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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". 

 

A Brief Analysis

Susan Boyd

Last week I covered several of the primary opportunities in elite youth soccer which are used by National Team coaches to identify and develop players in order to make the US competitive in the world arena. Presently women enjoy great success at the highest levels of international soccer, but men falter remaining in the second tier of international play. So most newly developed identification and development programs target boys. 

The United States faces three roadblocks to success not faced by most other nations in the world. 1. Our sheer size and numbers make it difficult to create a consistent, widespread identification and development program. 
2. We don't have the broad interest and fan base which leads to the creation of numerous professional clubs which can sponsor the development of young players. 
3. NCAA rules prohibit the types of programs used in other countries throughout the world. 

Given these major roadblocks, which of the present identification and development programs best address and overcome these problems and what changes could programs implement to directly engage the problems?

US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program (US Youth Soccer ODP) provides opportunities in every state for players to participate in an identification and development program. It remains the only organization which has a program in every state. However, it has its difficulties. Most state associations attempt to hold tryouts in several areas in the state to allow players who are a great distance from major metropolitan areas the chance to tryout without traveling a great distance. In reality, the availability of large training facilities, the concentration of top coaches, and the numbers of players coming from cities means that as the program continues during the year, it becomes centered in the cities. For states with long periods of inclement weather, the absence of indoor practice facilities in rural areas makes it very difficult to conduct training for the convenience of players from those areas. In addition, because the program runs in tandem with club and high school seasons, US Youth Soccer ODP can't expect concentrated, long-term training for its selected players. Finally, as with every program, cost becomes a factor. With so many elite programs available, parents have to budget which one they select because paying for each of these programs becomes impossible even for those with strong incomes. Nevertheless, US Youth Soccer ODP remains a fairly reasonable cost and definitely an available program across the United States.

Super Y League (SYL) provides players the opportunity to train, play, and possibly be identified during the "off" season of soccer, the summer. It also provides players from more rural areas the opportunity to play with top players throughout the state during a time that travel is both safer and more convenient. Since SYL allows players from many clubs to come together and play, it does offer a venue for top competition. The main difficulty with SYL is that it only runs for the summer. Teams do try to train in the spring, but usually can't get the entire team together until after US Youth Soccer State Championships because of club commitments. The very best players usually play on a team that will compete in their State Championship, and perhaps move on to US Youth Soccer Regional and National Championship, so those players are available sporadically. Identification depends on the coaches of every team noting and selecting players from rival teams they play as well as coaches selecting their own players. Since rival coaches may only see a player in one game and since home coaches may have favorites not based on careful analysis, the selection of players for SYL National Camp doesn't always identify the best. Again, cost is a factor as is travel. SYL franchises usually go to clubs in the metropolitan areas.

US Club Soccer's id2 program and its own national championship does provide for players at U13 to attend a national camp and to experience that level of training and scrutiny. Again club coaches help in the identification of players to attend the camps. The national championship contest provides tournaments where players can be scouted, but the emphasis remains on the younger player. Cost is less of a factor since most of the program is part of a club's activities and therefore part of the original dues. National camp will have an additional expense. If players are not a member of a US Club Soccer team, then they will usually not be part of the identification process, so it has a limited scope. However US Youth Soccer ODP offers a national camp for the youngest players in US Youth Soccer ODP where players are selected in the regional camps. State teams are always double the size at the youngest ages, fielding a younger and an older team, affording more players the opportunity to attend regional camp and be identified for national camp.

The US Soccer Development Academy has sought to concentrate the qualities of the preceding programs at the club level. This program concentrates on the older youth player looking for prospects for the U-17 and up U.S. Men's National Teams and the National Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla. Encompassing 22 states and the District of Columbia and approximately 1800 players at each of the two age levels, the Academy stands as the most elite of the programs. Its purpose is to identify National Team prospects. Since the total number of players in residency maxes out at about 40-50 players, most of whom had been previously identified through US Youth Soccer ODP, it leaves little room for new additions. Therefore the program also seeks to improve on the training of players at the top level and has recently done a better job of getting them seen by college coaches. However, because of its limited national scope, joining an Academy team remains the privilege of those in metropolitan areas in a limited number of states. Most represented states have only one or two teams in the Academy with the exception of Texas and California which have their own divisions within the Academy. Travel is a huge component of the system, so it is an expensive prospect for most players. 
           
So which programs address the first problem of identifying and training top soccer players? US Youth Soccer ODP remains the only program with a set system in every state. Presently most players on the national teams and in residency have been identified through US Youth Soccer ODP, even if they are presently in other programs. Therefore it is the most accessible to the most players.

The second problem is that the US doesn't have the history or broad fan base for soccer that other world nations have. The Academy has attempted to mimic some of the international training model by having youth teams in the Academy which are sponsored and attached to MLS teams. Unfortunately with only 15 MLS teams they don't even cover 1/3 of the states. Even if you add the 11 United Soccer League 1st Division teams, it doesn't cover quite ½ of the states. With a population of 304 million, the United States has one upper-echelon professional club for every 11.6 million residents. Just as a comparison, England's Premier League has 20 clubs and its Football League Champion Division has 24 clubs. With a population of 51 million it has a professional club for nearly every 1 million residents. England has nine levels of professional soccer with nearly 200 professional or semi-professional teams which stretch over the entire country so that there is a soccer venue available for every 250,000 residents. Even with all our USL and PDL teams, we can just manage 103 professional or semi-professional teams for a total of one team for every 3 million residents. Since players are attached to an adult club team when young and developed by the team for years at no cost to the player, the system works in England because so many youth players can participate. 

This brings us to the final roadblock, the NCAA rules. In Europe and South America, youth players have an economic value for the professional teams they represent. Here in America, NCAA rules preclude a player from receiving financial benefit for their talents if they want to play college sports. Since the opportunity to be attached to a professional club still hasn't reached the level of availability in other countries and since professional positions lag far behind those of other countries, the real opportunity for most of our best soccer players to continue playing after high school remains college. For the 50 or so lucky players to be drafted into the MLS, have a position on the National Team, or be placed in residency at Bradenton, college isn't as important an avenue. But that is barely a drop in the huge reservoir of capable, excellent soccer players in America. Any system that seeks to develop players needs to recognize that the majority of elite soccer players in the US will move on to college play, not professional play. Until we have the broad numbers of teams per capita that other countries in the world harbor, we will be at a disadvantage to ask our top players to ignore college. Elite training programs in the United States need to foster the scouting opportunities for these players to be seen by college coaches. We do the youth of our country a disadvantage if we gather them all up to provide only the competition and venue for a few to be identified for national team inclusion. While we seek to be competitive in the world arena, we need to work to increase the appreciation and fever for soccer by fans, so that we can build the broad base of professional clubs needed to nurture and train our players. Once several thousand players can join training programs which provide development daily in a strongly competitive environment with top professional coaches, we will continue to lag behind those countries which have that advantage. Once players have a greater pool of opportunities to play soccer beyond high school other than at college, we will see players taking the risk to forego the college track and seek long-term, exclusive training with a professional club's youth program. 

Having said all this, we do have an advantage over many other countries, and that is our huge population and our overall love of sports. We should ultimately end up with an overabundance of top players to join the national teams. For right now, coaches have to see deep into the future with players they select at a young age to join the national teams and the residency program since the number is limited. Given how youth can evolve over the course of their growth, it's difficult to predict who will maintain their size, speed, and agility over the years. But with a giant pool of players trained 40-60 hours a week throughout the US, we can begin to locate and select players who have the experience to compete against our international rivals.
 

A Brief History

Susan Boyd

Soccer in America is ever evolving, especially at the select level. Because relative to other nations, soccer exists in a nascent form in the US, coaches, organizations, and fans clamor for a better system to develop elite players and make the US men competitive in the world arena. On the women's side America has been quite successful, probably because women's soccer on the whole is new and since the US had already established equality in availability of sports for men and women was well-prepared to field women's soccer teams. Other countries were slower to emerge, so our visionary political philosophy served women's soccer well. But for the men, we have been playing catch-up to developmental systems which have existed for decades and work for the size and history of other world nations. So what has the US done to try and make our players, especially men, more competitive?

The granddaddy of modern elite soccer programs in America is the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program (US Youth Soccer ODP). It was formed in 1977 to identify and train elite players in order to create a national team to compete at the international level. In 1982 a girls program was added. The model for the program remains that each US Youth Soccer State Association has tryouts to identify players for a state team. These players are trained by local coaches. Under the model the US is divided into four regions, and once a year the state teams from each region met at a summer camp where regional and national coaches evaluate the players to select regional teams. These play domestically as well as have one or two international experiences. The national team pool is then drawn from the four regional teams and a number of players are selected to train year round at the National Team facilities in Bradenton, Fla. This model is established for five age groups beginning at approximately age 13. Every soccer player in the United States has access to an US Youth Soccer ODP soccer program through his or her US Youth Soccer State Association. College coaches use US Youth Soccer ODP as a measuring stick for a player's investment and success in soccer, so as a program it is recognized as a respected evaluator and developer of players.

However, the U.S. Men's National Team has had disappointing results at the top competitive levels of soccer and is presently 22nd in the FIFA rankings. Meanwhile, the women, who played their first international game in 1985, have won two World Cups and three Olympic Gold medals and presently are number one in the FIFA rankings. Coaches have been seeking a better way to identify and develop top male soccer players in the U.S. in hopes of becoming more competitive in the international arena. To that end, several organizations have sponsored additional elite soccer opportunities for players. The basis for these changes has been that elite soccer players play too many games against far weaker competition, don't band together enough in elite teams, and don't have the proper training to achieve top level abilities. In order to address these weaknesses, several soccer organizations have offered their own identification and developmental programs. These include United Soccer Leagues (USL), US Club Soccer, US Soccer Federation (USSF), and even US Youth Soccer who oversees the US Youth Soccer ODP.

United Soccer Leagues which operates several competitive adult leagues for both men and women formed Super Y League (SYL) in 2003. Clubs could join this league and are registered through US Club Soccer rather than US Youth Soccer; thereby, allowing the clubs to create teams with players from several different clubs in the area. The idea was to form elite ""super"" teams at several age levels that would be the best players competing against other teams of the best players. The league operates in the summer, so that players can still fulfill their clubs' playing obligations, but offers them a different venue for competition, training, and US Youth Soccer ODP identification. USL got US Youth Soccer ODP approval to use SYL as an US Youth Soccer ODP identification tool. SYL holds a camp in the summer where invited, identified players attend and are assessed by US Youth Soccer ODP coaches. SYL also forms a national team of its own to compete internationally and give more players that experience. Additionally, they hold a national championship for U13 through U17 boys and girls teams.

US Club Soccer was founded in 2001 gaining sanctioning by the USSF as an official soccer organization. In 2004 it began an identification program for U13 boys called id2 by holding a national camp in the summer to which players are invited. Throughout the year, players are scouted by id2 scouts as they play with their clubs. In the spring identified players receive invitations to attend the camp. In 2006 a girls' component of the id2 camp was added. Players are evaluated for possible inclusion into the national team program. In addition US Club Soccer sponsors a National Cup competition for U12 – U17 boys and girls teams. This begins with regional play in the spring and mid-summer and culminates in the championship tournament in July.

Addressing the need for better competition for the top teams and players in the country, US Youth Soccer www.USYouthSoccer.org began a Regional League for each of its four US Youth Soccer Regions. Teams that rank first at the end of the league competition receive an invitation to the US Youth Soccer Regional Championships, a part of the prestigious US Youth Soccer National Championship Series, just as the winners of the US Youth Soccer State Championships do. Identification of top players is a portion of the reasoning behind the Regional League, but more importantly the league was established to address the issue of top teams not being able to play top competition unless they went to tournaments. Now, teams can compete across state lines with teams in their region and thereby insure better competition. Some club teams opt to forego state league competition and only do regional league, although they risk not qualifying for US Youth Soccer State Championship. In addition US Youth Soccer formed the US Youth Soccer National League for Under-15 through Under-17 Boys and Girls to again foster stronger competition with eight teams at each gender age. Teams are expected to compete in their respective Regional Leagues as well.

In each of these elite soccer programs, the opportunity to selection for the U.S. National Team pool remains relatively unchanged. Players can still participate in US Youth Soccer ODP, state league, regional league, SYL, US Youth Soccer National Championship Series, and as many of the programs as players have time and money to do. 

However, the new USSF Development Academy took a radical departure from this model when it was formed in 2007. Clubs joining the Academy were prevented from participating in state league, regional league, US Youth Soccer National Championship Series, SYL, and US Club Soccer id2, and players were prohibited from participating in US Youth Soccer ODP. The philosophy was that players had been spread too thin with all the elite options. Players needed to have one central program whose purpose was to develop players under a single model using top coaches, top competition and top players to motivate and shape each player. National Team coaches attend showcases sponsored by the Academy a few times a year. The league is limited to a U-15/U-16 tier and a U-17/U-18 tier. There are 75 clubs involved in the Academy divided into four conferences with two divisions each (Central Conference has three divisions). Teams compete throughout the year, except during high school season. There is a prescribed amount of training sessions each club must provide weekly in addition to fitness training and testing. The hope is that with concentrated training, top competition and scouting in a game environment rather than in tryouts the National Team coaches will be able to locate better players more efficiently.

Players looking to move up to a more elite level of youth soccer now have several avenues. They aren't just bound by their clubs, which provides players in isolated areas the chance to have the same opportunity for identification as players in metropolitan areas. Limiting all of these options remains the three key factors of distance, time and money. Next week I want to address the strengths and weaknesses of these various options and why the US still has a ways to go to be competitive in the men's arena.
 

Matchmaking

Susan Boyd

National Signing Day is fast approaching. This is the day when High School senior athletes sign their letters of intent for the colleges and universities where they verbally committed earlier. The process leading to this momentous event is often wrapped in mystery and extends for years prior to the day. How does a player get recruited? There are some important constants, although each player has his or her own story of serendipity or frustration in getting to the point of commitment. Every player needs to be noticed for the process to start, so following are some suggestions for how to approach the recruiting process. Every coach has a board in his or her office listing the top players to be recruited. Eventually a player needs to land on a board in order to get an offer, but most players don't start on a board. There are several things players can do to bring themselves to the attention of coaches, which is where the process starts.

You should be realistic about your options. You have to be admitted to the school in order to play there. Don't believe the myth about coaches being able to perform miracles. Maybe that works for basketball and football players who generate revenue for a college, but not for soccer players. You have to meet the admission guidelines of the school you attend. Be sure the colleges you select have your major. When Bryce was being recruited by University of Wisconsin, the coach told him about a kid who wanted to play for UW and also wanted to major in marine biology, a major not found at most Midwest campuses!   Another important step is to identify soccer programs that are looking for players like you. Go to the athletic website and check out the roster. If the team just recruited three freshman goalkeepers, chances are that they won't be recruiting keepers for the next year. If they have a freshman national player at forward, you may get recruited, but chances are you'll be riding the bench playing behind someone of that caliber. So do your research.

Next, know your assets. You don't have to play on a nationally recognized club team or be an US Youth Soccer Olympic Development (US Youth SoccerODP) star to be recruited. But you do need to bring something to the table. Be sure to keep track of your accomplishments both on and off the field. Don't be shy about tooting your own horn. If you don't do it, nobody will! If possible join US Youth Soccer ODP in your state since coaches recognize the program as developing the best players in the state. Play as a guest if possible for stronger teams in your state or sign up to guest play at the major tournaments if your team isn't going. You need to work to make yourself visible. Most coaches will want to see you play live, so you have to go to the major tournaments for that to happen. DVDs are okay, but most coaches only use those to determine if you can play. They'll want to see you in ""unedited"" situations.

Start communicating with the coaches of those teams/schools you feel are good options. Remember that coaches can hit the "delete" button if they don't want to be bothered, so send them emails and don't worry if you are being a pest. Both Robbie and Bryce found coaches to be very accommodating. They heard back from nearly every coach they wrote to. After one or two exchanges, the coaches would either pursue the communication or drop it. If coaches don't answer, don't give up. They are out recruiting, or coaching fall or spring soccer, so they may not get back to you for up to a month!   If you do give up, believe me, they will too. Coaches don't have time to pursue players they believe are no longer interested. So send an email a week. Once a coach responds, answer back immediately. Show them by your actions that you really are interested.

Your first email should introduce yourself. Start the email by letting the coach know why you selected his or her team/school. In other words, personalize your email. Don't use services that will send out hundreds of interest emails on your behalf. These are impersonal form letters that coaches will be receiving from dozens of players. Start your email with why you chose their team: Dear Coach, I visited What's Amatta U last summer and loved the campus. WMU is well-known for being a leader in moose tracking which is what I hope to major in, etc. Then go on to let the coach know why you think you would be an asset to the team. I can't say this enough – DON'T BE SHY! You have to be your best advocate. Finally let the coach know where you will be playing and invite him or her to come watch you. 

NCAA rules limited the contact a coach can have with you. However, if you initiate the contact it's okay. Starting in your sophomore year you can call or email a coach, but coaches can initiate either until very specific dates in your junior and senior year. For a brief explanation of the rules use the NCAA:   http://www.ncaa.org/wps/ncaa?ContentID=9.   Coaches know the rules well, so if they act cold to you, it may be that they are concerned about breaking a rule. 

Finally get yourself registered with the NCAA. You will need to register and then have SAT, ACT, AP, etc. scores sent to the NCAA just as you would to a university. The NCAA Clearinghouse handles all eligibility issues. So if you are registered there, you can't be declared eligible to play. Most coaches will ask you if you are registered. It shows how serious you are about the process if you can answer YES. You can begin in your sophomore year to make contact, and definitely do so by the summer before your junior year. Most decisions about making an offer will occur in the summer and fall of your senior year, so don't delay. On the other hand, it's never too late. As the pre-season wears down coaches see their boards depleted. The players they wanted for first, second, even fifth choice have selected other schools, so coaches are still looking for that diamond in the rough. Bryce got his offer in May of his senior year after thinking he would never play college soccer. He had turned down three offers because the schools weren't right, but he began to despair. Don't ever despair. Opportunities exist out there. You just need to locate them. Good luck!!
 
 

Out-Waiting Winter

Susan Boyd

Given the view out my window, it's difficult to believe that anyone will ever be loping across the courtyard dribbling a soccer ball. The temperature is -10° with a wind chill triple that. The snow banks tower over my head as I walk the dogs who scale the banks and disappear behind them only to emerge again at the crest looking like they invaded a powdered sugar factory. Somewhere beneath this winter liability lies green pastures, furrowed keeper zones, and shadows of field lines. Nothing but time will crack this mantle. And so I wait.

In the meantime my family is undergoing horrible withdrawal from televised soccer. While on vacation in Florida (where soccer was being played) our home got extensive damage from ruptured pipes (another winter atrocity). So we have been displaced to a rental home that lacks, for the moment, cable television. We won't have cable until Wednesday so we have had to forego nearly three weeks of Fox Soccer Channel. Since Bryce is home from college, it means nearly his entire visit will have been soccer depleted.

The one bright spot has been Robbie's choice to leave his Chicago soccer team and join a local team. Some prayers are answered! Given the state of our home and my need to oversee electricians, carpenters, welders, plumbers, and city inspectors, driving five hours three or four days a week nearly brought me to me knees. However Robbie began to realize what another year of driving to Chicago meant – long hours in the car, homework done on the fly, and a social life that becomes non-existent   Nevertheless, the move to Chicago soccer had been an excellent choice, the club was amazing, and the benefits for Robbie immeasurable. But now that he has committed to a college, he felt he didn't need to sacrifice quite so much. As proud as I was of him for sticking with the sacrifices and making the most of his opportunities I was even prouder that he recognized when he needed less pressure.

To quote Garrison Keillor, we all live in our own Lake Woebegone where all the children are above average. We need to see our children in the best possible light. Battles for the front-row seats at the kindergarten winter music concert equal battles over Springsteen tickets. The paparazzi can't equal the flash power of the legions of digital cameras recording every 1/60th of a second of the 2nd grade class play. We celebrate graduation from kindergarten. We gather with all the relatives for every U6 soccer game dutifully recorded on high def memory cards. So it's natural we want to encourage, support, and facilitate our children's ascension to the highest levels of their interests. Only hindsight can insure 100% perfection, so we have to muddle through the best we can.   There are a few guidelines to help us, but for the most part we move through the process blindly.

Lots of parents go looking for a better training and exposure experience for their children. For the extremely committed and gifted player, I recommend it. Those players will play soccer for life, so nurturing their talent is no different than nurturing the talent of musician, mathematician, or writer. However, parents need to have the proper perspective to make the decision for sacrifice.   Parents need to immerse themselves in the ""culture"" of soccer. They need to watch soccer every chance they get to see what talent exists and what level of ability their own child needs to aspire to. Everyone should attend college and professional games. Parents should watch foreign soccer on the TV. It's not enough that Suzy scores four goals a game, or that Billy has a string of twenty-four shut-outs. Instead parents need to figure out if the competition is strong enough to make such statistics meaningful. Arrange for your child to guest play with some of the stronger club teams in the state. Then honestly watch your child play. If after all the testing you're convinced they have that extra something to move up to the next level, be sure that's what your child wants to do too! Forcing him to give up social contacts and possibly even grades means that he has to be totally on board. Even then, I can tell you from experience you'll face the days when you want it more than they do. After all, these are kids with all the whims and short-term attention spans that implies. You only need to look at the graveyard of handheld computer games in your drawers to verify this truth.

For those of you in the land where green never gives way to white, then mushy brown, then finally back to green, enjoy your year-round soccer and your light jackets. For the rest of us, winter is a time to be creative and find ways to enjoy soccer even in the snow. If the Packers can play in an ice bowl, why can't the MLS? In the meantime, I'll enjoy my relatively travel-free winter and look forward to my relatively travel-free spring. Oh, and I'll wait in the house on Wednesday for the cable savior to show up and connect us to TV soccer once again.