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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". 

 

Creme de la Creme

Susan Boyd

When I was little, the one chore my brothers and I used to fight over getting to do was pouring the milk for meals.  Why?  Because this was the old days of glass bottles and whole milk with the cream risen to the top.  Whoever poured the milk could assure that he or she got all the cream, leaving everyone else with skimmed milk.  Eventually my mother got wise and she would shake up the milk before handing it to one of us to pour.  So we would get even wiser and stall pouring it until the cream or most of it rose again to the top.  It was all about the cream!
 
Last year the United States Soccer Federation (U.S. Soccer), the main soccer governing body in America, sanctioned a new youth program called the U.S.S.F. Development Academy (Academy) for boys.  The push for this program came from several national team and elite club coaches who felt that the present structure of youth soccer was not serving the identification and development of top youth players in this country.  The United States, despite some strong success in both the women's and men's program, has lagged behind European and South American programs.  These founding coaches felt that having just one residential developmental academy in Bradenton, Florida was too narrow a pool of players from which to draw for the national team.  Most of those residency players had been identified through the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program and its 55 state associations divided into four regions.  The Academy signed up 64 clubs throughout the United States to participate at ages U16 and U18.  The clubs were divided geographically into eight conferences with eight teams each.  Rosters had to have a minimum of 22 players with no maximum, but all players had to start at least 30% of the games, therefore rosters much larger than 27 players wouldn't practically work. Competition began in fall 2007 with the bulk of the games scheduled in 2008.
 
The Academy emphasizes strong, consistent training and equally strong competition between its member clubs.  It mandates a minimum of three days a week but no more than six days a week for training.  Games cannot be more than one a day or two a week.  Competition is conducted among geographical conferences but they can extend as far as a thousand miles and competition between conferences can go equally afar, so travel is a large component of the program.  In addition the Academy mandates that members may not participate in any other programs including tournaments, Olympic Development Program, Super Y League, State Leagues, and State, Regional, and National Championships.  There are a few exceptions for tournaments over winter and spring school breaks.  In the place of college showcases, the Academy offers their exclusive fall, winter, spring, and summer showcases for member clubs.  Additionally, the Academy offers player profiles on every single member player that college coaches can access and DVDs of any showcase games coaches might want to see.
 
While the intent of the program seems admirable on face value, the construction is top down.  In other words, the real purpose of the Academy seems to be to locate additional prospects for the national team.  Otherwise, if the training system was so broken why didn't the Academy begin with U-13 and U-14 players where it could nip this inadequate development in the bud?  There are approximately 1800 players on rosters in the Academy at each age level.  Out of that number perhaps as many as 50 or as few as one will be identified as National Team material.  What will be the benefit for the remaining players?  If it is training, I have to wonder what have these top 64 clubs in America been doing up to this point?  I would imagine conducting top level training for their players, otherwise how could they win tournaments, state, regional or national championships, and leagues, and how could they contribute players to the national program?  Since the exact same coaches are conducting the training as before, then where is the major shift in developing players?  If the benefit to players is exposure, most of these clubs have on their rosters six or more state, regional, and national Olympic Development Program players and the teams already qualify to attend the most prestigious tournaments and showcases.  If it is locating that player who is isolated, these clubs would already attract that player if he was willing to travel far enough for the training.  The set up of the Academy actually makes this elite level less accessible since the Academy only covers 22 states.  In the meantime, US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program offers opportunities in all states for players to be discovered.   If it is providing college coaches with the material and opportunities to see and judge these players, that already existed through both the clubs themselves and the showcase tournaments they attended.
 
I want to examine each of these aspects more closely:

1. Membership
Membership in the Academy required application and acceptance by the Academy board.  Most of the member clubs are naturally in large urban areas as these are the clubs with the most top players, the highest licensed coaches, and the facilities and tradition to run the practices the Academy expects.  Therefore, despite the Academy's goal to increase the ability to find and train hidden soccer talent, the set-up of the program precludes discovering players far removed from urban centers.  In addition, only twenty-two states and the District of Columbia are represented in the 64 teams of the Academy.   California has ten teams, New York has five, Illinois, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio have four each, New Jersey, Colorado, and Virginia have three each, with the remaining thirteen states and D.C. with two or one team each.  The eastern seaboard and the west coast are well represented and the states bordering the Great Lakes have a fair share, but in the middle of America there is nothing.  If a talented soccer player lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, his nearest opportunity to participate in the Academy would be Colorado or Missouri.
 
2.  Players
The Academy set-up restricts competition to U-16 and U-18 teams for this year at least.  Most U-18 players of talent will have already committed to colleges by the time games begin in earnest.  These players don't want to spend their money traveling to play games.  They want to save their money for college, train, maybe get a final opportunity to win a state, regional, or national championship, and look forward to graduation and college.  As a result many clubs didn't have enough U-18 players who would participate.  In order to fulfill their obligation, these clubs had to include their U-17 players on the U-18 roster.  While the Academy encourages players to play up at their ability level, the difficulty with this situation is that most U-17 players are anxious to participate in the top college showcases in order for college coaches to see them play.  They want to invest their travel dollars in the opportunities that showcases offer them.  So clubs ended up having to require that their U-17 players participate in the Academy in order to assure a roster.  Few U-17 players knew before they tried out for a team that they would be required to be a part of the Academy.  They thought they had a year to wait.  This has lead to some very hard feelings. 

3.  Training/Development
"The focus of the Academy is player development.  Academies provide players with the best possible opportunity to achieve their utmost potential as elite soccer players."  Since the argument for formation of the Academy was that training was haphazard, why have the Academy start with U-18, the one group most corrupted by the broken training system and the one group least likely to improve or even want to participate?  The answer could be that the national team coaches aren't interested in swelling the ranks of the national team pool with younger players.   This means that gifted younger players will continue their development under a broken system until they are old enough to begin the Academy training.  Of course that would only be if they are lucky enough to live within one of the 22 states with an Academy team and/or within a couple hours of an Academy team.  Additionally training continues to be with the same club coaches all these players had prior to the formation of the Academy.  The Academy will offer courses to the coaches at the national team training camp, so coaches can be learning new techniques for training their players but with little follow-up in the implementation of the techniques once they return to their club teams.  Some of these club coaches do have their A licenses, but most have C or B licenses, so the level of their coaching education could be best improved by working towards a higher license, a process already in place prior to the Academy and run by coaches from the national team program.  In the meantime, training and development will move along the same pathways they have up to this point.  Teams not in warm climates are further restricted by the availability of indoor facilities during the winter and early spring.  That means that training and development will have the same barriers as before the formation of the Academy.  Nevertheless, the Academy states that elite players will have "increased connection to U.S. National Team program through enhanced scouting by National Team coaches."  Again, how many players does this practically impact?  While it benefits the National Team program, it realistically does little for the majority of players.
 
4.  College Showcases
The Academy did respond to restrictions on tournament play by creating four college showcase opportunities for Academy member clubs.  The second was this month in Frisco, Texas at Pizza Hut Park.  It did not work out well for two main reasons.  First, the rules of the Academy do not allow for free substitutions.  While this may work for conference games, it doesn't work for showcases where all players should have an equal opportunity to be seen.  Without the ability to sub freely, coaches ended up having to keep players in the game while other good, college material players sat on the bench not being seen by the college coaches.  Second, this sub rule was further complicated by having the showcase games count towards the conference championships.  Since the Academy offers the carrot of a championship tournament at the Home Depot Center, coaches were loathe to sub out players should they risk losing that opportunity for their club.  Therefore, college coaches were invited to attend games by players who either never got enough playing time to be judged or never got playing time at all while the coach was present.  I spoke to a dozen college coaches who had complaints about this process because they had spent a portion of their recruiting budget and hadn't gotten to see one third to one half the players they thought they would.  In addition the Academy restriction about only playing two games in a week means that clubs played only two games in a two day showcase.  Since most college showcases provide three games for every club, this gives coaches more opportunities to swing by a particular club team during a three day tournament and more opportunity for players to get the playing time to be seen.  During the Frisco showcase several games were held later in the afternoon on the second day, yet coaches had left for flights home by midday.  Therefore, players who were promised that they would play most of the game on the second day ended up missing out.  A three day/three game schedule would provide so many more opportunities to be scouted.
 
5.  Restrictions
The restrictions on Academy players to forgo all other soccer programs, leagues, and tournaments means that even players at this cream level of soccer will end up missing out on opportunities.  While coaches are watching players from teams outside of the Academy compete at the top showcases and having the chance to see them player two or three times at those showcases, players in the Academy are sitting on the bench at Academy showcases for entire games.  The benefit of being in one of the top programs and being amongst the top players quickly becomes a yoke preventing many players from achieving the future success they are capable of pursuing.  I can't help but feel that the restrictions were more for the benefit of the Academy than for the benefit of the players who they felt might be overtraining or overplaying.  By restricting clubs and players from participating in other programs, the Academy can carve out a very nice monopoly on the elite soccer scene.

6.  Growing Pains
While the Academy may prove to be the right direction for youth soccer once many of the problems are addressed, it seems that the vision is top down looking only at the crème de la crème and throwing out the rest of the cream with the milk.  The frustration becomes that this year's participants are guinea pigs in an unproven format.  While U.S. Soccer works to get it all right, a significant year for the U-17 players hobbles along.  The vast majority of the players in the Academy have no hope of making the National Team.  Therefore, under this top down model, their purpose seems to be to provide teams on which or against which the handful of prospective national players can play.  The Academy needs to figure out quickly what it is going to do for the majority of the players whose goal is to make a good college team.  Since the Academy prevents these players from participating in the primary college showcases in the country, it needs to step up and reformat the college showcases it does hold.  That one correction would go a long way towards resolving the frustration of players, parents, and coaches who are hamstrung by the Academy policies. 

7.  Advantages
I ask again:  What is the Academy providing for the soccer player that the player didn't already get with his club team?  These member clubs were already the top clubs in America and as such provided training, exposure, and opportunity to their players before the Academy.  What they didn't do was gather in places where national team coaches had the opportunity to see the players in a comparative environment.  That certainly serves the top level of national soccer, but again doesn't answer what the Academy does differently for the majority of the players.  I will admit that the conference competition under the Academy is stronger than Robbie's club faced in league and in Super Y, but his team sought out competition in other venues to provide that higher level such as Dallas Cup or other elite tournaments.  In addition, the Academy needs to figure out how elite it can afford to be.  With the Academy devoid of teams from 28 states, national coaches still have to rely on programs like Super Y League and US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program to identify players in these states.  If the United States wants to build a strong national program, it won't be able to do it on the back of just 22 states.  If the present membership of teams remains the same, then the program is ignoring a raft of excellent players.  If the membership expands, the Academy risks diluting the program with weaker clubs.   I think it is telling that the quotation page for support of the program from coaches only contains one coach from outside the U.S. Soccer Developmental program.   If the emphasis is on development, than the program should have begun with the younger players who can still be molded; not those who have already learned for years under what these coaches argue is a lousy system.

While I want to embrace this Academy, I can't.  I try to find justification for such a shake-up in new advantages for the players, but I don't see it.  The founders of the Academy state that with so many disparate and competing programs, players were being pulled in too many directions.  Their training was suffering by being too much or too little and the clubs' focus on playing games across the boards of these various soccer programs resulted in players being over-stressed mentally and physically.  The only serious conflict I ever saw for a player's time and skills was between club practices and Olympic Development practices which occurred on a parallel schedule.  Most clubs would release their ODP players to participate in those practices knowing that players were getting coaching from top level coaches.  Otherwise all other programs dovetailed into one another nicely.  Economics usually have provided the best restraint on overdoing.  There are only so many travel dates a family can afford.  Since the clubs I have observed and spoken to have the same coaches, the same training facilities, the same training schedule, I can't really figure out what the Academy adds to this.  Perhaps I am missing something in my research, my observations, and my interviews.  What I come across is no understanding of what has changed in terms of training and a lot of frustration for how this Academy has negatively impacted the college recruiting process for member players.  Perhaps some adjustments can be made in the coming months to improve that situation.  Since the impetus for beginning the Academy was to improve the development of players and the identification of players, it seems more reasonable to me that it would have begun with the younger ages, rather than older players who have already been seen dozens of times through ODP and are approaching the end of their club training time.  For now, I feel tremendous frustration with and restriction from the Academy without any evident payoff for the change.  If many players are to be guinea pigs to afford a few players the chance to go national, it's a dangerous option without a reward in the important scouting years of their soccer lives.

 

It's About Having Fun

Susan Boyd

Youth soccer can be a difficult maze to negotiate. Right now under the United States Soccer Federation there are five youth programs: American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) founded in 1964 which has volunteer coaches and leagues all over the U.S. with a core predominately in Southern California, United States Youth Soccer Association (US Youth Soccer) founded in 1974 which is a mix of volunteer and paid coaches with both recreational and select programs, Soccer Association for Youth which is strictly recreational soccer and whose motto is "kid's having fun," US Club Soccer founded in 2000 which provides another venue for registration and for development, and finally the USSF Development Academy founded in 2007 which seeks to create competition among the top clubs in America at the U16 and U18 level which would serve as development for those players and opportunities for National Team coaches to scout for talent. Outside of the USSF umbrella are three other organizations: Soccer in the Streets (SITS) whose goal is to provide soccer and life training for kids at risk, YMCA, and Super Y League, a branch of United Soccer Leagues, which is a league of elite clubs whose purpose is to provide strong competition. And of course there are programs at schools, churches, and other youth venues which aren't under any national oversight.

This maze of youth soccer options often leaves parents bewildered and pressured. I don't think any other sport besides soccer has such an organized emphasis on development of players beginning at age five with an eye towards national team and professional team play at the end of the road. It's tough to just play soccer for the fun of it when much of the play emerges from programs that encourage commitment to constantly increasing levels of play. Yet recreational soccer remains one of the best programs for players to stretch their soccer muscles and exercise their interest in the game without the pressure of immediate or future success. 

When my oldest grandson was four, I enrolled him in our local Micro Soccer program. Both his parents worked, so it was an opportunity for him to get away from after-school care and play with a new set of friends. The largely teenage staff made the experience so much fun. Still kids themselves they romped with these three, four, and five year olds and even wrestled with them which I don't think is a soccer skill set. Keaton had a blast and although a bit intimidated at first, he jumped in and fully participated. He loved the opportunity to compete when there were races and to giggle and cavort when there was just play. Nevertheless some parents took exception to the program as not being structured enough – i.e. not really teaching them soccer. These parents already had their sights set on a select club and wanted their children to have a leg up on the competition. Since most select clubs use their youth recreational program as a feeder pool for the select teams at U11, parents were savvy enough to understand that they had to get their kids on the "right" recreational team. Since several select clubs have their U10 and even U9 teams play up at U11, select soccer can begin technically at age 8!

While my own sons eventually ended up on the select route of youth soccer, I don't regret keeping them out of a select club until they were U10. Those neighborhood teams they played on created so many fantastic memories without the pressure of succeeding. Robbie in fact didn't take to soccer until he was seven. His early years on his recreational teams were spent in the back field checking out the grass and wandering over to the sidelines to talk to his teammates who were on the bench. When the ball deflected to him from an opponent, Robbie would politely return it. Bryce on the other hand had a killer instinct and had to be restrained from using American football moves on the soccer field. He got plenty of invitations to join a select club, but he benefited by sticking with his recreational team for the first four years of soccer because he could be with his neighborhood buddies, ride to practice together, and enjoy the play. In fact the only reason he finally moved to a select club was because two of his best friends did. Once there, he got on a train that had only one route. It's important for parents to understand that commitment level and how ruthlessly players are booted off the train along the route.   Players need to be ready for the kind of cold-bloodedness that select programs can operate under.

Don't get seduced by the lure of early training. If your son or daughter expresses a real interest in continuing with soccer when he or she is 10 or 11 there's plenty of time to find a competitive recreational or select team. If they express an interest in a multitude of sports, they probably shouldn't do select sports until, as the name implies, they select that sport nearly exclusively, usually some time in middle school years. Soccer dovetails nicely at the youth ages with basketball and baseball with soccer games in the fall and in the early spring. But if players elect to be on a select team then they end up having the winter given over to indoor soccer and the summer over to tournaments. The scheduling crush ends up shortchanging teams. 

Find a recreational youth program that is fun, affordable, accessible, and outside the select soccer borders.   It's so great to see these little tykes in their size 2 soccer cleats and printed jerseys running likes ants across the fields, pig piling in front of the goal, keeping their balance and losing their balance, discussing big plays with their friends, being outdoors, and having something to look forward to each week that doesn't require discipline or pressure.   Whether kids do soccer with their church, with YMCA, with an organized club or with a community team, kids should play youth soccer for the fun of it.   A child should be laughing 80% of the time and so should you. 

While riding the select train all the way to the final station can have its own rewards, remember the realities of the ride: few will make it to the end, the cost to get there is tremendous monetarily, physically, and mentally, and the prize needs to be worth the journey. No one suffered from running around outdoors laughing – and that's where most soccer players will find their haven. Presently there are over 3 million players registered with US Youth Soccer, another 200,000 in AYSO, and probably another 100,000 or more in the other various youth soccer programs. There are around 50 men and women who are in serious contention for the 36 spots on the Men's and Women's Nationalb Teams. That's .0016% or 16/1,000,000.  

I like the odds for fun in youth soccer much better!
 

A Loss of Innocence

Susan Boyd

As parents we try hard to protect our children. Every new foray into independence by our sons and daughters matches equally with parental reluctance to let those tiny hands go. Despite their rush for adulthood, we recognize that our children still have that naivety and innocence we actually long to protect. We are well-aware that all too soon the hard facts of life will bring cynicism, sadness and weariness; so, we seek to extend childhood as long as possible even as we push the fledglings from the nest.

Therefore the tragedy at Northern Illinois University underscores how quickly our children can be thrust into the cruelty of the world even before they are completely armored for such an assault. I was going to write a blog about mini-soccer (also known as micro-soccer, lil kicks, etc.) for those players whose socks reach their hips and whose feet barely know how to stabilize their walk. Then NIU's community faced a few moments of horror that will stain their memories, their lives, their growth and their security forever.Those students are only a decade removed from the players they were in those first soccer games where they ran the wrong way or begged to be the goalkeeper or giggled so hard when they and their teammates fell into a pig pile. A decade will never be enough time to develop the perspective capable of absorbing and understanding what happened in their village. It's far too soon to be introduced so abruptly to the brutality of the world. It's far too soon to have to comfort others when you are unsure of what it all means. It's far too soon to be asked to give up your innocence.

I have a strong connection to NIU, so this incident hit me particularly hard. When I worked for US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program, I had the privilege of visiting the campus two or three times a year for various ODP events. Region II held its Girls Regional Camp at NIU. Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana ODP teams would scrimmage on the athletic fields, and Illinois held its summer pre-regional camp there. I have gotten to know NIU soccer coaches and players through these contacts. My son Robbie has been in communication with the coaching staff about their soccer program and sat in Cole Hall for an orientation. A friend of my boys attends NIU and sat huddled for an hour in the back of a classroom just steps from the tragedy not knowing what was going on outside. So I know the people involved in the community of 25,000. I know that this event touched everyone's life. The school is a beautiful campus nestled on the north edge of DeKalb in the middle of farming land. The pace is gentle, quiet and kind. The school is the hub of activity in DeKalb. Because I have a son in college right now, I feel a kinship with all the mothers who anxiously awaited word of their children on Valentine's Day.
               
My hulking 6'2" son still possesses an innocence which is belied by his confident swagger and his absolute conviction that he knows more than his parents. He still calls me Mommy and will phone in distress over his account being overdrawn or the bookstore being out of an important textbook. He still believes I can perform miracles in those circumstances where he finds himself in trouble or in need. He will suddenly come over to me while I write at the computer to give me a hug, which I know is as much for his needs as for mine. I also know that he is little different from any of his friends of the same age, away from home for the first time in college. So I can't imagine how convoluted and rocky the students at NIU now find their lives. They have friends dead or injured. They have faced danger and mortality. They have seen horror that children in a country like ours should never have to see. There is no miracle a mother can perform to take away that cruel trial by fire from any child who has experienced such tragedy. So I can understand the hopelessness and agony NIU parents are feeling right now.
               
When I was at the Final Four in December I had the opportunity to speak to the wife of an assistant coach at Virginia Tech. We were both waiting in the hotel lobby for our respective teams to show up. I asked her how the student body and faculty were coping after their own tragedy. She spoke with pride of their resiliency, not that they rebounded to the same normalcy that existed before a gunman killed and wounded their friends, but of their ability to rise above the horror, to understand how it had blanched every memory of their college life, and to forge the determination to not let the events dictate defeatism in their lives. "They grew up too fast," she said. And now a new group of students has had to navigate this indefensible passage from innocence to stark reality.
               
Friday morning, following the tragedy, The Today Show was interviewing two young men who were in the lecture hall and witnessed the gunmen's destruction. One of the boys spoke about seeing all the chaos, of not knowing if he should run into a building or stay outdoors and of wondering if there were snipers on the top of Cole Hall just waiting to take out students as they fled. He could not have possibly had those thoughts two hours earlier as he walked to class. He didn't look up to see if rifles were aimed in his direction, or wonder if someone around him might need medical assistance, or stand conflicted as to the relative safety of his position. For the rest of his life those questions and others will run through his mind and will taint how he regards the independence of his own children. 
 
While parents seek to protect within the parameters of encouraging their children to run ahead to the woods or leap over a fence or ride their wobbly bikes around the neighborhood, this student may oneday find himself clinging to his child because his knowledge of what the world can do is so much more horrific than mine. His final words to the reporter still haunt me, "I saw a girl on a stretcher with towels wrapped all over her head and tons of blood coming out. The EMT was saying, 'Stay with me,' and she was saying, 'I'm trying." These two children had their innocence and their trust stripped from them and as a parent I couldn't do anything to stop it.

So I will grieve for those who died, I will grieve for the students who were wounded, I will grieve for the families who will never be the same, I will grieve for the community whose eyes were seared by ugliness, I will grieve for the loss of innocence and I will grieve for us who frolicked in soccer matches, who cheered with pride, who pulled our children back from approaching traffic, who tested food to see if it was too hot for them to eat, who knew dangerous consequences but who assured our children it would all be OK, who set limits and then let our children test them, who breathed a sigh of relief every time they saw those bikes or cars round the corner for home, who didn't let their children see R-rated movies because they shouldn't be exposed to violence and sex, who loved well and safely and openly. I pray that all our children will be safe, even as I know that can't be possible. I pray for the people at NIU that they may find support, love, and healing.

 

 

A Few Good Men and Women - College Recruiting

Susan Boyd

Note:  In this blog "you" means the player.

Being recruited by a college to play soccer really just has two components:  making sure coaches know you want to be seen and being seen by coaches.  However, as rudimentary as it appears, the process is anything but simple.  I've been through it once with Bryce and I'm now going through it with Robbie.  The learning curve escalates sharply, so hopefully I can pass on a few tidbits for achieving your own college dreams.

An important step to take before even moving ahead to being recruited is to get registered with the NCAA Eligibility Center (https://web1.ncaa.org/eligibilitycenter/common/).  Coaches will ask you if and when you registered.  Without NCAA approval no coach can put you on the team.  The NCAA provides a central location for gathering all your data (grades, test scores, and coursework) while also serving as the judge on eligibility to play in college.  Therefore, before you take any ACT or SAT tests, it's a good idea to be registered since you want those test scores sent to the NCAA.  There's a spot on your test registration form for putting in the NCAA as one of your "college" choices.  There's a one-time fee for registering, but there is also a way for lower income families to get the fee waived.  In addition, the NCAA (www.ncaa.org) is a great source of information on the recruiting process.  You can download a booklet of the rules for eligibility and for recruitment.

If you want certain schools to show interest in you, you'll need to show interest in them first.  Send emails to the coaches in August and September of your junior year.  Make the emails personal – in other words don't send out bulk emails.  Individual emails require more effort, but have a bigger payoff.  Use methods such as addressing the coach directly and then talking about the school and why it interests you:  I had a chance to visit your campus last May and thought the new student union was amazing// I want to study engineering and I see your school has one of the top programs// I loved the way the team never lost its cool against Wake Forest and managed to come back and tie.  Make sure the coach knows you want to go to University X and not just go anywhere that will take you.  Finally apprise the coach of your playing schedule – tournaments, showcases, high school state finals, etc.  Once you have a dialog going with the coach, don't be afraid to ask serious questions about the program, your place in the program, and your chances.  Remember also that in general the assistant coaches do the initial recruiting.  However, I think it's best to write to the head coach and let him or her decide who should be corresponding with you.  In some cases all the coaches may end up writing to you.  Take that as a huge compliment and a sign that the school is definitely interested in you as a player.
 
In general coaches can contact you by email and letter no earlier than September 1st of your junior year and by phone no earlier than July 1st between your junior and senior year.  However, you can call coaches as much as you want.  Although that seems intimidating, it really is a great way to indicate your interest in a program.  Plus the coaches can talk to you about how they see you fitting into their program which is valuable information as you begin to make your choices.  Coaches are also limited to the number of times they can speak to your parents.  This assures that they won't have to deal with "parent agents."  Coaches want to recruit the player and not the parent.  In fact if parents are too pushy, coaches see that as reluctance on the part of the player to really want to play at the college level.

You will need to make visits to the campuses of schools holding the most interest for you.  These visits are classified as unofficial – i.e. you made the choice to go visit – and official – the college invited you to visit.  Unless you are Bill Gates' son or daughter, you'll need to limit the unofficial visits due to the expense.  So you'll need to carefully consider the schools where you think you have the best chance of being accepted and getting recruited.  Coaches can't talk to you off campus until your senior year, so they love to get players to come to campus so that they can talk to you and your parents.  In addition visiting the campus gives you a chance to see if you feel you'll fit in.  Soccer is wonderful, but ultimately if you don't feel comfortable at the school with its social life and academics, you won't do well.

The biggest advice I can offer is to stay in contact with the coaches.  If they write to you and you don't write back, they wipe you off their lists and move on and the opportunity is gone.  If write for a while and then lapse, again the coaches may just move on.  They have a limited window of opportunity to pursue certain players and if they don't get enough nibbles, they move on to hungrier prey.  On the other hand, it's tough to stay on top of it if you have several coaches interested in you, so just make it a habit to take a hour on Sunday evening to send short emails to the coaches indicating you still have an interest.  Again keep the emails personal, but they don't need to be elaborate.  One or two quick lines let the coaches know that despite your busy schedule you have the time to write.  They'll  appreciate that.

Once you let coaches know you want to be seen, you'll need to get to the places where coaches can see you.  There are three methods: least efficient, possibly efficient, and very efficient.  Camps are the least efficient means for being seen by coaches both from a cost perspective and for the number of schools represented.   Most college programs offer camps throughout the winter, spring and summer as a means of seeing players and bringing in revenue to the program.  If you have a particular college you want to attend, camps offer the possibility of both getting in an unofficial visit to the campus and having the coaching staff of that university see you play.  But it comes with a price tag.  Resident camps cost around $550 for three or four days.  Day camps at local campuses that have a cost around $100 give you a quick taste of the program and the school.  As a selling point these camps may state that coaches from other schools will be present, but we are talking just a handful, compared to what you would get at a college showcase tournament.  So in general camps are not a very efficient means for getting seen.

I'll skip to the most efficient means because it helps set the stage for the possibly efficient method.  College showcase tournaments are the bread and butter of recruiters.  It's an opportunity for them to see the top teams in the country (and by logical extension the top players in the country) by traveling to one venue.  Recruiting budgets are small, so coaches need to be as efficient as the players in deciding where to go to recruit.  The downside for the player is that most of these tournaments use a ranking system to decide which teams get accepted.  Tournament committees will look at who got to state finals, regionals, and nationals, who won or came in second at other top tournaments, and at the overall club (can they get six teams from a club to qualify for entrance).  This leaves plenty of good teams and players out of the running.  Nevertheless, college showcases are the best place to be if you want coaches to see you.  So how do you get there?

First, when you tryout for a team at U15, U16, and U17 play ask the coaches, the club president, and the parents and players how serious they are about playing college soccer.  If a coach or a club isn't committed to getting players to the next level, you probably won't get the opportunity to go to a showcase.  If the players and their parents aren't committed to playing college soccer, then they will look at tournament choices purely on an economic basis, not on an advancement level.  Look at the club's website to see if they list the players who have moved on to college.  That gives you a good indication that they are serious.  So pick your club well!  Second once you get on a team, encourage the coach and team administrator to apply for the top tournaments.  Sometimes they are reluctant because they believe they won't be accepted.  In the end, it's no harm no foul as you'll get your money back if not accepted.  When I worked for US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program I often got calls from very prestigious tournaments asking if I knew of any good U16 or U17 teams that they could add because they wanted to make an additional bracket.  So don't sell your team short – apply even if you don't think you have a chance.  Third, work hard to win those accolades that will get your team in these tournaments.

All is not lost if you can't get into the top national tournaments.  There are plenty of local tournaments that attract local college coaches.  You may not be seen by a California school if you live in Wisconsin, but you will certainly be seen by coaches from Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Minnesota.  Lists of tournaments can be found on the internet through state soccer organizations and tournament guides.  Some of the top tournaments to consider are Dallas Cup, Blue Chip, Disney College Showcase, Surf Cup and the Final Four.  But every state offers strong showcase tournaments such as Metro FC, John Talley, KISS, and others.  So check websites and tournament listings to find tournaments that your team can qualify for and enter.

Once you get into a tournament, go to the tournament website and see which colleges have indicated they are sending representatives.  Then write to the colleges you have an interest in.  It doesn't hurt to submit a copy of your unofficial transcript in the email and list any test scores if you have taken the ACT or SAT.  Whatever you do, don't inflate your grade point or test scores in hopes of getting a coach to see you.  Coaches have strict standards they have to meet with the admission's department and no coach appreciates having his or her time wasted by a player they have no hope of admitting.  Likewise, only write to those schools in which you have a serious interest.  While you may hate to cut off an opportunity, if you know a school doesn't have your major or is too big or too small for your tastes, then don't "tease" them.  The pleasant surprise is that you may get several schools that express an interest in you that you didn't even write to.  Remember your teammates are asking coaches to come watch them, which means the coaches are watching you as well.  My son Bryce ended up at a school he never contacted to come watch him!  In addition prepare a profile sheet for the players on your team that the team administrator can hand out to the coaches on the sidelines.  Don't do a booklet as coaches can't use that as efficiently.  Instead, prepare a sheet landscape mode that lists the uniform number, player name, position, address, phone number, email, GPA, and test scores.  Leave a column at the end where the coach can make notes.  Anything else the coach needs he or she will get directly from the player once they contact him or her.

Now there is also a possibly efficient means of being seen.  Since you may not have the opportunity to play on a team that gets selected to these college showcases, you can still get to these tournaments as a guest player.  Most of the major tournament websites offer a link where you can register as a guest player or where you can contact teams that have asked for guest players.  Usually the guest player form asks for things like position, years played, and some statistics.  Don't oversell yourself.  Coaches are leery of a "too good to be true" player.  Be honest and forthright, but don't brag.  The upside of being a guest player is that you get to the major tournaments.  The downside of being a guest player is that you are not guaranteed any playing time at all.  Therefore give the coach a reason to put you in.  Let the coach know which college coaches have indicated that they will watch you play.  That means that the team players will also be seen by these coaches, so it's to the team's advantage to give you some playing time.  In addition be honest with the team coach about your intentions.  You want to play to be seen to be recruited.  Don't be afraid to ask the coach about playing time.  Most college showcase tournaments are simply round-robin festivals without winners which allow coaches to play everyone without worrying about "success."  So that makes it more likely that even guest players would get playing time.  Just remember to also ask your own club coach for permission to apply to be a guest player.  In some cases guest teams may be affiliated with national soccer organizations for which you do not have a pass.  In those cases the guest team administrator can usually get you hooked up with a pass pretty quickly.  Faxes and the internet certainly help to speed up the process.

Just remember that college coaches need to recruit the best players they can to their teams, but that doesn't mean that they won't have to look deeply into the ranks of teams to find those players.  You need to be sure to make yourself evident to the coaches.  This isn't the time to be shy or modest.  It's about selling yourself.  Coaches are looking for players who have the confidence to make the sale.  So get out there and promote yourself!