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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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.
MLS and Klinsmann under pressure to deliver USMNT youth
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
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
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.).
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).
(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;
* * *
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
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.
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
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
“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
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
this about kids and teens being more vulnerable than adults to
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
SAFETY CAMPAIGN FAQs
SOCCER ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ABOUT PLAYER SAFETY CAMPAIGN
* * *
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
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
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
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
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
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.”
Copyright © 2007 - 2009 -- Mike Woitalla
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