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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on USYouthSoccer.org 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.

 

Weird and Wonderful

Susan Boyd

At the beginning of this summer I wrote a blog that detailed things to take on those long trips to soccer tournaments. Now with summer two-thirds over, but with the fall season games and tournaments on the horizon, I’d like to peek outside the car to highlight some of the ways to make those trips more organized, engaging, and educational. The latter becomes much more important in the fall and spring when our players may need to miss school in order to compete. It’s not always easy or even prudent to skip class for soccer, so parents feel that tension between academics and sport taking priority. We search for the rationalization to justify the absence.  Making the trip its own reason for going rather than just a means to get from A to B could not only excuse the time out of the classroom, but also make the journey more of an adventure than a chore. After all, the United States is a vast nation with ever-changing topography, cultures, and populations. One of the great advantages of being on a travel team is being given the chance to explore and experience that variety.

Organization of any trip relies heavily on locating convenient and affordable housing on the way. While I appreciate web sites such as Trivago.com, Expedia.com, Priceline.com, and Hotels.com, none of these make discovering lodging on a specific route easy. Generally they list hotels by proximity to cities and airports without regard to the interstates or geographical locations of their listings. You can get a confusing map crowded with pin drops, but you have to do some expanding to find a clear enough overview and even then these sites don’t include the filters of price, extras like breakfast, and discounts. I’ve found I-maps to be extremely helpful (www.i-maps.com/hotel-locator/). The site lets you select a state, then a city, and then click on an interactive map with filters such as deluxe and budget hotels. On the left margin is a list of nearby cities to help find some locations that might be a better fit for your route. Finally it lists discounts available and how to obtain them for the hotels on the map. Since the map uses all significant roads, it’s very clear to see what might be the best exits for you. Despite the site’s excellent price filters, I still suggest calling the hotel directly once you’ve settled on a choice. Often the manager has the power to override the web-listed rates. If you plan to book several rooms, use that as a bargaining tool, or if you plan to book the same room for your return trip. A hotel that is $10 or $20 more expensive than another but provides breakfast is actually the better bargain. Sometimes the spread includes fresh fruit, muffins, small boxes of cereal, and yogurt that you can collect for snacks on the road. Invest in a discount club such as AAA or AARP and sign up for every loyalty program. They are free and just being a member can earn you some perks even if you haven’t collected any points.

Look for bed and board together. In other words, find hotels that are nearby restaurants that are inexpensive and acceptable to kids. I’m a big fan of the all-you-can-eat establishments, especially when traveling with teenagers. Some I’ve tried are CiCi’s, Sweet Tomatoes, Souplantation, Golden Corral, Old Country Buffet, and Ryan’s Grill. They include fresh salads which are often lacking at fast food restaurants. Since the reason we end up driving to tournaments a long distance away is often so we can take a number of kids whose families can’t afford air fares, we may caravan down as a team to share expenses, and these buffets can easily accommodate large parties. Traveling by car lets you bring along a cooler so you can make lunches on the way and during the tournament. Kids can get pretty tired of PB and J or cold cuts. To spice up the menu I turn to a great recipe web site Weelicious to find some tasty yet unusual snacks. I love this site because it separates recipes by infant, toddler, child, and teen and you can also add filters such as allergen-free recipes or specific types of foods like snacks (weelicious.com/category/snack-treats/). Some choices may be too bizarre. For example I doubt I could ever get my kids to eat beet chips even if I labeled the deep crimson snacks “Red Velvet Delights,” but there are several varieties of Rice Krispy bars and high protein muffins that aren’t dense and hard to swallow. Looking through the choices should give you plenty of options when stocking up the minivan larder.

Once you have room, board, and “in-flight” snacks arranged, you are free to discover what attractions can be found along your route. I classify these as scenic, historic, institutions, and roadside wonders. I just returned from ten days in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, which reminded me of how much spectacular, untouched beauty there is in America. Although it’s unlikely that any route to a tournament would travel through or even near these National Parks, there are plenty of smaller, accessible parks all over the United States. Even if you don’t go hiking or spend a day exploring, you can still stare at wonder for a few minutes at Devil’s Tower and Mt. Rushmore or travel along the Natchez Trace Parkway. An annual National Park Service (NPS) pass is $80 and allows the owner of the pass and all the passengers in the car admittance to any NPS property of which there are 401. Seniors can get a lifetime pass for $10 and 4th graders are eligible for a one-year pass for free. You can buy these online (www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/passes.htm) as well as plan your trips at the NPS web site (https://www.nps.gov/index.htm). The NPS oversees not just vast open lands but historical memorials, parkways, battlefields, and scenic rivers and lakeshores. Many of these locations include scenic overviews that are simple turn-offs from major roadways. Therefore, they easily included in any travel itinerary in the area. They also include some surprising options such as the National Mall in D.C.

Historical landmarks can be a great place to stop for lunch and share some of the narration of our nation’s founding and growth. Collecting many, if not all the sites is Wikipedia that includes an interactive map (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._National_Historic_Landmarks_by_state). Look for interesting and convenient stops along the road. You don’t need to spend a lot of time, and if you combine the stops with lunch or a bathroom break you won’t be extending the travel time by much. You could also take in a few museums either at an overnight stop or at your final destination. One of our favorite is the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis, a city at the crossroads of the highways many of you will travel this year to tournaments. Again Wikipedia gives a great catalog of these citing that there are over 35,000 museums in the United States and using a list of states with two methods for tracking down museums in those states (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_museums_in_the_United_States). Often your local zoo and/or public museum will have reciprocating programs with institutions around the States. So supporting your local associations can also reap the benefit of not having to pay entrance fees across the U.S. Spending a day at the zoo, can be a great way to relax between matches (www.officialusa.com/stateguides/zoos/) especially if you have younger siblings along who might need the opportunity to run around while visiting some exotic creatures. Many of these memorials, museums, and zoos run educational programs in which the family can participate – another way to solve the missing school dilemma.

Finally there are those amazing roadside attractions that can make every trip especially memorable. These are things like the chicken who plays tic-tac-toe and the giant concrete elephant. They are rarely enlightening or historical; they offer little in the way of education, but they do bring a sense of wonder and delight.  Doug Kirby, Ken Smith, and Mike Wilkins have spent the last 20 years scouring the U.S. for these off-beat and endearing attractions (www.roadsideamerica.com/). They update their web site daily, so check back often to see what has been added. They try to keep up to date on operating hours, entrance fees, and restrictions, but they carry a disclaimer that their information may not be current. It’s best to call to be sure. That actually would hold true for any of the things you decide to visit. A quick call while on the road to be sure that a park, museum, or attraction isn’t closed due to a special event or construction would be smart. Also check if you get a discount on admission if you buy the tickets early online. I got tickets for an event with the grandkids in Salt Lake City while I was waiting in Minneapolis for my connecting flight. Technology can make things go even smoother and be less costly.

Now you’ve got a route planned, you’ve packed in several historical and hysterical highlights, and you’re feeling a bit better about taking the kids out of school. However I’d like to suggest one additional step that will make teachers appreciate your kids upon their return: have the kids keep a travel diary. This doesn’t need to be elaborate or lengthy, but should be done as contemporaneously as possible to the sites you visit. Just get a regular notebook and ask the kids to write down their reactions to what they saw and did, not just a straight narrative. Along with saying “I went to Fort Sumter,” also write how they responded to what they saw such as “At Fort Sumter the cannons were in dark holes in the walls. Lizards and spiders were crawling all over, so it was really creepy. I don’t think I would like to have lived like that. Those soldiers were brave to endure both being shot at and lots of creepy crawlers.” Let the kids choose one or two postcards from each location that they feel demonstrate what they were most impressed with and tape those in the notebook along with their comments. If they learn anything of particular note historically about the locations they should include that as well. You can even create a themed trip (forts, waterfalls, or historic homes) or you can make it just a hodgepodge of experiences. It really doesn’t matter. What’s important is that the family has the opportunity to share in discovering all that is weird and wonderful about America.

 

P.S. Opening ceremony Friday August 5th for the Olympics, but soccer begins August 3rd!

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Raise the Curtain

Susan Boyd

In just a few days Rio de Janeiro will hold the opening ceremony for the 2016 Summer Olympics.  The city, which once evoked as “tall and tan and young and handsome” and bathers on sun-drenched beaches and dazzling Mardi Gras celebrations, has of late been portrayed less favorably.  There are stories centered around body parts washed up near the beach volleyball venue, police warning tourists that they will not be protected, the threat of the Zika virus, rampant pollution so bad that venues for rowers, long distances swimmers and sailors have installed showers onsite to immediately cleanse the participants of all bacteria and toxins as soon as possible, and panic that several complexes will not be completed in time.  This all is playing out against the backdrop of extreme political unrest and a severe economic crisis.  It’s no wonder that several American athletes have opted out of this Olympics.  Nevertheless, NBC, which owns the broadcast rights, has remained upbeat, counting down to August 5th with interviews and human interest stories of athletes, occasional on location reporting, and constant messages flashed at the bottom of their programming. 

I choose to stay positive and, along with many others, am looking forward to these amazing two weeks, especially for the soccer.  Although the US men didn’t qualify, there will be plenty of great men’s soccer to watch.  We can also cheer on the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) while watching some high caliber female soccer players from around the world.   The USWNT will play against New Zealand, France, and Colombia.  Matches for men and women begin August 3rd and 4th, with the USWNT playing New Zealand on August 3rd at 6 p.m. EDT on NBCSN.  The USWNT roster has several well-known members fans will remember from the 2015 World Cup team including Hope Solo, Ali Krieger, Alex Morgan, and Carli Lloyd (ussoccer.com/stories/2016/07/12/15/35/160712-wnt-jill-ellis-names-2016-us-olympic-womens-soccer-team).  The entire men’s and women’s tournament schedule can be downloaded at resources.fifa.com/mm/document/tournament/competition/02/73/19/20/olympicgames_rio_matchschedulemix_fifa_02052016_neutral.pdf and the TV schedule for all the Olympic events can be seen at nbcolympics.com/live-stream-schedule.    

I remain hopeful that these Games will be as powerful as ever because the Olympics are inspirational for young athletes.  Watching competitors who have achieved the highest level in their chosen sport gives these kids something to strive towards.  More importantly, kids can observe techniques, preparation and skills that these premier athletes exhibit, which the youngsters can emulate.  Kids can stretch the boundaries of their experience by watching athletes from all over the world while understanding that as great as the United States is in sports, we are not the only country in the world with the best of the best competing.  Hopefully, despite the overall negative atmosphere of the Olympics, kids will be able to see and learn about the country of Brazil along with video postcards of other competing nations.  Additionally, our children will be watching sports that aren’t big fan favorites in the United States, but have huge followings elsewhere around the globe such as rugby, cycling, table tennis, archery, and water polo.  Perhaps they will be inspired to seek out one of these lesser known yet well-appreciated sports to pursue for themselves.  Athletes need a sport that fits them, rather than trying to make themselves fit a sport.  There are plenty of athletic kids who aren’t fast or strong, but have steadiness or quickness that would make them right for archery or table tennis.  We don’t want to limit them to the four or five top sports played in the US.  There are 32 sports represented at the Olympics but even these don’t include several significant sports such as cricket, baseball, and walking.   That makes options for our children nearly limitless.

Generally following the Olympics there is a bump in girls who sign up for gymnastics and kids who clamor to dive.  Using the Olympics to judge our own kids’ interest in sports can be very important.  Many children are reticent to try a sport because they don’t see themselves in the athletes of sports like soccer, football, and basketball.  Short girls will suddenly realize that their statue is valued in gymnastics, boys without speed will be delighted watching the moves of Taekwando and Judo athletes, and kids who love the water but aren’t the best swimmers may be excited by the prospect of diving.  When our children show enthusiasm for a sport we need to jump on that interest to provide training opportunities.  Many sports have state youth associations that are listed I would say in the phone book, but in truth we now find them with search engines.  Likewise all sports have some type of governing organization which would be happy to steer us parents to coaches, teams, and clubs nearby where our children could participate in a sport.  After an Olympics both of my daughters fell in love with the equestrian events.  This is a sport that requires top dollar to pursue, but luckily we were living in Europe at the time where there is training for novices for a reasonable cost.  The girls even got a week of training from the top equestrian rider in Ireland at the time for a mere $10 an hour.  Amazing when training in the US can cost thousands.  By the time we returned to live in the US, the girls’ interests had shifted to dance and swimming, so I didn’t have to face the question of “what are we going to do now?”  However, I have since learned that there are affordable riding academies in many communities which can get kids started in the sport.  So I would say that whatever sport sparks their interest during the Olympics is a sport we can provide for our kids.

I’m hoping that all the horribleness we’ve been warned about in these weeks preceding the Olympics don’t come true.  I love the opportunity every four years to get a peek into sports I often forget about or just haven’t had any contact with.  I don’t know the names of stars in most of the events, but that doesn’t keep me from enjoying watching them.  I’m amazed at the level of ability and for the most part humility that these competitors exhibit.  I watch my kids and grandkids play sports, and naturally I think they are remarkable, but then I watch these super humans for two weeks and realize how far beyond most of us they fly.  That’s good for all of us to experience.  We parents need to accept that most of our kids will never compete at that level, but they can have a great sense of accomplishment, a world of fun, and develop life-long friendships, not to mention learning perseverance, team work, and setting goals.  It’s good for our kids to see top athletes because they understand the work that lies ahead of them and the skills they need to hone.  Robbie and Bryce would see a player execute a complicated step over move, which they would then go out in the courtyard and practice repeatedly until they had mastered it to their satisfaction.  Seeing how good they could become motivates our kids to try to get there.  The Olympics only come every four years, so we need to seize the chance to watch these athletes with our kids because in another four years our children may no longer be actual children and at the least will be far older and possibly past the time to begin a new sport.  Therefore I hope that at the very least you’ll watch the soccer and at best you’ll look in on some of the less glamorous sports to get a taste of what’s out there.

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Lost and Found

Susan Boyd

An apt visual metaphor encapsulating the dashed dreams of the UEFA Euro 2016 teams was cut away at the end of one match to a lone soccer ball floating along the Seine and bumping into the barges traveling downstream. The announcer opined, “Somewhere there’s a little soccer player sadly watching his ball disappear towards the sea.” When England lost to Iceland, it was much more than a soccer ball slipping down the river – it was a nation’s pride. A country of 53 million couldn’t assemble a soccer team to beat a country of 350,000. That would be like a club team from Madison, Wis. beating the English. Unbelievable and embarrassing. Big losses are far more humbling than we expect because we cling so strongly to the promise of a win. I am always leery of the parent, who upon seeing her child’s bracket, announces confidently, “This will be a piece of cake.” Be careful. You may only come away with crumbs.

No one wants to think about losing. The point of competition is to be victorious. Kids learn this lesson very early. They see people’s reactions to wins and losses and quickly understand that winning is far superior to losing. Life is about achieving. Grades, reading and math placements, social hierarchies, NBA Finals, streaking through the yellow light, winning an argument, or becoming a starter on a team are just a few of the ways kids witness and experience the expectation of triumph. However winning exists in a binary arrangement – losing is the corollary. As parents we tend to avoid focusing on what we consider to be a negative. Yet we have to accept that our kids will lose at some point, and they need our help in coping with losses as much as celebrating success.

Pat Summitt passed away a few days ago. She was the powerhouse coach of women’s basketball at University of Tennessee. Her numbers are amazing. She coached her teams to eight national championships and 1,098 career wins, the most of any NCAA D1 coach male or female. She became the coach on a fluke when she was hired as a coaching teaching assistant and then promoted immediately when the head coach unexpectedly quit. It was 1974, she was 22 years old, and Title IX, assuring equality between women’s and men’s college athletics, was just two years old. She never had a losing season finishing 1974 at 16-8 and moving on to 18 NCAA Final Four appearances, securing the 1987 National Championship and following with seven more championships over her 38-year career. When she retired, Summitt had only 208 losses. She is obviously remembered and honored for the wins, but it was the losses, many of them coming in runs, that really defined her coaching style and ultimate success. As she wrote to one player, “Winning isn’t the point. Wanting to win is the point. Always doing your best is the point.” Every loss was a teachable moment that could lead to better play and perhaps better outcomes.

Despite all her wins, Summit couldn’t escape one final devastating loss. How she handled it shows that we are often more defined by our losses than by our wins. In 2011 she was diagnosed with early dementia Alzheimer’s type. In 2012 she retired from coaching and made it her purpose to shine a light on the issues of Alzheimer’s. She raised millions of dollars for research through a foundation she began, wrote a memoir detailing her battle with dementia, and spoke as often and for as long as her disease allowed. Tuesday, June 28th she lost that battle, passing away in the early morning. She told a friend that she thought she would be remembered for her wins, but realized she would rather be remembered for how she fought her disease, a battle she knew she would ultimately lose.

When we teach our children how to manage losing, we aren’t handing them a pessimistic or fatalistic world view. Although steeped in winning, Summit relied on her losing experiences to give her the strength and the determination to meet the loss of her memory and of her life head-on. The way players and teams handle losses often shapes their character in much more significant ways than winning does. Losing means that we have had a failure in our plans, and how we pick ourselves up from failure can have a powerful impact on how we move towards successes. England will win again. They will assess how the loss occurred, find new leadership, adjust the team make-up, and train to overcome the shortcomings that led to the loss. The 2018 World Cup is close at hand, other European soccer tournaments will test their readiness, and the team has the Olympics just weeks away. Iceland never even earned a spot in the UEFA Euro prior to this year, so their win to catapult them into a quarterfinal with France was so far off the radar as to be impossible, yet they did it. The win was stupendous and will be remembered in the annals of soccer history like the US win over England at the 1930 World Cup. But the Iceland win won’t suffice to create a legacy team going forward any more than the US’s 1930 victory turned us instantly into a soccer power to be reckoned with. Lionel Messi’s missed shootout shot in the finals of the Copa America cost Argentina the win. It’s a loss Messi will remember far more sharply and often than his many victories. Yet it won’t diminish his many accomplishments and the fact that he remains the best soccer player in the world. Losses should not strike us down; they should motivate and build us.

It’s not easy for kids to take that point of view. It’s especially difficult when they see the disappointment and even disapproval in their parents. Kids want to be loved, but they also want to be respected. They may not doubt our love, but after seeing how we react following a loss, they may not feel respected. It’s difficult to invest so much in winning and have that investment end in defeat. It’s even harder when the defeat comes after building to a win like in a tournament or a league season. The more kids win, the more they expect it to continue. As parents we must never forget that one word of displeasure can wipe out a boatload of praise.  It’s okay for our kids to be fully committed to winning, but as parents we need to take ego out of the equation and not be so fervently cheering for a win that we end up expressing annoyance to the point that the team would lose or that our child or another teammate was complicit in the loss. Our role is to provide perspective not irritation. Our children will express anger, but we need to steer their emotions towards, if not the positives of the match, at least the significant takeaways.  

As kids grow and move through life there will be plenty of losses to encounter. If they end up falling apart every time they get disappointed, defeated, or fail, then the loss becomes powerfully damaging.  They can be angry or sad, which is a normal emotional reaction, but they also need to shake it off, typically by finding a way to make a loss useful. We can offer support by acknowledging the difficulty and the sadness, but refrain from expressing our own negativity towards anything or anyone.  We should take the opportunity to guide our children through loss and to come out of it stronger and smarter.

The English National Team will have many more games to play, so they can’t wallow in one loss. Lionel Messi will be called upon to shoot many more penalty kicks, so he can’t let this miss negatively affect the rest of those shots. The young player who accidently kicked his ball into the Seine will kick many more balls, several of them into unrecoverable places. The parents of the child who lost the ball in the river will deal with that frustration, buy another ball, and wait for the next time they are told, “I lost my ball.” Every loss will elicit a response. How that response is shaped and expressed can have a huge impact on how future losses are handled. So our responsibility is to help our children cope with and respond to loss.

The ball drifting aimlessly yet purposely towards an open sea makes a good metaphor, highlighting the way many of us feel after a loss. The result was not inevitable, but the aftermath seems to be a sense of humiliation, sadness, frustration, and anger follows. A loss has a finality which can appear to be all-encompassing. Yet we parents understand that events are not the “end of the world” though they may be perceived as such. We can use our own experiences to show our children how people can bounce back better than before. Something is lost, but something can be found during adversity. We can provide the example of dealing calmly and appropriately with loss as long as we don’t take our children’s losses personally. We don’t become lesser parents because our kids have a loss or a failure. Instead we prove to be better parents when we give our children the tools to handle and learn from loss.

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What a Messi

Susan Boyd

Tuesday night the United States got schooled in the beautiful game - how the world (and specifically Argentina) plays it and how much we have to learn.  It was all led by a striker named Lionel Messi who will celebrate his 29th birthday two days before playing in the final of the Copa America Centenario.   Messi set the tone in the third minute with a perfect pass to Esquiel Lavezzi.  With all the US defenders pulled forward, Lavezzi received the ball and charged forward.  In one move he was suddenly one on one with goalkeeper Brad Guzan who seemed stunned to see the player ready to unload and reacted far too late to stop the shot.  In the 32nd minute Argentina was awarded a free kick outside the box.  Calmly retying his shoe before shooting, Messi sent the ball into the upper right corner striking a miniscule window between the crossbar, Guzan’s hand, and the upright.  It was a shot worthy of the century and also secured Argentina’s career scoring record for Messi.  In the second half, Guzman couldn’t hold onto a stopped shop, and with second effort Argentina scored.  Then Messi assisted in the waning minutes on a fourth humiliating goal.  As Jurgen Klinsmann, the US coach said, “Our players could just feel in every position on the field they were better than we are.”  He was stating the obvious for anyone watching the match.

Given the US population pool as compared to most of the other confederation nations, we should be far more dominating.  However the US obviously still has a long way to go in developing its male players.  For example, the US Men’s National Team (MNT) failed to qualify for the Olympics this year.  Since Olympic soccer players must be 23 or younger, this disappointment calls into question our youth development.  Our young squad just wasn’t ready for the level of competition they faced.  There is evidence of improvement.  The MNT has had some significant wins since 1991 and has made the knockout rounds in several international tournaments such as World Cup and FIFA Confederation Cup, feats not achieved since 1930.  Our biggest glory came in the 2009 Confederations Cup when the US beat Spain 2-0 in the semi-finals.  At the time, Spain was ranked 1st in the FIFA World rankings with 35 undefeated games including a run of 15 consecutive wins which ended with the US victory.  This was the first and only finals in a full-international competition that the US has achieved since the 1930 World Cup.  There we defeated England in the group round and ultimately went on to win third, our highest finish for a World Cup.  Our major achievements recently have come in our CONCACAF Gold Cup competitions which include five wins and four runners-up.  However in the 2015 Gold Cup the US was defeated by Jamaica in the semi-finals and then lost to Panama in penalty kicks in the 3rd place match.

Now comes the Copa America Centenario, a competition that encompasses CONCACAF and CONBEMOL, FIFA’s South American confederation.  The US did well against its CONCACAF competitors of Costa Rica and Ecuador, winning decisively, but did less well with CONBEMOL members, losing to Colombia, and barely hanging on against Paraguay.  Then they met the Messi-driven train that is the Argentine National Team, and all our weaknesses were on display.  We couldn’t pass, we couldn’t win 50/50 balls, we couldn’t possess, and considering the score, we certainly couldn’t defend.  Watching Messi move quickly to an advantageous position when off the ball and making pin point passes or shots when he had the ball presented a stark contrast to America’s best players who looked befuddled and disorganized.  A herd of deer on Interstate 95 at night wouldn’t have looked more dazed in the headlights than our team when faced with the brilliance of Messi and his teammates.

The good news, if there is any, comes with the youth who are beginning to fill the ranks of the MNT roster.  Despite our inability to qualify with our younger players for the Olympics, we do have several promising members under 25 who are on the full MNT roster including Christian Pulisic who is just 17.  Additionally players on the U-23 and U-19 squads are developing into strong forces, all of them playing internationally on professional teams around the world in addition to their MNT commitments.   We have a distance to go before we can consistently claim to be among the world’s best soccer nations, but as we chip away at our confederation competitors we are also gaining confidence and experience that will translate down the line to a stronger team.   We will face Colombia again in the Copa America third place match which will have been played the Saturday before this blog posts.  Perhaps we can redeem our CONBEMOL performances with a brilliant match.  In the meantime we will continue to build the MNT on the shoulders of our young players.

This is both the promise and the power of youth soccer.  Every player now at the top levels of soccer began as a youth player in a local club.  Many have amazing stories of how they grew from youth club players to national team players.  Like most youth players, Messi began to play soccer when 4 years old with his brothers and cousins and had his father as his first coach.  At age 6 he joined the youth club of his hometown’s professional squad, Rosario’s Newell’s Old Boys.  When he turned 11 he was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency that threatened to end his developing soccer talent.  The disease required an expensive and long-term medical treatment.  Ironically it was his disease which, rather than thwarting his dreams, actually led him to a top club.  When his parents’ health insurance benefits ran out, the family, recognizing his talent, sought a soccer club which would sign their son for development while also continuing to pay for his treatments.  Club River Plata, a top club in Argentina, wanted to sign Messi, but didn’t have the funds for his treatments.  Messi’s father had relatives in Spain, near Barcelona, so he reached out to their club.  At first reluctant to sign such a young foreign player, they ultimately relented.  Messi proved to be an amazing investment.  He incredibly led the youth team to a triple win of their league, the Spanish Cup, and the Catalan Cup in his first full year playing.  He scored 36 goals in 30 games.  Despite an offer to play for Arsenal in the English Premier League, he chose to remain with Barcelona and became a powerhouse player for the club and for the Argentine National Team.

While few players have the natural soccer gifts that Messi possesses, every youth player has the potential to play at the highest levels should he or she have both the passion and the determination.  Most players who make either the MNT or the Women’s National Team (WNT) cite as the most important factor their willingness to work through every roadblock and to find ways to play no matter what.  Certainly many kids dream of a professional career as they idolize a favorite player.  As parents we need to nurture those dreams while making sure our children find joy in the journey.  Watching Messi play Tuesday night was a speedy reality check.  Few people in the world can master soccer the way he has, meaning that only a few will ultimately reach that level of ability.  Nevertheless, having someone like Messi or Ronaldo or Carli Lloyd as a role model can be a significant influence in a child’s life giving him or her something to strive for.  Ultimately most kids will play soccer for the fun of it and the benefits of conditioning and learning to be part of a team.  Whenever I go to watch a youth game it’s humbling to consider that the future stars of soccer are right now buzzing around a U-8 or U-10 field learning to control their dribbles and emulating as best they can the fancy step-over moves they see the adult players use.  The powerful, exhilarating play we have been witnessing this summer with Copa America and UEFA Euro 2016 grew from players born in some cases less than two decades ago.   

The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) oversees the various US National Teams.  It is charged with forming, growing, and maintaining the youth development programs in America.  Over the last decade the USSF has instituted some significant changes in order to hopefully improve the means to identify and train top players around the United States.  They established the boys’ Development Academy which is an association of top youth clubs and MLS affiliated youth clubs in order to create a more consistent training program with unified goals and outcomes.  Next year they plan to do the same for girls.  The Academy supplements the Olympic Development Program (ODP) which began in 1977 and was expanded and refined from 1979 to 1982 (when a girls’ program was added) into a format which exists up to the present.  Boys and girls join through their State Youth Soccer Associations and attend a state camp where players are identified and invited to a regional camp where they are further evaluated and possibly recommended for National camp.  Players who belong to a Development Academy team don’t go through ODP as they are identified within the Academy.  There are five years in which players can try out for the state teams.  It isn’t unusual for a player not to make a state team one year but then do so in subsequent years and vice versa.  Age groups can vary state to state, but in general kids will be eligible to participate when they are 12 until they are 17. 

We have far to go with the Men’s program, but we can also take pride in successes, albeit inconsistent.  We no longer have to wax poetic about a 1930 series of matches because we can take pride in our contemporary play.  We’re a huge nation which deserves to have a world top ten soccer team.  I have no doubt that as our youth players have more and more training opportunities and can emulate our own national soccer heroes, we’ll break through those rankings and join the world’s elite.

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