Single-Digit Soccer: Dissension in the ranks

A few sessions at the NSCAA convention made a couple of things clear to me:

1. Not everyone’s buying into the U.S. Soccer curriculum.

2. Not everyone’s buying into the Development Academy.

Tackling the second point first: A session on the Development Academy and high school soccer, which have been separated for all eternity by the U.S. Soccer powers that be, turned into a gripe session about the Academy.

One of the gripers is Steve Nichols (no, not Steve Nicol), a Baltimore coach who ditched the successful Baltimore Bays to form a new club called Baltimore Celtic, which is heavily populated by ex-Bays. He’s also a high school coach at McDonogh, one of several strong Baltimore teams, and he didn’t see the point in barring his players from high school play, particularly when the Academy only gave his Bays 4-5 challenging games. He’d rather take his Celtic teams to big tournaments all over the place (sponsorship helps).

Nichols may come across as outlandish, but the standings back up his claim that his Bays cruised through their Academy divisions. (They’re a little less dominant now that so many players have gone to Celtic.) And he’s not alone — Alecko Eskandarian, the MLS veteran and former Philadelphia Union youth technical director now working with the New York Cosmos, said he “cringes at the thought” of some of the lesser clubs being called “academies.”

Nichols also didn’t like top-down approach from administrators who weren’t distinguished players or coaches: “Why should (they) tell Alecko Eskandarian and Jeff Cook (Union coach, another panelist) what to do?”

No one on the panel was much of a fan of denying Academy kids the high school experience. Eskandarian said he needed to play high school and have responsibility. Colorado coach Theresa Echtermeyer said she’s going to her 20-year high school reunion, not her 20-year soccer club reunion.  (That said, Eskandarian also liked what the Union was doing in setting up a high school along with its Academy program.)

How does all this affect the single-digit years? Indirectly, sure. But Academy programs continue to trickle down into “pre-Academy” years as well, as do rivals such as Baltimore Celtic, which has tryouts all the way down to U8.

And the resistance against the top-down approach to youth soccer is clear elsewhere as well. In some cases, no one ever tried to push it seriously — for all the talk of trying to hold off on competitive soccer at young ages, those of us at a recreational soccer session agree that our tryout-based soccer is starting at U10, U9 … U6? “Times are changing,” muttered the man who settled at the back of the room and said his club was selecting players at U6.

Then there’s the curriculum.

It’s not that people were voicing specific criticisms of the work Claudio Reyna unveiled a couple of years ago. But neither are they taking it as something every club should follow.

A session in the NSCAA Club Standards series — surprisingly crowded given the dry title “Implementing a Curriculum for Player Development” — was based on the assumption that one size does not fit all. Clubs should feel free to pick and choose from the U.S. Soccer, U.S. Youth Soccer, Canadian or any other curriculum.

Another session raised a tough question: “Coalescing the USSF, USYS, and NSCAA Curricula for U8-U10: Can it be done?” (I had to leave early for the NWSL Draft, so I don’t know the answer.)

The differences aren’t vast. It’s not as if one group is striving for a possession game while another urges kids to boot it upfield to a lumbering forward. But the disagreements jump out of the charts. U.S. Soccer rates “passing” as one of the top skills a U6 should learn; another curriculum doesn’t even check off passing until U8. (I know of some coaches who insist kids can’t grasp the concept until U9.) U.S. Youth Soccer suggests several tactical teachings at U6 and U8 — USSF has nothing.

Massachusetts coach Mike Singleton had the tough task of leading this session, but he brought an open mind. In Spain, Singleton said, a club can lose its charter if it doesn’t follow the federation’s dogma. That’s not the U.S. way.

So whether it’s diversity or chaos, U.S. youth soccer isn’t going to a “one size fits all” approach any time soon. Is that a good thing?

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