielder currently plays for Italian Serie A club Chievo, his fifth pro club in five countries following stints in England (Aston Villa), Germany (Borussia M’Gladbach), the Netherlands (Heerenveen) and MLS (MetroStars).

Bruce Arena
’s son Kenny, a defender, played for the USA at the 2001 U-20 World Cup, where he scored in a 1-1 tie with Ukraine. He played two seasons in MLS in 2003-04 (20 games) with the MetroStars under Bob Bradley. Kenny Arena is currently assistant coach at UCLA and head coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy’s U-16 team, which he guided to the 2010-11 U.S. Soccer Development Academy title. His father is the Galaxy’s first-team head coach. ...


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The U.S. SOCCER FOUNDATION, which was borne out of profits from the USA-hosted 1994 World Cup and has made over $55 million available to groups in all 50 states to support the growth of soccer, has opened its 2012 Annual Grant Cycle. Go HERE for more information. …

… Earlier this month, the Boys & Girls Club of East Los Angeles unveiled a new FieldTurf soccer field at its main facility. The field was a gift from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Embassy in Washington, D.C., as part of its partnership Manchester City. "We are incredibly fortunate and grateful for this gift," said Anna Araujo, Executive Director of the Boys & Girls Club of East Los Angeles. "This field will serve this community and all our kids well for many years.  It will be an integral part of our community-based programming to enhance extracurricular activities for kids in this area." ...


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U.S. YOUTH NATIONAL TEAM ROSTERS:

U.S. U-18 girls (Coach April Heinrichs)

U.S. U-17 girls (Coach Albertin Montoya)

U.S. U-17 boys Spain Trip (Coach Wilmer Cabrera)

U.S. U-17 boys Bradenton Residency 2011 Fall Semester

U.S. U-15 boys (directed by Tony Lepore)

October 15, 2011
Patience key when coaching boys in transition (Q&A with Manny Schellscheidt)

For insight into coaching boys* when they hit puberty and how to challenge early-bloomers, we spoke to U.S. Hall of Fame coach Manfred "Manny" Schellscheidt, who had been the technical director of U.S. Soccer's U-14 boys National Identification Program since 1998 and is one of the nation's most experienced youth coaches.

Interview by Mike Woitalla (From Soccer America's YouthSoccerInsider)

Schellscheid, who had been the technical director of U.S. Soccer's U-14 boys National Identification Program since 1998 and is one of the nation's most experienced youth coaches. Schellscheidt has coached at all levels of American soccer, including the U.S. U-17 and U-20 national teams, and is currently head coach at Seton Hall University, where he arrived in 1988 after winning two U-19 national titles (McGuire Cup) with the Union (N.J.) Lancers.

SOCCER AMERICA: What should coaches be aware of when coaching boys who are transitioning into adulthood?

MANFRED SCHELLSCHEIDT:
The body does change and there are mood swings. Maybe they get aggravated easier. They get clumsy. They feel awkward. The rhythm isn’t there. The balance gets lost.

They get the Osgood-Schlatter thing going on where their bones grow so fast that the other apparatus doesn’t follow suit.

It’s not only a physical thing to deal with, it can also confuse them. Things that had come easy become difficult.

That’s a period during which one needs to be careful and not think that all of a sudden they don’t know what they’re doing anymore, or they became bad guys.

SA: How can coaches help players during those stages?

SCHELLSCHEIDT:
It’s patience, No. 1. And you can always engage them in conversation and say, “Look, we understand. Everybody has to go through it.”

Not only does the coach need to be patient, he can tell the player, “You need to be patient with yourself.”

Rather than thinking something is going haywire or there’s something seriously going wrong with you, this is actually something you need to go through and it’s normal.

SA: Are the players at the U-14 level experiencing these challenges?

SCHELLSCHEIDT:
Some, but it usually comes a little later. And for some kids it comes much later – as late as 17 sometimes, 18 in some cases. I’ve seen guys who are small little fellas at 17 and all of a sudden they became 18 they grew a foot.

SA: A boy who matures early can have a big advantage at the youth level …

SCHELLSCHEIDT:
… He’s a man playing with kids the same age. …

In some cases, the best players come out of the group of late-bloomers, because they had to put up with the struggle of being a little bit behind. Since they physically weren’t always the best, they had to use their head a little more, being smarter.

SA: The early bloomer may be the fastest kid around, can succeed simply by blazing past opponents, and might neglect developing other parts of his game. What can a coach do to assure an early-bloomer doesn’t become too dependent on athleticism?

SCHELLSCHEIDT:
You have to challenge him differently. You can ask more of him.

One thing you could do at times is say play two-touch, so now he has to think how fast he can move the ball rather than just running with the ball at his feet.

Or pair him up with another and play two against three. … Stack the numbers against them so they rely more on combining. Sometimes it can be a numbers game. Sometimes it’s putting a condition on the exercise.

SA: Like forcing him to play in small spaces?

SCHELLSCHEIDT:
Right, that’s a challenge for a guy who just wants to use his speed, because when it’s a tight area, then speed in itself, long sprints, don’t help. No one gets it out of first or second gear in a tight area. By that time they’re off the field.

It shouldn’t take a scientist to figure out little ways to tweak things and make things up that create a different need for that guy to respond to.

It’s what players are challenged with that brings out qualities. If you’re looking for things to get good you need to create a need for things to happen.

When you’re putting your training session together, create conditions that challenge them play in a certain way, because there are so many different items you want to address at one time or another that round out the package of being a good player.

It’s usually what a player does best naturally that gets his foot in the door -- and then you need to round out the package to be successful.

SA: Obviously, a strong skill base will help players when they face the challenge of growth spurts and body changes …

SCHELLSCHEIDT:
Besides what you’re trying to address, there are issues that are long-term. I’ve always used the phrase from day one, “When they run they can’t think, and when they think, they can’t run.” How do you get the two together -- anytime during their development?

The more they can get to the point where it’s about ideas -- it starts in the mind -- then eventually the body and the ball become instruments of your great ideas.

Most guys, all they do is get a workout. They slug it out with the mechanics, even at high levels. Special ones, with them, the body and the ball have become an instrument that expresses their brilliant ideas, and that’s when soccer gets truly interesting and fun to watch.

People would argue and ask what makes a great pass? You ask that question and you get a lot of good technical answers. How it should be struck. On the ground. Firm enough. Chipped. Dipped and curled -- whatever it may be. So you get all these things that spell out the skill portion of how the ball got delivered.

I say, look, if I have the ball and I want to give it to you, if I already know what you want to do with the ball when you get it, that puts you on your way to do just that and I give you a great pass. Whatever that pass may be like. But that’s executing ideas.

The highest level of skill cannot be accomplished unless it begins with ideas.

Skill is executing great ideas. The rest is just technique. You can have technically very, very astute guys who are dumb as hell and can’t play.

SA: What can a coach do to create intelligent players?

SCHELLSCHEIDT:
That’s where coaching has its limits. As I've often said, coaches took care of defending and God took care of the attack when there were no coaches around. That’s when they try their darndest and try the impossible, until it works.

* Click HERE to read the Youth Soccer Insider on growing pains on the girls side.


(Manfred “Manny” Schellscheidt was the first coach to receive a USSF A license, in 1971. He was the Technical Director of the U.S. U-14 boys identification program from 1998 through September of 2011. Schellscheidt has coached at every level of U.S. men’s national team program and was a Region I ODP coach for 25 years, including a decade as head coach. He’s won national titles at the pro, amateur and youth levels; his the Union Lancers won McGuire Cup (U-19) titles in 1987 and 1988. He has been head coach of Seton Hall University since 1988.)

October 08, 2011
Minors take on Major League Soccer challenge

Not very long ago, Zach Pfeffer was still fine-tuning his skills in the basement of his Pennsylvania home with his twin brother, Jared.

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

“We would just play down there for hours, kick the ball around, and rocket balls of the walls,” said Zach, shortly after making his MLS debut last month at age 16. “And we put a big hole, probably a 10-inch hole, right through the wall. Our parents were absolutely pissed. In the end, they didn’t mind because we were doing what we loved.”

Zach’s talent and passion for the game -- and a promise that he would eventually earn a college degree -- convinced his parents, Scott (a cardiologist) and Margie, that going pro at age 15 would be a suitable course for him.

“I come from a family that has done well academically,” said Zach, currently a junior at Upper Dublin High School, where he balances classes and online courses with life in the pros. “My parents both went to college. Everyone in my family has gone to college. So that was a big decision.”

Last December, Zach inked an MLS contract that promised him $65,000 his first season. He became the first “homegrown” signing for the Philadelphia Union, which had rights to Pfeffer because he played for FC Delco, a Union affiliate club. Pfeffer had also spent a semester at the U.S. U-17 U.S. U-17 Residency in Bradenton, Fla.

Pfeffer made his MLS debut Sept. 17 when he started and went 63 minutes in a 1-0 win over Columbus. A week later, he came on as a 72nd minute sub in a 1-1 tie at Kansas City.

“Being a young player gives you more motivation to work hard,” Pfeffer said. “I’m still a young guy and need to prove to the staff I deserve to play. Playing these games gives you more confidence and experience.”

WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Pfeffer was 15 years and 352 days old when he signed with MLS, making him the fourth youngest player ever signed by MLS. Here’s an update on the other four players among the Top 5 youngest signees.

Freddy Adu (14 years, 168 days when signed in 2004).
Born in Ghana, moved to Maryland at age 8, Adu was famous for getting a $1 million Nike endorsement deal before he signed for D.C. United in 2004. He played 98 MLS games for D.C. United and Real Salt Lake before, in 2007, moving to Europe, where he failed to break through. He returned to MLS this season and is a teammate of Pfeffer’s in Philadelphia. Now 22, he has 17 caps and two goals for the U.S. national team.

Abdus Fuad Ibrahim (15 years, 130 days in 2007).
The Ethiopian-born Minnesota product debuted for FC Toronto in 2008 shortly before his 17th birthday. He was waived after the 2010 season after playing 26 MLS games and scoring three goals.

Diego Fagundez (15 years, 273 days in 2011).
Born in Uruguay, Fagundez moved to the Massachusetts at age 5 and played youth ball for FC United and FC Greater Boston Bolts before joining the New England Revolution's Academy team. He made his MLS debut Aug. 6 and scored against Chivas USA, making him at age 16 the second youngest player to score in MLS after Adu, who netted at age 14 in 2004. Fagundez made his first start, after three appearances as a sub, Oct. 1 and scored in a 2-1 loss to Seattle.

Nikolas Besagno
(16 years, 60 days in 2005).
The Washington State product was the No. 1 draft pick in 2005 for first-year Real Salt Lake. He played 10 MLS games before dropping to the minor leagues. Now 22, he captains the Kitsap Pumas, the champions of the fourth-tier USL PDL.

MINORS IN THE MAJORS.
A couple years after MLS launched in 1996, it began doing something unique for an American professional sports league – signing high school-age players.

DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey, Santino Quaranta, Eddie Johnson were among the first who played MLS ball before they were old enough to vote.

2010 World Cup starters Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore made MLS debuts before their 18th birthdays in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

More than 30 players have seen MLS action before their 18th birthday. Now that MLS teams have well established youth programs – as mandated by the league’s 2007 “homegrown initiative” – the number of young teens signed should continue to grow.

MLS YOUNGSTERS TO WATCH. Here’s a roundup of players who were 18 or younger entering the 2011 season and have seen MLS action this year.

Player (Club) age (games-goals-assists)
Andy Najar (D.C. United) 18 (27-5-6)
Juan Agudelo (New York) 18 (25-6-2)
Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake) 17 (24-2-0)
Jack McInerney (Philadelphia) 19 (16-1-0)
Omar Salgado (Vancouver) 18 (13-1-0)
Diego Fagundez (New England) 16 (4-2-1)
Zach Pfeffer (Philadelphia) 16 (2-0-0)

(The list includes only players who played youth soccer in the USA. All of the above have been part of the U.S. national team program except for Najar, who has played for his native Honduras. He moved to the USA at age 13 and played in D.C. United's youth program.)



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Five players on the USA’s roster for Saturday’s friendly against Honduras (6 pm ET, Fox Soccer & Univision) were signed by MLS as U-18s: Agudelo, Altidore, Beasley, Bradley and Brek Shea, the 6-foot-3 Texan who joined FC Dallas at age 17 in 2008.

Shea’s father played quarterback at Virginia Tech and Brek played quarterback and safety in middle school. While at the U.S. training camp Brek explained to the Miami Herald’s Michelle Kaufman why he chose soccer over football:

“Football was too much yelling, too strict, and soccer gave me more freedom and ability to express myself.”

October 01, 2011
Top U.S boys clubs get Report Cards

U.S. Soccer has been evaluating the clubs that comprise its Development Academy league since its launch in 2007, but it has now made those evaluations, in which clubs get rated on a 5-star system, public.

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

“We feel the only way to continue to improve is to make sure we hold the clubs accountable to what they’re doing,” said Claudio Reyna, U.S. Soccer’s Youth Technical Director. “They don’t like it [being made public]. They’re a little protective, which is normal. But our message is that it’s part of improving to put these out in the open to discuss.”

Clubs are star-rated in seven categories: Player Development, Style of Play, Training Environment, Administration, Facilities, Fundraising, Respect.

The report cards also include detailed information on last season’s 77 clubs, such as player stats (eg, goals, yellow and red cards), lineup diagrams, and coaching staff.

To grade the clubs, U.S. Soccer conducts live evaluations and video analysis at clubs’ training and games and collects administrative information on the club throughout the year.

“We do training visits, where the technical advisors visit the clubs and they have an important job to be the link to the clubs and support them and make them better and helping the coaching,” Reyna said. “We’re looking at it holistically. It’s not just one coach or one player who’s going to make a club. It’s the club from top to bottom that can influence the players for many months and years.

“Above everything, it’s about trying to raise the level of player development.”

The clubs are graded in comparison to the top international developmental environments.

“So if Barcelona and Ajax are five stars -- that’s what we work off,” Reyna said. “It’s a realistic view of where we are compared to the rest of the world. Some of the clubs have very good coaches and play well, but their facilities are not great – but that doesn’t weigh as much. The most important thing that we really highlight is the style of play, the training, the player development over the years, how many players go to the national team program relative to the player pool in the market.”

Player Development, Style of Play and Training Environment are at weighed at 20 percent; the other categories 10 percent each. (Clubs are also evaluated on how they approach the pre-Academy age groups but without the star system. Academy league play is at the U-15/16 and U-17/18 levels.)

Regarding the Fundraising category, Reyna says, “Around the world at the best clubs, they don’t pay to play. However our clubs can get there, we’d like to get to point where it’s free to play. That’s a goal and an objective that’s easier said than done because our system is different.”

Eleven clubs got 5 stars on Funding for last season; nine of which are MLS clubs.

The “Respect” grade is part of the Respect Campaign launched by Reyna when he took his position in spring of 2010 and is based on the club’s disciplinary record, professionalism of staff and parent sideline behavior.

“I was blown away by the behavior of coaches on the sideline,” Reyna said, “and by the behavior of players. … Screaming and foul language. Disrespecting referees … I thought to myself, if we continue with this environment it affects the players negatively.

“It’s a problem in all youth sports. But this our sport. Let’s be the sport that cleans up the behavior on all levels. Let’s have that goal. … We know it’s competition and we don’t expect it to be Disneyland, but we understand when we cross the line and that message will keep coming and coming.”

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the evaluations is that it takes the focus off results. A club that creates a good environment for long-term player development but doesn’t win titles can point to the evaluations as evidence of the validity of its approach.

“We also hope these evaluations can help parents ask important questions -- not in a negative way -- of their clubs,” says Reyna. “The idea is to lay out what we’re trying to do and not hide anything.”

That they’re being compared to the likes of Barcelona, it’s no surprise that the most common grades on Player Development (PD) and Style of Player are 2 to 3 stars, with a handful of 3 1/2s.

The highest ratings given in those two categories were 4s, which FC Dallas got in both, Real Salt Lake in Style and the New York Red Bulls in PD. (D.C. United rated 3 1/2 in both categories, ranking it second-highest in those two categories combined behind FC Dallas.)

There were 17 clubs, in addition to FC Dallas and D.C. United, that earned at least 3 stars in both PD and Style: Albertson SC (N.Y.), Arsenal FC (Calif.), Baltimore Bays Chelsea, Colorado Rapids, Cosmos West (now merged with Chivas USA), Columbus Crew, Derby County Wolves (now Crew Academy Wolves), FC Westchester (NY), Houston Dynamo, Internationals (Ohio), Kendall SC (Miami), Los Angeles Galaxy, PA Classics (Pa.), PDA (N.J.), Real So Cal, Solar Chelsea (Texas) and Scott Gallagher Missouri.

One caveat from U.S. Soccer: These evaluations are not useful to draw comparisons between Academy club programs and other domestic programs or teams associated with other organizations.

* To access the evaluations: click HERE, scroll down to "ACADEMY CLUB EVALUATIONS" section, and click on “end of year evaluation” to download PDF).

Club vs. High School conflict heats up (A view from the NSCAA)

We spoke with NSCAA CEO Joe Cummings about the tug-of-war for players between high schools and elite clubs, who often urge their players to skip scholastic ball.

Interview by Mike Woitalla

More than a third of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America's 30,000-plus members are high school coaches. So we spoke with NSCAA CEO Joe Cummings about the tug-of-war for players between high schools and elite clubs, who often urge their players to skip scholastic ball. The conflict intensified when the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, which is comprised of 78 clubs and includes more than 3,000 of the nation’s top boys players, announced that about of a third of its clubs have moved to a 10-month schedule this season and by fall of 2012 it expects all of its clubs to do so. Cummings' career in soccer has included high school, college and youth club coaching, as well as administrative positions at the pro level with MLS’s New England Revolution and WPS’s Boston Breakers.

SOCCER AMERICA: You’ve heard from high school coaches regarding the Development Academy’s move toward a 10-month season, which would keep its players out of high school ball?

JOE CUMMINGS:
Yes. High school coaches are one of the most active constituency groups we have.

They want to know, first of all, if this will be a topic at the NSCAA Convention [Jan. 11-15 in Kansas City] -- and yes, it was last year and will again be this year.

And they want to know what our position is.

We have a committee that has come up with a position paper -- it’s being wordsmithed now for the NSCAA -- relative to what we call “personal choice.”

It’s our position that players have a personal choice to decide whether to play for high school and youth soccer programs whenever possible, but we appreciate the position of the Academies as far as player development being at their core.

We appreciate and understand the Academy side of things, but we also appreciate and understand that our high school coaches would have some questions about this.

We just want to make sure that the decision being made by parents and players is being made so that the players’ personal, social and soccer development is always considered.

SA: Comments from some club coaches about high school ball is quite disparaging. They’re basically saying that spending a couple months of the year with high school coaches is a major detriment to a player's development …

JOE CUMMINGS:
I think it’s dangerous to make statements like that and make them sound like facts.

We [the NSCAA] this year put 7,000 coaches through coaching programs, residentially and non-residentially. Well, thousands of them are high school coaches.

We have high school coaches we feel comfortable saying have received a level of coaching education that improves their ability to present the game. And to say that that a high school coach isn’t going to help in the development of a player – that just doesn’t seem fair.

That’s why I have trouble with the statement that sending a player to high school program means he’s not going to develop.

If someone had ever said that about me when I was coaching high school, I would have been pretty upset, knowing all I’d put in to become the coach I was at the high school level.

SA: The less severe argument for keeping players out of high school ball is that it allows Academy clubs to spread their season out and maintain a more reasonable practice-to-game ratio …

JOE CUMMINGS:
It just may not be practical or possible for a young athlete to participate in multiple levels of the game. We understand that.

What we want to make sure is that as these decisions are being made, the players' personal development, social development and soccer development are being considered.

If that means 10 months a year in the Academy, we support it. If that means opting to play high school, we support that.

SA: While club coaches may say high school ball puts elite players in a sub-par, less challenging environment, high school coaches respond that playing at a different level can be beneficial. For example, an average player at an elite club could be a playmaker, team leader at the high school level. That he carries a bigger burden and that will help his all-around game ...

JOE CUMMINGS:
Yes, that could be the case. In my opinion, players should always have the opportunity to play at a level in which their development can be enhanced.

I also taught school for 21 years. I’m going to say this to you as a teacher, an educator and a coach: If a child has an opportunity to play, practice, train – no matter what their love for the game is – at a level that provides them with greater development, then I think that’s an opportunity they should explore.

SA: I have heard legitimate complaints from club coaches that high school ball sometimes doesn’t mesh well club ball. For example, a high school coach putting a player, fresh off a club season, into a rigorous preseason training regime the player doesn’t need at that point. Couldn’t something like that be solved with more cooperation between the factions?

JOE CUMMINGS:
It’s definitely possible when the coaches on both sides of the player have the player's development as a key concern.

SA: High school sports in America have traditionally been considered an integral part of the elite athlete’s development and I’m not aware that other high school sports, such as basketball, are under fire the way high school soccer is. Any idea why high school soccer is considered by many a weak link in an elite youth player’s development?

JOE CUMMINGS:
That’s an interesting question. Do they question high school football? Do they question high school hockey, high school track & field?

That’s a great question. Perhaps it’s because our sport is perceived to be playing catch-up internationally.

SA: Even if the nation’s top 3,000 boys players opt out of high school ball, it’s not as if the USA has a shortage of soccer players. Could the case be made that the opportunities they open up for other players raises the overall level of players?

JOE CUMMINGS:
I would agree with that. A high school that loses its top two players for an Academy team will still be represented by full rosters.

A boy or girl who was on the junior varsity team -- they have an opportunity to play on the varsity. They are going to be challenged to improve.

In theory, it makes sense -- like moving a child up to an advanced class knowing they’ll be challenged to work harder and keep up with the material.



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