August 30, 2012
NSCAA opposed, but couldn't stop, high school ban (Joe Cummings Q&A)

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

The impact of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy's banning its players from high school ball is being felt across the nation as the fall scholastic season begins.

The impact of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy's banning its players from high school ball is being felt across the nation as the fall scholastic season begins. We spoke with Joe Cummings, the CEO of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA), more than a third of whose 30,000-plus members are high school coaches.

SOCCER AMERICA: What do you say to high school coaches who are upset that the NSCAA didn’t prevent U.S. Soccer from implementing the high school ban on Development Academy players?

JOE CUMMINGS: First of all, the statement we issued last year is one we still believe in. We are predominantly an educational institution and we feel that you should not mandate choice.

And that in the case of the Development Academy, they have mandated you must choose, and we feel that high school players should have the opportunity to do both. It shouldn’t be an either or situation.

To those who feel that the NSCAA should have done more -- we are an individual membership organization. We wouldn’t be the ones to take this on. The NFHS (the National Federation of State High School Associations) would be the one to take this on. Not the NSCAA.

The companion to this would be for a college coach to feel that the NSCAA should take on and issue the deals with legislation at the Division I, II, III, junior college or NAIA level. And that’s not our role. It’s not the function we would serve for the colleges, nor is it a function we would serve for the high schools. Nor is it a function that we would serve for our youth members if it were relative to a youth issue.

I will say that we work very closely with the NCAA, we speak with them, and we have spoken with NFHS about a couple of initiatives. But for us to be lead of this issue is not a function of the NSCAA.

SA: The NSCAA’s statement is pretty clearly disapproving of U.S. Soccer’s high school ban …

JOE CUMMINGS: Of all of the things that we could do or would do, we’ve done. Anything that we feel is within our purview, we have done. I’ve spoken to U.S. Soccer. I’ve spoken to anyone within U.S. Soccer I felt I should address it with. I’ve met multiple times with the folks at NHFS. We have had a meeting with NHFS with both of our boards' members. We’ve given our high school membership a forum, a separate forum on our Web site.

We have posted both sides of the view on our Web site. Those who feel the decision by the Development Academy is wrong, we’ve given them an opportunity to express themselves using our Web site.

SA: What do you know about the NHFS effort on behalf of high school soccer coaches?

JOE CUMMINGS: As the governing body of the high schools I feel they have taken a very active role, whether it be through meetings, phone calls and letter-writing.

They have taken an active role in expressing their position on this and that’s the group that should do it. We certainly have spoken with them and helped them with the message. We’ve been active with them.

SA: What was the NSCAA’s stance in discussions with U.S. Soccer?

JOE CUMMINGS: Isn’t there a way for peaceful co-existence? Isn’t there a way for a player to still participate in high school and continue to play on his Academy team? I would have hoped that would have been the decision.

Personally -- this is not an NSCAA position – if this was all under the umbrella of the professional teams I’d be much more -- not accepting of it – but I could nod my head and say, “OK, fine.” Because most of the professional teams I believe aren’t charging the kids a fee. And then it would the number of MLS clubs times 40 or so kids [kept out of high school ball]. Instead of 80 Development Academy programs times 40 kids or whatever.

[Editor’s note: Academy clubs field one team in each of the two groups: U-15/16 and U-17/18. Minimum roster size is 18.]

SA: One argument for the ban from the Academy, which is a national league, is that high school seasons are played at different times throughout the nation, making it difficult to have a break for high school play …

JOE CUMMINGS: In that regard I agree with Development Academy folks. It’s very hard to schedule something when you know some of the kids won’t be there in the fall, some of the kids won’t be there in the winter, some won’t be there in the spring.  If we were all playing high school soccer during one season, or even during two seasons, it might be a little easier.

SA: What has obviously angered high school coaches is U.S. Soccer’s implication that they can’t be trusted to develop talent. And that three months playing high school ball is going to impede the players’ progress …

JOE CUMMINGS: This is one that I do bristle at, not only because I was a high school coach. We have some really, really good high school coaches. I don’t think you can say a kid’s not going to improve by playing high school soccer.

And improvement can be in a lot levels besides just talking about shoot, pass, dribble, head and receive. Couldn’t it be true they’re going to improve a lot of ways, from a leadership standpoint, from a management standpoint, from a teamwork standpoint?

August 15, 2012
The Role Model Coach: Pia Sundhage

By Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America)

The sideline shots of coaches during TV broadcasts tend not show them in the best light. The ranting and raving at the refs. The futile screaming when unsatisfied with their teams. The sad, stressed-out grimaces that surely can't instill confidence in their players should they glance toward the bench. Then there's Pia Sundhage.

When the camera points to her, we see someone who looks like she’s enjoying watching her team. Her body language conveys confidence – something that very likely contributes to her team’s knack for incredible comeback wins, such as over Canada and France during its 2012 Olympic gold-medal run.

“What she exudes is a wonderful kind of optimism and positivity and I think she has a tremendous calm manner that I think is conveyed very effectively to her players,” says Anson Dorrance, who coached the U.S. women to their first world championship at the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991 and is the USA’s most successful women’s college coach with 21 national titles.

“It’s absolutely vital that even if you’re feeling stressed, your players should absolutely never see it. In fact, as often as possible they should see the opposite.”

U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati hired Sundhage after the U.S. women were routed by Brazil in the semifinals of the 2007 World Cup. Nine months later, Sundhage's Americans won the gold medal despite losing key players Abby Wambach and Cat Whitehill to pre-tournament injuries.

In Sundhage’s next championship, the USA lost the final to Japan on penalty kicks after a 2-2 tie in which the Americans played some brilliant attacking soccer.

At the 2012 Olympics, Sundhage’s team scored 16 goals in six games. At all three world championships with Sundhage at the helm, the USA was highest-scoring team. And her teams have played some entertaining soccer, which is what happens when players are enjoying themselves.

Hope Solo has said Sundhage’s coaching style “brings the joy back to us, back to the time when we were kids.” Midfielder Heather O’Reilly described Sundhage’s approach to life as “glass half-full to the max.”

“Even at the highest level, it should be fun,” Sundhage says. “Soccer is the best sport in the world and if it’s not fun it’s not worthwhile to coach. ... It comes back to where I come from. My mother and father said, "You know, you have to behave. But it's important to have fun.”

No doubt Sundhage -- in an era when the USA's competition has vastly improved -- must be good on player selection, tactics and training methods. But her demeanor is undoubtedly a big contributor to the USA’s success.

“I try to use my body language to emphasize what is good,” Sundhage said in an interview late last year. “I’m really happy to hear that when you watch the women’s team play you think I’m calm, because that's what I want my players to believe – because I have faith in the way we play and in our players. I emphasize the good things. I’m looking for good things, instead of doing the opposite and try constantly to adjust mistakes.”

Sometimes the grumpy, sideline-stomping, ref-bashing coaches win. But since she proves that a positive, dignified approach works, why wouldn’t coaches strive to do it the Sundhage way?

August 14, 2012
Relive the U.S. women's golden Olympics

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

The Olympics provided a rare chance for America's soccer-playing girls to see plenty of action from the world's best women players. Fortunately, those who tuned in for the USA's march to their gold medals were treated to high drama, exciting soccer and lots of goals.

Watching high-level soccer and trying to emulate the stars no doubt helps young players improve their skills.

Anson Dorrance, who coached the U.S. women to their first championship, the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1991, has said that, "If we get girls to watch, it's going to make them a lot more sophisticated soccer players." At the University of North Carolina he assigns his players to watch high-level games.

Below we have links to video highlights of the USA's successful 2012 Olympic campaign for coaches and parents to share with their soccer-playing youngsters, as well as videos that will help them get to know some of the gold medal stars.

Central midfielder Carli Lloyd scored both U.S. goals in the final win over Japan that gave the U.S. women their third straight gold medal and their fourth in the five Olympic tournaments since women's soccer became an Olympic sport in 1996. Video highlights HERE.

In one of the greatest women's soccer games ever, the USA came back from 1-goal deficits three times -- with goals from Megan Rapinoe (twice) and Abby Wambach -- before Alex Morgan headed home the gamewinner during stoppage time of the final overtime period. Video highlights HERE.

The Americans dominated New Zealand in a 2-0 win that saw Wambach score in her fourth straight game at these Olympics to provide the first-half lead. Sydney Leroux came off the bench to score the second. (Note the smile on Leroux's face while celebrating her strike.) Video highlights HERE.

The USA had already clinched a quarterfinal spot going into its final group-stage game against North Korea. Wambach's goal, superbly set up by Morgan, secured a first-place finish in the group and with the 1-0 win the Americans for the first time finished the first-round of Olympic play with a perfect 3-0-0 record. Video highlights HERE.

Hope Solo was called on for only one save as Rapinoe, Wambach and Lloyd scored in a 3-0 win over Colombia that clinched a quarterfinal spot for the USA. Rapinoe scored with a long-distance rocket and assisted on Lloyd's goal. Video highlights HERE.

The USA started its Olympic quest against France, touted as among the favorites, and went down 2-0 within 15 minutes. But by halftime it was 2-2, thanks goals by Wambach and Morgan. Lloyd and Morgan, again, struck in the second half of the entertaining opener. Video highlights. HERE.

TOP 5. NBC picked goals by Cristiane (Brazil), Diana Matheson (Canada), Carli Lloyd (USA), Portia Modise (South Africa) and Alex Morgan (USA) as the tournament's top goals. Video HERE.

While prepping for their gold hunt the U.S. women had some fun creating a lip-synch video to Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA." Video HERE.

Megan Rapinoe returns to her hometown of of Redding in Northern California to offer a glimpse of where she grew up and introduces her family. Video HERE.

Alex Morgan shows her childhood home in Diamond Bar in Southern California and offers insight into her youth soccer experience. Video HERE.

Carli Lloyd shows you around her New Jersey home in Delran. Video HERE.

Goalkeeper Hope Solo gives a tour of her Seattle home that includes introductions to her dogs and mouse-catching cat. Video HERE.

Lauren Cheney returns to her childhood home in Indianapolis and introduces the family. Video HERE.

August 10, 2012
High school ban hits hard in Manhattan

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

Martin Jacobson is likely the most renowned high school soccer coach in the USA as his success with inner-city New York kids, at a school dubbed "Horror High" by the tabloids, has been well-documented by media outlets, including CBS's "60 Minutes."

After serving as a guidance counselor at Manhattan’s Martin Luther King Jr. High School for a decade, Jacobson took charge of the team’s winless soccer team in the mid-1990s and began by finding talent among students in ESL (English as a Second Language) and bilingual classes.

At the West Side school that has no soccer field of its own, Jacobson guided the MLK Knights to the PSAL Class A title in 1996 and last year celebrated his 13th championship in 17 seasons. That success has largely come with at-risk inner-city kids, some of whom Jacobson has found foster parents and group homes for, and steered away from gangs and drugs. Jacobson even enlists lawyers to assist players with immigration issues.

This fall, Jacobson faces a new challenge: the U.S. Soccer Development Academy’s ban on high school ball, which affects up to eight players in his squad. Understandably, Jacobson is upset that clubs to which he recommended players now demand that they forgo playing for the Knights.

“When the Academy started [in 2007], I said, ‘Go play. I encourage you. You go play for the best club if you can,’” says Jacobson, who has discovered plenty of talent with his summer pickup soccer program, including Bakary Soumare, a 2009 MLS All-Star. “I would call the coaches up to recommend players. … You need a cooperative attitude, a cooperative effort to identify players.”

But this year, the Academy bosses decided that high school soccer impeded players’ development.

“I don’t think a 10-week high-school season was killing the Academy program,” he says. “They’re still playing. And they’re kids. And they’re still socializing.”

While Jacobson laments the prospect of losing top players who can help him win titles, he’s particularly concerned about the kids who may not stay on the educational track if they’re not inspired by staying eligible for high school play.

“I work 24/7 helping these kids,” he says. “What are the Academies going to do in terms of meeting social needs? Do they care about the kids' education? Are they going to check their grades?

“We’ve saved lives that way. I have the highest graduation rate in the city for a non-specialized school. In the last few years, I have graduated every single kid who’s played for me. Citywide they graduate 52 percent.”

Jacobson empathizes with the Federation’s quest to improve the quality of American soccer but not what he sees as an uncooperative approach.

“I know they want to model things after Europe,” he says. “I have a lot of respect for Bob Montgomery [the Red Bulls Academy Director], and for MLS clubs wanting to develop talent. And I could respect the approach if it were 19 MLS clubs, setting up residency programs. If they want to take one of my kids in residency, you have to let them go.

“If the kid’s got a chance to go pro, I can live with that if it’s really his choice. I can understand supporting U.S. Soccer on 19 MLS Academies -- but I can’t give U.S. Soccer blanket support for some 80 clubs keeping kids out of high school soccer.”

A notion that Jacobson can’t help but take as an insult is the implication that high school coaches aren’t good enough to train elite talent.

“Do they really think their club coaches are the best? Come on,” Jacobson says. “Do they have a secret formula they don’t tell me or any other high school coaches about?

“Have they done a study on high school coaches? I think the majority of high school coaches are excellent. And the ones who aren’t are not coaching excellent kids, in general. I think we work really hard for the kids. We meet needs the club coaches don’t provide.”

August 03, 2012
Brian Bliss: 'At U-16s, winning becomes part of it'

For the second time in three years, the Columbus Crew Juniors won the McGuire Cup -- U.S. Youth Soccer's U-19 national championship -- coached by former U.S. World Cup player Brian
, the MLS club's Technical Director.

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

For the second time in three years, the Columbus Crew Juniors won the McGuire Cup -- U.S. Youth Soccer's U-19 national championship -- coached by former U.S. World Cup player Brian
, the MLS club's Technical Director. Bliss, 46, also serves as assistant coach of the U.S. U-20 national team to Tab Ramos, with whom Bliss played alongside on at the
1998 Olympics and 1990 World Cup. We spoke with Bliss about key issues in American youth soccer, including the U.S. Soccer Development Academy's ban on high school ball.

SOCCER AMERICA: Besides coaching the Crew Juniors to two McGuire Cup titles, you also guided them to USL Super-20 titles in 2010 and 2011. What’s the key to the success?

BRIAN BLISS: You got to have good players. You can’t win without having some quality in your squad. It starts from underneath us. We’re developing some decent players and bringing them up through the system. By the time they get to the U-19 level, you’ve got a base of players who understand the game, who can play, who are technically decent.

Then we add a few extra guys to round out the roster in the summer who aren’t necessarily from our own system, but usually two-thirds of the guys are from our system.

SA: Did the players on the McGuire Cup team also play for the Crew’s U.S. Soccer Development Academy squads?

BRIAN BLISS: They’re players who graduated from the Development Academy who are too old now to play U-18s. Most of these kids are freshman in college, going to be sophomores.

SA: Is the Crew’s investment in its youth program starting to pay off for the pro team?

BRIAN BLISS: We’re only in the first cycle of it. We’re just starting to get a couple of homegrown guys signed – the goalkeeper Matt Lampson from Ohio State; Aaron Horton, who went to Louisville; and then Ben Speas, who was Soccer America’s College Player of the Year [2011]. Those players have all come through our system, so we’re starting to see some benefits.

SA: How different is youth soccer from when you were growing up?

BRIAN BLISS: The players are much better. The coaching is much better. The environment and the experiences are far greater.

When I grew up, my gosh, it was a big deal to drive from Rochester to Syracuse to play a game -- 65 miles. God forbid you ever said, “You know what, let’s drive down to Pittsburgh to play in a tournament." Now kids are playing in the Disney Classic. They’re playing in the Dallas Cup. The regional teams are going to Costa Rica and Argentina. All that stuff.

The experiences are far greater than what we had.

SA: One major change has been the U.S. Soccer Federation’s creation in 2007 of the Development Academy …

BRIAN BLISS: The change is for the good and for the right reasons. We have to get out of the mentality that it’s OK to play 85 games a year and there’s no training going on. You can play all these games but when you don’t have an opportunity to work on your game through training, it’s awful tough to become a better player. It’s play games, recover, play games. In that regard it’s the right direction.

Now we just have to maintain the right level of competition week-in and week-out. And I think that’s happening in the Academy. Rarely do you ever see anything lop-sided like a 5-0, 6-0 score. Most every weekend is a meaningful game and nobody’s sleep-walking through games and getting results. The competition level is better, no doubt.

But you still have to have something above that U-18 level. I’m not saying that’s the Federation’s responsibility, but there’s got to be somewhere for these guys to go because that gap between 18 and 21 is vital and I think we’re missing the boat on that.

SA: What can be done at the youth level to get American soccer to a higher level?

BRIAN BLISS: You hate to compliment them, but look at what Mexico’s got going on over there. They probably have half the resources that we do on the youth side but they’ve got it going. Whether it’s identifying players who are more technically gifted and then running with that -- as opposed to running with the more physical guys who are more mature in terms of their body at an early age for the sake of winning. We need to get away from that a little bit. I know it’s painful because youth clubs are in existence to win things in order to drive more revenue by kids signing up.

That’s unfortunate. But maybe we’ve got to get to a system where there are no more trophies, there are no more awards at the younger ages. Because that may be pointing us in the wrong direction at times.

SA: Does having a youth program as part of an MLS club alleviate the problem of emphasis on winning over player development, because the club judges the youth coaches on how many players they produce for the pro team rather then on youth trophies?

BRIAN BLISS: Pretty much. With Billy Thompson, who played for the Crew the same time I did, and played for Sigi Schmid at UCLA, he’s our director of coaching -- we talk about it and that’s stressed quite a bit.

It’s about getting the little things right, pushing players through the system, getting them better, moving them up.

Nobody’s ever going to call a coach in and say, “How come you didn’t win the tournament you were in last week? Why’d you end up in fourth place, not first?”

We want them to be mindful of things we stress in our curriculum, in our mission statement and hopefully it translates to first team. No one's being flogged for not winning.

But we also say once we get to U-16s, at our club, winning has to be part of something. We just can’t be developing players for the sake of developing players. We’ve got to be able to learn how to win and develop players at the same time. That’s the juggle.

We’d rather learn something from winning a game than from losing a game. You can learn something from both – winning or losing. But who wants to learn something going 2-15 when you can learn something going 13-2, or whatever?

SA: What’s your view on U.S. Soccer Development Academy’s ban on high school play?

BRIAN BLISS: I think it’s the right thing. I grew up in a hockey environment in Upstate New York. I played high school hockey and the best players in my area didn’t play high school hockey. They played Junior Monarchs – they were called – and they traveled up and down Upstate New York, into Pennsylvania, Michigan, across the border … The top hockey players never played high school hockey.

It’s a similar thing and we have to adjust ourselves to it. But we have this social fabric about high school sports and the status of a high school kid within the school and how he’s seen by his peers based on his athletic talent. That’s a tough social thing to break down.

But I think if it’s about advancing players and the advancing the game we’ve got to get kids in the most advanced programs.

SA: The U.S. U-20s failed to qualify for the 2011 U-20 World Cup, missing the biennial tournament for the first time since 1995. How's the team looking that you're coaching with head coach Tab Ramos?

BRIAN BLISS: It’s early. We’re still identifying, selecting players and trying to see what the pool will shape out to look for. Tab’s got to expand the pool we’re looking at because of what happened to Thomas [Rongen] last time, not having some kids available because they weren’t released [from their pro clubs].

Some of the results have suffered because we have changed players in and out, so we can get a look at some guys. We paid for that a little in terms of results. It’s not an excuse. It’s just little bit of a different approach for the first seven, eight months of the program.

SA: Are the U-20 players aware that you and Tab were star players for the USA in the 1980s and 1990s?

BRIAN BLISS: I don’t think they overly know. I think they heard of Tab, he’s a bigger name than I am. I think they’re remotely aware the guy played in Olympics, three World Cups.

The guys joke a about it. When they’re warming up and Tab and I are whacking the ball around they might say, “Man, the coaches we play for can’t kick the ball like that.”

At practices the day after a game, when you’ve only got the seven or eight guys who didn’t play going through a full training, Tab and I jump in there to keep up the numbers.

We can’t sustain ourselves for more than 10 or 12 minutes. But certainly for three or four minutes at a time, Tab’s still got the juice. He’ll skip around guys and explode. Put the meg on a kid and skate by him. The guys are like, “This guy can play.” By the end of the fifth minute, the hands are on the knees and you’re asking the trainer for water.

(Brian Bliss has been Technical Director of the Columbus Crew since 2008. He served as assistant coach of the Kansas City Wizards in 2000-2006 and in 2007 served as the Director of Coaching for the Kansas State Youth Soccer Association. His playing career included 33 appearances for the USA in 1984-1995. He played in the 1988 Olympics and 1990 World Cup. After college ball at Southern Connecticut State, his pro career included stints in Germany [Carl Zeiss Jena, Chemnitzer FC and Energie Cottbus] and MLS [Columbus, MetroStars and Kansas City]).

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for Bay Oaks/East Bay United SC in Oakland, Calif. He is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper, and More Than Goals with Claudio Reyna. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)