Friday, September 29, 2006

MLS set to begin involvement in youth development

It’s an oft-talked about subject in elite youth soccer circles, but the specifics of the franchises in Major League Soccer getting involved with elite youth player development are still somewhat elusive.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber let a key cat out of the bag during the league’s All-Star break this summer, confirming that teams in the league would be able to designate youth players participating in their programs, thus reserving rights within MLS to sign said player. Previously all players, even if having been part of some youth setup affiliate with the MLS team, would have to go through the league’s SuperDraft to determine which team they would play with.

With the “home grown” threshold crossed, MLS teams now have real incentive to get involved in the business of youth development, but just how should they go about it?

The league is expected to announce details of the setup sometime in the midst of the MLS Cup weekend November 9-11 in Frisco, Texas. But as bits and pieces slip out about the initiatives, apparently still not set in stone, an intriguing picture emerges as to what the league might be doing, and how that might relate to the world of international soccer and the well-developed mass of clubs already operating youth teams in this country.

What is often whispered when MLS getting involved with the youth game is whether this will threaten the livelihood of many club directors and coaches who have been training youth players, sometimes for decades. An oft-accompanying question is what the effect of that would be on the state of the game in this country.

Demagoguery and emotional arguments aside, everyone is saying publicly they want to work together.

Time for MLS to take the mantle?

MLS youth development guru Alfonso Mondelo, who confirmed that the plan still calls for MLS clubs to have at least 2 youth teams in operation by next spring, said there plenty of soccer to go around for everyone.

“The game is here for everyone, but there are different demands for different areas,” Mondelo said. “The professional product is what we have to worry about – so that shouldn’t’ be the primary concern of youth soccer, which for the most part is there for recreation and to bring the game to masses. Professional teams have a different outlook, and they will be concerened with maybe the top 1-2 percent of youth players in the country who truly want to make the game their life. They have different needs to develop their skills.”

Mondelo agreed that the goal for professional youth teams needs to be an arrangement that doesn’t involved pay-to-play.

“These teams would scouted, selected and handpicked with the objective in mind that some of these players can reach the professional game, and by doing this hopefully we improve the level of the professional game,” he continued. “Right now the youth game is designed mainly for recreation and, at the competitive level, to prepare players whose ultimate goal is to reach college. That’s been the youth model, but now there is a professional league to asapire to. So I would hope we can cooperate with everybody. There’s still a role for those clubs. There’s enough players to go around for everyone. This is just a natural evolution of the game.”


Specifics beginning to emerge

Real Salt Lake General Manager Steve Pastorino agreed that the specifics of what most or all clubs will be doing in terms of youth development are still up in the air.

“There have been a lot of converations going on around the league the last month along the lines of ‘What are you guys going to do? How are you handling this situation. Because all the market situations are different, it’s almost hard to have any joint idea what do to.”

In the case of Real Salt Lake, team president Dave Checketts may have moved things to the inside path in one fell swoop. Checketts negotiated a deal with Spanish giants Real Madrid for a cooperative agreement between the two clubs, which will include a state of the art youth academy to be built in Salt Lake City and operated by the two clubs.

While some specifics of even that deal, such as what right the Spanish club might have to players developed in the academy, remain to be understood, Pastorino said the deal is so advantageous that those details will fall under the category of “It’s all good.”

“Dave explained that Real Madrid is a 50 percent partner financially, but they obviously bring 100 years of history and tradition and development mentality to us, where we’re obviously a young organization,” Pastorino said. “The idea is for it to resemble many of the amenities of the IMG Academy (which houses the U17 National Team Residency in Bradenton, Florida – and which features Checketts a board member). It should include year-round training facilities, housing and an academic program either on site or through a sister school.

“I envision the player admission as being international in scope. I agree with Dave when he says the day that we’re fighting (with Real) over the rights to the first prodigal 17-year old the academy produces, will be a great day.”

Pastorino added that while the expertise of Real Madrid is something to be coveted, Real Salt Lake will be able to ensure that the academy is operated with an eye toward American society’s quirks, also noting that former U17 National Team coach John Ellinger has more experience with youth development ideas than many head coaches in MLS.

Ellinger expects that there will be a learning process underway in the first year of the league’s foray into youth development. He noted the Real Salt Lake teams will participate in the Super Y-League, but said the establishment of residency will be vital.

“If we’re going to survive we have the academy and it has to be residential,” he said. “Then we can be serious about developing players that we declare to be our own at the first team.”

Ellinger offered some insight into some specifics of the league’s youth setup. He said of the mandated 2 teams, one will be U15 and the other either U17 or U18.

Interestingly, the teams will have a geographic area established for them, based on the population base of the league’s biggest markets, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. This means the Salt Lake franchise, for instance will be able to field a youth team in Arizona, which is designated as its territory. Ellinger said the criteria by which a player will be deemed to have been part of the pro club’s operation (before they are eligible to be “claimed”) is still somewhat sketchy, but added it might be something like 100 training days with the club.

Another interesting wrinkle in the budding plan is that, with the territorial map based on population, some large areas of the country are left unassigned. Ellinger said MLS clubs are permitted to field up to 2 youth teams in unassigned areas, with players on those clubs thus eligible to be designated as part of the club’s setup. Some rather choice unassigned areas include Southeastern areas like North Carolina, Georgia and Florida, along with Northern California.

Youth National Team players would not be eligible for claiming, but would continue to go into the draft pool if they sign a Generation adidas contract. Additionally, there will be a limit to the number of players a club can claim per year, possibly 4.

Ellinger said he hopes to see a happy medium reached regarding utilization of outgoing MLS players vs. veteran youth coaches.

“I’d like to see us able to work together, where we bring people into our organization and set up a permanent structure that’s good for us and good for the game in this country,” he said. “We’re going to see what works and what doesn’t.”

Pastorino added that teams, while distinct in what arrangements they may be working out with local youth organizations, share a common emergence as credible players on developmental front, particularly with the new rules allowing them to keep players.

“Until this was announced, there’s never been an incentive for MLS teams to develop players. I think it’s fairly safe to say youth soccer looked at any outreach from MLS as more about marketing than youth development, because they knew there was no incentive for us to be in youth development,” he said. “Now the landscape is changing, and when you look at training facilities and youth field complexes like those in Colorado and Dallas, it should make clear that we believe they are an important part of a soccer tradition in this country. As we move ahead with this, we’re not denying all the things the state associations and other groups have done to keep the game alive in the absence of a D1 pro soccer league in this country.

“I used to feel that when we got involved in youth soccer, the feeling coming back was ‘We’ve been doing this for 20 years and you are Johnny-come-lately, just trying to sell tickets. I think we’ve come a long way from that.”

Club coaches willing to work together

A pair of directors of coaching at large clubs said while there are points of concern, they hope that the parties can work together to establish a happy relationship between the professional and youth clubs.

CASL Director of Coaching Jay Howell, who has been instrumental in forming the new Red Bull National League 17, said the goals shared by the various parties are ostensibly the same.

“As I’ve talked to different directors, this is one more of the new things people are waiting to see,” he said of the MLS initiative. “All the clubs that have bought in to starting (the Red Bull league), we all, as part of the American soccer fabric want the game to move forward,. “It’s not strictly territorial or taking care of my yard. We want MLS and the USL First Division to do well because it’s important for American soccer. These players we work with, sometimes from when they are 5, 6 or 7 years old, we want them to have the opportunity to play professional soccer.

“I’m hoping we can expand and work with MLS and the others and create something special for a true pyramid of development in this country, instead of everybody just looking after their own yard. But the details can be tough. The next 3-4 years will be very interesting.”

While Howell’s state of North Carolina might be considered prime territory from a distance by a number of MLS clubs, former professional player Peter Vermes directs a club, Blue Valley SC, right in the backyard of MLS club Kansas City Wizards. KC is planning to build a stadium and youth complex pending voter approval. Vermes said the establishment of such youth programs by the clubs is going to a major challenge.

“It’s a very difficult proposition on their part. You can’t just have one model and say ‘here is the cookie cutter and we’ll put this in for every team. Every franchise has a unique situation with the youth soccer environment on their team,” he said. “As great as it is for the Wizards to stay here, they’ve never tapped into the local youth community. If you go in and just create a youth academy with an MLS team and don’t have a lay of the land, you can really upset a lot of people, people who are making a living out of it.”

Vermes explained that it doesn’t mean the pro clubs can’t get involved.

“You can be creative and create relationships with those clubs and use some of those coaches who have been doing it already. I don’t think it’s a bad idea for them to delve into the youth side, but it has to be specifically for higher-level training with high-quality coaches and competitions, not just more of the same,” he added. “You don’t want to get into a situation where the local community doesn’t want to support the MLS team in their area. Then on the club side, we have to be respectful and want to give the kids the best opportunities they can have.”

Vermes noted that in regard to broader issues of player development in this country, MLS getting involved with youth development shouldn’t be viewed as a cure-all, noting important challenges such as kids playing freely at younger ages and coaching quality both at the recreational and competitive levels, will still need to be addressed.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Changes in program, schedule and roster for Bradenton Residency program

With the first year of the latest Bradenton Residency cycle at IMG Academy complete, U17 National Team coach John Hackworth and his staff are busy finalizing the 40-man roster for the upcoming fall semester.

The group has had a pair of training camps this summer and in all, is continuing the practice Hackworth instituted of giving more and longer looks to more players eligible for inclusion.

While the scouting, training, evaluating and decision-making about the roster is exacting enough, it comes this summer in conjunction with the implementation of some subtle but significant changes in the Residency program. These changes reflect the staff’s evaluation of and the overall goals the U.S. Soccer Federation has for the Residency program.

The most noticeable change is a considerably-juiced up schedule as the team accelerates preparations for the CONCACAF Qualifying tournament (in March) for the FIFA U17 World Cup (August or September in South Korea).


Slight shift in program emphasis means more soccer

But perhaps a more noteworthy adjustment is a slight drawing back of the academic schedule for players in Bradenton, replacing a fast-track courseload with a more standard pace, while in turn maximizing the soccer experience in terms of schedule and program for the squad.

“We’re always trying to improve our player development programs. In this country we have a unique soccer culture and a unique interface between soccer and everyday life,” Hackworth said. “There is an underlying thought that you have to do everything and please everybody, but through these minor changes to our schedule, we want to better focus our players’ time and energy more to the development of their soccer skills.”

With players taking 6 courses per day rather than the previous 8, some flexibility is built into the daily schedule. Hackworth noted that in slowing down the rate of coursework taken at the school attended by the players, there is an expectation of improving the quality of education given the boys at Residency (an education that has already been placing previous graduates in high-level universities around the country).

“We’ve changed our daily schedule so the focus will be on soccer in the morning before anything else – and we’ve switched the school to the afternoon,” Hackworth explained. “So they’ll go back to the normal workload in academics, where for the past few years they’ve been taking 2 extra courses per semester.

“This way the kids will come in a little fresher, not having gone through 8 classes in school before soccer. Also, by scaling back to an advanced curriculum, it gives them the opportunity to do extra sessions in the afternoon or have personal time to do their own training.”

The rest of this article is available at www.topdrawersoccer.com

Monday, July 17, 2006

Anson Dorrance, GregRyan, Kaz Tambi & others on how we develop players

This is a small segment of an article at www.topdrawersoccer.com on How We Develop Players - the Girls side

There’s no more famous figure in Women’s Soccer than University of North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance. While a number of programs have shown themselves to be able to compete with the program at Chapel Hill, there is still an ideal and a symbolism to that program which seems to never be far from the world of Girls soccer in this country as a whole. Dorrance’s comments about the state of the game here are noteworthy in several respects, not the least of which is his willingness to sound warnings about some of our more established trends.

For starters, Dorrance agrees that there tends to be an overemphasis on winning competitions at too early of an age, but notes that rectifying this is not so simple, as there needs to be a competitive aspect to provide an energy to player development.

“Too much thought about winning at a young age, that’s a legitimate concern, but it’s a difficult thing to get your arms around. You can’t really develop athletic excellence in a recreational arena. If you want to make players elite, they can’t have no concern for competition,” he said. “This area between winning and development becomes blurred naturally. It’s difficult to eliminate winning from that equation. If you look at recreational environments, kids are just running around having a good time.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Arena out as National Team Coach

U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati has announced that Bruce Arena's contract as head coach of the U.S. Men's National Team will not be renewed. Gulati said a search for a replacement will begin immediately, with no potential coaches having been contacted yet.

Gulati confirmed that Arena had expressed a desire to continue in the position, and added that the former DC United and University of Virginia has some other job possibilities. Arena has reportedly been offered an opportunity to run the New York franchise of Major League Soccer.

Gulati confirmed that Juergen Klinsmann, the Southern California who recently resigned as head coach of his native Germany, is someone he is interested in talking with about the job. He declined to mention any further specifics about possible candidates.

"I’m sure I will talk to Juergen," he said. "He’s an interesting coach who lives in America and has expressed a desire to remain in America."

In describing characteristics of attractive coaching prospects, Gulati emphasized the importance of coaches understanding the unique aspects of the American setup.

"It's not a prerequisite, but there are some unique things about soccer here, with our league, with the NCAA and other things," Gulati said. "It's a different challenge here."

Statement from Bruce Arena as released by US Soccer:

"I would like to thank the players, coaches and staff who have been with the program over the last eight years," said Arena. "Their tireless effort has helped transform the national team program into something we can all be proud of, and I am extremely grateful for their commitment. I have thoroughly enjoyed this experience, and I would like to thank U.S. Soccer for the opportunity and their support throughout my tenure. I am proud of how far the organization has come over the last eight years, and I am extremely optimistic about the future of the sport in our country. As for me, I am planning to take some time off to weigh my future opportunities.”

Saturday, June 24, 2006

A Suggested Response to the early exit from the World Cup

this article was published today at www.topdrawersoccer.com - where I have written a number of other articles on the subject of player development



Thursday’s disappointment in the World Cup is spawning some predictable outrage in print and electronic media, as well as around the Internet and any other places where American soccer fans tend to congregate.

That there is interest in such a thing is generally a good thing, and a sign of progress from, say, 16 years ago when most people probably didn’t know we were even in the World Cup Finals.

But it is vitally important that we grasp the most important lessons and messages from the performance of our National Team on the biggest of all soccer stages. A big part of my reason for starting this web site goes back to the immediate aftermath of 1998, when I began to take an academic interest in the subject of what it will take for the USA to get from point A to B as a soccer nation.

The answer to that question is the same now as it was 8 years ago, and while there has been undoubted progress in our national acumen and quality, the main reason we lost in this World Cup tracks directly with the biggest question, the one I posed back in 98.

Why did we lose?

It is very important that we understand one simple truth: We ultimately lost in this World Cup because we did not have good enough players.

It wasn’t because of refereeing. While there were some questionable calls in the game, there are in nearly every game.

It wasn’t because of coaching. The same coach who took us to the quarterfinals in 2002 didn’t suddenly become inept, as some are supposing. Whether Bruce Arena continues on the job or not, there is no question he has played an important and valuable role in introducing us to some possibilities as a soccer nation, and particularly in shaking some key American soccer circles out of a contentment with mediocre methods that would never serve us in our quest to achieve at the highest levels. We didn’t lose because of coaching.

It wasn’t because of some anti-American conspiracy. While haters of America are out there, the opportunity is present for our national team to compete at the highest levels.

No, we lost because our players weren’t good enough. They fall short technically, tactically, physically and in terms of soccer mentality and culture. It might seem strange then for me to say I don’t mean that as a personal affront to the players we had in Germany, but I don’t. I think the squad selection was right and I certainly don’t need to duplicate the many efforts to break down player-by-player performances. This is the best group of players that we’ve had, but if you really think our top players are as great as those in the top soccer nations, you probably should stop reading because we are disagreeing on a fundamental premise.


Why aren’t our players good enough?

The next question then is obvious, and the answer I suggest is to identify the same problem I noticed 8 years ago. The problem ultimately is that we don’t develop players nationally and systemically, in a proper manner.

The first answer I would typically get in advancing this over the past four years was “What about reaching the quarters in 2002?” My answer to this has been that by sheer force of numbers and to a lesser degree by the most obvious and general improvements in our system, we have managed to produce some better-quality players, but the main avenue of our system, evidenced not just by the performance of our national team but by the relatively small number of professional-quality players we are producing, has continued to lag well behind the top nations.

Let me be clear on this, I think the main issue with our system is just that – the system. Undoubtedly we have a core group of hard-working, devoted and talented coaches at all levels of the American game. Over the past four year I have seen from up close that many coaches, some very high profile and others relatively unknown, have a deep and abiding love for the progress of the game in this country. They take a similar interest in these questions and are doing everything they can to better themselves and the system of which they are part.

Now, many of these same coaches would agree that we need to get more such coaches at all levels, and we will address the issues of club structure and coaching education later, but for now let’s focus on the system itself.


What is the problem with the system?

Statement: The biggest problem with player development in this country is that elite youth soccer in this country is, before anything else, a business.

It has been my experience over and over that business interests get in the way of the changes needed to improve youth player development. This is illustrated in part by the following:

1. Youth soccer clubs – the primary day-to-day developmental vehicle for players, are set up on a pay-to-play basis. This means the paying customers, largely parents with little to no soccer background, end up driving the program.

2. The competitive structure for elite youth teams in the U.S. is primarily tournaments and the state, regional and national Cup series. All of these are set up as money-making ventures.

3. The holy grail of college soccer scholarships, while not a business in itself, is catered to by the club promises of exposure (mainly at tournaments) and the tournament structure (even as early as ages U12 and U13 where rankings and subsequent placement at future tournaments are affected). Thus families involved in the game eventually shell out tens of thousands of dollars (maybe even 6 figures) over a several-year period. Willingness to participate in the system as it currently exists is what keeps the world of youth soccer liquid.

4. The entire national player identification is set up as a money-spinning operation. State and Regional ODP tryouts, training and trips are all pay-to-play. That some players are taken on scholarship only illustrates that enough money is coming in to support such actions, however well-intended. While competing organizations may not charge for every event, their finances are driven largely by other pay-to-play endeavors. While U.S. Soccer National Team events are free of charge for families, the brunt of the ID process used to select players, especially at the youngest national team ages, are pay to play.

5. The governing organizations of elite youth soccer in the U.S., U.S. Youth Soccer, US Club Soccer and the United Soccer Leagues’ Super Y –League, are all businesses.


Now the case can be made that when you speak of what has been done in the name of player development to this point, little to none of it would have been possible if not for the revenue generated by all of the above businesses. I don’t argue with that, but that doesn’t make it the best way of doing things, and certainly doesn’t stand as an argument against making the changes we need in our system if we are to move ahead. The status quo leaves us treading water at best, and more likely falling under the international current.

You see, everywhere else the business of soccer is about winning. Not winning theU13 Such and Such Cup, but winning at the professional level. The professional league in each country is full of clubs doing all they can to produce the best players in order to sell them to bigger clubs and/or to win and thus, make money. So these professional clubs are the leaders in their respective countries’ youth development systems.

In America however, we have a professional league that until now has done virtually nothing in the area of youth player development. Now in Season 11, Major League Soccer officials are talking much more openly and boldly about doing such a thing, but many teams still have very real reservations about doing so. They are reluctant because of business. Since youth soccer in this country is first a business, creating teams or leagues that would be seen as competition to the existing organizations has been something of a third rail for MLS. Officials in existing youth organizations haven’t been shy about warning the league away from such endeavors, noting that the fan support of the youth soccer community is a logically key element in any successful marketing plan for pro soccer. So again, the business interest of youth soccer serves as a potential impediment for an improved player development system.

An X factor in all of this is the American attitude toward education. College education is viewed by many as necessary (an entitlement even) and even the traditional high school experience tends to be revered in our society. In terms of soccer, there is a certain percentage of college soccer programs that do present a professional-style approach to competition and development. However, many of the regulations governing the college game range from problematic to contrary to quality development for the elite player. High school soccer is much more hit and miss when it comes to finding good coaching and the idea that the competition is helpful for the most talented and ambitious players. Still, the concept of bypassing either of these is still largely outside the box in our society.

It is difficult to make a serious attempt at reforming our system without addressing the proper role of school and its relationship to elite athletics. Again, I want to be clear that this is not said in disrespect to the many outstanding coaches and programs in the college game. College soccer will and should always be there, but the professional-first alternative needs to be developed more fully if we are to begin to bridge the considerable international gap (a dual-track system, something like with college and minor league baseball, is the ideal).

So what needs to change from our current system?

1. Ages 6-12

At these young ages we simply must remove the competitive emphasis that currently exists. I spoke this week with a mom on a U11 team who told me her daughter’s team had played 70 matches over a 12-month period, including 9 tournaments. I’ve walked past U10 matches at tournaments where teams had traveled more than 1,000 miles to compete. This part of the tournament business, the business of having to win, has to go, and the best clubs will need to take the lead in doing away with it.

Players at this age need to be learning how to play. When I’ve traveled to Argentina, Germany and elsewhere, it is plain to see that the kids in these places all know how to play, and they are playing largely on their own, in sandlots, on asphalt courts, on the beach, in the street. If we don’t have a society where that happens naturally (and in many areas of the country we don’t), we should try to emulate it at the club level in the following ways:

1. Let The Kids Play – There is no need for players of this age to have a stifling competitive program. A league with matches once a week can be fine, but even a schedule of matches should be secondary to open playing times. What if clubs just organized nightly “pickup matches” for age-appropriate open playing, with small-sided games on short playing fields, just allowing the kids the continuing experience of enjoying the game with no competitive pressure? The point of my mentioning what happens overseas is that for those kids, playing the game is 2nd nature. Showing up to just play for fun can help us achieve some of that cultural aspect.

2. Technical Excellence – The most notable difference between top American players and their international counterparts, as cited over and over again by national and regional coaches, is their skill in striking, dribbling and receiving the ball. Matching speed of play mentally and physically might be accomplished in later developmental years, but the brunt of technical development, according to the experts, takes place at these years. While point 1 here can definitely affect that, we need a cadre of coaches for players of these ages who can truly teach our youngest players how to play.

An impediment to this has been that the business environment of youth soccer tends to reward coaches more inclined to simply collect the biggest and fastest players in order to win trophies. Especially at the youngest ages where there can be a great disparity in size from one player or team to the next, teaching players how to play the ball on the ground with skill and speed does not always translate to winning events. Club should resolve to expend resources on coaches who can teach players to play, away from the glamour of competitive circles. This is currently often left to independent “skills trainers” who in fairness, have a very mixed record when it comes to quality, particularly when it comes to teaching skills of functional value to the aspiring player (as opposed to a half a dozen tricks and no real idea of if or when they might work in a match). Progressive clubs need to make this a standard part of their developmental program, and not leave the coaching of younger players to parent-volunteers.


2. Ages 13-15

The most sweeping changes are probably needed in this age group. We need to do more to properly identify and develop our best players. Having said that, I think we need to avoid prematurely pegging players as being good enough or not good enough for a national level. This calls for changes in the competitive structure, player ID system, National Team program and yes, even in the business end of things.

Suggested Changes:

1. A coordinated calendar – This is necessary not only to undo one of the grave problems in our current system (overusing the players with too many matches), but also to give players fewer schedule conflicts and difficult choices. It will also serve to clear the way for the opportunity so many top coaches say we need to provide more of for top players, playing with and against the best players more often. A suggested coordinated calendar is submitted in Appendix A.

2. The recognition/establishment of an Elite Team Level in our competitive structure. –In many ways we already have this, as noted by clubs and teams that are willing to go the extra mile in terms of time and money. Yet we still lump these teams into the same overall competitive environment as the rest of the “Travel” teams.

In a given age group (U13 to U18) there are 500 to 1,000 teams nationally, but probably no more than 100 of these teams might aspire to be considered an Elite program, meaning 10-20 percent of the teams at an age group. The numbers likely will differ as the players get older, but you get the idea. Clubs under this level will agree to nationally-established standards for training and competitive schedules, facilities and coaching experience and quality. Identification of these clubs will be a key component of reforming our system.

3. In keeping with the above two points – the establishment of a league structure as the main competitive format for these Elite teams – the matches to training ratio for even our elite clubs tends to not be so great because of the pressure to compete in so many tournaments. It’s no accident that 2 areas that produce a lot of very good teams – Southern California and Dallas, have the 2 best leagues in the country with a regular slate of quality matches. The goal of the league structure is to reduce the number of matches played in a year, and to raise the average quality of each match by putting the brunt of those teams willing to meet the Elite standard, in a competitive setup that has them playing each other much more often, and teams with a lower standard, much less.

Three of the four Regions in U.S. Youth Soccer have established region-wide leagues, and this is definitely a good step for the sake of more quality matches, but with the overriding emphasis on tournaments and State Cup, plus the difficult travel requirements of such leagues, these leagues may have limited developmental benefit.

This league would call for weekly matches within subsections of each region, playing in both spring and fall – with maybe 6 teams in each league. The schedule would set aside a couple of weekends per season (fall and spring) for major tournaments.

One of the more controversial and probably resisted aspects of this plan is that the approximately 100 clubs nationally that would compete in such a league, would not participate in their State or Regional Cup, but would instead vie for an Elite League National Championship. The existing competitions of course would still be available for the great majority of existing Travel clubs.

A specific National :League proposal is submitted in Appendix B.


4. Regional centers of excellence - One weekend per month should be set aside for a group of the best players – something like 48 players per age group, per region. Perhaps half of the players should be selected based on identification at a July regional camp, and the other half nominated by club coaches based on ongoing player development and performance. This should help avoid the air of permanence that tends to work for and against younger players when it comes to ODP.

The training program for these regional centers should be directed in a coordinated, national manner.

5. An international exchange program should also be in place – taking the most promising young players and placing them in overseas training assignments to expose them to the international standard and professional opportunities. This is best contracted out at the club level to avoid conflicts of interest, and will accelerate the professionalization of our overall developmental system.

6. National Team Oversight – Some of the best player development examples I have seen in practice and heard espoused have come from our U14 and U15 National Team programs. The National Player ID camp in Massachusetts every August is a splendid week of age-specific training. Similarly the U15 National Team has a great program for 24-48 top players a few times every year. Perhaps it is best to utilize these age-level coaches on a broader scale, working as part of the youth national staff on a planning and roving basis, and on a full-time schedule. Instead of having to make decisions on identifying one group of players, they can continue to work with the larger group of players (up to 200 per age group) through the year.

This national oversight can also be extended to the club level, providing assistance in coaching education and player development.

There should be a national director of youth development, working in conjunction with the National Team Coach, who has authority over all of the regional and national programs mentioned in this article.


7. Joint Sponsorship – Perhaps the most obvious problem with the above is that it calls for cooperation between competing sponsors. It may paint me as naïve, but I believe the governing organizations should call on those who have sponsored competing programs, to put competition aside and allow themselves to be seen for a benevolent quality, working together for the good of the overall American game. The advertising and exposure opportunities can be built into the program, but isn’t it time quality player development was placed above business interest?

U.S. Soccer is wrongly blamed for many things and expected to do many more things that really aren’t its role. But here’s an area where it can step in and make a big difference. New Federation head Sunil Gulati has already shown some very promising leanings, and another one would be to get the mega-companies, particularly adidas and Nike, to work together in the effort to reform our national developmental system. The national director position I mention in point 6 can also be an important one when it comes to mediating the delicate issue of getting cooperation from these competing businesses. We need their help, and we need them to get on board.



Ages 16-18

1. Establishing a Professionally-driven developmental route.

a. Each MLS side – and perhaps some USL sides, would have a U17 and a U19 side.
b. Each professional youth side should roughly mirror each 6-team sub regional league from age groups U13 to U15.
c. Teams should consist of 16 players, totaling 250 players nationally (125 per age group)
d. The league/teams are a partnership between MLS and US Soccer, with an established professional standard for training and coaching. The National Director for Youth Development (referenced above) should be the lead figure in this partnership.
e. A priority should be made to utilize those with proven experience in youth development, while also developing younger coaches as apprentices, especially from the professional playing ranks.
f. While the collegiate eligibility of players should be protected, there should be a definite motif that these teams and age groups are preparing players for an opportunity to play professionally upon finishing high school.
g. These teams should have a built-in international component, perhaps twice a year for each team, to maintain the current international opportunities provided by Regional ODP.
h. The Bradenton Residency program has undoubtedly been an important factor in developing players at the top end of the scale, despite increasing conflict with the status quo club system. While MLS sides having U17 and U19 teams can replace Residency in the role of day-to-day elite player development for the age group, there will need to be a transition before we stop having a group of top players based at IMG Academy. A similar component for players a year older can be a useful transition as well. There will continue to be U17 and U20 National Teams of course, so the logical progression is for those coaching staffs to both be involved in the program and oversight of the professional youth centers, and to invite players in for training camps according to the schedule for the FIFA World Championships at those age levels.

2. Maintaining the College track of player development

a. This would mirror the same league-based competitive schedule as advocated for the U13 to U15 age groups. While a much greater percentage of these players will be pursuing college soccer, there is no less commitment to their development as players, as befitting the very real and high standard of development available in the top college programs. (and avoiding the same overuse issues with a tournament-heavy setup).
b. As with the U13-U15 age groups, separate national events for the Elite National League and the National Cup series can be held, but unlike the younger age groups, teams can compete in both to maximize college recruiting opportunities. State Cup schedules should be streamlined to facilitate this.
c. A weekend set aside per month for State ODP teams (a league or series of festivals could make very good recruiting events).

3. Coaching Education Program: The efforts of Bob Jenkins and others to reinvigorate the national coaching education program must be continued. This country should mirror the highest standards of coaching proficiency in the world, using the best personnel and methods here and abroad. The practice of simply collecting talent in order to win events rather than continuing to develop players at this age needs to become a thing of the past.


Main Challenges to the Proposed Changes (Just to show I’m not blindly idealistic)

1. Getting the youth organizations to work together
2. Getting the equipment companies and other sponsors to work together
(both of these 2 will call for strong national oversight)

3. Some Major Tournament will not fit into the league-based competitive schedule and would have to change dates.
4. Elite Team Players will not be able to play high school soccer.
5. Some Parents will balk at the travel required for the monthly Regional Camps.
6. This does not address pay-to-play at the club level, although the U13-U15 regional camps should be fully funded.
7. Loss of funds for Regional ODP from camps and overseas trips for U16 to U18 age groups.
8. At what point do we transition from National Residency to the MLS teams, with Youth National Staff oversight?
9. The challenge of Coaching Education for those participating in the MLS youth component.
10. The objection of coaches to the perception of removing some of the 250 players from the college recruiting pool.
11. Are their not enough slots in for the Elite National League? Should there be 2 tiers per sub region?
12. Who decides which 6 teams get into each sub regional?
13. What if an area doesn’t have enough teams willing or able to meet the nationally-set standards.
14. Enforcing Down Time in the Coordinated Calendar.
15. Enforcing Club coaching standards, particularly for the youngest ages.
16. Our current Soccer subculture is resistant to change –whether for lack of understanding or the reality that some people would be giving up power.




Appendix A – A Sample National Calendar
(Training 3-4 nights per week – League matches on Saturdays)

Weekend 1 – September 2 through 4 – Elite Tournament Weekend
Weekend 2 – September 9 and 10 – League Match One
Weekend 3 – September 16 and 17 – League Match Two
Weekend 4 – September 23 and 24 – League Match Three
Weekend 5 – September 30 and October 1 – Regional Camp Weekend

Weekend 6 – October 7 and 8 – League Match Four
Weekend 7 – October 14 and 15 – League Match Five
Weekend 8 – October 21 and 22 – League Match Six
Weekend 9 – October 28 and 29 – Regional Camp Weekend

Weekend 10 – November 4 and 5 – League Match Seven
Weekend 11 – November 11 and 12 – League Match Eight
Weekend 12 – November 18 and 19 – League Match Nine
Weekend 13 – November 25 and 26 – Regional Camp Weekend

Weekend 14 – December 2 and 3 – League Match Ten
Weekend 15 – December 9 and 10 – Regional Camp Weekend
Weekends 16 and 17 - Off
Weekend 18* December 26-Jan 1 – Elite Tournament Week (Winter Break)

January and February are off

Weekend 19 – March 3 and 4 – League Match Eleven
Weekend 20 – March 10 and 11 – League Match Twelve
Weekend 21 – March 17 and 18 – League Match Thirteen
Weekend 22 – March 24 and 25 – Regional Camp Weekend
Weekend 23 – March 31 and April 1 – League Match Fourteen
Weekend 24 – April 7 and 8 – League Match Fifteen
Weekend 25 – April 14 through 22 – Elite Tournament Week (Spring Break)
Weekend 26 – April 28 and 29 – Regional Camp Weekend
Weekend 27 – May 5 and 6 – League Match 16
Weekend 28 – May 12 and 13 – League Match 17
Weekend 29 – May 19 and 20 – League Match 18
Weekend 30 – May 26, 27 and 28 – Elite Tournament Weekend
Weekend 31 – June 2 and 3 – Regional Camp Weekend
Weekend 32 – June 9 and 10 – League Match 19
Weekend 33 – June 16 and 17 – League Match 20
Elite League National Championship – June 23 through June 30 (16 teams)
Summer Regional Camps – July 1-14 (one week per age group)
Mid-July through August – off.
(and then we start all over again)

Appendix B – Proposed National League Structure

Four Subregional Leagues in each of Four Regions – for 16 leagues.

Six teams per league, to support a 10 match, home and away schedule as in Appendix A.

(Note: Some areas clearly can support more than 6 Elite clubs in a league. Southern California and Texas come to mind immediately, and there’s no reason why the administrative apparatus of the Coast Soccer League and Dallas Classic League could not be grafted in to the overall national setup. possible 2nd tier with promotion and relegation)

Possible Boys Setup (This is a purely hypothetical listing. It doesn’t intend to be the exhaustive list of clubs that COULD be in such an Elite National League, and it isn’t speaking at all to all teams in all age groups – nor does it indicate any interest of any of these clubs in being involved in such a reformed setup).

Region I Northeast
Nordic Premier, Seacoast United, FC Greater Boston Bolts, Oakwood SC, South Central Premier, Midstate United

Region I New York
Rochester Jr. Rhinos, Syracuse Blitz, Albany Blackwatch, FC Westchester, BW Gottschee, Team 6

Region I EasternPenn/NJ
PDA, MatchFit Academy, FC DELCO, PSC Coppa, SuperNova, PA Classics

Region I Mid Atlantic
Bethesda SC, Potomac SA, Baltimore Bays, Great Falls/Reston, Richmond Strikers, Beach FC


Region II Great Lakes
Michigan Wolves, VardarStars, Internationals, Cleveland FC, Beadling, Toledo club

Region II Ohio River
Javanon, Carmel United, Fort Wayne, Ohio Elite, Ohio Blast, Ohio FC

Region II Upper Midwest
Chicago Magic, Sockers FC, FC Milwaukee, Madison 56ers, Minnesota club, Iowa club

Region II Lower Midwest
Scott Gallagher, Lou Fusz SC, St. Louis SC, KCFC Alliance, Tulsa SC, MSS Arsenal


Region III Florida
First Coast, Central Florida, Clearwater, HC United, West Kendall, Boca/Schulz

Region III South Atlantic
Atlanta Fire, Georgia club, SC club, CASL, Charlotte SC, Triangle FC

Region III South
Tennessee FC, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Team 6

Region III Texas
Dallas Texans, Solar, FC Texas, Lonestar, Austin Capitals, TSC Texans, (as many as 12 clubs here – the Classic League)


Region IV Cal South
Irvine Strikers, Nomads, Surf SC, Arsenal FC, Real SoCal, (as many as 12 clubs here – the CSL Premier).

Region IV Cal North & Hawaii
Honolulu SC, DVSC, Santa Clara Sporting, SCC Breakers, San Juan Spirit, Team 6

Region IV Pacific Northwest
Crossfire, Eastside FC, Washington club, FC Portland, Oregon club, Boise club

Region IV Rocky Mountains & Southwest
Colorado Rush, Colorado club, La Roca, Sereno SC, Arizona Club, Albuquerque United,

Monday, June 19, 2006

TDS & The Beautiful Game

TDS & The Beautiful Game

There are more natives around the country than I realized. Yesterday, after the Brazil win, I braved the crowds for an exciting trip to our local Target, in Northern NJ. I was stunned, really, at the number of BRASIL shirts, and green and yellow garb. I got close to take a listen, and yes, they spoke Portuguese, or English with an accent. As my husband made his business trip to NYC last week, each block came thrillingly alive, depending on who was playing: little Korea had cops to direct traffic, because the fans were crowding the streets; Fox Sports World Espanol could be heard coming out of shops and restaurants. (I dare not frequent the local pizza joint for awhile, which has had the Azzuris on T.V. since before I knew what futbol was...).
Now, for a shameless plug but it serves the cause: if you want to get a flavor for the sort-of-coming-alive-will-you-let-the-Fred's-and-Rabinho's-start-already Brazilians, please check out (amazon.com, mittenpress.com and soon to be displayed in Barnes & Noble nationwide) and circulate info on the new children's book:
A Turn for Lucas

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Back to Youth: Manchester United Premier Cup Draw

(more of this article and the weekend's reports are available on www.topdrawersoccer.com)

BEAVERTON, OREGON - Following a festive opening ceremony and the tournament draw at the Tiger Woods Convention Center on the Nike campus, 40 teams from across the country are ready to begin the Manchester United Premier Cup.

This year's event, one of the most prestigious tournaments in the country, is featuring 1991 birth year players on the Boys side and U14 (Aug. 1 cutoff) teams on the Girls side.

Along with star name value, the event features a European tournament format (several shorter matches), a terrific field and the incentive of qualifying for an international tournament later this summer. The Boys winner will play in the international final later this summer in Manchester, England, while the Girls winner advances to the Gothia Cup in Sweden.


Top Drawer Soccer will be on hand for the duration of the event, with match reports each of the next 4 evenings.

The Draw: (2 teams out of 5 advance to quarterfinals - each teams plays 2, 50-minute matches on Friday and Saturday)

Girls

Group A: So Cal United, FC DELCO Sting, Bethesda Freedom, San Juan Spirit, Eclipse Select.

Group B: Surf SC, Lake Oswego SC, Vardarstars, Sereno SC, Dallas Texans.

Group C: Slammers SC, Crossfire Premier, Real Colorado, Irvine Strikers, NFC Tabagators.

Group D: So Cal Blues, PDA Fire, Lonestars Red, Mustang Spirit, Colorado Rush.


Boys

Group A: Surf SC, FC DELCO, Dallas Texans, Boston Bolts, Sockers FC.

Group B: So Cal United, Ohio FC Mutiny, Crossfire Premier, PDA, Concorde Fire.

Group C: Nomads, Scott Gallagher SC, Vardarstars, Bethesda Roadrunners, Irvine Strikers.

Group D: SFYSL Barcelona, Lake Oswego, Colorado Rush, Sereno SC, Arsenal FC.