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February 28, 2012
'Not every kid wants to play high school' (Q&A Leigh Cowlishaw, Richmond Kickers)

The Richmond Kickers have announced they will be covering the costs of players on their U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams. We spoke with Leigh Cowlishaw, the Central Virginia club's Director of Soccer, about the impact he expects from the move -- and the Academy's new 10-month season, which keeps its players out of high school ball.

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



SOCCER AMERICA: Other than the Major League Soccer programs in the 78-club U.S. Development Academy, only a handful of clubs don’t charge their players. How are the Richmond Kickers able to pull it off?

LEIGH COWLISHAW:
It’s a mix of sponsorships and motivated donors who wanted to see this happen.

SA: So it’s not a case of the club’s other players’ fees subsidizing the Academy teams?

LEIGH COWLISHAW:
It is not. This is very much a self-sufficient program, so no funds from any of our other programs are directed toward this initiative. That was very important to our club. We did not want to see that. That would be against what we believe in.

SA: What impact do you expect from making your Academy teams cost-free?

LEIGH COWLISHAW:
One would hope there’s an incentive now for players to join the club. It’s certainly a driving force and a reward of a significant dollar value for players who are able to be part of the Academy team.

Four-year play in the Academy -- you’re probably looking at a $20,000 scholarship.

SA: How important is solving the pay-to-play state of American soccer to the nation producing more great players? One can argue that although the USA is producing more “good” players than ever, its rate of producing truly exceptional players hasn’t increased substantially over the decades …

LEIGH COWLISHAW:
We continue to average down because of all the programs, because of all the leagues, because of all the organizations, because of all the clubs that continue to promote that they offer a high level of soccer development. So the player pool is so spread out. The market is totally scattered and fragmented.

I would much prefer to get to the stage where the best players in a region are all together. And that’s one of the reasons we wanted to this [cost-free].

We know that if we pool the players of Academy-level together from a 50-, 60-mile radius, you’ve got a totally different training environment, a totally different playing environment, and you’ve got players competing week-in and week-out just to get in the starting lineup.

We’ve had this explosion of club development and player development, but the actual environment of a player having to fight to be on a certain level team just doesn’t exist.

SA: The big news in youth soccer is that the U.S. Academy league is moving to a 10-month season. What’s a specific benefit for your club’s players?

LEIGH COWLISHAW:
The 10-month season will allow our players to develop even more because now we’ll have the ability to train those players with the professional team -- as clubs around the world can. It will be common moving forward for a 16-year-old kid, who has the ability and temperament, to train with our pro team now and then.

[Editor’s Note: The Richmond Kickers, who have 8,000 youth players under their umbrella, also field a USL PRO team of which Cowlishaw serves as head coach.]

SA: What’s been the reaction of your club’s Academy players on the prospect of opting out of high school ball?

LEIGH COWLISHAW:
We polled our players and 70 percent were all-in to do Academy play right now. And that’s the existing player pool.

To say every kid wants to play high school soccer would be wrong.

But we also recognize there are some fantastic coaches and great teams in high school soccer and high school soccer is not going to go anywhere. High school soccer will continue forever. …

We also recognize this is going to be a generational thing. Not everyone is going to buy into it. Juniors and seniors who have grown up with high school may see it as the No. 1 priority. We believe, as U.S. Soccer believes, that over the years the best players are going to see a different path and gravitate to the Academy program.

SA: What about the argument that Academy players will miss out on the joy of representing their school community, and playing in front of crowds?

LEIGH COWLISHAW:
I like that point because you want to replicate that environment where there’s a lot of noise and atmosphere. That helps player development. I totally agree that’s one of the big benefits of high school ball. It’s certainly harder to replicate that at the Academy level, but that may change over the years as the culture changes.

The one thing that I will say: In our area, our high school soccer fields are the size of football fields and it’s very difficult to play the type of soccer U.S. Soccer is demanding. It’s not conducive to attractive, possession-style soccer.

February 17, 2012
Klinsmann and Co. make case for 10-month club season, no high school ball

U.S. Soccer made it official last Friday that its 78-club Development Academy league will move to a 10-month schedule starting with the 2012-13 season.

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

More than 3,000 of the nation's elite boys play for Academy teams in U-15/16 and U-17/18 leagues and the schedule change means no high school soccer for them. That's the most controversial aspect of the move the Federation says is necessary to create a better balance between training and games and to “close the performance gap with the top soccer nations.”

U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in the Academy’s press release:

"If we want our players to someday compete against the best in the world, it is critical for their development that they train and play as much as possible and in the right environment. The Development Academy 10-month season is the right formula and provides a good balance between training time and playing competitive matches. This is the model that the best countries around the world use for their programs, and I think it makes perfect sense that we do as well."

Said USSF Youth Technical Director Claudio Reyna, "This schedule puts our elite players in line with kids in their age group internationally, and places the appropriate physical demands at this stage in their development."

The USA, however, is unique to international soccer powers in that it has a strong tradition of scholastic sports participation. The club vs. high school conflict emerged before the Academy league’s arrival in 2007, but it has heated up since one third of the Academy teams moved to the 10-month schedule last year. U.S. Soccer addressed the issue of “banning” kids from high school ball in its “Frequently Asked Questions” about the schedule change:

“Every player has a choice to play high school soccer or in the Development Academy. We believe that for those elite soccer players who are committed to pursuing the goal of reaching the highest levels they can in the sport, making this decision will provide them a big advantage in their development and increase their exposure to top coaches in the United States and from around the world.

“We are talking about a group of players who want to continue at the next level, whether that is professional or college, which is still the destination for a majority of our graduates.”

On whether the quality of high school soccer would be reduced, U.S. Soccer responds with:

“Overall, only 1 percent of all players currently playing high school soccer are involved with the Development Academy. We are only talking about a small percentage of elite players who have the goal of playing soccer at the highest levels. High School soccer will continue to make an important contribution to the soccer landscape in this country.”

On whether Academy coaches are better than high school coaches:

“There are many quality coaches in both the Development Academy and high school teams. The Academy environment allows for more focused and consistent training with less emphasis on games. Academy players and coaches also receive ongoing feedback, instruction and guidance from U.S. Soccer Technical Advisors, who are also the main scouts for the U.S. national team programs.”

U.S. Soccer says the move received “overwhelming support” from its member clubs.

“The key to development, to me, is playing against quality players in practice,” said Crossfire Premier Coaching Director Bernie James in a statement. “I think if you’re with a group of good players who are pushing each other, and you have that for most of the year, then I think it’s bound to be better for development.”

FURTHER READING:


U.S. SOCCER’s Frequently Asked Questions:
Academy Starts 10-Month Season in 2012-13 HERE

U.S. SOCCER's Development Academy Quote Sheet: Why Federation leaders (Claudio Reyna, Tony Lepore, Kevin Payne) and Academy club coaching directors (Don Ebert Strikers FC, Calif.; Bernie James, Crossfire Premier, Wash.; Alan Mezger, FC Delco, Pa.: Dave Farrell, Oakwood SC, Conn.; Steve Klein, PA Classics; Kevin Smith, Solar Chelsea, Texas) advocate the 10-month season HERE.

2011-2012 Development Academy Clubs/Conference Alignment Map: HERE.

REACTIONS:

Joe Lyons' article in St. Louis Today includes responses to the "high school ban" from Missouri high school coaches. ("If you're a top player, a truly elite player, you're going to be found, no matter where you play," says Chaminade coach Mike Gauvain.) Read "U.S. Soccer bans its elite players from high school teams" HERE.

Paul Tenorio of the Washington Post spoke to University of Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski, who argues that the Academy can function alongside high school and was initially designed to do just that. Read the article HERE.

February 15, 2012
Dribble on! ... High school more fun?

We need dribblers! ...

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

FEEDBACK …
We need dribblers! In response to Wednesday’s YouthSoccerInsider on curricula for American youth soccer, Brad Partridge of FC Florida pointed to a bit from the "U.S. Soccer Curriculum" he had issue with. In the second paragraph of the document, in the “Style of Play” section, a key element (Quick Transitions and Finishing) description begins with “Speed of play, avoiding over-dribbling …”

It’s the “over-dribbling” mention that’s the problem, as youth coaches can infer this means they should discourage youngsters from dribbling. Partridge believes, “U9 and under, encourage all players to dribble, dribble and then dribble some more.”

I agree with Partridge for several reasons, starting with that the fact that the lack of exceptional dribblers is one of the American soccer's biggest problems. And how do players turn into great dribblers? They try their moves thousands of times until they start working. Imagine how many times Marta or Lionel Messi “over-dribbled” while they learned craft.

A youth soccer environment where a child with a ball is greeted by shouts of “Pass It! … Clear it! … Boot it!” is one that discourages dribblers -- and dribbling is the first step to mastering all ball skills.
 
The USSF Curriculum reference to “over-dribbling” may be for the higher levels, but that it appears at the beginning of a document designed as a recipe for youth coaching sends the wrong message. Besides, when’s the last time we watched our national team and thought, “They’re dribbling too much!” More likely we see them unable to establish a rhythm of play because they lack one-on-one skills.

I would think a high-level coach would rather welcome a superb dribbler who needs to improve on decision-making than an unselfish player lacking in foot skills.

High school Fun. Mike Barr’s YSI “The case for high school soccer” produced an enormous amount of feedback and we’ll continue to cover the topic, which has heated up since the U.S. Soccer Development Academy’s move to a 10-month season that doesn’t allow for high school play. Several supporters of high school ball in Soccer America’s chat room and in letters to the editor make the argument that kids relish playing for their schools.

One reader shared an anecdote of a player who skipped his junior year of high school ball at the behest of his Academy club, but sits on the bench at every game, cheering on his schoolmates, and has vowed to quit his Academy team as soon as he seals a college deal. Then he’ll return to play high school ball his senior year.

REFS AND ARs. Randy VogtsYSI on when refs should overrule their assistants drew a protest from Robert Evans in his “For the Integrity of Soccer” blog.

FURTHER READING … An excerpt of Graham Hunter's new book, “Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World” on SI.com recounts Lionel Messi’s arrival from Argentina at age 12. Read it HERE. …

Tom Marshall of MLSSoccer.com checks in with 16-year-old New Yorker Nick Gaitan, who has joined Boca Juniors' youth program. Gaitan, who turned down an invitation to U.S. Soccer’s Bradenton Residency, spent much of the last two years in Argentinos Juniors youth system. “I’ve been a Boca Juniors fanatic since I was 5 years old,” said Gaitan. His father, Adrian, however, is a River Plate fan and they have to watch Boca-River games in separate rooms, “because we fight,” says Nick. Were he to make it to La Bombonera, Nick says his dad, who represented the USA at the 2007 Under-20 World Cup in Chile, would come to the stadium, “but he’d definitely not wear a Boca Juniors shirt.” Read Marshall’s article HERE. …

... The Orange County (Calif.) Register reports on an attempt to use soccer to keep kids out of gangs. About 1,200 students have been offered free tickets to a Chivas USA game if they have no unexcused absences, no reports of bad behavior, no failing grade at the trimester, and who obey their city's curfew laws.

February 10, 2012
Another curriculum! (US Youth Soccer's is worth a read)

On U.S. Youth Soccer's 117-page Player Development Model coaching guide ...

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

By Mike Woitalla

For sure, there's no shortage of advice out there for America's youth coaches. Books, manuals, DVDs, clinics and courses.

Among the many e-mails with the latest, greatest drills and training plans landing in my inbox is one from a British firm with the subject line, “Make your players all-round geniuses.”

I hadn’t thought of aiming that high, but maybe I’ll bite if there’s a money-back guarantee on those drills in case they don’t create FC Einstein.

A less sensationally marketed document, but free and definitely worth a read, has been unveiled by U.S. Youth Soccer, which has delivered its 117-page “Player Development Model.”

You’re thinking, Another curriculum!?

Right, it arrives eight months after the USSF unveiled its "U.S. Soccer Curriculum." But this one’s more similar in scope and is designed as a complement to the USSF’s excellent “Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States,” which came out in 2005.

"U.S. Soccer Curriculum” is more of a blueprint for age-appropriate training regimes. The “Player Development Model” delves deeper into the coach-player relationship, warning repeatedly of overcoaching.

“It’s going to give them a bit more of the whys behind the curriculum,” says Sam Snow, Director of Coaching of U.S. Youth Soccer, which has under its umbrella 55 member State Associations and more than 5,500 clubs.

“The Federation’s curriculum has a lot of great things in it and things we don’t have in what we put out, such as lesson-plan samples, but we have those up on our Web site, so we decided not to put them into the Player Development Model.”

PDM covers U-6 through U-19 and touches on all the important issues coaches face at each age group -- eg: use of goalkeepers, rotating positions, field size, team size, training time and frequency. PDM, to its credit, also offers crucial advice on tournament play in a section titled, “Beware of Tournamentitis.” While pointing out the benefits of a reasonable amount of tournament participation, it warns:

"We believe that excessive play at competitive tournaments is detrimental to individual growth and development and can reduce long-term motivation.”

As far as coaching kids, Snow says that the Federation and U.S. Youth Soccer’s guidelines complement each other:

“They are good resources and hopefully they give coaches the idea that you need to go tweak it a little bit, make up your own things based on the particular group you have in front of you."

Links:

"US Youth Soccer Player Development Model" available for download HERE.

US Youth Soccer Coach Resource Center 
HERE.

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

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



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