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Navigate the Maze of Youth Soccer

By:  Jacob Daniel, Georgia Soccer Director of Coaching

Youth soccer has come a long way in the past 20 years.  The organization, the coaching and the quality of play all around the country has risen steadily.  Georgia has experienced similar growth and improvement.  The U10/U12 academy program implemented a decade ago through the initiative of a number of leading clubs in Atlanta is just one example of the progress evidenced at the youth club level.  The Club Directors in Georgia pay close attention to the 8-12 year old players, recognizing this vital formative stage of players’ development.  Many of the top coaches actually coach these young players and emphasize individual development and possession soccer.  The writer has recently watched a number of U-11 and U-12 Academy games where the coaches clearly demanded from their teams to play out of the back with patient possession soccer and coached their keepers to roll the ball to defenders instead of aimlessly punting the ball up field.  Kudos to these coaches.  The result of such an approach is a much better quality graduating from the U10/U12 academy into the select programs.
That’s the good news.  Tempering the positive impact of improved coaching is the oversaturation of leagues, endless series of tournaments and the parental pressure on coaches and players to win games.  Too many parents tend to measure satisfaction level by using two basic criteria:  how many minutes is my child playing; and how many games is the team winning.
This might sound like an overly simplistic observation of parental expectations, but the anecdotal evidence is plentiful. Youth coaches who mean well and try to teach players to play good soccer are frustrated by the expectations and behavior of parents.  Managing these expectations is often cited as the most challenging job of a youth coach.  This article attempts to assist parents in understanding the landscape, the options, as well as how to evaluate soccer programs and leagues.   
The Youth Soccer Landscape

The current youth landscape is overcrowded with youth organizations, leagues and tournaments to the point that parents of players with aspirations are confused about the choices.  Many parents feel pressured to send their child into any program that promises ‘exposure’.  For players who have above average ability and who are, therefore, the target of ambitious youth clubs, the most common strategy is to accept every invitation and participate in every league, tournament, camp and program that claims itself as ‘Elite’.  The end result can be burnout from too much soccer, sub-par performances from too many games, spiraling travel expenses, and injuries, all of which can detract from the optimal development of young players.
US Soccer has identified ‘game over-saturation’ as THE biggest problem in youth soccer.  The Federation’s response was to create the US Soccer Development Academy (DA) for boys U-16 and U-18.  This was the first attempt by the national governing body to bring some sanity to youth soccer and prevent our top players from over-playing and under-training.  While the Federation’s Academy program is a step in the right direction, it has only affected a miniscule proportion of players since it only impacts 80 clubs out of 5,000 and only 2 boys’ teams per club.  And no such program exists for the girls.
So, parents are still left to contend with a multitude of competing organizations falling over themselves to attract as many players as possible and grab as big a share of the market as possible.  The menu of choices includes the US Youth Soccer programs such as the state leagues (Classic and Athena in Georgia), State, Regional and National Cups, Regional Leagues (R3PL), National League, and the Olympic Development Program (ODP).  Add to that the US Club Soccer sponsored leagues such as the Elite Club National League (ECNL) for girls and the National Premier League (NPL) for boys, their regional and national cup competition and their version of ODP called id2.  Then we have the Super Y League, which is a summer league with a national championship in the fall, and their version of ODP, called the Super Y ODP.  And lastly, we have the US Soccer sponsored Development Academy program for U-16/U-18 boys already mentioned above.
And that’s just for starters.  Our Middle Schools and High Schools also run soccer programs.  And to that we have to add all the ‘must attend’ College Showcase Tournaments, nationally ranked youth tournaments and summer camps.  And let’s not forget all those companies that sell foreign trips to the Mecca of soccer such as the AC Milan’s and Man United’s of this world and promise a tryout at one of the European clubs.
The first question parents ask is whether participating in one program or league prevents their child from participating in any of the other programs.  The only program that prohibits players from participating in any other is the Federation’s Development Academy (DA) program.  The US Soccer DA prohibits players from playing in the US Youth Soccer, US Club Soccer or Super Y programs and insists on exclusivity in order to control and limit the amount of games players play.  But all the other organizations cannot prohibit players from participating in other programs (let’s leave middle school and high school programs out of the discussion since this article is focused on club soccer).  This means that a player can participate at the same time in the ECNL, US Club Soccer leagues, Super Y, State League or R3PL, and any of the ODP’s and go to any number of tournaments.  Some players end up playing over 100 games per year, which is quite excessive and counterproductive.  More is not better, but we will come back to this later.
The Role of ODP Programs 

So how do parents decide which programs to choose and how much is too much?  Let’s start by looking at the difference between an ODP type of program and a league program. It’s important to explain the distinction since many parents don’t understand the difference and are often comparing apples to oranges.
A league is a club competition involving games between club teams.  Examples of leagues are the state Classic League or Athena League, the Region III Premier League, the ECNL, the US Soccer Development Academy, the US Youth Soccer National League, the Super Y League, etc.
An ODP type of program is a process of identifying the best players from among all the club teams in a league and providing the very best players with development opportunities as well as events that serve as National Team tryouts.  It’s like a league all-Star team.  An ODP type of program is theoretically a level higher than league play.  That is why one cannot compare a league, be it the R3PL or ECNL, to the ODP.
So when people claim that the ECNL or the US Soccer DA renders the ODP redundant and that players don’t need to do ODP if they are playing in a high level league, such claims are missing the point of the role an ODP type of program fulfills.
The role of the ODP is to help the ’10 percenters’.  In sports, as in school, roughly 10% of the participants at any level are too advanced for that level and need to be pulled out, permanently or periodically, and challenged at a higher level.  Otherwise, they will not reach their potential.
Schools do that with their gifted programs.  At each school, around 10% of the students are identified as academically ‘Gifted’ through testing and are taken out of the normal classes for more advanced learning.  And 10% of the so-called ‘Gifted’ students are ‘Exceptionally Gifted’ and 10% of those can be further classified as ‘Genius’.  And so on and so forth.  If we keep plucking the top 10% from each level, no matter how high that level is, and provide a ‘next level’ for these new 10 percenters, it will allow the very best to reach their true potential.  If, however, we stop at a certain level and say that’s enough, we are denying the 10 percenters of that level a chance to reach even higher.  
In sports, it’s the same.  It doesn’t matter how high the playing level is at a league, any league, it’s a safe bet that roughly 10% of the players in that league are not sufficiently challenged.  No matter how successful a team is, there are at least 2-3 players on that team that need a tougher environment in order to reach their potential.  ODP programs do exactly that, namely, identify the 10 percenters and provide them a platform to improve even more.  It doesn’t matter how good the team’s coach is, some of the players are not extended enough through league play alone because most games are just too easy for them.  That’s where an ODP type of program can play a role and fill the gap.  Hence, it should not be assumed that the ECNL can replace the ODP.  The 10 percenters in the ECNL still need an ODP type program to reach their potential.
Occasionally, a club team will emerge to become a ‘super’ team, through recruiting and development, and beat every other team in the league and become a power house regionally and nationally.  Naturally, the parents of such a super team might be tempted to believe that they don’t need an ODP type of program since their team is so successful and full of quality players.  The reality is that the ODP is even more important for players of ‘super’ teams.  After all, if they are easily beating all and sundry, when are they being challenged?  How would they improve?  The ODP can provide more opportunities for them to get out of their comfort zone and compete against the very best from the region/country.
Most club coaches understand this concept.  In fact, ODP tryouts in Georgia are experiencing record numbers of applicants, even though players have so many more choices now.  Club coaches and players still value the prestige and experience of ODP.  But a small number of coaches are too possessive and advise their players against doing ODP.  Parents beware of club coaches who tell you that your son or daughter doesn’t need ODP.  The chances are this club coach simply doesn’t want to share your child’s available time and family soccer budget with another program.  It’s like a teacher telling a parent that their child doesn’t need to do the ‘gifted’ program because the teacher is so good.
Understanding League Structures

Let us now look at the leagues and help parents figure out which league provides higher level competition.  Generally speaking, level of play rises as you move from a state league to a regional league to a national league.  But with so many competing leagues, each with its own selection criteria, it’s hard to compare and predict which league guarantees the highest level of play at any given time.
We can divide leagues into two types:  leagues that accept teams by application and leagues that require teams to qualify by playing and winning their way into it.  For example, the ECNL and the US Soccer Dev Academy are national level leagues that accept teams by application.  The US Youth Soccer R3PL and National Leagues require that teams qualify for it through play.
The emergence of leagues that accept teams by application is a new phenomenon.  In the past, clubs would play each other to qualify for higher play.  The pecking order was clear and based on game results.  If you won State Cup, you qualified for the club regional Tournament.  College coaches and National Team staff knew where to go if they wanted to watch the best teams.  For example, the US Youth Soccer National Championship featured the best teams because they all had to win their way into the event.
But now, there is a new way of creating an ‘elite’ league or event.  Any organization can start an elite level league.  The steps are:

Announce the launch of a new Elite youth league with the requisite fanfare and promotion.
Market the new league to all the competitive level players.
Create special showcase tournaments and invite college coaches.
Hope that the buzz created will pull the best players and then you are on your way.

This new approach has saturated the youth landscape and has created the confusion for parents and players.  It works if the best players migrate into the new elite league.  It doesn’t work if they don’t.  And if only some of the best players join the league, as typically happens, then you end up with too many leagues, all claiming to be the best, all featuring diluted competitions.
It is conceivable that a league that requires qualification through play will have some teams that are better than teams in a league based on criteria other than game results.  So how do we compare the US Soccer DA, the ECNL and the NPL, who accept teams by application, to the R3PL and National League, where teams qualify through game results.
The US soccer DA has been around for 4 or 5 years now and it is getting better each year.  In most states, the best players are migrating into the US Soccer DA and therefore the quality is improving and this league can justifiably call itself ‘elite’.  In Georgia, however, many good players have opted to stay with their original club teams when the US Soccer DA was launched and this kept the US Youth Soccer Regional and National Leagues strong here.  Eventually, the best players will likely migrate to the US Soccer DA if it continues to exist and flourish.  So the verdict regarding the US soccer DA is that it is the highest level league in existence at this point.  Nevertheless, Georgia also has some quality teams playing in the R3PL and National League.
The ECNL and NPL, on the other hand, are an unknown quantity right now.  The GA clubs in these leagues are hoping that the best players from the other clubs will join them for the opportunity to play in the ECNL or NPL.  If that happens, then these new leagues could also become ‘elite’ leagues.  But if it doesn’t happen and many quality players chose to remain with their clubs, then it will be no different from the US Youth Soccer Regional and National Leagues.  The fight for bragging rights as to which league is stronger is currently fought in the soccer forums rather than on the field.  The future will tell.
Making the Right Soccer Decisions  
Parents and players should ask themselves the following questions when deciding on which league to join and how many programs to do:
Which coach will make me a better player?
The value of a good coach is paramount. Game results are not the only way to gauge the coach’s ability.  Many teams are successful because they have the best athletes or because they recruited the best players.  Is the coach willing and able to teach patient possession soccer or is the strategy always to play long and direct and chase through balls?  Is the coaches’ emphasis on effort and hard running or is it on skill, creativity and smart running?  Direct soccer produces one-dimensional players who will have a tough time adapting to different game situations at the next level.
How many games should my child play in one year?
Depending on age and playing level, from 30-45 games per year is the optimum number.  This will allow players more time to recover and stay fresh and injury free.  It will also open up more time for practice, which is much more conducive for development than games.  The ideal ratio is 4-5 practices per game.  Our players typically experience a ratio of 2 practices to every game, which is not good enough.  A recent case study conducted at the request of US Soccer revealed that some of our top youth players in GA trained 200 times, played 80 games and each spent $8,000 on their soccer activities in 2010.  That is an excessive number of games, not to mention the cost.  Players develop from hours and hours of training.  Games are more conducive for building team cohesion and match fitness but the individual player development occurs at practice.  Make sure that whoever will coach you follows this philosophy and spends most of the practice working on technique and creativity in game-like activities, with game-like intensity.
If I stay with my current team, how will I get the exposure to college coaches/national staff coaches?
The ODP can provide you with that challenge and exposure if you are good enough.  Attending summer camps at the colleges you aspire to attend can also give you some exposure.   Guest playing for other teams at showcase tournaments is another possibility.
How much financial and travel obligations are required?
Some regional and national level leagues require a very heavy commitment of travel and expenditure.  If the prime motivation is to land a soccer scholarship, the amount of money spent over years of youth soccer travel may very well exceed the amount of soccer scholarship awarded.  The average soccer college scholarship is around $8,000 and only a small percentage of players will actually receive even the average scholarship.  The math often doesn’t add up.  If, however, the primary motivation is to challenge yourself and play with the best and your family can afford the travel and expenses, then that’s fair enough.
Whatever you decide, make sure that the club coach to whom you commit yourself has your best interests at heart and espouses a player development philosophy that emphasizes individual growth in a positive environment.  One can always tell from the way a coach reacts to game results.  If every loss is greeted with a scolding and a talk down and every win is greeted with a cheer, without any thoughtful and honest evaluation of performance, the warning sign are there.  The number of quality coaches in Georgia has increased and some of them can be found even in the smaller clubs.  Parents should do the research and make sure they join a club with the right philosophy and mission.  There is no need to let all the hype overwhelm you.  Your child should enjoy his/her soccer experience first and foremost.  The rest will take care of itself and the cream will rise to the top.