December 23, 2014
Alexi Lalas strikes a chord on foreign clubs coming to USA

"Make no mistake. This is a gold rush. This is a land grab." That's Alexi Lalas after being asked by The Guardian about foreign clubs -- such as Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Everton -- making ambitious moves into American youth soccer.

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

That’s Alexi Lalas after being asked by The Guardian about foreign clubs -- such as Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Everton -- making ambitious moves into American youth soccer.

“U.S. soccer is littered with decades of people coming over with little more than an accent to their resume, and using the naivete we’ve had and the inexperience and lack of soccer history and culture to their advantage,” said Lalas.

Lalas strikes a chord with anyone who has spent a significant time in American youth soccer, whose free market nature has long attracted and enriched foreign firms and coaches regardless of whether they’re improving our game -- or just inflating its costs.

“Certainly while American coaches can learn from their curriculum and methods, I don’t think they have a magic bullet, or anything completely revolutionary,” said Lalas. “It’s a pretty simple game, and we often complicate it.”

There’s nothing wrong with some foreign influence. Soccer like cuisine is best when spiced up. Preferably, American soccer looks to countries and clubs with histories of producing successful and entertaining soccer. Bayern and Barcelona meet that criteria, and I have visited the youth programs of both clubs.

What impressed at Barcelona was predictable -- an emphasis from the early ages on individual skill and a philosophy that stresses attack-minded, possession soccer. I thought Bayern had a good strategy on developing central defenders. When it identifies a player as a candidate to excel at that position, he is played as a defensive midfielder at the youth level to develop all-around skills and game-reading acumen.

But the most profound differences between Barcelona or Bayern and youth soccer in the USA weren’t so much about training methods.

First of all, unlike their ventures into the USA, Barcelona and Bayern Munich don’t charge their kids at La Masia and Sabener Strasse. The youth coaches are judged more by how many players they move on than by victories. They field only one team at each age level and cut and replenish the squad each year.

Any player who arrives at either club has already been rated as among the very elite in the region, if not the country. We know Barcelona and Bayern coaches do a good job with the already exceptional players who’ve been delivered to them by an army of scouts. So coaching at those clubs greatly differs from the challenges faced by the vast majority of American youth coaches.

In fact, when it comes to coaching education for coaches at the grass-roots level, I have more trust in U.S. organizations than the foreign coaches who haven’t dealt with our unique youth soccer landscape.

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for Bay Oaks/East Bay United SC in Oakland, Calif and is a Grade 8 referee. He is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)

December 15, 2014
Ref, Can we talk?

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

Among the feedback we got from last week's column on referee abuse were those who pointed out that sometimes coaches do feel a legitimate need to communicate with the referee -- especially when the coaches believe their players' safety is at risk.

I have over the years asked experienced refs: What's a reasonable way
for coaches to express their grievances to refs?

"It's basically down to approach and attitude. All referees are happy
to talk about the game at any convenient moment. A friendly approach
and polite comment or question will draw a similar response."

That came from Stanley Lover, the renowned international referee,
instructor, and author of several officiating books, who died in 2013.

I had given Lover the following scenario: What to do if their No. 6 is
throwing elbows at your No. 10?

Lover suggested the coach say, "A nice match, referee, but that young
Blue No. 10 is near to tears because of the rough play of the Red No.
6, particularly her flying elbows." Enough said, the ref has got the

Lover stressed that coaches be aware of their body language: "An
aggressive movement; a menacing stance; a thrusting scowling face; a
sharp accusing question, will put the official on the defensive and
not invite an answer which satisfies either party."

Mark Butler of the National Intercollegiate Soccer Officials
Association told me:

"If there is a genuine concern, especially in the area of protecting a
player, it is acceptable to speak to the referee. It's all about the
approach. It's not screaming, or getting personal. ... The approach
should not be confrontational, boisterous, demonstrative -- and the
discussion should not be prolonged."

Brian Hall, former World Cup ref and four-time MLS Referee of the
Year, warned of a halftime talk when I queried him in a 2010 article:

"If a coach talks to the ref at halftime," Halls says, "what will the
other coach or the spectators think?"

Hall suggested a quiet word with the assistant referee on the near
side. A coach could say, in a positive manner, "Maybe you guys can
discuss that at halftime ..."

Also acceptable, said Hall, is if the referee comes near the coach
during the game -- perhaps at a throw-in or a free kick near the
sideline -- and the coach asks the referee to keep her eye out on
something, "in a professional, controlled, positive manner."

(Hall also strongly advocated coaches providing feedback on referees
to the league's assignors -- and not just when it's a complaint.)

Randy Vogt, the author of "Preventive Officiating" and Youth Soccer
Insider ref columnist, does believe halftime can be an appropriate
time for a coach to approach the referee at the youth level:

"The coach should then tell the opposing coach what was said so the
opposing coach does not believe his/her team is being accused of
anything. If both coaches believe the ref needs to call more fouls,
they can both approach the ref at halftime."

Everyone agrees coaches must not approach in anger.

"The coach needs to be calm throughout the conversation," says Vogt.
"Coach could say something like, 'I realize that you are trying your
best but there have been fouls that have not been whistled, the
challenges have become more robust because of this and I'm fearful
that somebody is about to get hurt. Could you please start calling
more fouls on both teams? I believe that would serve this game well.'

"The important thing is to ask for more fouls being whistled on both
teams. Otherwise, the ref could think that the coach is more
interested in winning the game than the safety of the players
especially if the coach says something like, 'Call more fouls on the
other team as they are a bunch of dirty players who are coached that
way!' That's definitely the wrong thing to say and only exacerbates
the situation."

If the situation occurs in the second half or early in the game, Vogt
suggests that in the older youth groups, the coach should ask the
captain to communicate the coach's concerns with the same civility he
recommends for the coaches.

If the kids are young and the coach cannot rely on a captain for
communication, Vogt aggrees with Hall that when play is near the bench
the coach can attempt to convey a message to the ref -- in a calm,
concise manner.

"The important thing is for the coach or captain to be pleasant and
the ref to receive the impression that he/she is more concerned about
the safety of all the players than simply winning the game," says

December 12, 2014
Blaming the Ref Doesn't Work

By Mike Woitalla (from SoccerAmerica.com)

I've long believed that coaches lashing out at referees is a counter-productive practice. After reffing and ARing nearly 40 youth games in the last year -- and surveying other referees -- I'm even more sure of it.

As a referee, you get a very good sense of the players’ mood because you see their faces up close.

What I’ve seen over and over again is how children react to getting screamed at by their coaches. You see the confidence drain out of them when they’re berated by the pacing, grumpy, angry adult on the sideline.

The common scenario is the momentum is going against the team, coaches get frustrated and through voice or body language send the message they’ve lost faith in their players. And the players respond, predictably, by being so self-conscious of their next move that things get even worse for their team.

I also see how the kids respond when they hear their coaches -- or parents -- scream at the referee.

Sometimes they start dissenting with words or gestures. I’ve seen this from kids as young as 9 after obvious fouls. I actually find this somewhat humorous because they look so silly in a cute childish way -- but then you wonder whether they might not end up believing their sloppy tackling is a proper way to play. Or that they’ll keep getting offside because the coach 50 yards away screamed at the AR who was actually in position to see the play.

The one that really gets my goat is when after a foul is called the coach yells at the player, “It’s OK, Johnny! You didn’t do anything wrong!” Do these guys actually think this is a clever way to circumvent the dissent rule? More importantly, they’re setting the kid up to keep making the same mistake.

I’ve been screamed at “How was that a foul?” from a coach 40 yards away from his player who pushed down an opponent with both hands from behind – which my AR, two yards away and I, 10 yards away, both witnessed clearly.

I’ve had a coach in one game scream at me “That’s a foul!” when her player tripped on the ball and "Let the kids play!" when her player threw an elbow into a chin. This coach was more than twice the distance away than I was on each incident.

I get the frustration of coaches when we do err. But refs at the very highest levels average a few mistakes per game – and somehow the man, woman, boy or girl who’s reffing your U-12s is going to be perfect?

The fact is that when the youth coach demonstrably questions the referee the players not only tend to get distracted, they are being handed an excuse for why they’re not succeeding.

As for the coaches who claim there’s a method to their madness, do they really believe that “riding the referee” is going to help their cause? That a person they’re abusing is somehow going to give their team the benefit of the doubt on the next close call?

Any referees worth their salt do not get sucked into making a makeup call and any coach who tries to win youth games by intimidating a referee shouldn’t be around kids’ soccer. (It is, of course, paramount that refs stifle coaches’ dissent immediately so to avoid any speculation that the coach is having an influence.)

I am happy to report from the many youth games I’ve reffed and observed in the past year, the coaches who abuse refs are in the minority. From the repeat offenders -- and I have heard paid coaches drop F-bombs at refs in front of 11-year-olds -- I believe there’s another reason for their disgraceful sideline theatrics: They want the parents who pay them to think it’s the refs' fault when their teams aren’t playing well.