April 30, 2013
Why futsal gets a boost from U.S. Soccer (Keith Tozer Q&A)

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

Play in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy's new U-13/14 age group -- with about a 100 teams -- begins this fall and futsal will be part the schedule. U.S. Soccer has also started hosting U-14 futsal events, including a 32-team tournament at the Home Depot Center in late April. We speak with Keith Tozer, U.S. national futsal team coach since 1996, on futsal's value to the development of young players.

SOCCER AMERICA: Why is U.S. Soccer advocating futsal for young players?

KEITH TOZER: One thing I’ll never forget is when I was in Madrid for my FIFA [futsal] instructor conference. The president of the Spanish futbol federation opened it up. He said one reason why the World Cup trophy is in the building next door is because many years ago, Spain decided that futsal needed to be part of the youth development in Spain.

I’m extremely excited that now our Federation has stamped it and said it must be part of our youth development. There’s nothing but an upswing to what is going to transpire.

SA: How does futsal benefit young players?

KEITH TOZER: Ten or 12 years ago, there was the emphasis of going to small-sided games for youth development. I thought, well, that’s just futsal.

What futsal does is it gives you many more touches on the ball. Your technical ability is in overdrive, where you’re becoming technically sounder at a quicker pace because of the smallness of the field. With the lack of space, you have to react quicker and think quicker.

I compare it to a golfer. A golfer hits thousands of balls during the week with his driver and only pulls out his driver in a round of 18 maybe five, six, seven, eight times, but hits those thousand balls in order to perfect it.

That’s what futsal does in all the aspects: movement off the ball, movement with the ball, dribbling, shooting, proper runs, goalkeeper. It’s soccer on high speed.

SA: How does the smaller ball, with less bounce, help players develop skills?

KEITH TOZER: It’s funny. In America everything’s super-sized. At McDonald’s for an extra buck you get bigger fries. At the shopping mall for an extra $5 you get more. In our country, it’s bigger is better.

You go outside our country every player wants to play with a smaller ball. Why a smaller ball? Well if you can answer the equation of soccer with a smaller ball, what can you do with a normal size 5?

The [futsal] size 4 ball with little bounce to it stays at a player’s feet more and is very inducive to increasing the technical ability of the player.

SA: Futsal also encourages players control the ball by putting the sole of their foot on top of it …

KEITH TOZER: One reason for that is the hard surface. If you receive the ball with the inside of the foot it has the tendency to pop up. Using the sole enables you to relieve pressure away from a defender, to smooth the ball out.

Ten years ago, for an outdoor player to use the sole of the foot in this country, people would frown on it. “Don’t use the sole, use the inside or outside or instep.” But if you look at some of the top outdoor players in the world, a lot of times, especially when their back is to the goal, they use the sole of their foot. ... These are just technical things that are becoming more prevalent now because of futsal.

SA: When you have the sole on top of the ball, you can move it in any direction …

KEITH TOZER: Especially when you have a player on your back, using the sole on top of the ball allows you to hold the ball for a player to run off you or pull it around to shoot.

SA: Compare futsal to indoor soccer with sideboards, which has long been popular in the USA.

KEITH TOZER: I’ve been involved indoor soccer with the boards since 1978. I love the game, it’s a great game. But I think there’s an evolution that’s coming to the indoor game. It all comes down to the coaching.

[Editor’s note: Tozer, who played a decade of indoor ball in the MISL and AISA, has coached indoor soccer since 1984 and has been head coach of the MISL’s Milwaukee Wave since 1992.]

About 12 years ago, I started to introduce futsal tactics to the indoor game. In my training sessions, if I play you the ball and I miss you, the whistle will be blow.

Normally in years past, because of your physicality and it hits the boards and you win it back, I actually forget that I gave you a bad pass. Outdoor soccer that’s a throw-in. Futsal that’s a kick in.

I think the indoor game can definitely help develop a lot of our youth players. It has one more player than futsal and it’s got the boards, but there’s got to be some modification to it and I think you’ll start to see that.

A lot of people like to play the boards. You can have an hour and get as much action as you can. In futsal, obviously you have to have better control. Your passes have to be more precise. The field is much smaller than an indoor field, if you cannot move before or after you get the ball, it’s going to be difficult game for you.

SA: Is playing with boards better with the youngest kids because the ball stays in play and you have more non-stop action?

KEITH TOZER: We recently had an ID camp in Kansas City for United States Youth Futsal. What we noticed is when futsal is introduced to the 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds -- they are so much more fluid and start working on their technical ability. They were more technical than the older players.

I equate it to if you ever seen a kid 7, 8 or 9 swing a golf club for the first time. It’s very fluid. It’s beautiful. There’s no bad habits. It’s not rigid. But if a kid doesn’t swing a golf club until 15 or 16, it’s ugly.

That’s why futsal is so great to introduce early. Yeah, the ball may go out of bounds a little bit, but I guarantee you that month after the month the technical ability will get much better.

That’s why I’m so excited that U.S. Soccer said futsal’s got to be part of our youth program. We have tremendous goalkeepers, we have great hard-working defenders, we have tremendous hard-working midfielders.

This is another teaching tool in order to get the player who you need to play outside the box … who when he has no other options, can beat three or four guys to score a goal.

April 22, 2013
Instilling respect, passion and love for game (USL president Tim Holt Q&A Part 2)

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

In Part 2 of our interview with Tim Holt, the USL president addresses some of the key issues facing American youth soccer. Although best known for its expansive network of pro, semipro and amateur adults leagues, USL has had a major impact on the youth game, having launched the Super Y-League in 1999. USL also operates an Olympic Development Program, a U-20 Super Y-League, and its Premier Development League (PDL) provides a bridge to pro soccer for young players.

SOCCER AMERICA: Is there anything that USL does to help alleviate the huge pay-to-play problem in American youth soccer?

TIM HOLT: This continues to be a huge challenge for us all. Many USL clubs, including the USL PRO Richmond Kickers, are now offering participation in their highest level academies at no cost to the players. MLS clubs have also led the way on this front.

It is quite an investment to make this happen and most of the solutions to this will need to be generated at the club level. However, all leagues, tournaments, clubs and other associations have a responsibility to allocate resources in a manner that doesn’t make it prohibitive for players with financial hardship to have access to the best clubs, coaching and competition.

SA: Can you speak to the role the PDL plays giving young players an environment in which they play with and against older and more experienced players ...

TIM HOLT: Quite simply, the PDL is the bridge from the highest levels of youth soccer and collegiate soccer to the professional game.

With the 65 top non-professional teams in the United States and Canada, and consistently over 70 percent of MLS draftees participating in this competition, the PDL is an established proving ground for the next generation of professionals.

The unique model and structure of the PDL allows for current collegiate players to compete alongside and against (non-paid) former professionals, which creates the right mix for development. A regional competition model and 14-game season allows for these players to have a daily training and game schedule akin to what they experience at the professional level.

As past Open Cup results have shown, on any given day these teams can compete and have success against the best professional teams our nation has to offer. This league continues to grow in popularity and importance. Not only a number of MLS and USL PRO teams but many top youth clubs own/operate PDL teams to provide a graduated next step for their youth academies.

SA: What are some traits you see in youth clubs that you believe create the right environment for young players?

TIM HOLT: Most important is establishing a club ethos that instills a sense of respect, passion and love for the game. Further, one of the common denominators that we see among clubs successful in developing players for the next level and ensuring a positive experience for all players irrespective of their ability is that there is a singular club philosophy that all of the individual teams and coaches embrace.

Too many clubs remain more a confederation of individual teams playing under one brand, rather than a true club that is committed to a singular method of training, style of play, expectations, etc. Achieving this is a function of leadership at the very top of the club and constant communication/reinforcement with all stakeholders (coaches, players, and parents).

SA: What message would you send to coaches at the youngest ages?

TIM HOLT: Let kids be creative, keep them active, and make it fun! You can teach the basic skills of the sport within enjoyable activities and games. The game is the best teacher so put the kids in situations where they have the freedom to make decisions and find solutions.

Finally, and most importantly, encourage young players dribble and take defenders on in appropriate situations, rather than demanding they immediately pass every time they receive the ball -- we have a culture of criticizing kids that “overdribble” and labeling them as selfish players, yet we bemoan the fact that we aren’t developing any creative playmakers and attacking players ...

On that note, I believe that our most glaring player development “problems” is our collective failure to prioritize Zone 1 [ages 6 to 12]. Perhaps this is fantasy, but how do we get our very best coaches and teachers of the game to focus regularly on working with our youngest players?

Of course, top coaches aspire to coach professional, college, and the oldest youth teams, and our system creates economic and other incentives that reinforce this. This isn’t anyone’s fault, however in the elite soccer nations the most talented coaches with a gift for teaching the game work with the younger age groups where they can have the biggest impact on our future national teams.

These coaching positions are viewed with equal or greater significance and respect to the professional level gigs. In the U.S., these roles are largely left to well-intentioned parents or developing coaches and as a result we don’t maximize this critical early window for establishing a foundation of important skills.

SA: If you had a magic wand, how would you use it to improve youth soccer in America?

TIM HOLT: I would use it to eliminate a lot of the distractions/obstacles -- TV, video games, fear of letting kids out on their own, etc. -- that prevent today’s kids from heading out in their neighborhoods and to the parks and organizing themselves to play soccer without adult direction.

This is where a lot of the real improvement occurs and most importantly it is soccer on their terms, not adults’ terms. There is a limit to how much you can improve and develop with two training sessions per week and a game on the weekend.

This “free play” is the time to experiment, get a ton more touches on the ball, and develop that love and joy for the sport that lasts a lifetime.

Read Part 1 of the Holt Q&A HERE.

(USL President Tim Holt joined USL in 1999, originally serving as the A-League & Super Y-League Operations Director. He started overseeing the all USL senior leagues in 2002, was named vice president in 2004, and president in 2009. Holt is co-chairman of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Committee and a longtime member of the US Soccer Federation (USSF) Professional Council. Holt played youth ball for Pennsylvania’s FC Delco, for which he’s also served as coach and administrator.)

April 20, 2013
'USL Widens the Net' (Tim Holt Q&A Part 1)

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

United Soccer Leagues (USL), best known for its expansive network of pro, semipro and amateur adult leagues, has also had a significant impact on the youth game, having launched the Super Y-League in 1999. USL also operates an Olympic Development Program, a U-20 league, and its Premier Development League (PDL) provides a bridge to pro soccer for young players. We spoke to USL President Tim Holt about USL's youth soccer ventures past, present and future.

SOCCER AMERICA: How would you best describe the impact that USL has had on youth soccer in the USA?

TIM HOLT: Over the past 15 years, USL has been a pioneer in connecting and integrating the youth, adult amateur and professional levels of American soccer.

As recently as the late 1990s, there were no examples of professional teams operating their own youth academies/clubs. Just as very, very few youth soccer clubs offered any programming beyond U19.

Through the advent of leagues such as the PDL, W-League, Super Y-League (SYL), and Super-20, and the participation of clubs on both sides of the former youth/pro divide, our country’s soccer landscape now more closely resembles that found around the world.

To date, USL remains the only national organization that offers a complete, vertically integrated system of national leagues. The benefit is a defined pathway at each stage of development for aspiring youth soccer players that extends all the way through pro game and the national teams.

SA: The Super Y-League was launched in 1999. Since then, U.S. Soccer created the Development Academy league (boys) in 2007 and the ECNL (girls) started in 2009. All adding to U.S. Youth Soccer, under whose umbrella most children have played soccer in the USA for nearly four decades, and U.S. Club Soccer. What unique role does the Super Y-League serve today?

TIM HOLT: What is not well known is the original objective of the SYL was simply to create an internal academy league for USL professional and adult amateur teams, as part of our efforts to facilitate the development of a club model in support of senior teams.

It was only upon realization that the logistics of implementing a national youth soccer league while adhering to the rules of 55 different U.S. Youth Soccer state associations would make running such a league prohibitive that we undertook the approach of affiliating directly with U.S. Soccer. Without doing so, it would have been impossible to operate our national youth league in a manner that allowed for expanded rosters and competition rules more similar to the college and pro game.

Our creation of this alternative pathway for elite clubs sparked what has been a period of incredible growth and change in youth soccer that continues to this day.

Over the past 15 years, the SYL has featured youth teams from MLS, USL, WPS, WUSA, NWSL, PDL, W-League, and the traditional youth club soccer powers. Prominent SYL alumni include U.S. national team standouts such as Jozy Altidore, Bill Hamid, Freddy Adu, Jonathan Spector and Juan Agudelo, along with scores of other pro players.

In 2013, the SYL continues to play a leading role as one of the most competitive, prestigious soccer leagues in North America and serves as the foundation level of the USL competitive pyramid. Our ODP continues to identify players for national team programs by evaluating them in their league environment, as well as at our SYL North American Finals. While the marketplace has changed radically since the launch of the SYL, its importance in the elite youth development realm remains significant.

SA: Does having various youth organizations produce healthy competition or create a turf war that may not serve the best interests of youth development in the USA?

TIM HOLT: Admittedly, having so many separate organizations offering regional and national elite youth leagues and competitions creates a confusing marketplace for players, parents and coaches.

The U.S. Soccer Federation has obviously taken a more active and direct approach at certain boys age groups, which has been an overall positive, but the simple fact of the matter is that in a country with more than 4 million registered youth players (and who knows how many unregistered players) its net can’t be cast wide enough to ensure proper development, training and opportunity for all.

“Widening the net” is where the other youth organizations play an extremely important role in providing meaningful programs to those players and clubs that are not part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Ultimately, some type of natural selection will occur within the regional/national league space where certain programs will change or discontinue, while others settle into their roles as part of the overall picture.

So, we don’t believe that this competition is overall unhealthy as having choices is a positive for players and clubs.

Where the actual problem lies is that all of these different national soccer organizations are providing fairly homogenous offerings -- everyone is doing the same thing but packaging it differently. The repeated and consistent message we receive from top youth soccer clubs and coaches is that they are seeking a fresh development initiative specifically geared toward younger teams and players to best prepare their young players for the challenges which await them at the next level.

To fill this void, we have recently launched the Next Generation Series, an exciting, new youth soccer initiative undertaken by USL and IMG Academy, established to provide players, coaches and clubs the opportunity to take part in an eight-month, elite-level league at the U-12 and U-14 age groups. NextGen will take a developmental approach that engages the player, coach, and parent, and enhances player growth across several important disciplines conducted by world-renowned experts in their respective disciplines of performance. ... NextGen commences in August 2013 and we are in the process of accepting club applications.

(USL President Tim Holt joined USL in 1999, originally serving as the A-League & Super Y-League Operations Director. He started overseeing the all USL senior leagues in 2002, was named vice president in 2004, and president in 2009. Holt is co-chairman of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Committee and a longtime member of the U.S. Soccer Federation Professional Council. Holt played youth ball for Pennsylvania’s FC Delco, for which he’s also served as coach and administrator.)

April 15, 2013
Tab Ramos: 'We want to play in the opponent's half'

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

Under Coach Tab Ramos, the U.S. U-20s delivered one of the greatest tournament performances in U.S. national team history at the Concacaf U-20 Championship in Puebla, Mexico, earlier this year. The USA won four straight games, qualified for this summer's U-20 World Cup, and in the final against Mexico -- winner of the U-17 World Cup and third-place finisher at the U-20 World Cup two years ago -- took the host to overtime before falling, 3-1. We spoke to Ramos about his team's experience in Mexico and his transtion from star player to coach.

SOCCER AMERICA: Did you have a favorite memory from the tournament?

TAB RAMOS: Not really. My favorite part of the whole trip was that the group was getting better as we left the tournament. Having played together for a few weeks, getting everyone got used to things the way we wanted to do them -- I think the team improved and was playing well at the end, which is what you always want. I was really happy with that.

SA: In the semifinal [a 2-0 win over Cuba] and final, eight of your starters in the field were Latinos. Is there any significance that we can draw from that?

TAB RAMOS: I said from the beginning, before we went, that I was looking for players who were comfortable with the ball. And who want the ball at all times. Our next step was to pick the players who had the best fitness, who fit that profile. And that’s how the team ended up this time.

If I’m around next cycle, I don’t know if there will end up being as many Latino players or not. Right now, if you look at our U-18 national team there’s not such a big percentage number of Latino players who are at the top of the game. During this cycle, it just happened that those were the players who fit the profile of the players that I wanted.

SA: Do you see some of these U-20s being on the full national team in the near future?

TAB RAMOS: Down the road … that’s certainly a call that Jurgen [Klinsmann] would have to make. But as everyone saw, there are some talented players on the team. When they play with confidence, they’re good players. I think that they played in Mexico the last game, in front of 50,000 people, in a final for a trophy and did well -- I think that’s something you have to look at as a real positive experience because it’s not just an average friendly game somewhere. For the guys who did well in that game, you certainly have to look at them as players who now have very good national team experience under their belt.

[Editor’s note: Mexico’s team included six players from its 2011 Under-17 World Cup championship team.]

SA: Where there players you were particularly impressed with?

TAB RAMOS: In that game [final against Mexico], I think Benji Joya played well. Will Trapp played well. Shane O’Neill played well in the back. Jose Villarreal played well up front. But it’s hard to single people out because it was such a great team effort. There were good pieces in every part of the field that really made the whole thing work. Cody Cropper in goal made the right saves at the right time to keep us in the game. Obviously their goalkeeper did as well.

I was very happy with the team. Certainly with Dillon Serna, a left-footed midfielder, playing right back in that game, and he did well. So the end we had good players on the field who were willing to do whatever it took for the team and I think maybe all of them have a future.

[Editor’s Note: Daniel Cuevas, a standout in earlier games, missed the final because of injury.]

SA: What was your basic strategy going into games?

TAB RAMOS: One of the things I tell the team is: “Look, we want to be aggressive. We want to play the game on the opposing team’s side of the field.”

That’s our goal every time. But we’re also prepared to weather the storm. There are times when you’re not playing well, or the other team has a special player you can’t stop for five or 10 minutes and you’re on your heels.

Things are never going to be smooth for 90 minutes. It’s very difficult for that to happen with any team.

I think you see with the team, even in the final, we pressed high and tried to win the game from the beginning to the last minute. We also went into the game knowing if we have to weather the storm, we pull into a 4-4-1-1 and this is how we do it. This is how we shift from side to side if we’re struggling. After that, you have to believe in the players on the field to get the job done, and sometimes that might not be good enough because another team is going to be better that day.

SA: The quarterfinal against Canada [a 4-2 U.S. win after 2-1 and 1-0 wins over Haiti and Costa Rica] was the game that would determine qualification for this summer’s U-20 World Cup in Turkey. It was a particularly high-pressure game because the USA failed to qualify for the last U-20 World Cup. How did you cope with the pressure?

TAB RAMOS: I felt good about the way we worked. We as a staff* talked to each other in the locker room and fortunately we had someone like Bob Gansler with us, who had experience at the highest level of the World Cup.

[Editor’s note: Gansler coached the USA at the 1990 World Cup and to a fourth-place finish at the 1989 U-20 World Cup.]

When he came up to me before the game in the locker room and shook my hand, and said to me: “You have these guys ready” -- that’s all I needed to hear. At that point the result didn’t matter because I knew that as a staff we had done a good job.

And now you have to wait and see what happens. And then you let the game play. The only things I did during the game was to make sure every time we scored we got back to midfield and get ready to get another. I didn’t want us to fall back into thinking now we have to start defending.

SA: What impact has the U.S. Soccer Development Academy had on the U-20 national team program?

TAB RAMOS: It plays a big role. We had players from the [2011] Development Academy champions Pateadores and the runner-up FC Dallas. … I think it’s playing a vital role for the development of these players. [Before the Academy] after U-17 residency these guys would go back to playing club ball where you’re playing four or five games in a weekend and training once or twice a week. Now it’s different. Now it’s more professional.

[Editor’s Note: Of the 20 players on the qualifying tournament roster, 17 have ties to Academy clubs.]

SA: After your long playing career, you started coaching at the youth level with your club [NJSA 04] in New Jersey a decade ago. Is there anything in particular you do differently than when you first started coaching?

TAB RAMOS: Oh my God, I change things all the time. I’m not one to just stick to one thing. There’s a coach I always go back to -- Xabier Azkargorta. Some of the things he said have had a great influence on me and one was, “It all depends.”

To answer a question in soccer in terms of tactics or preparation for a game, you always have to rely on the fact that “it all depends.”

It depends on the opponent. It depends on what players I have available for any one particular game. We have to change things all the time.

As far as the coaching itself, I will tell you that one thing that doesn’t change for me is the fact that I like to have players on the field who want the ball, who are willing and realize they are going to make mistakes. But I want them to have the ball in any area of the field and I want them to be aggressive with the ball. That will never change with me.

Sometimes we’ll be successful and sometimes we’ll fail, because that’s normal.

SA: How much does being a successful player at the highest levels translate to coaching?

TAB RAMOS: I had been wanting to coach for quite a few years and I started at the bottom and went up, always thinking in the back of my head what people always say: “If you have been a player at a higher level and you have done well, normally you can’t become a good coach.” So I’ve been very conscious of the fact that maybe my chances might have been lower than someone else. Just because I heard that.

But now that I’ve been coaching a while and feel comfortable with it, I really feel like I have an advantage. The fact that I had been to the U-20 qualifiers before [as a player], the fact that I’d been on the national team for a long time, and that I played in a lot of places where the players I have would like to get to -- those are all advantages as long as your preparation for the game and your dedication to each game is good.

And I don’t take anything for granted.

SA: What advice did you give your players after the tournament?

TAB RAMOS: After we lost to Mexico, I told the players:

“This has been a great experience for us. Obviously, we wanted to win the game. We fell a little bit short. But you played that game in front of 50,000 people and you put yourself in that situation where you could win the game, which is all you can do, and we did that, we had our opportunities to win. This is a great experience for some of you guys -- hopefully all of you – when you get an opportunity to play in World Cup qualifiers down the road.

“But now this game means nothing if you can’t put yourself in the same environment that you had tonight. If you can’t put yourself in that environment everyday you go to practice. Now that you have that experience under your belt, you have to be thinking about wanting to get to that moment again and relive it everyday. That’s how I think you get better.”

* Staff: Ramos was assisted at the Concacaf U-20 Championship by Brian Bliss, goalkeeper coach Russell Payne, and Tom Dooley.