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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on every Monday. A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom." 
Opinions expressed on the US Youth Soccer Blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of US Youth Soccer.



Susan Boyd

Three of my grandchildren came last week to stay for a month with us. The day before they arrived I bought $350 worth of groceries. Four days after they arrived, I bought another $190 worth of groceries. Today, I have to go to the store yet again, and they will not have been with us for a full week yet. There are swimming lessons, pottery classes, dance classes, a Brewers’ game, a Lakeshore Chinooks’ game, movies, camp, mall shopping…oh you get the picture. I honestly forgot how expensive young kids can be. Certainly, I don’t need to provide tons of extra activities, but I still need to feed them and do a bit of clothing them (Megan forgot her tennis shoes for example). Suddenly when I look at my bank statement it appears that my debit card has been the victim of identity theft I have so many charges. But it would have to be a very young and not very nefarious thief since the charges seem to be for gelato, Monsters University and video games.
This entire experience reminds me how much money we parents shell out for our kids to participate in activities, particularly youth sports. My grandson has recently begun playing lacrosse and the equipment alone could feed a family of four for a month. Then you add on club fees, travel to games and tournaments, ancillary equipment, such as a team bag and warm-ups, and you end up creating a gross national product for your home. We do it gladly because participating in youth sports gives our kids so many pluses in their development. Staying fit and active is just one important aspect — they have to be able to burn off the $500 in groceries I bought. But sports also gives them a direction to travel through life, a new set of friendships, lessons of humility and dignity, instruction in good sportsmanship, the tools to be a team member, and the joy of succeeding even if the team isn’t great. Running an extra half-mile or scoring a goal or stealing a ball all contribute to a child’s sense of pride and accomplishment. So we gladly haul out the checkbook and pay whatever is asked. The problem is that we can’t really comparison shop. If you want a luxury car, you have to pay the luxury price. That’s how it works in youth sports too. We seek out the best teams, the best coaches, the best clubs because we believe anything less will jeopardize our kids’ future in sports. We treat the exploration for a soccer team like pursuing an Ivy League education. We lose sight of what the real goal should be. We can get from point A to point B comfortably and safely in a 2003 Corolla, and we can find a worthy soccer experience for our kids without the status symbols of an elite travel club.
What should a club offer your child? Good coaching that focuses on fundamentals, such as first touch, passing, throw-ins and general ball handling, not to mention a good grasp on the rules and tactics of the sport. Does the club teach the kids about the different tactical formations? Does the club let the kids play in all positions? Is the focus on winning over teaching and development? How many practice sessions do you get for your fees? Are all the coaches licensed — this includes parent coaches? Are there various team levels in the club so your child can move as needed? How long has the club been in existence? Until our kids reach the ages of 12 or 13, the emphasis should be on development of skills and knowledge of the game. Often, you will hear the phrase, "a soccer brain." That refers to a child’s ability to really see the field and know where to place him or herself or where to pass the ball. Some of soccer brain is innate, but much of it is a trained discipline. Clubs should be helping our children grow into their soccer brains with good education. All too often teams regard coaches as the means to get to wins looking at how the coach selects players to field the team and how the coach pushes them to produce a win often at the expense of the kids sitting on the bench who get forgotten. Even when playing time rules are followed, a "winning" coach will find a way to limit the benchwarmers’ participation by subbing them often and never having two on the field at the same time. That’s great for winning, but not for developing team unity and trust. How do kids develop their soccer brains when they are isolated on the field and not considered an important part of the tactical process?
So before you write a check at any cost, look around. Resist the urge to join the "cool" club because of peer pressure. I can assure you from experience that clubs and their reputations evolve fairly quickly. When Robbie played for his U-14 team, it was the best in the country. By the time he moved at U-17 to a local team, it had dropped significantly not only nationally, but in the state as well. That was in a three-year period. The same held true for the club Bryce played for. They were nationally ranked for girls and the best team in the state for boys, neither of which was true after two years. Unless you are prepared to "team hop" every couple of years, you do well to find a club that will serve the purposes you need for the long term, such as strong development and player exposure to college coaches if your child decides to follow that path. Otherwise, stick with the premise that soccer should focus on the four categories of US Youth Soccer’s Youth Soccer Month: fun, fitness, family and friends. These build memories and don’t necessarily have to drain the bank account. Bryce played for a club where the fees were around $1,500, plus the costs of uniforms, additional equipment like cleats, warm ups and bags, travel to tournaments and spirit gear. Then his team dissolved, so he had to find a new club. He ended up going to one of the ethnic clubs in Milwaukee where the adult club members supported soccer through their dues. It cost us $150 for the season. We went to local tournaments, and Bryce got seen by local college coaches. So there really was no need for him to wear the jersey of some fancy club with snobbish tendencies. I wished we had discovered this secret years earlier!
The other important consideration would be how much of an investment should we be making. Kids can be fickle, so front-loading expensive training may end up vaporizing as quickly as dot com tech stocks. We need to find out how passionately our kids regard their sport. If they just want to run and play with their friends, then there’s no need for all of you to pay an expensive fee for that opportunity. Community recreation teams provide good training, opportunities for friends to be on the same team and plenty of exercise. After a couple seasons, you should be able to gauge how much investment your child wants to make in soccer and then you can decide on your investment. At young ages, kids should be trying out several different sports. While I naturally feel that soccer is the best, I also recognize that not all kids fit into the soccer mold. So exposing our children to baseball, softball, basketball, tennis, golf, swimming — you name it, depending on availability and interest — gives our kids a chance to find their own passion. Two of my grandsons gave soccer a valiant effort but ended up opting for baseball and football (yes, the American variety). They knew how keenly involved their uncles were in soccer, but it wasn’t for them. For the first two years of playing soccer, they stuck with recreation programs that cost less than $150 for the year. Even now, they play on local recreation baseball teams, as well as Little League both for smaller fees, but then train indoors during winter for much higher fees. They love it, so their parents don’t begrudge them the expense. My advice is to start slowly with short seasons and a variety of sports. Eventually the kids will whittle them down to just a few. In our family, we went through gymnastics, tennis, baseball and basketball, in addition to soccer. Occasionally, the boys will wistfully mention that they wish they had kept up with another sport, but that quickly dissipates with the next soccer game.
Finally, keep your expenses down by not buying into all the additional gear. Clubs usually change their uniforms every two or three years because the big manufacturers make styles obsolete that often. That means a different style of not only uniforms, but warm-ups, bags and sweats. Save those items for either a special occasion such as a birthday gift, or forgo them altogether until it’s obvious a child is planning to stick with the sport. Otherwise, you can end up writing a check for $1,500 for club fees and $500 for uniforms and gear. Fancy cleats look cool and for the best players can make a difference in how well they play, but a 6-year-old just needs the black cleats for $25 that they will grow out of before the season ends. Save the fancy gear for later. Be cautious about going wild with spirit wear too. You want to show team support, but a hat or a scarf can say as much as a warm-up jacket, stadium chair or thermal blanket. My closet of obsolete fan gear bursts at the seams in colors I can’t even pretend belong to a present team. And I even took my own advice for the most part, so I’m not as bad off as some of the other parents.
We have to feed and clothe and house our kids to the best of our ability, but we don’t need to get extreme about their extracurriculars. There are viable options to the "best" (read "most expensive") club in town, which may actually do a better job of preparing our children to be great soccer players. Look for great development and ignore the bragging about wins. All too often those two factors end up being mutually exclusive as teams look to discover ready-made players that they’ll discard when better ready-made players come along. With the proper development, your child could be the one at the top of the pyramid as these winning clubs look for better players, but you didn’t need to spend their high fees to get Billy or Sally to the level that makes them "marketable." Expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better. And you can take that to the bank.

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A Football Match By Any Other Nameā€¦

Susan Boyd

Splashed over the glitz and glamor of Times Square hung a giant billboard last month touting NBC’s newly-inked deal to carry English Premier League (EPL) games. Yes, you heard right, a major network has finally figured out that soccer has a huge following in the United States, which translates into advertising revenue. So, using an image of Gareth Bale of the Tottenham Hotspurs of the EPL, NBC Sports Network hyped the fact that beginning Aug. 17, they would be airing "every match, every team, every week" for the EPL, a major coup for soccer fans throughout the U.S. Then last week, Gareth’s image was replaced with a graphic art advertisement for NBC featuring the tag line: "Don’t call it soccer. It’s football . . . just not as you know it." The advent of this sign heralds a major push to promote and air professional soccer, I mean football, as a significant and widely played sport. This is good news for youth players, who have often competed under the cloud of not choosing a "real" sport. Now the rest of the world has burst into the American living room with validation of the power and prestige of football through the televised programming of EPL.
Previously, we counted on Fox Soccer Channel to air matches, often live, but the breadth of their delivery was not as significant as this newest deal with NBC. I am forever grateful to Fox for taking the chance on soccer when any number of naysayers said it was ridiculous to devote so much air time to a sport that had no real American support. Fox averaged 200,000 viewers a match and that doesn’t include viewers tuning into GOL TV, Telemundo, Univision and, of course, ESPN, who also took a chance on airing both MLS and European games to American audiences. Recently, beIN Sports, a branch of the Al-Jazeera network, took over the Italian, Spanish and French Premier League broadcasts as well as the English second-tier league. The channel is only available to customers of DISH and DirecTV, greatly limiting the viewing audience. Therefore, NBC has opened up soccer to those in all markets, which should enhance viewership. Additionally, NBC offers the cache of a well-known, long-term network affiliation. While Fox lost its bid to be the provider of the EPL matches for the next three years, it will continue to show college soccer, women’s professional soccer and occasional European Championship games. Having led the way with an all-soccer channel for years, Fox is in the unique position of having both experience and a following that will serve the underrepresented American soccer teams such as college, youth, high school and women with a venue to build up interest among US viewers. The much appreciated and highly regarded Fox Soccer News will now be called Fox Daily Soccer and will continue to bring insights and commentary on the world of soccer, letting viewers know about trades, injuries and standings of teams around the world. However, it will appear on the new Fox Soccer 1, which replaces Speed Channel on your TV listings Aug. 17. The original Fox Soccer Channel will then disappear. ESPN also lost Major League Soccer, which will now air solely on the various channels of NBC Sports for at least the next three years. But again, ESPN will have plenty of other soccer matches that it can add to its line-up, giving soccer fans a wider variety.
What do these broadcast additions mean for youth soccer? Probably most significantly, it opens up the world of soccer to players who can now watch nearly any level of the sport. Becoming a strong soccer player entails being a student of the game. All too often we limit our viewing of soccer to the youth games in which our kids participate, but that view is far too narrow. It’s easy for a kid to look super human when only compared to other kids her same age and skill level. Youth players develop both in size and skill at very different timetables, making it virtually impossible to judge a player’s potential within those limited parameters. Being able to watch high school and college soccer shows youth players the levels to which they need to strive, while watching professional soccer shows the complicated and well-orchestrated team tactics that go into moving the ball down the pitch or preventing the ball from entering the goal the team is defending. In youth soccer, there’s the "bee to honey" formation that on an overhead shot shows all the players swarming to the ball. The biggest and most aggressive player usually ends up winning possession, but without developing the skills and understanding of the game needed to compete as teams learn to spread out and play positions, that big player will ultimately end up being left behind. Watching soccer helps young players see and understand the more advanced nuances of the game. Another wonderful effect of more soccer on accessible TV channels can be measured in the prestige given to the sport. When soccer begins sharing the sports networks’ spotlight with more popular sports such as American football, baseball and basketball, kids can point with pride to the acceptance of their sport of choice. This will eventually translate into more fans at games, higher salaries for players, attraction of more athletes, improved college scholarships, and greater youth participation. 
Right now, many MLS franchises have been selling out their seasons, most notably the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. In 1999, the first soccer-specific stadium was built in the US for the Columbus (OH) Crew. It’s not wholly a coincidence that Fox Soccer Channel launched in 1997, giving American audiences a window on the entire soccer world, promoting the beauty, power and sensibleness of soccer-only parks. Today, just 14 years later, only five of the 19 MLS teams play in a non-soccer specific stadium. However, the Sounders field was purposely designed to accommodate both soccer and American football by being able to reconfigure the field for intimate seating around the entire soccer pitch. San Jose Earthquakes will be in a new stadium in a year. Vancouver Whitecaps play in a new stadium designed for both soccer and Canadian football. The newest team, Montreal Impact, just completed their new soccer stadium, so the number of teams having to put up with unwanted dual purpose venues is dwindling rapidly. This push to build pure soccer stadiums has been prompted by the increased interest in the sport, which will be further fueled by greater television exposure and a surge in youth players.
Expanded coverage of soccer will mean some major shake-ups as networks scramble to carve out their piece of the soccer world, but for fans this means a wider variety of matches, leagues and soccer news. While we may never call it "football" since American football has stolen that designation, we fans do recognize that around the world this is the real football enjoyed by millions of enthusiasts. We don’t need to change what we call the sport in order to appreciate the expanded coverage our beloved pastime will now enjoy. With a greater and more accessible variety of matches, we are the true winners, whether it’s called soccer or football. It’s still the greatest sport in the world!

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Mixed gender pick-up games

Sam Snow

A coach wrote in with this scenario: "Good afternoon, Sam. I am a member of a youth travel club which is experiencing some growing pains and differences of opinions among the board members and coaching staff.
The main concern, for today at least, is mixed age and mixed gender scrimmages within out club. We have had a case where a U14 boy’s team "scrimmaged" a U10 girl’s team. I use quotations on the word scrimmage as there were many restrictions on the boys with none on the girls and several coaches were present and some even on the field to supervise and ensure things did not get out of hand.
I would like to ask for your opinion on this. Is there any benefit that outweighs the risk of injury (both physical and psychological) to the younger players? What would be the appropriate age/gender gap for such a scrimmage?"
There are indeed benefits to pick-up games with mixed ages and even mixed age groups. However, the range of ages must be prudent. If the scrimmage had indeed been in the neighborhood or on the recess ground at school, the odds are good that 14-year-old boys would not have included 10-year-old girls in their game. I suggest that when coaches do arrange for a scrimmage with another age group and/or gender that they keep it within the three stages of biological growth that pertain to youth soccer.
1.            Childhood – 4 to 9 years old
2.            Puberty – 10 to 14 years old
3.            Adolescence – 15 to 19 years old
These are the general ages of each stage. Some persons will enter a stage sooner or later than their peers.

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Soccer and the World

Susan Boyd

In his ground-breaking book, "How Soccer (Football) Explains the World," Franklin Foer argues that soccer demonstrates "the failure of globalization to erode ancient hatreds in the game’s great rivalries."  Soccer exemplifies the difficulties of creating world-wide peace in the political arena. As he puts it, the tribal nature of soccer competition mirrors the tribal nature of partisan social policies and government divisions. He points to the "hooliganism" of soccer team loyalties leading to both racism and violence.  On the other hand, he also argues that the very nationalism that soccer promotes through the World Cup and various events such as the Gold Cup and the UEFA Champions’ League helps foster larger bands of allegiance that cross over the boundaries of international divisions and the larger distrust among members of disparate races, religions and political stances by bonding these groups together in support of their nation’s team or their club team with international members. There have been many critics of his conclusions and many followers who find his arguments persuasive and illuminating. When I read the book, I was impressed by the intelligence of his reasoning. Having watched soccer since 1967 when I moved to Germany to study, I have seen firsthand the power of national pride and the agony of losing to a country that is not respected on the world stage for its political positions. I have witnessed through news reports the scores of soccer riots that erupt from the passions that soccer ignites and even worse the isolated personal attacks by rabid fans resulting in serious injury on or even death to opposing fans.
Recently, soccer has had a huge impact on the political upheavals in Egypt. Therefore, as the changes in Egypt have played out during the past two years, I can’t help but reflect on Foer’s book. While Egypt is just one country, it does present a powerful anecdotal case for Foer’s argument. Egypt’s most avid fans are called "ultras," an ominous and expressive term. These ultras led the beginning of the revolt against Hosni Mubarak, the entrenched ruler of Egypt for 30 years. The strongest ultras are aligned with the Ahly and Zamalek clubs out of Cairo. Because of their hooligan status, these ultras have been in constant turmoil with police and even military authority. Often, ultras are arrested before a big match and released the next day so as to avoid trouble. Ultras have been around since the 1990s, but their major rise in Northern Africa occurred after 2005 with contingents in Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Egypt, and their rise helped fuel the Arab Spring in those countries. Specifically in Egypt, the ultras used social media to encourage Mubarak protesters to rise up, declaring that they would provide protection for the protesters because they knew how to deal with police aggression. While generally taunting opposing ultras at matches and even engaging in violence during matches, these divergent ultras groups banded together to protect neighborhoods in Cairo as the revolution against Mubarak increased.
Then came the infamous clash following a match in Port Said between its Al-Masry club and the visiting Al-Ahly on February 1, 2012, suspiciously occurring on the one year anniversary of pro- and anti-Mubarak supporters storming Tahrir Square, a clash which led to Mubarak’s resignation on February 11, 2012. When Al-Masry surprisingly won the match, 3-1, the Masry fans stormed the pitch, chased down the outnumbered visiting Ahly fans and the result was 79 deaths, although the Al-Ahly ultras only acknowledge 74 deaths. Worse, those who witnessed the event and later authorities who reviewed tapes of the riot all agreed that the security forces did nothing to stop the attacks and refused to unlock the gates at the Ahly end of the field so the fans could run out and escape. Adding to the bizarre nature of this event, the goals scored in the game were all by foreign players and the coach of the Ahly team, Manuel Jose, is Portuguese, making the motivation for the attacks murkier. The teams themselves managed to flee to safety in the locker rooms. This event sparked further political problems in Egypt for the newly elected leader Mohammed Morsi and eventually gave the military popular support as the nation looked for more stabilization. After the trials of those held responsible for the stadium riot, several police were acquitted leading to further riots in Port Said against the government. By January 26, 2013 the Morsi government-supported forces lost complete control of the city. In Cairo, the Al-Ahly club ultras, known as Al-Ahlawy feeling empowered by the weakening government, brazenly entered and burned the headquarters of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA), leading the head of the EFA, Sarwat Swelam, to declare, "the history of Egyptian football is lost and cannot be recovered." Veering suddenly from supporting Egyptians in their political cause for democracy, the Al-Ahlawy ultras now embraced their secular team loyalty and practiced mob rule.
The fallout from these soccer events was both swift and tragic, tearing at the heart of Egyptians’ soccer passion.  Following the Port Said massacre, the EFA suspended the remainder of the soccer season.  Now with the burning of their headquarters and the dangers that soccer fans represented to the stability of both soccer and the nation, the EFA declared that no further matches could be played on Egyptian soil. Yet, Egypt is zealously seeking only its third World Cup bid in 80 years. How could this be accomplished against the backdrop of ever-shifting governments and the exhausting constraints of the National Team now having to travel extensively to get in their qualifiers? Stepping into this drama in September 2012 was Bob Bradley, the former U.S. Men’s National Team coach, who had accepted the job as manager of the Egyptian Men’s National Team. Bradley found himself both a hero to the soccer-obsessed people of Egypt and a man without the resources to accomplish what the nation has been praying for – a World Cup entry. Further, the National Team by its very nature had to be made up of players from these rival clubs who had been enemies to the point of violence and now had to join together to be teammates with a common goal. Many wondered if Bradley could pull it off in the midst of an uncertain political environment whose instability is being fueled by soccer ultras.
Bradley has been very vocal in his view that the Port Said incident was a massacre that was allowed to happen by the security forces. On the other hand, Bradley has spoken warmly about how positive, supportive and enthusiastic the Egyptian people have been toward him and his attempts to bring Egypt their coveted World Cup opportunity. Even matches as far removed from Egypt as Qatar had 1,000 fervent Egyptian fans in an otherwise empty 25,000-seat stadium. They carried signs saying "I (heart) Egypt," responding with loud cheers to Bradley’s over-the-head clapping as strode onto the pitch. Often the team plays in front of only the coaches, players, and officials. The National Team has become a lightning rod for the bonding of sparring Egyptian soccer fans to support their Egyptian players without regard to regional club rivalries. Bradley sees his role as not only a coach to train a team to be competitive on the world stage, but to also mend the clefts that soccer fanaticism has created in Egypt.
This combination of horrific and hopeful events demonstrates the arguments Franklin Foer makes in his book. Even as soccer has been behind the revolution and violence in Egypt, it is also the promise of unity. Finding a way to override the intense "tribal" divisions that come with club soccer, Bradley and the Egyptian Men’s National Team may well be the way to bring the country together. Right now Egypt is just one victory away from winning its bracket in the African World Cup qualifying event. It plays against second place Guinea on Sept. 10. That win would pit Egypt against another bracket winner for the ultimate qualifier for the World Cup. As it stands, Egypt has a perfect winning record in the qualifying event, something extremely positive to fuel national pride. Take any divisive political stance and then imagine joining those opposing forces to address together an even more pressing issue. This is the hope for Egypt. The very forces that have rocked Egypt over the past two years are also the same forces that can join together and celebrate the accomplishments of Egyptian citizens in a drive to earn a place on the world stage of sport. We in the United States may not completely understand the intensity of soccer fanaticism since we are still learning how the sport impacts our lives and our culture, but we do understand fanaticism in other arenas and can see how powerful a tool it can be for either good or evil. 
As our kids grow and develop in the sport, we parents need to be able to translate for them the powerful events that soccer around the world motivates or inflames. Soccer feeds national pride, but it also feeds sectional pride leading to fractures among members of the same nation. Soccer can be a force to address issues such as racism, violence and factionalism. But that same force can also spiral out of control in the name of team loyalty. Even FIFA has had to acknowledge these political realities in such situations as Israel’s national team having to play in the European division rather than the Muslim dominated Asian division. We can see how the world political stage affects sports. There was the 1980 U.S. boycott of the Olympics over Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. More recently, there was the 2010 cancellation of the unfortunately named Islamic Solidarity Games in soccer to be held in Iran. Iran took exception to United Arab Emirates news reports when they compared the Iranian occupation of three islands in the Persian Gulf to the occupation of Palestine. So Iran canceled its sponsorship of the games.  Sports do reflect the major political issues and movements of the day, but they also can be instrumental in affecting these issues and movements. Foer has attempted to show how soccer isn’t always just a benign competition. Soccer can also either represent the political climate surrounding matches or actually influence that climate. We can benefit from his insights whether or not we agree with them, and they can offer us a means to explain some of the more intense soccer outcomes to our children.

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