April 30, 2014
Why I Ref: A View from the Middle

By 9:30 last Saturday morning I had run more than three miles, earned $20, and had been in the middle of a bunch of kids thoroughly enjoying the beautiful game.

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

I’ve reffed five games in two weeks, earning enough money to pay for that device on my wrist that counts my steps and reveals how much exercise I’m getting.

The exercise is one of the great fringe benefits of reffing. But I particularly appreciate the close view I get of soccer played by children who never cease to entertain.

* After a 12-year-old goalkeeper kicks away a shot, her coach yells, “You can use your hands!” … And she shouts back, “I know. But I don’t want to!”

* In another girls rec game, the team that’s leading 3-0 at halftime lends a player to the short-handed trailing team for the second half. When she gets the ball she takes a hard shot at her new team’s goal. Fortunately it’s off target, and she says, “Sorry! It’s confusing!”

* Retreating to midfield for a goal kick, I hear one teammate say to another, “You think it will be a pizza party or ice cream?”

Being in the middle also puts one in good earshot of the parents and coaches. And in my last five games I’m delighted to report exemplary sideline behavior.

The exception was a mom screaming, after an innocuous challenge, “Push her back when she does that to you!” I did notice she seemed to regret her outburst as the other parents stared at her.

I’ve been reffing teenage rec games and preteen “competitive” games, where I’m seeing more and more coaches trying to encourage good soccer.

In a U-10 competitive game, the team that gave up an early goal and would lose by a big score kept, during the entire game, trying to pass out of the back, using the goalkeeper like a field player to relay the ball from one outside back to the other. The coach never got upset when things broke down. And he kept encouraging his players despite the risk of this approach.

The biggest chore of reffing seems to be the pregame.

No matter what level, there’s always the process of checking in the players. More difficult with the girls than the boys because of the jewelry. Twice in one weekend, a girl says she can’t take off her earring because it’s a stud for a newly pierced lobe.

The coach and the girl make a plea. I’m not sure exactly how dangerous earrings are, but I know I’m not supposed to make exceptions. Us refs have to have a united front, because we constantly get the excuse that, “The last ref said it was OK.”

I say, “Look, if I say it’s OK and then next time you tell a ref that I said it was OK, I’m going to get in trouble.” So she says, “I won’t tell them your name!”

And why do so many kids nowadays have bands on their wrists?

The whole checking in process can take some time. I’m usually always at the field at least 30 minutes before kickoff. But last week I had one of those days with games at different fields and traffic issues that got me there just 15 minutes before kickoff.

It was a competitive game early in the spring season and apparently there have been registration snafus here in Northern California.

By the time I’d gotten the paperwork and player cards from both teams, I had eight (!) sheets of paper in my hand, two sets of player cards, along with loose individual player passes.

This was for an 8-v-8 game of U-10s. I had “Temporary Official Rosters” and “Official Match Report” forms from both teams. We had kids who seemed to fear taking off their friendship bracelets might actually severe those friendships.

But when I had both teams lined up on the field, I was relieved that it was exactly 1 p.m. – the scheduled kickoff time. I blew the whistle. Nothing happened.

The little girl at the center spot looked up and said, “There’s no ball.”

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com. Woitalla refs youth soccer in Northern California and coaches at East Bay United/Bay Oaks.)

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April 20, 2014
Tony Meola: Young players are more sophisticated than ever

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

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the USA hosting the 1994 World Cup – a good time to check in with Tony Meola, who started every game in goal for the USA as it reached the second round of a World Cup for the first time since 1930. Meola, who also helped the USA end its 40-year World Cup drought by qualifying for the Italia ‘90, is heavily involved in youth soccer.

Tony Meola stills spends plenty of time with his 1994 World Cup teammates.

He co-hosts the SiriusXM radio show “Counter Attack” with John Harkes, a fellow Kearny, N.J. product. He has assisted Tab Ramos -- another New Jersey childhood friend -- with the men’s U-20 national team -- and is assisting Hugo Perez with the U.S. U-15 boys.

Meola finishes the radio show at 7 p.m. and by 7:07 he’s on the field coaching New Jersey youth soccer. Up until last year, he had been coaching his son with the Berkeley SA U-16s and he’s still coaching his daughter’s Toms River FC U-14s.

SOCCER AMERICA: How long have you been coaching youth soccer?

TONY MEOLA: I always coached while I was playing. In Kansas City I coached at Blue Valley SC. I really enjoy trying to instill a passion for the game and seeing the kids improve.

SA: I understand your oldest (of three children) is headed to your alma mater Virginia to play baseball …

TONY MEOLA: It just kills me that he’s given up soccer! But it’s a good decision for him.

SA: You played soccer and baseball at UVA …

TONY MEOLA: Right. But times have changed. He played high school soccer last year but this year he has to focus on baseball. UVA is now a top baseball school and this is the time for him where getting drafted is also an issue. So he’s concentrating on baseball. But it’s really tough not to see him play soccer anymore. He’s a Division I-level left-sided player.

SOCCER AMERICA: You’re still coaching your daughter. Any big difference between coaching boys and girls?

TONY MEOLA: The difference between boys and girls -- there’s not a whole lot of difference. But it seems like at the early ages, the boys are hungrier. With the girls, it takes a little bit more time to get them more serious about the game, studying the game, going to games.

The one thing I try and do with all the teams is give them the passion for the game, whether it’s watching it instead of playing a video game on a Saturday morning or going to see a local professional team.

I tell kids all the time that’s how I learned and I think that’s one of the ways you can learn, by engulfing yourself into it.

It’s not for everyone. Some just want to be rec players and I get it. And that makes senses too. That’s also good.

SA: So how do you encourage them to get “study” the game?

TONY MEOLA: When I started coaching my daughter’s team, their team name was something like the Thrill. I said, “We gotta change it to the name of a team that’s in Europe or South America. You guys figure out which one.”

We took a vote. They all asked what teams I watched when I was a kid, so we ended up coming to Milan.

So everyone had to come back with a fact about AC Milan. Each training session early on, I picked girls to give me a fact about AC Milan. They talked about European championships, winning Serie A, about players like Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard … They never knew any of that stuff.

So over the years I ask, does anyone know where Milan is in the standings, anyone see a Milan game last weekend?

And I’d get, “I didn’t see Milan play, but I saw Barcelona play.”

It wasn’t because I wanted them to know everything about Milan, it was just a way to connect them to the soccer world.

SA: Can you compare the youth national program now to when you were a part of it?

TONY MEOLA: My last camp was with the U-15 national team in L.A. Preparation is completely different. The way we schedule out practices … The thought that goes into everything they do comes from Tab [U.S. Soccer’s Youth Technical Director] and trickles down to all the teams. Whether it’s Hugo Perez or Tony Lepore with the U-14s or Richie Williams with the U-17s.

The monitoring of their bodies. Their complete workload everyday. Making sure they don’t exceed workload throughout the week so that when we get to game time they’re optimally ready. Monitoring their diet every minute of the day.

When we put training together, there still things we do now that are the same we did back in 1990. There’s some stuff we didn’t do. I think that would be in any sport, anywhere. You probably don’t work on a typewriter anymore.

The coaches who are working with the national team are constantly looking for the next best thing. "Are we doing it right?" translates to every single drill we do and how we do it, and how long we do it.

I’m not sure it was so thought out back then. It was great back then. And it was probably cutting edge back then. Now it needs to continue to be cutting edge.

SA: For sure, the youth club scene has exploded since you were a kid. Any thoughts on the current youth soccer landscape?

TONY MEOLA: There are a lot of clubs that are great. And other clubs maybe less so. That’s something the parent and the kid have to figure out on their own. “Am I getting what I’m getting what I’m paying for?”

But it’s youth sports, and there are some people you can never please, no matter what you do. You really got to look at the process all the time.

One thing I do know, when I see the young kids -- the pools are a lot bigger and the players are a lot more sophisticated and more knowledgeable than they used to be at the younger ages.