November 30, 2011
'They need a guiding hand' (Derek Armstrong Q&A, Part 2)

In Part 2 of our interview, Armstrong addresses the USA's challenge in producing special players and the U.S. Soccer Federation's role in player development.

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

SOCCER AMERICA: Your view, that American youth soccer is producing more “good players” than ever but lacks special players, is widely shared. Why aren’t we producing more exceptional players?

There are so many different things needed to create that environment. ... It’s such a big issue. I think everybody who’s anybody in the United States should be involved in that question. Coaches, parents, the Federation.

One part of the answer is straight: we’re not doing enough.

SA: Let’s start with the environment in general …

Years and years ago in England in the early 1930s, the talk was you could shout down a coal mine, “You got a center back down there” and you get a center back. There were so many of them. You had street soccer happening then.

A bit like the Brazil of today, where you see technical players all over the place. The environment in Brazil is conducive to supplying special players. You’ve got street soccer in Brazil in the way of futsal, in the way of other stuff that goes on there.

Everybody loves the game. They’re steeped in it. Mothers, fathers, grandparents … So the kids have inspirational people around them. The enthusiasm and the knowledge. …

You’ve got to have inspirational coaches working with inspirational players. You’ve got to match the two together. You’ve got to create an environment in which special kids can grow.

SA: There’s certainly more of a soccer culture in the USA than ever, millions of players, and thousands of coaches trying to do the right thing. At what stage in players’ development do you see the biggest problems?

I guarantee there’s been special players missed in the last 10, 15 years.

A key is putting players, at 14 years old, into the right environment in which they can grow. There are kids at 13 or 14 with potential, then stuff happens in the body and the mind that doesn’t allow them to progress.

SA: Can you give some examples of what stifles their progress?

There are discipline issues. We haven’t come to terms with the society we’re confronted with. The TV, the drugs, the lack of discipline in the home. Parents working two jobs and trying to look after their kids at the same time. Kids cannot come through in that environment.

They need a steadiness. They need a guiding hand. They need discipline.

Talented kids come out of Los Angeles, and you can’t coach them -- if you have a staff with zero tolerance. They get kicked out. They generally don’t make the grade.

I think we’ve got too strict an approach. Perhaps we need a system with a bit more tolerance because of the society thing that’s going on.

We’re aware of it and we want to do more.

We send kids to Bradenton [U.S. Soccer’s U-17 Residency Program] who are ill-disciplined. They’re going to get thrown back, because it’s zero-tolerance, and rightly so.

But without understanding why that kid is misbehaving. Why has he got an attitude problem? Why is he late for training?

We’re fighting it here. By the time they get to our Academy they should have all of those problems worked out, but it takes a lot of man-power to do that when you’re not full-time residential.

Not every player behaves himself. Eric Cantona was a nightmare early on in his career. He would never have made it as a youth player here.

We need a little more tolerance and more structure for our better players. And we need special people to help them.

All of that happens in Argentina. They get these kids and they look after them, and put them on the right track.

SA: You’re saying socioeconomic issues are a factor …

I deal with those issues everyday, particularly with the Latino community. I just looked at the tax returns of our Academy players’ families -- incomes of $17,000, $21,000.

The family has two jobs. They hardly have time to look after the kids. It’s such a big subject.

So we’ve got families earning $17,000 a year. How the hell can those parents come to every game, come to every practice. What spare time have they got to work with their kids? They haven’t got any spare time.

If we’re going to have a kid make it, we’re going to need his parents’ help. We can’t do it alone.

SA: Being from a low-income family isn’t a roadblock for talented children in other countries …

At foreign clubs, which have residency programs, the staff becomes his mom, it becomes his dad.

In a situation where he goes home every night, I need the help of the mom and dad.

When you’ve got parents working two jobs, parents who are limited financially, getting kids from one part of the city to the other, three or four nights a week, to train them, is a problem -- all of those things contribute what makes up a special player.

SA: You mentioned Bradenton, the residency program for U.S. U-17 boys that was launched in 1999 …

The Federation is doing it for 40 kids in Bradenton. But look at the size of our country.

I went to France in the summer and I went to Clairefontaine [the French federation’s youth Academy].

They’re not doing this in one place where all the best come to. They regionalized it. They’re a much smaller country and they’ve got [12] of them.

We’ve got to have that in the United States. Where’s the special place I can send my special players to?

I think the only way we can do it is regionalized centers for excellence whereby we’ve got experienced senior staff at the helm so that they’re aware of these problems and they can guide these kids and look at their daily life, and see what the package is. If they’re good enough technically, then I think we have to invest in them.

Invest in them as a person and see if we can make them into better people. I don’t think we have to wait for that prefect Mr. Nice Guy who comes around, like [Nomads alum and U.S. World Cup veteran Steve Cherundolo], who will never give you a problem in your whole life.

It really should be professionals who are doing that, which are the MLS clubs. The MLS clubs should be at the forefront of youth development in the United States.

SA: The Nomads joined the U.S. Soccer Development Academy league when it launched in 2007. What’s your assessment of the Academy?

Very pleased. We were in from Day 1. The people who are in the Academy have got somewhere to aim for. You’re going to see the best teams in the country.

But I feel there’s too many clubs. I think it should be smaller. The federation almost has to support clubs like ourselves. I think it’s getting so hard to keep the finances going it’s threatening the viability of clubs.

The way I read it, they threw the gauntlet down and said, Get organized. You want to be in the Academy, find a sponsor, it’s up to you to find the solution to the problems, and we’ve done that. My solution was to give up the Allen Field and the clubhouse. I have regretted it ever since, but I had no choice and we wrestled with it for a year. We couldn’t afford the Academy and the clubhouse.

The support from the sponsors of the Federation should trickle down to the Academy’s youth clubs. That’s the direction it should be going.

SA: Playing in the Academy is more expensive than what those age groups did before?

Absolutely. Travel expenses alone … if you’ve got to go places like Seattle, going to Arizona for one game.

SA: Do your players get financial aid from the Federation?

We got our fair share of scholarships from the Federation last year, which was absolutely wonderful. I don’t know what we’ll get this year. It goes up and down. It depends on your applications.

Last year we got good support.

SA: Any final words on looking back at 30 years of American youth soccer?

We’ve made fantastic progress but we’re nowhere close to where we want to be. And there are young players with the talent. We need to try harder.

Read Part 1 of the interview HERE.

(Derek Armstrong, who left his native England, where he was Blackpool’s coach for apprentice players, became Nomads director of coaching in 1981. U.S. national team stars who played youth ball for the Nomads include Steven Cherundolo, Frankie Hejduk and Jovan Kirovski. The Nomads team that won the 2002 U-14 USYS national title, coached by Derek's son David Armstrong, included three current MLS players – Michael and Gabriel Farfan [Philadelphia] and Eric Avila [Toronto]. The Nomads have also won USYS national titles at the U-19 [1999], U-17 [1997] and U-16 [1996] levels. Derek Armstrong was a founding director of US Club Soccer, coached the 1987 U.S. U-20 World Cup team, and won three NCAA Division III national titles during his 1982-2007 tenure as UC San Diego head coach.)

November 25, 2011
'U.S. coaching is first class' (Derek Armstrong Q&A - Part 1)

Few individuals have had as great an impact on American youth soccer as Derek Armstrong, who three decades ago pioneered the fully staffed, multi-team club model now prevalent throughout the USA.

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

Armstrong, who is celebrating his 30th anniversary as head of the San Diego Nomads, was also a founding director of US Club Soccer and coached the 1987 U.S. U-20 World Cup team. We spoke with Armstrong about the evolution of the American youth game and the Nomads program that has featured future stars such as Steven Cherundolo, Frankie Hejduk and Jovan Kirovski.

SOCCER AMERICA: You’re believed to be the first full-time, paid coach in U.S. youth soccer. Now, of course, paid coaches and full-time club directors are the norm. What was the reaction to your arrival back in 1981?

Everybody was mainly a mom-and-pop operation. Back then, people didn’t like the idea that someone’s getting paid to be doing this and competing against their team.

SA: What did you think of the youth talent in the USA when you arrived?

That’s what tempted me. I was on vacation in San Diego visiting Joe Hollow [the real estate developer who founded the Nomads] and helped train players for six weeks. There were players like Jeff Duback, Arturo Velazco, Steve Boardman. The talent is what tempted me to give it a go and we went from there.

The youth potential was obvious. The problem was in administration. I started to run into state associations and that kind of thing.

I didn’t have a clue in the beginning and as I got integrated, I had to fight everybody over common sense things like soccer balls and stupid rules.

The high school thing hit me in the face in the first season, when I was told I couldn’t have the players for four months. What? Why?

SA: You had fights over soccer balls?

To the very first State Cup game, I brought a brand new ball from Blackpool [the English club where Armstrong had served as reserve team coach]. The best ball in the world at the time. I told the ref, I don’t mind you using this today. And he’s got a Coca-Cola plastic ball in his right hand, and he put the two in each hand, and said, “I’m using this one.” Which was the plastic Coca-Cola ball. Welcome to America. Oh my, what’s going on here?

SA: How did you create a coaching staff at the Nomads?

The first four years we weaned away from volunteer and parent coaches. In 1982, I started coaching at UC San Diego. I started using graduating seniors as coaches.

Joe Hollow was bit of a visionary. He had a vision of what an American soccer could look like. He was ahead of his time. In other countries, professional clubs took care of youth development, but we didn’t have that here, so the youth clubs had to try and create a similar structure.

[Note: Armstrong coached the UC San Diego Tritons for 26 seasons (1982-2007), winning three NCAA Division III men's titles.]

SA: How would you rate the youth coaching in the USA today?

First class. Young guys start coaching at an early age and have gotten really into to it.

I think we’ve got some really good coaches who are way ahead of the young people in some of the other countries. These guys get into coaching when they’re in college. They’re looking for a coaching job almost before they finish college. They get a head start. I think it’s quite good.

SA: What are you most proud of?

I think being out in front and setting an example. I’m proud of that. That we stood for something. Running the thing properly and professionally at the time when it was amateur.

I think we were a bit of a leader at that. People started looking at what we doing. Like Tahuichi [the Bolivian youth club] was for what we were doing.

Tahuichi going to the Dallas Cup I think educated a lot of people in the United States who had never seen a decent standard of soccer at the youth level.

It took us to a new level. Tahuichi took our game, the expectations of what is possible with youth to a new level. To a lesser extent, the way we went around was an inspiration to people about how to play the game, certainly in California. …

Half of the coaches in San Diego worked for the Nomads. I think we were a good influence on soccer.

SA: You coached the U.S. team, which included Tony Meola, Kasey Keller, Jeff Agoos and Marcelo Balboa, at the U-20 World Cup. What notable memories do you have of that stint?

It was a two-year spell and I enjoyed that immensely.

That was when the Federation wasn’t as organized as it is now. It was fragmented, and I enjoyed the period because it allowed me to travel around the country and meet everybody.

I’ll never forget walking into St. Louis for a regional event with [my assistant Steve Heighway]. There were 60, 70 people and you could almost feel the animosity. By the time we finished we got everybody relaxed and everybody smiling.

Everybody had their own little empire and you were trying to put together a national program. It turned out to be an enjoyable experience.

SA: How would you compare the USA’s youth talent today compared to the mid-1980s?

There’s a lot more good players. I’m not at all sure if the diamonds are any larger, the special players. We’re not producing enough special players. For special players, there’s a different set of stuff that has to go on for that to happen.

SA: How do we produce more special players?

There isn’t one answer, because there are so many different things needed to make up that environment. ... It’s such a big issue. I think everybody who’s anybody in the United States should be involved in that question.

(Look for Part 2 of this Youth Soccer Insider interview, in which Derek Armstrong expands on the challenge the USA faces in producing special players.)

November 20, 2011
If MLS wants kids to watch ...

How do you, a youth coach, address your players when they're victims of bad fouls, brutish opponents or bad refereeing?

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

Obviously, it’s prohibiting retaliation, clinging to your belief that skillful soccer will prevail, and zero-tolerance in ref abuse.

But youth coaches could use some help from the pros. That, in this country, would be Major League Soccer.

I’m assuming most youth coaches desperately want their players to watch good soccer as much as possible. And anyone who cares about American soccer wants MLS to succeed, so we’d like to steer youngsters toward becoming fans of the USA’s league.

But MLS should care more about what kind of soccer it’s presenting if it expects youth coaches to recommend it to their players.

The emphasis from many teams on a physical style over skillful possession, and the low-scoring are problems. You only get to see one goal every 35 minutes. The 2011 season set a record for scoreless ties. That doesn’t keep 9-year-olds glued to the screen.

More disconcerting is the tolerance of thuggish play, the behavior of some the league’s biggest stars, the disrespect shown to referees, and the TV commentators who practically condone cheating.

Who’s the player most American kids can name? David Beckham, who led the league in yellow cards. The Beckham who got into a screaming, nose-to-nose confrontation with Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis.

There’s Rafa Marquez petulantly throwing a ball at Landon Donovan, who to his credit walked away, but whose teammates turned it into a brawl. Thierry Henry was ejected twice this season.

Worse than those transgressions were the fouls that seriously injured four of MLS’s top players -- David Ferreira (broken ankle), Javier Morales (broken ankle), Steve Zakuani (broken leg) and Branko Boskovic (knee ACL). A fifth victim, Seattle’s Mauro Rosales, missed the playoffs with a knee injury inflicted from one of the many cynical fouls he’d suffered.

Hey, watch this league and see what awaits if you’re a superb dribbler.

The pool of talent in MLS isn’t deep enough for the league to lose so many players of such quality and expect to deliver soccer entertaining enough to lure young fans, who have many other options of soccer on TV to choose from.

We had New York coach Hans Backe encouraging his team to “play a bit dirty.” A Portland Timbers player offered this sage advice on how to approach a game: “You step onto the battlefield ... you've got to become that nasty person, that mean person.”

Especially disturbing is how MLS tolerates its players’ behavior towards referees – and the refs’ neglect of the rule mandating a yellow card for dissent. There should be zero tolerance on mobbing the referee after a call, but we keep seeing it and somehow the refs keep the cards in their pockets. (UEFA's head of referees, Pierluigi Collina, wants refs to show a red for such behavior and MLS should enter the next season instructing its officials to do so, and backing them up. One or two reds for a charging dissenter and that would end the practice.)

Of course, when adults play high-stake sports there’ll be some foul play and poor sportsmanship. It’s how the league, the refs, the coaches and the TV commentators react that concerns me about MLS.

The league must urge its refs get stricter with foul play, hand out longer suspensions for lethal tackles, and require players to pass a rules test to be eligible (because it's obvious that too many of these pros have no clue of what constitutes a foul).

And something must be done about the TV commentators who often display their ignorance of the rules – intent is only a factor on handball! – and are constantly defending thuggish play.

When Brian Mullan’s brutal foul broke Zakuani’s leg, more sympathy for Mullan seemed to come out of the Fox Soccer booth than for the player with the cracked bones.

Instead of denouncing the cheating, TV commentators are constantly reacting with euphemisms that virtually celebrate fouls.

They actually say things like “good foul,” “smart foul,” “intelligent foul” and “he had no option but to foul.” (Yes, he had another option! Not to foul, and remember there’s a goalkeeper back there who will most likely make the save.)

A rookie gets hammered and we get an enthusiastic, “Welcome to the big leagues!” from the booth. A defender gets lavishly praised because if he “has the ability to get a piece of you he absolutely will.” A player throws a punch and gets described as “feisty.”

When TV commentators stop excusing foul play and start getting the rules right, youth coaches will feel more comfortable about having their players tune in.

And if MLS cracks down on violent play and better protects its talented, attacking players, its games will be higher scoring, more entertaining, and more likely to turn youngsters into fans.

(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.)

November 14, 2011
Klinsmann Q&A: 'We are on the right track' (Part 2)

Jurgen Klinsmann's stint as Germany's national team coach in 2004-06 coincided with the nation's rebirth as a world power. We asked Klinsmann, U.S. head coach since July, to compare the German player development efforts with those in the USA.

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

SOCCER AMERICA: The World Cup is less than three years away, but, for example, your German 2006 World Cup team and Germany's 2010 World Cup team included key players who were in their teens just a couple years before the World Cup. How likely is it that players who are in their late teens now might be able to help your U.S. squad?

Age is not the key per se. Pele was 17 in his first World Cup. Michael Owen was 18. Lionel Messi was 19. But, as young as they were, these players had already established themselves as stars for their professional clubs. So, having a very successful professional club experience will be the key as to whether or not any of our young players contribute to the national team, particularly in the World Cup.

SA: You played against the USA in 1993 (twice) and at the 1998 World Cup, and have been observing American soccer closely since then. How would you assess the talent pool for the national team now compared the 1990s?

I can look back on the U.S. teams that I played against in the 1990s and identify some very talented players. For instance, Claudio [Reyna] and Tab [Ramos] had international and MLS club careers, and, consequently, I am glad to now be working with them at U.S. Soccer.

Kasey [Keller] is only now retiring and Brad [Friedel] is still playing. So, there have been talented American players capable of playing at high levels for a generation. But, certainly, there are now more American players capable of playing at the professional level and they are doing so in MLS as well as in many other leagues around the world.

SA: The German national team's rebirth as a national power -- and that it plays entertaining, attacking soccer -- is credited largely to the DFB's and the Bundesliga's change in approach to youth development within the last decade. Are there examples of the German approach that can be applied to the USA?

In Germany, both the federation and the professional clubs made a commitment to youth development --- and this has helped create a player development environment that contributes to renewed success for the German national team.

In the USA we now see a similar growing commitment by both U.S. Soccer and MLS to promote youth development. U.S. Soccer now sponsors the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, the new youth development curriculum announced by Claudio [Reyna] this year, extensive training and competition opportunities for youth national team players as well as other programs.

And, MLS clubs are now investing in player development academies, the benefits associated with developing “homegrown” talent, play-for-free opportunities, 10 months a year youth training programs as well as other programs. So, we are on the right track -- although it may take time to see a dramatic improvement in international results for U.S. national teams.

SA: How much of what the DFB (German soccer federation) implemented in its youth development was thanks to you?

The thanks go to the youth coaches who dedicate themselves to working with young players. I am pleased to have been a part of promoting youth development and then showing that entertaining, attacking soccer can be successful on an international stage like the World Cup -- while playing young players.

SA: How closely will you be connected U.S. Development Academy in hopes of finding players who can help the national team program?

The U.S. Soccer national teams program currently includes youth teams at the U14, U15, U17, and U18 levels as well as senior teams at the U20 and U23 levels, which more directly feed the full national team.

Currently, the U.S. Development Academy has teams in two age groups: U15/16 and U17/18. Both these programs --- U.S. Soccer youth national teams, which include player identification opportunities and training camps as well as competitions, and the U.S. Soccer Development Academy --- are carefully monitored by Claudio, the U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Director, and his staff of youth technical advisors.

They provide regular updates, including updates on players that appear to have national team potential, to the national team coaches, including myself. But, in fairness to the youth players, they really must establish themselves as regular players within a professional club environment before they will be ready for the full national team.

November 11, 2011
Klinsmann Q&A: Parents can set an example (Part 1)

Jurgen Klinsmann, whose playing career included winning the 1990 World Cup title with Germany, took a keen interest in American youth soccer when he moved to California upon his retirement in 1998. He became head coach of the U.S. national team in July and took time before the USA's November friendlies against France and Slovenia to discuss American youth soccer issues, including the parents' role, pay-to-play, differences between European and American youth clubs, college ball -- and he offers some advice to youth coaches.

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

Interview by Mike Woitalla

Jurgen Klinsmann, whose playing career included winning the 1990 World Cup title with Germany, took a keen interest in American youth soccer when he moved to California upon his retirement in 1998. He became head coach of the U.S. national team in July and took time before the USA's November friendlies against France and Slovenia to discuss American youth soccer issues, including the parents' role, pay-to-play, differences between European and American youth clubs, college ball -- and he offers some advice to youth coaches.

SOCCER AMERICA: You have spoken often about the value of unorganized soccer for children -- and you helped found an initiative (FD21) to promote that in Germany. Is there a way to increase the amount of soccer children play in the USA outside the club structure?

The keys for soccer development are for children to enjoy kicking a ball and enjoy playing soccer types of games. It does not take a soccer field or an organized team training to do this. But we may need to help our children learn what they can do on their own or with a few friends to enjoy kicking a ball and playing soccer.

In other words, youth soccer training should include lots of fun -- “you can do this on your own” -- activities, including showing examples of how to have soccer-related fun in a backyard, the driveway, the schoolyard, a park, against a wall, or anywhere there is a small amount of space and a ball -- any kind of ball.

In the USA, basketball is part of the culture. So young basketball players grow up learning how to play types of basketball games -- like 1-on-1, 21, H-O-R-S-E --- on their own and with small groups. We need to help our young soccer players to be able to do the same thing -- play on their own or with their friends or with their parents wherever they are with whatever ball is available.

SOCCER AMERICA: A big change in children's sports is the declining role of schools' physical education and sports programs. Can you speak to that issue?

Of course I think it is too bad that physical education and sports programs are declining in schools. And I understand though do not necessarily agree with some of the reasons, primarily around setting priorities and budget cuts. So, as parents, we have a choice -- sit back and do nothing in the face of this decline or create alternative opportunities for our children.

Actually, I do not think that we do have a choice. I think we have to create alternative opportunities for our children. It is part of their life-long education. We hear constantly about the problems of obesity and other health-related issues arising from a lack of exercise. What can we -- as parents -- do about it?

Set an example. Be active with our children. Don’t let them automatically watch TV or go into their rooms to play video games or go online. Encourage outdoor activities year round. Kick a ball in the backyard. Walk or ride a bike to the store instead of driving.

Participate in a local community event instead of going to the movies. There are many active things we can do with our children and that they can do on their own, if we make this type of active lifestyle a family priority.

SA: One of the huge flaws in American youth soccer is the high cost. (The more talented you are, the more it costs.) Why is this not the case in other countries, such as Germany, and do you see any solutions to the problem in the USA?

In European countries, there are two types of clubs: local soccer/sports clubs and professional soccer clubs, which may also include other sports. The local soccer/sports clubs usually serve people from youth through adulthood. So, there is a lifelong opportunity to participate and adult fees are helping reduce (though not eliminate) youth fees.

Plus, the local soccer/sports clubs tend to play 10-month seasons based on local travel and local leagues, not regional leagues and big tournaments with high fees and long-distance travel as is common in the USA.

Also, in Europe, the professional clubs have youth programs and they start signing up promising players at young ages and pay for their costs of training. So, the culture of sports participation and the professional club influence are much different and much stronger in Europe than currently in the USA.

Going forward, MLS clubs will have more influence in the USA, including providing free opportunities to play for talented players. Plus, we may see more American youth clubs partnering with international clubs, which will pay for the training costs of talented young American players. Chelsea, for instance, is experimenting with this right now.

Obviously, a big difference between the USA and European countries is that most promising young American soccer players will end up playing college soccer, while promising young European players have the goal of being professional players. There are many, many more college soccer programs in the USA than there are professional clubs in any European country.

But colleges cannot pay for youth development programs like professional clubs can. So, in summary, there are significant differences between the European sports culture and the American sports culture, which will not dramatically change anytime soon and which do impact the costs associated with youth soccer.

SA: Is the enormous geographic size of the USA a problem for the national team program as it scouts for talent and develops it? And if so, what are the solutions to overcoming the challenge?

I look at the size and diversity of the USA as providing us with a tremendous opportunity, not a problem. We are blessed with a large, relatively wealthy, sports-oriented population that has invested in soccer facilities and organizing soccer so that millions of youngsters are playing soccer year-round. And, more attention is now being paid to developing soccer programs for underserved populations and geographic areas.

While we may have different and sometimes competing youth development soccer organizations, there are certainly opportunities for children to develop and play. In terms of scouting for talented players, youth clubs are doing it, youth organizations are doing it, colleges are doing it, professional teams are doing it, and our U.S. Soccer scouts are doing it.

So, I think we are probably able to identify most of the very talented young players. There are also more comprehensive and more consistent training programs being made available across the country, for example the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and MLS academies.

One trend I encourage, which has been successful in other large countries such as France and Germany that committed to youth development and which can now also be seen here in the USA, is to regionalize programs. This will cut down on costs, allow the youth players and their families to have more normal lifestyles, and provide for more development opportunities.

SA: If a coach of an under-8 team came to you for advice, how would you respond?

Have fun! Let the children enjoy themselves! Help them learn the excitement they can experience kicking a ball and playing soccer-type games on their own, with their friends, and with their parents wherever they are with whatever ball they have available.

(Part 2 of this interview will appear in Monday's Youth Soccer Insider.)

(Mike Woitalla is the executive editor of Soccer America. His youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)

November 01, 2011
Richie Williams: Remember when you were a kid

After playing 14 years of pro ball and serving half-a-decade as an MLS assistant coach, Richie Williams now focuses full-time on the youth game.

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

Recently named coach of the U.S. U-18 men’s national team, Williams is also a U.S. Soccer Development Academy Technical Advisor, assessing and advising the Academy’s northeastern clubs.

A defensive midfielder in his playing days, Williams, who played 20 times for the USA, collected a remarkable number of titles: two McGuire Cup (U-19) championships, two NCAA championships, one USISL Premiership title, three MLS Cups, two U.S. Open Cups, one Concacaf Champions Cup, one Inter-American Cup, and one Gold Cup.

He launched his coaching career as an assistant at his alma mater, Virginia, then moved on to MLS, where at the Red Bulls (nés MetroStars) he served as assistant coach to Mo Johnston, Bruce Arena, Juan Carlos Osorio and Hans Backe, and served two stints as interim head coach.

After leaving the Red Bulls before the 2011 season, Williams worked with the U.S. U-14 and U-15 national teams.

“When I’m working with the U-14s and U-15s, you see a lot of talented players,” Williams says. “Very skillful with good technique on the ball – dribbling, passing.

“I don’t know exactly when this happens, but when they start to get a little bit more mature and develop physically, you see them depending more on their physical abilities than their technical abilities. And that’s where you see sometimes the quality of their play decreasing because they’re relying more on their physical abilities.

“You have to have a balance. You can’t forget about your technical abilities. As these kids grow, you have send the message, 'Now that you’re physically fast or strong, don’t just rely on taking the ball and running past people. You still want to play the same way you did when you were younger. You weren’t developed physically then and you had to rely on your controlling the ball and your passing.'

“Encourage that. When kids are moving up the style of play is important and they have to continue developing their technique.”

The U-18s, unlike the U-17s and U-20s, don’t compete in a world championship, but convene five times a year, including competition in a couple of international tournaments.

Williams says he’ll be working closely with new U-20 coach Tab Ramos. Both work under another former star from New Jersey, U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Director Claudio Reyna, who along with senior national team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has emphasized the importance an integrated approach to coaching at all levels of the national team program.

“If you look at Claudio, Tab and myself and the way we played soccer, we weren’t that different,” says Williams. “We would all try and play the same way. We weren’t big center back guys who just kicked the ball down the field. We were all midfielders who controlled the ball, liked to pass, liked to play a nice style of soccer. Play out of the back, keep the ball on the ground, and attack and create chances. That’s easier said than done, but that’s our mentality.”

COACHING THE YOUNGEST. While playing and coaching in the pros, Williams frequently helped out friends coach their youth teams, and he’s coached his 9-year-old daughter for the past couple of years.

“At the young ages -- when they start playing at 5 until at least 10, 11,” Williams says, “based on what I’ve seen, I think there needs more emphasis on letting the kids play.

“For me, when practice starts, I would make sure every kid has a ball and every kid takes the ball and you do different things with the ball, whether that’s them dribbling around, touching the ball differently with different parts of the foot -- right foot, left foot. I just don’t understand when coaches tell them to run around the field or run without the ball.

“First of all, the amount of time, an hour, hour and a half max, why not get them to be in contact with the ball as much as possible? That’s where you’re going to get technique and ball control from.

“The kids at this age want to touch the ball. That’s why they’re out there. After that, do exercises where the kids aren’t standing around a lot. Passing exercises. A lot of touches, and a lot of things going for the goal, scoring goals.

“Remember back when you were a kid. You wanted the ball and you wanted to score a goal.”

KEYS TO SUCCESS. Williams has been coached and coached with some of the biggest names in American soccer. His coach at the Union Lancers, who won two McGuire Cups, was Manny Schellscheidt, who has coached at all levels of the men’s national team program and served as U-14 national identification program head from 1998 until last month. Bob Bradley was Schellscheidt’s assistant with the Lancers.

Arena was Williams’ coach at Virginia, where Williams and Reyna played on the 1991 NCAA championship team, and for three years at D.C. United, where Williams played alongside Marco Etcheverry on what many still consider MLS's greatest team ever. (Williams won two MLS Cups with United under Arena and one under Coach Thomas Rongen.)

“The successful coaches, same as a player, you have to be a hard worker, you have to be organized,” says Williams. “Obviously, you have to know the game. And you also have to be fair and honest with people.

“There’s tough decisions to be made sometimes, but as long as you’re upfront and honest about them you'll stay on the right track. You’re dealing with a lot of different personalities. Being able to understand each individual -- and not just expecting them to be exactly like you are, because you need guys from different places and with different personalities. You have to know how to man-manage these guys and understand how they do things might not be the same way you do things – but that’s OK as long as you get them to play within the group.

“And especially with the young players, you need to be patient and help them to be better soccer players in whatever way they need it.”