March 30, 2012
Different paths to stardom (Sebastian's Story)

What especially impressed the South Carolina youth coach about the boy wasn't what he did with his Carolina Elite club - although Andrew Hyslop was very impressed -- it was the soccer Sebastian Velasquez played own his own.

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

"There’s areas in Greenville where you’ll find hundreds of kids and adults getting together on weekends and at night,” says Hyslop, the co-director of Carolina Elite, where Velasquez played from U-12 to U-17. “There’s also some indoor here and Sebastian’s the guy you’d be seeing playing at 2 am with adults over at the indoor center.

“Obviously, that’s what we as coaches want. We want kids who play more on their own than on the training fields.”

The most remarkable rookie early on in the MLS season must be Velasquez. The 21-year-old midfielder, who started Real Salt Lake’s first two games and set up goals in both wins, took a non-traditional route to the U.S. pro league.

Velasquez did not play for a U.S. Soccer Development Academy club. He did play high school ball (2007 state champ with Greenville H.S.). He didn’t attend a Division I college. He played two years of junior college ball at Spartanburg Methodist. The No. 36 pick in the MLS 2012 MLS draft, Velasquez was the first JC draft pick in six years.

At age 2, he moved from Medellin, Colombia, to the USA with his mother. He spent most of his youth ball with Carolina Elite before teaming up with fellow future Real Salt Lake draft pick Enzo Martinez on the Discoveries SC team that won the 2009 U-18 USYS national title.

Velasquez left high school after his junior year, got his GED and tried out with Barcelona and Espanyol in Spain, but returned home disappointed until he ended up at Spartanburg Methodist, where in two years he scored 55 goals and made 33 assists in 33 games. His overseas tryouts made him ineligible to play for Clemson, but Tigers’ alum Miles Joseph, now assistant coach at Real Salt Lake, directed Velasquez to the MLS Combine.

He was back in Medellin with his mother when he heard he got drafted. “I started to cry,” Velasquez told mlssoccer.com. “I was so happy. I didn’t watch the ceremony, but I saw my name online and was shocked.”

Hyslop is quick to point out he’s not taking credit for Velasquez’s rise -- “many had a hand in that” -- but when Hyslop hears talk that the only pathway to soccer success lies with the Development Academy, or that certain college coaches turn away from evaluating players based on what league they compete in, he points to Velasquez as a reminder that players “get where they want to go in a variety of ways.”

“I think the Academy is a viable, great option, but at the same time, we’re also providing provide opportunities and developing players,” says Hyslop. “There’s no cookie-cutter guaranteed way to do that. I certainly don’t have all the answers. With the size of the country, it’s inevitable there’s going to be different avenues to reach a goal.”

Hyslop believes youth soccer, with the rise of the Development Academy and its increased influence -- which includes discouraging of high school play -- is at a crossroads.

“It’s not about Sebastian Velasquez,” he says. “It’s not about Carolina Elite Academy. It’s not necessarily about the USSF Academy. It’s really about taking a look and asking can we make sure we develop every possible player in this country? There’s more than one way to do it.

“We have to decide, are we going recognize everybody? Or are we only going to recognize some?

“It makes good sense to cast the net far and wide.”

March 23, 2012
Pros should compensate youth clubs (Q&A Lorne Donaldson, Real Colorado, Part 2)

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

Lorne Donaldson is the Executive Director of Coaching of Real Colorado, which has nearly 5,000 players and competes in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and ENCL. In the second part of our interview we spoke about youth soccer's high costs, how his club evaluates coaches, and the field-size problem.

SOCCER AMERICA: You mentioned that traditional youth clubs in the Development Academy must compete with MLS teams that don’t charge the players. And that high costs in general remain a major problem in youth soccer. Do you see any solutions?

One thing that’s frustrating is when a youth club produces a player for a pro club, it doesn’t receive a dime. We’ve got a kid trying out in Europe and if he signs we don’t get anything. In other countries, clubs get compensated.

Nobody’s addressing it. They just, “Well, it’s a labor law issue.”

But if I have a player for nine years and he leaves for an MLS club, they could make a donation for scholarships. That’s legal! We’re a 501(c). The MLS club could say, “Here’s 5 grand,” or whatever. “Hopefully you can use to it find more players.”

We would use that money to get more inner-city kids.

SA: Why is it important to bring inner-city kids into the fold?

The players who tend to be exceptional are the ones who are hungry day-in and day-out. I think it’s the same in football and basketball. The players who come from a background of need tend to be a lot hungrier. We need more of those kids who are very, very hungry and need a way out.

When we become more inclusive, we are more likely to produce more exceptional players. We produce a ton more good players than in the 1980s and 1990s. I’ve seen some very, very good young players in the younger generation coming through. But the exceptional players -- we’re still not producing enough of those. …

SA: How does your club pay for its scholarships?

We try our best never to turn away players because they can’t afford it, no matter if they're recreational or Academy players. We have people who from the kindness of their heart give us scholarship money. Usually getting scholarship money is from a private donor.

SA: If income from pro clubs isn't on the horizon, what are other solutions?

I don’t see why the big company supporting soccer doesn’t take a club and say, “Here’s X amount of money, go out and get kids from the inner city.” And they would hold us accountable. …

Trying to develop them in the inner city is very, very difficult because they don’t face that competition in their environment -- sometimes their diet is not right -- and you have to get them kind of away from that so you can get them proper training. ... We’re in the suburb. They have to get transportation. They can’t afford it.

SA: What are some qualities your club looks for in its coaches?

First and foremost is they have to be able to relate to the parents and the kids.  A lot of coaches might say, “Well I’m not going to talk to the parents because they don’t do that in Europe.” This is not Europe. Here this is a parent-driven business.

They have to be smart enough to relate to the parents and the kids.

I also look at education. If my coaches are telling our players to go to college, they have to be guys who have done it before, at least been there. Not everyone, but coaches with a little college background know the experience and can actually say, "I have done it." That helps out a lot.

Obviously, coaches have to know the game and know the stages of development.

SA: And oft-cited detriment to player development is an overemphasis on results at the younger ages. …

I always say there’s a very fine line between winning and development. You’re developing players but if your records aren't good, players feel discouraged and they’re going to switch teams.

We put in a lot programs with an emphasis on development over results, but when you try to do that and people pack up and leave. Good thing we’re a big club.

They tend to come back. They’ll leave us at 10, 11 because they’re not winning. They come back at 14 and they can’t make the team anymore. And it happens a lot. ...

Clubs will recruit just like colleges coaches, sitting in their living room making a pitch to parents of a 10-, 11-year-old.

SA: One thing I see a lot that does not seem conducive to player development is having young teams play on huge fields. ...

I agree. I think 11v11 can be fine, but the problem in this country is little kids playing 11v11 on fields 120 yards long.

Even if we don’t make the numbers smaller, shrink the field. I’ve watched games where it takes them five minutes to get to the other end.

We should mandate field sizes appropriate for the age level. I’ve tried to get our state to do it, but they say, “Lorne, everybody doesn’t have a complex to do that.”

I say, just mark the field size. You have portable goals, move them in, mark the field size. Spray the lines for the box. It’s the easiest thing.

March 20, 2012
'Kids face tough choice' (Q&A Lorne Donaldson, Real Colorado, Part 1)

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

Lorne Donaldson is the Executive Director of Coaching of Real Colorado, which has nearly 5,000 players and competes in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and ENCL. We spoke with Donaldson about the high school vs. club debate in Part 1 of our interview.

SOCCER AMERICA: Real Colorado has been part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy since its founding in 2007. What’s your assessment of the Academy?

It’s been good for the kids. It’s been good for the players. But I want to qualify that. I don’t think every player fits this mold. It takes a special player to really do it.

What happens now because of the 10-month season and the high school [ban] -- I think it will change that mold again.

My roster next season I can tell already won’t be as big. I know some kids will play high school. It’s going to be a telling time for a lot of these kids. I don’t think every kid should play Academy. I think some kids are better off in high school.

SA: Do you believe kids who opt to play high school will still be on track for the higher levels?

If we’re talking about the national team stuff, I think if you’re a player of that level, you have to play in the Academy. If you’re talking about "higher level" being college, it depends on what level of college.

The top-notch Division I schools, I think those coaches will demand that you actually play at the Academy level. The Academy prepares you better for the college.  I’ve watched college games over the last few years and it’s become a lot better game. The competition at the Academy prepares you better.

SA: What do you think of the the high school vs. club debate since U.S. Soccer announced the 10-month Academy season?

It’s tough. I have mixed reactions. I go to watch the high school games and watch these guys in their social setting with their high schools. I think it helps them to grow a bit. A kid who excels in high school, they became the big man on campus, as they say, and get their name in the paper, etc., etc.  I think there’s some good in that.

SA: So why can’t the Academy and high school ball complement each other?

If all the high schools were on the same season, I think we could work it out. But some high schools play spring, some play fall, and so it’s a very tough schedule to work out -- and the weather is a big factor.

The Federation had to make a decision and say, “Listen, here’s what we’re going to do to get players prepared.”

SA: How have your players reacted to having to choose between Academy and high school?

It hasn’t hit them yet. We’re just moving into that stage and they’ll have to make a choice in July when we tryouts. … It’s going to be tough. ... I just got an e-mail from the mother of a player whose son has a chance to be captain of his high school team and she wants to talk about high school and Academy. It's a tough choice to make.

SA: On the girls side, there's U.S. Club Soccer’s ECNL (Elite Clubs National League), which was founded in 2009. Do you think U.S. Soccer should launch an equivalent of the Academy on the girls side?

I think ECNL is fine. I think the ECNL rules are fine. All the national team girls are out there. Most of the best clubs, 95 percent of the best clubs, are playing ECNL.

The events are getting better. I don’t think they [U.S. Soccer] should take it over, but there should be still a little more money they can put in. They should have somebody in the front office they should pay to help run it.

SA: How do ECNL costs compare to the Academy’s?

It can be even more expensive because in the Academy you have two teams but in the ECNL you have five teams – from U-14 to U-18. There’s a lot of expenses.

But I can tell you one thing. They enjoy it. The good thing the girls have going for them is they still play high school.

We can control our ECNL schedule so we don’t play during high school season. Some other clubs might choose to play in high school season but we stay away from it. It makes life easier.

SA: Has Academy play increased the costs?

The Academy has driven the cost up for the players. It’s also driven the costs up for the clubs. Our location requires a lot of travel.

And the Academy youth clubs are competing with the MLS clubs, whose Academy teams are free. We have to figure out how to raise money.

A lot of the better Academy players can't afford the costs and are scholarship players. So we gotta find a way to scholarship players. It’s not just us. It’s a lot of clubs. And if there’s an MLS team close to you, most of them will flock to the MLS club because it’s free.

(Look for Part 2 of this interview, in which Lorne Donaldson proposes solutions to creating opportunities for low-income children and other ways to improve player development.)