September 28, 2012
Why Mexico has been so successful

It's five days after Mexico won the 2012 Olympic gold medal. Scouts from 11 Mexican pro clubs and three representatives of the Mexican federation (FMF) are eying players from ages 13 to 18. ... The scouts sit in a stadium 460 miles north of the Mexican border -- in San Francisco, Calif.

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

The players they’re evaluating are U.S. products, mainly Mexican-Americans, who have reached the finals of the 10-city Alianza de Futbol tryouts, a project co-founded by Brad Rothenberg to discover young U.S. Latino talent.  Most interested in players who come to these free tryouts have been the Mexican scouts, who this year invited more than 50 Alianza players to trials.

Mexican soccer is on a roll, yet Mexican clubs and the FMF continue scouring the USA for talent.

Besides the Olympic gold, Mexico has since June 2011 won the Concacaf Gold Cup, U-17 World Cup, Pan-American Games, Toulon Espoirs tournament and Northern Ireland Milk Cup and finished third at the 2011 U-20 World Cup.

At the San Francisco Alianza event, I spoke to most of the club scouts, and the FMF’s Dennis Te Kloese, to get their take on why Mexico has been so successful of late. The key ingredient, they concurred, was close cooperation between the FMF and the Mexico’s professional clubs.

A decade ago, the Federation mandated that Mexico’s pro clubs invest in youth programs.

“Before that, some of the clubs had good youth programs,” said Atlante’s Mario Garcia. “Now, out of 18 [first division clubs], 15 have a good or excellent youth program.”

Club America’s Jose Luis Arce said, “Before, investing in youth players was optional and nothing stopped clubs from just buying foreign players rather than developing young Mexican players.”

The first sign of major progress came when Mexico won its first world championship in 2005, the U-17 World Cup. But the Federation kept pushing. That year it introduced the rule known as Regla 20/11, which required first division teams to give at least 1,000 minutes of action to players under the age of 20 years, 11 months, during a season or be penalized with points subtractions. Players such as current Tri stars Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (Chivas) and Andres Guardado (Atlas) established themselves during the Regla 20/11 era.

The Regla 20/11 was dropped in 2011 because it was no longer necessary, said Te Kloese and Pachuca’s Sporting Director Marco Garces, because clubs now have more faith in young players.

“They stopped it because it’s not needed anymore,” said Garces. “The clubs are using youngsters all the time. It was important to make us see you don’t lose quality.”

Another crucial move was to establish national U-17 and U-20 leagues. When top tier teams play league games, their youth teams play in the same stadium before the game.

“Thanks to the U-17 and U-20 leagues, so many young players have come to the surface who otherwise were in the second or third division,” Te Kloese said. “They weren’t really looked it.

“Before, the young players were a little bit out of sight. Now the head coach walks on the field, there’s a game going on and he gets to know the players. When he sees the same player is doing something impressive a few games in a row, he knows this is a guy to give a chance to.”

Teams can field up to four older players in U-20 games, which gives playing time to those in their early 20s who aren’t seeing first-team action. And professional clubs also compete with each other at lower age groups. There’s a U-15 league and even some U-13 competition.

“They play each other, which basically obligates the clubs to scout more and to do a better job on their program,” Te Kloese says. “To have more interest youth programs because now they’re competing publicly against each other.”

Said Cruz Azul’s Hector Pinto, “There is an order we didn’t have. There’s an identification process so we know where players come from and where they go. It’s much more competitive at the youth level than it used to be.”

Garces says the youth leagues have aided the national team program’s identification process: “Now the best players are in the national team. I don’t think that was the case before.”

Club America’s Arce says Mexico’s U-17 World Cup triumph in 2005 played a role in the rise.

“It created confidence collectively,” he said. “Not just in the players, but coaches and media. There was no longer the sense that Mexico couldn’t win anything. And now we have better training, better scouting.”

The club coaches say the Federation doesn’t dictate to them how they should coach their youth, or what formations to play, but Garces says there’s a general agreement of how Mexican soccer should be played.

“I think there’s an overall respect for the game, for the ball,” Garces said. “We all try to play out of the back. We try to play a more sophisticated type of soccer in the sense of having the ball, not losing possession. In general, there are always clubs that try different things. But overall the style of play in Mexico is to try and hold possession and to try and create chances. It’s positive for development."

* * *

'BETTER GRIP.' Before joining the Mexican federation and serving as Director of Youth Development for Tigres, for which he recruited several American products, Te Kloese worked with Chivas USA in 2005-08, setting up its youth program.

“Obviously, everything is not better and nice in Mexico,” said the Dutchman. “We’re just taking our first steps, we’re still far from being there, and need to keep improving, capitalize on what we’ve achieved, make sure we keep working hard.

“It’s not so easy. But the Federation has basically taken advantage of the talent there is and people are on the same page. … Maybe in Mexico we have a little bit better grip on things. Because historically [in the USA] you have all these factions -- colleges, high schools, enemies, politics …”

Although the U.S. national team program’s record in recent years pales in comparison to Mexico’s success -- the USA failed to qualify for the 2011 U-20 World Cup and the 2012 Olympic Games (a U-23 competition) -- Coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s team did pull off a historic upset four days after the gold medal game when it beat Mexico, 1-0, at Azteca Stadium.

The first win on Mexican soil was notable for the USA fielding five Mexican-American players, at least four of which -- including scorer Michael Orozco Fiscal -- would not have reached the U.S. national team had they not been recruited by Mexican clubs while teenagers. The Mexican scouts in San Francisco say they see no problem if players they help develop end up playing against Mexico.

“I think it’s positive because, besides our obligation to our national team, we have a bigger obligation to our clubs and our job is to find the best players we can find,” says Garces, whose Pachuca has had 24-year-old Jose Torres since he left Texas at age 16.

“It’s good to give players chances,” Arce said. “It’s good for the game. … Some might play for Mexico, some for the USA. It’s up to them to decide.”

Then he looks at the U-19 Alianza finalists playing on the Kezar Stadium field and says, “I wonder why American teams don’t realize they have all these good players here.”

Alianza de Futbol Web site, Facebook, Twitter.

September 07, 2012
Laughter, Tears, Frustration, Celebration (Book Review)

By Mike Woitalla

If there's a book about a youth soccer coach's experience as entertaining and insightful as what Dan Woog has produced, I'm unaware of it.

Woog has coached youth and high school soccer for more than 30 years. He’s also a journalist and author of several books, the latest of which -- “We Kick Balls: True Stories From The Youth Soccer Wars” -- is a collection of anecdotes that often delivers laugh-out-loud moments a la David Sedaris stories.

Woog is an NSCAA Youth Coach of the Year winner. Staples High School (Conn.) has won four league titles and a state crown since Woog became head coach in 2003. But this isn’t a how-to coaching book. No bragging about tactical prowess or indecipherable charts of Xs and Os. It’s about players – mainly teenagers – and a coach trying to make soccer a wonderful experience for them.

Clearly, Woog’s success as a coach comes from caring so much about his players, no matter what form they come in. The “archetypes” he describes include “The Loner,” “The Captain Without the Title,” “The Soccer Expert,” “The Perfectionist” and “The Bad Boy.” Some drive him crazy, but Woog appreciates and has affection for them all.

Of one, who managed to get lost in the Netherlands and almost ended up on a taxi to Germany, Woog writes:

“His interests ranged from astrophysics to Zen philosophy. With so much going on his mind, I suppose he had little time for such mundane ideas as what time it was, where he was supposed to be, or what he should do when he got there.”

Much of the book recounts Woog taking his teams on trips to Europe, Brazil and Australia. These accounts provide drama and humor -- but can also help prep coaches planning trips with teens because of the myriad challenges, transgressions and successes described.

“My teams do not have many rules,” writes Woog. “I believe the more things you tell a teenager not to do, the more often he’ll try to do them. Rules impose an authoritarian, us-against-them dynamic, the exact antitheses of what a good soccer team needs. And for every rule that is imposed, there must be consequences for breaking it. A coach with a lot of rules can spend so much time trying to enforce them that he has no time for a stroll around the piazza.

“But there must be some rules, and the ones we have we expect to be followed. One of the most important is punctuality. This teaches personal responsibility. It teaches team responsibility too, because everyone looks out for each other. Besides, I hate waiting.”

Woog describes how he balances discipline and affording freedom, and punishing transgressions (teammate fight, T-shirt theft, drinking, missed curfew, etc.).

While there are serious issues that Woog has had to contend with, on the lighter side is how he responded to a player's mooning prank in Denmark. After informed by the mooner's teammates, Woog confronted him with:

"'Jesus Christ! You mooned them? Do you know what you did? Do you have any idea what mooning means in Denmark? Do you know it’s just about the worst thing you can do in this culture? Do you know how offensive it is? Well do you?' ...

“Brett did not know. Neither did I – or anyone else in Denmark, for that matter. How could they? I made it all up, on the spot.”

Fortunately, Woog busted out in laughter before the boy broke down in tears.

Laughter, tears, frustration and celebration are all part of the book – as expected in an account of more than three decades of coaching.

And coaching for so long means that Woog has seen generations of players pass through his teams. Near the end of the book, he contemplates the satisfaction of seeing his former players succeed in life and the sadness of those who have struggled.

“I am glad for their achievements, but I do not congratulate myself for them. So why should I beat myself up over those few who have failed?

“I know all that is true. Yet it each time it happens I go back to my current team, and vow that our next session together will be the best we ever had.”

(“We Kick Balls: True Stories From The Youth Soccer Wars.” By Dan Woog 198 pages, 2012. Paperback $12.95; Kindle $9.95; E-Book $9.99.)

September 02, 2012
Hope Solo: 'Free and unburdened on the soccer field'

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

Hope Solo's memoir, released days after she helped the USA win gold at the 2012 London Games, debuted at No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list. The goalkeeper's propensity for controversy and the promise of revealing details from her battles with coaches, teammates (and even a dance partner) undoubtedly boosted sales. The book also provides a glimpse into the youth soccer days of the world's best female goalkeeper.

"Solo: A Memoir of Hope," co-written with Ann Killion, is a PG-13 read that recounts Solo’s troubled childhood -- her house was “a battlefield, a war zone of screaming, swearing, and disrespect”; her father was at times imprisoned and homeless. Soccer provided the sanctuary.

“Life was calm and ordered on the soccer field. … I felt free and unburdened when I was on the soccer field,” writes Solo. “… Luckily for me, I was growing up in a time when active little girls could finally turn to organized sports.”

Her first team, at age 5, was the Pink Panthers, and she found great joy dribbling “through all the other kids” and scoring lots of goals.

In third grade, she joined a different rec team and met her best friend (Cheryl) of the next decade. Rarely did Solo play goalkeeper:

“My strength and aggression were a plus -- I dominated as a forward. Back then, no coach would have dreamed of taking me off the field and sticking me in goal. I was a playmaker. Sure, if our team needed a goalkeeper, I was perfectly willing to fill in for a half -- some kids didn’t have the stomach for it, but I didn’t care. I was fearless. But I was too good an athlete to be stuck in goal.”

In middle school, Solo's team moved up to select soccer. “We were expected to travel to tournaments. And costs were involved, which made it difficult for my family.” But Cheryl’s family and Solo's coaches helped out with transportation and meals on the rode.

Solo was assigned a middle-school paper on what she wanted to be when she grew up. “It was then I decided: I am going to be a professional soccer player. I was dreaming of something that didn’t exist.”

At 13, she went to an Eastern Washington ODP tryout, hoping to impress as a forward. But goalkeepers were in short supply. The ODP coaches were aware of Solo’s goalie skills because she had shone during a club tournament in Oregon when she had filled in for her team’s injured keeper. At the ODP gathering, she was placed in goal with the U-16s.

For club and high school, Solo remained a field player, but she climbed the ODP ranks as a keeper and started getting attention from college coaches. When her mother was laid off from her job at the Hanford nuclear production complex, and her stepfather on disability, they were set to file for bankruptcy and told Solo she couldn’t continue with ODP. “It’s just very expensive,” her mother said.

Solo saw her dream of college ball collapsing:

“If I couldn’t play ODP, if I couldn’t get a college scholarship, I was going to be stuck in Richland [Wash.] my entire life. I was probably going to end up at Hanford, cleaning up nuclear waste.”

What she didn’t know was that members of her community were already chipping in to cover her club and ODP costs. Her coaches helped her raise money for ODP and eventually she received aid from state and regional programs.

She entered the national team program at the U-17 level and played college ball at the University of Washington. She played pro ball in WUSA, Sweden, France and WPS, has appeared in 124 games for the USA, and owns two Olympic gold medals.

"Solo: A Memoir of Hope," by Hope Solo with Ann Killion. Hardcover, 304 pages, HarperCollins 2012.

September 01, 2012
U.S. Academy goes younger; futsal in the plans

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

The U.S. Soccer Federation continues increasing its influence on boys soccer.

Launched in 2007 with 64 clubs, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy enters its 2012-13 season with 80 clubs, and for the 2013-14 season will add a younger age group, U-13/14.

Academy clubs currently field one team in each of the two groups: U-15/16 and U-17/18. The U-13/14 division will include teams from clubs not part of the current Academy structure.

The U-13/14s will, like the older age groups, play a 10-month season. It will, during the winter, include a futsal component.

Tony Lepore, the Development Academy Director of Scouting, answered questions about the Academy's growth during a Friday morning conference call.

Will players at the U-13/14 level also be banned from high school play?

TONY LEPORE. First of all, there’s no high school ban. There’s high school choice. There’s a 10-month choice. And we think this will help.

This is an age group with some entering high school, some in the eighth grade, and I think it’s much easier to make the decision when you’re in the Academy structure and environment and you really know what to expect from that environment.

So it will be a much more educated decision. We’ve also seen during these transition years to the 10-month season that the hardest decisions are for the players who’ve gotten a taste of high school. And in most cases it’s been that social draw to pull them back.

With the 14s they’ll enter an Academy environment early enough so they’ll be much more educated and we think that when the top players get in this environment early, they will know how to make the choice that’s best for them. The Academy is not for everybody.

How closely will the U-13/14 season resemble the older age groups?

TONY LEPORE: We’ll probably build in a longer break period in the winter for this group. We’re also going to implement a futsal program, because we know the benefits of futsal, during that winter time.

And then it will be the same standards in terms of approved events outside the Academy that meet our standards. For example, the Dallas Cup is in a window for the 15, 16, 17, 18s, and Disney is another one of those. It will be similar for 14s. We’re also encouraging all our age groups to consider international experiences during these open windows.

What’s the rationale for welcoming clubs outside the Academy to field U-13/14 teams?

TONY LEPORE: Really there’s three parts to that. For us the first one is we want to spread the philosophy of the Academy, the principles, the approach to player development. We want to also fill in some travel gaps.

We know that the current schedule, when we look at the match schedule for the 15, 16, 17, 18s, that doesn’t fit [the younger division].

That was part of the challenge in the beginning. That model doesn’t fit the 13, 14s. In some cases we can, where there’s less travel, but there’s certain parts of the country where the 15, 16, 17, 18s' schedule would just be too much travel. So we’re going to look to fill in those travel gaps.

The other piece is we want to cast a wider scouting net. The Development Academy has always been an extension of our youth national team programming. As you know, we start at U-14s there. So we want to cast a wider scouting net with younger players, which is in line with our training centers as well, going into 12s, 13s, 14s as we scout these national team prospects. Bringing in more clubs helps with those three things. …

Obviously this is exciting because it opens up room for some more clubs. We’ll continue to be careful. There are areas where we probably won’t expand at all for the same reason we don’t expand at 15, 16, 17, 18s, which would be because it would dilute the competition.

How do you evaluate potential clubs?

TONY LEPORE: We have nine full-time technical advisors and through our training center models they not only know the Academy clubs intimately, they also know about non-Academy clubs. We’ll be looking for coaching, philosophy, history of player development – how many players they’re sending to our training centers and our youth national teams. We also know it takes good facilities – availability and quality, not just for matches but for training. We’ll also look at their funding model. We continue to push for no pay to play at the youth level.

How much progress has been made in alleviating the costs for Academy players?

TONY LEPORE: We’ve seen progress but we still have a long way to go. Sometimes it’s surprising for people to hear there are a number of non-MLS clubs that are providing full scholarships for their players. They have moved away from pay-to-play. The MLS clubs are leading the way, but that’s motivated the others, especially where an MLS club is a neighbor and they want to continue to compete with each other, which is healthy.

There are 24 fully funded clubs now. [Half the clubs cover at least 50 percent of the costs for players.] We’re making progress but this is a big one so we still have a long way to go.

Will there be a national championship for the U-13/14s?

TONY LEPORE: We know that the league needs to be competitive, because that’s part of any good league. But at the same time we know we want to put development ahead of results. We also want to be careful about the showcase model.

Right now, we’re leaning toward not having a national championship because we want to regionalize everything, including their travel.

What’s the main benefit of expanding to the younger age group?

TONY LEPORE: The first thing that comes to mind is training hours. We know that’s where players develop. We’re moving to four times a week, and that’s a big increase in training hours in the top environments.

A lot of the same philosophy we apply to the 15, 16, 17, 18s we wanted to spread to the younger age group, which is more meaningful games -- games where they’re held accountable for technical execution, decision-making.

This is a really important age group that needs that calendar cleaned up, and that model cleaned up. And also shifting the focus on development ahead of results. The big benefit will be increased hours in the training environment and more meaningful games in terms of their technical development. …

We also know the best model is where one club takes charge of a player’s development. We want to empower the club.