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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.

 

East-West-South

Sam Snow

I had the pleasure to watch a US Youth Soccer Region I league match this weekend. Two U17 boys teams put on a technically sound and athletic game. But tactically it was not the game it should or could have been. Like too many American youth teams the attacking movement was too linear. Often this is seen when teams play forward too soon and too often. It is a game that becomes full field kickball. That approach to offense in our youth game is recognized not just by the run n' gun style, but also by regular turnovers of possession. Both teams do it and so chances at scoring rely too much on the through ball.
 
Now with these two U17 teams the issue was not an over-reliance on through balls to generate offense. In fact being skillful players they were able to posses the ball to build attacks. What became the tactical downfall in the game was too much possession. Passes were still being made laterally on the field and chances for penetrating passes were missed. The teams had moments when they played possession for the sake of possession. The moments when a pass could be made going forward to be a threat to the opposing defense were missed. Tactical vision leading to recognizing the moment to go at goal was not developed to the extent it should have been for such a good group of players.
 
Tactically speaking there are only two types of passes in a soccer match. They are possession passes and penetrating passes. The trick of quality soccer is finding the right balance between the two types of passes. Technically there are many ways to make these passes. Further there are only two tactical reasons to make possession passes. One is to relieve pressure when the opponents are pressing you hard. The other reason is to create angles and space to make a penetrating pass. The last reason is why passes are made east, west and south; in order to be able to go north. While soccer fields are laid out with the goals on the north and south ends of the field from a tactical perspective we train players to think that square or lateral passes are east-west and back passes are south (towards your own goal) and north is towards the opponents goal. Hence east-west-south passes are possession passes and north passes are penetrating passes.
 
While occasionally a team will play possession (keep-away) soccer when they are leading as a ploy to eat up the clock, the main reason for possession play is to create the opportunity to penetrate into the attacking third. Once in the attacking third then look to strike at goal quickly.
 
So the take away message for me from that league match was to teach our players when and why to play possession soccer and when and why to play penetration soccer. Both must be done during a match and the player who can anticipate play rather than just react to what just happened is the one who can make good decisions on penetration or possession.
 

Action Plan

Sam Snow

Last night a friend and coaching colleague of mine called to talk about his first Over-40 match. He said the match was going well and was becoming more and more competitive as the minutes ticked by. In the middle of the second half one of his teammates collapsed on the pitch. Everyone stopped and went to help him, a 911 call was made, and people looked for aspirin but couldn't find any. Does anyone know CPR? All hesitated, but finally did act. Before the ambulance could arrive he died of a heart attack.
 
Needless to say this greatly upset my friend. Seeing a teammate die on the field in front of you has quite an impact. The men in their forties who moments before heatedly contested a soccer game turned in an instant to a collective group working to save a comrade's life. Sports and the win at all costs mentality disappeared and life came into perspective for those adults playing in and watching this match. No matter how deep our passion for soccer may be it is after all just a game. What's most important in soccer are the people in soccer.
 
As our conversation went on last night my friend said that the man who is his assistant coach with the U14 team they coach was also playing in this match. The situation caused them to talk to each other about what they would do if something catastrophic happened during one of their training sessions or matches. So we discussed having an action plan. Every coach MUST have an action plan for injuries and emergencies. This is both risk management and first aid in nature.
 
Most coaches are quite good about having a first aid kit at practice and games. Is it checked regularly to be sure it is stocked correctly? Is it always with the coach's equipment? Everyone today has a cell phone and the coach must have his or hers near the first aid kit. It may not be a long run back to the car to use your phone in an emergency, but by having the phone with you on the field you can make the 911 call sooner and you can stay with the players to manage the situation. So the coaches must have a plan. If a serious injury or an emergency occurs who will call and direct emergencies services? Who will be the first aid giver? Who will supervise the rest of the players? Do you have an emergency contact for the injured person? Do the players, coaches, parents, team manger or anyone with the team have ICE in their phone? Where do we go in case of a sudden thunderstorm? What is our plan in case of heat stroke? Obviously there can be more questions to ask and answer in your action plan. The coaches and team manager need to have this discussion and make a plan. Part of the plan is a survey of the skills of the parents of a youth team. Who has medical qualifications of any sort? How might the other adults be able to assist the coaches in a real emergency?
 
One other thing that came up in our conversation last night is that coaches taking coaching courses may tune out a bit when the presentation is made on prevention and care of injuries and risk management. The thought goes through the head of many candidates of yes, yes that's fine now can we get on with going to the field to work on tactics? The coach is not fully in the moment during the course when crucial information is being presented that will assist the coach when an emergency occurs. So not only should a coach take coaching courses to learn more about soccer but also attend a first aid and CPR course. When that person collapses on the field with a heart attack is not the time to lament not having gone to the course.
 
The bottom line my friends is to be prepared to the best of your ability and have an action plan!
 

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!
 
 
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