November 17, 2015
Brain expert explains the wisdom of USSF's heading policy for youngsters

By Mike Woitalla


Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the USA's leading experts
on concussions in sports, responded to some of the criticisms of the
U.S. Soccer Federation’s recommendations on heading in youth
soccer in an href="http://www.si.com/planet-futbol/2015/11/13/us-soccer-youth-headers-concussions-player-safety-robert-cantu">interview
with SI.com’s Grant Wahl.

Last week, U.S. Soccer announced that, in addition to launching a concussion awareness campaign and creating uniform concussion management and return-to-play protocols for youth players, it is recommending the elimination of heading for children 10 and under and limiting the amount of heading in practice for ages of 11 to 13.

Cantu has advocated holding off on heading until age 14, but says U.S. Soccer’s guidelines eliminate, “over a period of time hundreds of thousands of sub-concussive and concussive blows in youngsters whose brains are most vulnerable. …

“So it’s much better than what it was when they were trying to head soccer balls at ages 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10. Would it be better that they not head them at 11, 12, or 13? Yes. But the fact it’s being limited in practice through those ages is better than no limitation.”

To the notion that teaching proper technique, not banning heading for young children, is a better approach, Cantu says proper technique doesn’t eliminate concussions from head-head, head-elbow or head-shoulder collisions that can occur while heading.

On limiting how much children practice heading, Cantus said:

“You can be taught in a practice situation and you can be taught with a lighter ball than a regulation soccer ball, so that the sub-concussive aspect of things can be greatly minimized. So you can still be taught some of these skills in a controlled environment where heads can’t collide. … And I think that simply backing it up to ages 11 to 13 before you start to do this is going to save a lot of concussions that otherwise would have happened -- and a lot of head trauma that otherwise would have happened.”

Must-reading: "Q&A: Dr. Robert Cantu on new U.S. Soccer youth heading, safety initiative" By Grant Wahl

* * *

A great nickname, a good comeback, and a mid-game hug

After I printed out my Sunday morning referee assignment, I told my wife, “This looks like a mismatch. The Devils vs. the Sheep.”

And on this day I wasn't dreading the adults who scream at the children during games. I looked forward to what might be shouted from the sidelines -- and wasn't disappointed.

Before the kickoff came a “Get ready to hustle, Sheep!” One dad was fond of yelling, “Get your heads up, Sheep!” When the Devils had a run of possession, one parent yelled, “Get the ball, Sheep!” -- in case the 11-year-olds hadn’t yet comprehended that aspect of the game.

But best were the screams of, “Spread out, Sheep!”

* * *

It was, in fact, an entertaining weekend of youth soccer for me. On Saturday morning, in a U-10 game, a defender got the ball close to the corner flag, passed the ball to his goalkeeper, who relayed it to a midfielder. During the sequence, the coach screamed, “Don’t pass it in the middle!”

As the midfielder dribbled into the other team's half, the boy yelled back, “It worked, didn’t it!”

* * *

And later that day, it was 6-year-old girls in the very good format of splitting rosters into two 4v4 games with small goals and no goalkeepers. Adults on the sideline made sure the ball stayed in play, by tapping it back in when it crossed the lines, so the kids got lots of action. No wasted time with throw-ins or kick-ins.

This was the last day of the fall season the kids came into with no soccer experience. Simply kicking a ball presented a major challenge at the beginning. Now they were starting to look like soccer players and obviously enjoying themselves, celebrating the goals that came more frequently now that they could dribble and kick the ball straight.

But the reminders of just how young they were came up a few delightful times, such as when one team had a 3v2 counterattack because one player kept two opponents occupied by discussing what sounded like birthday party plans. And then there was the goal that came thanks mainly to the two defenders who, for some reason, were in the middle of a hug.

November 14, 2015
The border tug of war: Mexico courting U.S. talent is a 'good sign'

By Mike Woitalla

In 1998, the Mexican government changed its laws to allow dual
citizenship, thus enabling U.S.-born Mexican-Americans to obtain
Mexican citizenship. The measure, combined with the rise of the U.S.
game, spurred aggressive scouting of U.S. youth with Mexican heritage
by the Mexican federation.

Now we have a tug-of-war between the two giant neighbors for young talent. Sebastian Saucedo, an 18-year-old born in California and raised in Utah, played for the U.S. U-20 national team in a Serbia-hosted tournament in September and is currently with Mexico’s U-20s in a training camp that will include friendlies against Canada. (Both nations are starting their cycle for the 2017 U-20 World Cup.)

Saucedo appeared in nine MLS games (one start) this season for Real Salt Lake. Also in camp with Mexico is goalkeeper Christian Herrera, who like Saucedo played for the USA at the Serbia tournament and hails from Real Salt Lake's academy.

Saucedo and Herrera do not endanger their U.S. eligibility by attending the Mexico camp. They are considering their options, like many players before them, some who have ended up back in the U.S. national team program and others who have not.

Mexico’s 2013 U-20 World Cup team had three Mexican-Americans (goalkeeper Richard Sanchez, Uvaldo Luna and Julio Morales). Its 2015 U-20 World Cup team included FC Dallas keeper Jesse Gonzalez.

At the recent U-17 World Cup, where the USA exited in the first round, fourth-place Mexico’s squad included two USA products: starting goalkeeper Abraham Romero and outside back Edwin Lara.

Lara, a Northern Californian, was starting at outside back for the USA at the beginning of the last U-17 cycle before joining Mexican club Pachuca and the Mexican national team program. He was the youngest player, the only 16-year-old, on Mexico’s U-17 World Cup team and started in the 4-2 semifinal loss to eventual champion Nigeria. Romero started all of Mexico’s seven games.

U-17 World Cup finishes
2015 USA (group stage) Mexico (4th place)
2013 USA (did not qualify) Mexico (2nd place)
2011 USA (round of 16) Mexico (champion)
2009 USA (round of 16) Mexico (round of 16)

Lara and Romero, according to FIFA regulations, could still returned to the U.S. national team program.

It may be frustrating for U.S. coaches, but it’s reasonable for young players to explore their opportunities. And when they do, it might just provide them with experience that could ultimately benefit the U.S. national team program.

"If Mexico is coming to take our kids, that means that they know we have good players," says former U.S. U-15 coach and U.S. Soccer scout Hugo Perez. "That's a good sign. If we have good players, then give them good [soccer] so they don't have to leave."

* * *

Perez’s quote comes from an in-depth ESPNFC.com piece on U.S. Soccer player development by Jeff Carlisle in which we also hear from former MLS star and current ESPN television analyst Taylor Twellman; U.S. U-20 men's coach and U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Advisor Tab Ramos; former U.S. U-20 coach Thomas Rongen; and Oscar Pareja, coach of FC Dallas, which leads MLS in signing homegrown players.

Carlisle points out that the U.S. Soccer Federation's Development Academy is in its ninth season. MLS academies have set down roots and begun producing professionals. MLS clubs are fielding reserve teams in the USL. But there is a sense that while the level of the average player has gone up, fewer Claudio Reynas and Landon Donovans are being produced.

Must-reading: “U.S, MLS and Klinsmann under pressure to deliver USMNT youth stars”

Sargent and Acosta shine at U.S. U-15 festival

During a 60-player gathering in Bradenton, Fla., of U-15 boys aiming to become part of the new cycle for the 2017 U-17 World Cup, Missouri product Josh Sargent scored five goals in three games.

Sargent, who plays for Scott Gallagher Missouri’s U-15/16 Development Academy team, played on the “Gold Cup” team that won the U.S. U-15 Festival with three wins. George Acosta, of Florida’s Weston FC, had two goals and three assists for Gold Cup.

Team "Gold Cup." (Photo courtesy U.S. Soccer)

U.S. U-15 boys national team: Festival game summaries and 60-player roster.

U.S. U-15 girls gather in Florida

The U.S. U-15 girls national team convenes for the fifth and final time of 2015 with 24 players in Sunrise, Fla., Nov. 20-27 under U.S. Soccer Women’s Development coach Mark Carr.

The squad, comprised of 22 players born in 2001 and two born in 2002, will continue as the U-15 team in 2016 before transitioning in 2017 to U-17s to form the core of the team that will attempt to qualify for the 2018 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup.

During the camp, the U-15s will play three games as part of the U.S. Youth Soccer ODP Girls Thanksgiving Interregional competition in Boca Raton, Fla. -- vs. Region II 1999s Nov. 23, Region 1 1999s Nov. 25 and Region IV 1999s on Friday, Nov. 27.

U.S. U-15 girls national team
GOALKEEPERS (3): Ryan Campbell (SoCal Blues; Dana Point, Calif.), Julia Dohle (NYSC; Scarsdale, N.Y.), Marzia Josephson (TFCA Alliance; Cary, N.C).
DEFENDERS (7): Sade Adamolekun (Lonestar SC; Spicewood, Texas), Tori Hansen (CASL; Raleigh, N.C.), Makenna Morris (Bethesda Tempo; Germantown, Md.), Leah Scarpelli (PDA; Brick, N.J.), Natalia Staude (Tophat SC; Marietta, Ga.), Kennedy Wesley (SoCal Blues; Rossmoor, Calif.).
MIDFIELDERS (7): Croix Bethune (Concorde Fire; Alpharetta, Ga.), Julia Burnell (Penn Fusion; Glen Mills, Pa.), Jordan Canniff (Richmond United; Calif., Md.), Mia Fishel (San Diego Surf; San Diego, Calif.), Sophia Jones (DeAnza Force; Menlo Park, Calif.), Madison Mercado (San Diego Surf; San Diego, Calif.), Hollyn Torres (FC Dallas; Frisco, Texas), Taylor Tufts (Dallas Kicks; Southlake, Texas).
FORWARDS (7): Vanessa Buso (Legends FC; Corona. Calif.), Isabella D’Aquila (SoCal Blues; Orange, Calif.), Lia Godfrey (JFC Storm; Flemind Island, Fla.), Savianna Gomez (Beach Academy; Torrance, Calif.), Samantha Meza (Dallas Kicks; Balch Springs, Texas), Gabrielle Robinson (BRYC; Springfield, Va.), Kate Wiesner (Slammers FC; Monrovia, Calif.).

* * *

The BBC reports that the percentage of club-trained players in English Premier League squads has reached a new low. Research by the CIES Football Observatory found 11.7% of top-flight players graduated from their club's academy, down from 13.8% last year. Across 31 top European divisions the figure has dropped below 20% for the first time since figures began in 2009. A "club-trained player" is defined by spending at least three seasons between the ages of 15 and 21 training with his current club.

November 11, 2015
Heading ban for 10-year-olds and younger makes sense, but important concussion questions remain

By Mike Woitalla

In recent years, new science has provided clearer information on
the dangers of concussions and studies have revealed their frequency
in youth soccer. It seemed that it would be only a matter of time
before the game’s governing bodies seriously addressed the

U.S. Soccer did so on Monday. It issued a joint statement with the plaintiffs of the Mehr class-action lawsuit and the American defendants, who included U.S. Soccer, U.S. Youth Soccer, AYSO and U.S. Club Soccer.

The Mehr et al v. FIFA et al lawsuit did not ask for monetary damages, but sought the establishment of a medical monitoring program for players with concussions and head injuries and the implementation of "return to play" guidelines, a change in substitution rules, and restrictions on heading by players under the age of 17.

Last May, U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton in Oakland, Calif., dismissed the lawsuit, citing "fairly incomprehensible" claims. Hamilton dismissed the claims against FIFA “with prejudice,” which prevented Mehr from bringing them again against FIFA. But she ruled that claims against the U.S. defendants could be brought again if the plaintiffs showed they had standing.

But let’s be clear. Something had to be done, regardless of how this lawsuit played out -- given the information we now have on concussions and the possibility of future dangers arising from heading.

“The development of a player safety initiative was under way before the current lawsuit was filed,” said U.S. Soccer CEO/Secretary General Dan Flynn in a statement that accompanied U.S. Soccer’s announcement of its “Player Safety Campaign,” which eliminates heading for children 10 and under, and limits the amount of heading in practice for children ages of 11 to 13.

U.S. Soccer also announced it would:

* Improve concussion awareness and education among youth coaches, referees, parents and players.

* Instill uniform concussion management and return-to-play protocols for youth players.

* Modify substitution rules to allow players who may have suffered a concussion during games to be evaluated without penalty. (For example, in leagues with subbing restrictions the temporary substitution would not count against a team’s total number of allowed substitutions. Leagues with re-entry restrictions would make an exception in cases of subbing for head-injury evaluation.)

I do not see any downside to eliminating heading for players 10 and under, nor to limiting heading for teenagers.

Neurosurgeon Robert Cantu, a leading concussion expert, said this about kids and teens being more vulnerable than adults to concussions:

“They don't have fully myelinated brains, so the nerve cells and their connections don't have the coating and insulation of adult brains. In addition, they have disproportionately weak necks compared to adults, and disproportionately large, heavy heads, so they're like bobble-head dolls. This sets them up for brain injuries that are more serious than those sustained at a later age from the same amount of force.”

From a player development point of view, there’s no convincing case that heading needs to be introduced at the early ages. In fact, the heading scenarios that most frequently occur at the lower ages come from goalkeeper punts. And those should be discouraged anyway if we’re aiming to teach kids good soccer, to keep possession, and play out of the back.

Generally in youth soccer, playing long, high balls is a short cut to getting results that undermines long-term player development.

Could it be that if children don’t learn heading at the younger ages they won’t be good at it when they’re older? It might very well be the opposite. They may develop better technique if it’s introduced when their neck muscles are stronger.

One common response to this issue is that proper heading technique prevents concussions. But is there proof of that, especially when it comes to children? There have been studies that indicate the frequency of heading a ball could have a harmful effect on the brain – and for all we know, that heading was done with “proper” technique. With all the unknowns, why risk it with young children during a time in their soccer experience when heading simply isn’t necessary?

A big question about the decision from U.S. Soccer – made with input from “its medical science committee which includes experts in the field of concussion diagnosis and management” – is why it chose the age of 10.

Cantu’s recommendation for youth sports is: “No tackle football before age 14 … No body checking in youth hockey before age 14 … No heading in soccer before age 14.”

One reality of soccer is that it’s an international game. Americans play against the rest of the world. Implementing a heading ban through age 13 could, it may be argued, affect the USA in international competition. That’s a legitimate concern for the U.S. Soccer, but just because FIFA and other nations might not be responding to concussion science is no good reason for us not to take the lead.

Exceptions to subbing rules to allow effective evaluations for head injuries will eventually become something the rest of the world adopts, I would bet on. U.S. Soccer committing resources to educate youth coaches, referees, parents and players on concussions is just plain good.

U.S. Soccer’s “Safety Campaign” introduces nothing that will deter the progress of American soccer players. But it may very well be just a first step because there are important questions left unanswered.

Is there enough evidence as indicated by Dr. Cantu that heading should be delayed until age 14?

We will no doubt be getting more information as science advances and further studies are done.

Are there any other solutions to decreasing head injuries in soccer?

Referees being more vigilant on foul play. Coaches not training their goalkeepers to lift a knee at the opposing player. Field players being restricted from challenging goalkeepers. Discouraging punts or mortar goal kicks.

Should female soccer have different rules?

Studies have shown that girls suffer more concussions and suffer longer-lasting or more severe symptoms. A JAMA Pediatrics-published soccer study showed high school girls with a 60 percent higher rate of concussions than boys and that girls are nearly twice as likely than boys to suffer concussions from head-ball contact.

Heading is the most dangerous part of youth soccer, whether it’s the elbows that fly in an aerial battle or the heads that might clash regardless of what expert coaching the players may have had.

If simply heading the ball produces a significantly higher rate of concussions among girls than boys who are older than the 10-year-olds U.S. Soccer is protecting, does that mean that we should seriously consider different guidelines for the genders?



* * *

Eighteen years ago, Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner became the first American journalist to draw attention to growing problems surrounding soccer concussion injuries and the inevitability -- should the issue not be addressed -- of serious legal complications.

“There is clearly a lot more to come on this subject,” says Gardner. “U.S. Soccer’s move marks the first step in a process that must quickly reach up to the pro level, where virtually every game involves at least one ugly head clash, sometimes with blood. Yet players are hardly ever removed from the game. Excuses like ‘it’s part of the game’ are no longer acceptable. If serious head injuries resulting from heading the ball are really part of the game, then the game needs a serious rethink.”

November 07, 2015
Stop interrupting: Substitute sensibly

By Mike Woitalla

Part of this I found amusing as I reffed 8-year-old boys whose
coach had them wear scrimmage bibs on the sideline like they do in the

When he subbed, the boys often ran onto the field forgetting they had the pinnies on. For some, taking the bibs off looked more complicated than Rubik’s Cube as they tangled themselves up -- while everyone else waited for the restart.

But besides the pinnie problem, both teams were subbing about every five minutes. Also happening, and I see this all the time: Team A subs a couple players. A minute later or less -- Team B subs. You can end up having 20 to 30 sub breaks in a 50- or 60-minute game.

When the U.S. Soccer Development Academy announced its expansion to U-12s it also revealed its substitution guidelines for that age level -- and they make a lot of sense. They were borne out of the idea that “less frequent interruptions benefit player development.” They are, for 60-minute games:

• Target substitutions for the 15-minute mark, halftime, and the 45-minute mark.

• Teams sub simultaneously. (Opposing coaches are encouraged to communicate with each other to set up the subbing.)

Coaches may sub at other times if they really need to, such as for an injury or discipline issue. But the aim is clear: It’s important that children get, “Extended, uninterrupted periods of playing time,” says Tony Lepore, U.S. Soccer’s Director of Scouting.

I’m not at all advocating that strict rules on subbing are mandated for the young age groups, just that coaches keep these guidelines in mind, because soccer for kids is more fun, and they learn more, when adults don’t constantly disrupt the play.

Subbing at the quarter marks during a game provides enough opportunities to make player changes needed to, for example, spread out playing time.

“Many volunteer coaches don’t have experience with soccer and they pull tactics from other American sports,” Lepore says. “They manage and coach the game of soccer like other American sports -- hockey, or basketball, or American football -- in ways that don’t apply to soccer.

“In fact, [frequent subbing] takes away the opportunity for our youngest players to play real soccer. It contributes to frantic play. To a straightforward style. On top of it, with constant stoppages, the games have no flow, no pace, and it puts us behind as a nation, especially when it comes to what kind of players we want to produce -- imaginative, creative, technically comfortable.”

One reason coaches say they like to sub frequently is because they want to pull a kid off the field to give advice. I’ve even seen coaches sub young players because they made what the coached perceived to be a mistake.

“We want people to see training as ‘classroom’ and instruction time, and game day is the time for players to apply what they learned in training. And you need extended periods of playing for that," says Lepore. “And halftime is a perfect instruction time. Or after a scheduled substitution. … And part of learning is making mistakes -- a more guided-discovery approach.”

As far as subbing constantly in hopes of some tactical edge, Lepore says the focus at the early ages should not be on getting the desired result for the team, but on individual player development.

“It’s really simple in the end, isn’t it? In order to get better at playing, you need to play -- for extended, uninterrupted periods,” he says.

November 05, 2015
Throw-ins: What refs get wrong and what coaches can do right

By Mike Woitalla

What rule do refs in the youth game tend to get wrong most often?
I haven’t gotten a consensus when I’ve asked coaches
and refs. But the throw-in has to be up there.

First of all, it’s great when throw-ins aren’t used at the earliest ages, when it’s best to have a few adults surround the field and prod the ball back in, or let the little players dribble or kick the ball in.

But after the time comes to introduce the throw-in, you’ll see refs pounce on what they perceive as an “illegal” throw with a vigor that’s often missing in their reaction to dangerous fouls.

Many refs seem inclined to call a foul throw-in if they see the ball spin, if the kid’s body is twisted, a foot leaves the ground within a second of the throw, the ball flies in an unexpected direction -- if it simply looks awkward.

In fact, the rules aren’t that restrictive:

At the moment of delivering the ball, the thrower:
• faces the field of play.
• has part of each foot either on the touch line or on the ground outside the touch line.
• holds the ball with both hands.
• delivers the ball from behind and over his head.

The need for restrictions on how the ball can be thrown is to limit the height and distance of the throw, because that can create ugly soccer. If you’ve had the bad luck to watch a game with a Herculean thrower you know what I mean -- lots of head-clashing when every throw-in in the final third turns into a cruder version of the corner kick.

If it were up to me, the rule would be simplified even more. You must face the field, have both feet on the ground, and have two hands on the ball when released.

What would be so bad about a two-handed, under-handed throw-in that delivers a low ball to the teammate?

But the throw-in rule is fine as it is. Youth coaches just have to spend time teaching their kids to throw robot-like in case they run into one of those refs.

Making good use of throw-ins …

Quite common in youth soccer is for coaches to encourage players to throw the ball in as hard as possible down the sideline. It makes sense intuitively that this would launch an attack. But this tactic rarely works because it’s so predictable and the narrow space favors the defender.

Better is to suggest to young players to mostly throw the ball to a teammate facing the thrower. That teammate then returns the ball to the thrower.*

This encourages a possession game.

And you can make a warm-up activity out of it, which also trains throw-ins. In pairs, one throws, the other controls the ball and returns it (or tries one-touch). It’s a chance to work on controlling balls with the foot, thigh or chest, followed by a crisp pass.

During a game, for the thrower to get the ball back is smart tactically, because the thrower is almost always open, and will have time on the ball. A chance to do something creative.

* Stan Baker had this suggestion in his excellent book, “Our Competition is the World.”