What if … colleges de-emphasized sports?

At the Project Play summit yesterday, we all fretted the state of sports in the USA, as Project Play folks are inclined to do.

The basic problem: “Youth sports” in the USA is less and less about getting out and playing — with all the benefits of being active, being part of a team, etc. — and more and more a means to an end.

Sometimes, the “end” is a pro career or something “shiny,” as Olympic hockey gold medalist Angela Ruggiero put it. She was part of a lively panel that also included NFL punter-turned-entrepreneur Chris Kluwe, who framed the discussion in progressive politics: Maybe if parents felt economically secure and didn’t feel the need to chase scholarships and athletic riches, they’d just let their kids … play.

They’re right, and yet there’s something else at play here. See the picture here?

Whose kids are getting out and playing sports? Right. The rich folks.

“Wait a minute,” you might think. “These are the people who can afford college for their kids, and their kids will generally have a sound financial and educational foundation from which they can pursue a multitude of careers. Why would they be caught up in a chase for scholarships?”

Here’s a twist that has stuck into my head since joining the parenting community (otherwise known as “having kids,” which makes you pay more attention to such things): It’s not necessarily about the scholarship. It’s about getting into one’s chosen college in the first place.

That’s not new. I have a story about puzzling college admissions from my high school, and I’m sure everyone else does, too. But in this technological age, we now get semi-private websites with scattergrams that show us the GPAs and SATs of people who get into School X or School Y. It’s not difficult to spot the athletes.

Division 3 school (no athletic scholarships). Maybe it was a really good essay?

I’ll have to toss in the disclaimer here: I seriously doubt any of my kids will be recruited college athletes. I blame their U-8 soccer coach. Which would be me.

But the point here is this: Sports are seen, with considerable justification, as a way of getting into a good school. Little wonder the Ivy League schools, which don’t offer athletic scholarships, more than hold their own in terms of overall sports performance.

We can argue about whether this emphasis on sports is a good thing for U.S. academic life. The question here: Is it good for sports?

The positives: American colleges promote healthy lifestyles. They build nice facilities for the general student body as well as the student-athletes. It’s the old Greek ideal — classroom in the morning, gymnasium in the afternoon.

The negatives: Youth sports are no longer about the love of the game. They’re about getting ahead and making sure you’re part of the elite. If you’re not, there’s no place for you.

And when you squeeze a sport at the grass roots, it can hurt the elite levels — especially in soccer, where the big problem we all see is a lack of access for lower-income families. No one becomes an elite player if they never have the opportunity to play.

So would we be better off — at the recreational level and the elite level — if youth players could just play without worrying about how their game will affect their chances of getting into Duke, Virginia, Princeton or a good D3 school?

The probably counterproductive promotion/relegation legal action

“Wow, it really looks like things might be happening with promotion/relegation in this country! Peter Wilt’s third-division league, intending to link D2 with the top amateur/semipro leagues, seems to be getting a good reception. And most of the responses to my survey are positive. Granted, a lot of those responses are self-selected — the USL, NASL and most of the NPSL clearly deleted the email — and I had a good talk with a PDL manager who reminded me that the vast majority of PDL clubs are in no position to move up, so we’ll still have to be cautious …”)

cas

OK then. Let’s just take the smattering of progress the pro/rel movement is making and lob a grenade at it.

Miami FC (or “The Miami FC,” as they’re billed in the press release) already made waves in the pro/rel scene with a clever PR stunt — owner Riccardo Silva’s “offer” of $4 billion for 10 years of MLS media rights if the league would go pro/rel. Kingston Stockade owner Dennis Crowley is part of a new breed of soccer owner who throws open the books and shows how things are really going. He’s learning the business side, and he wants us all to learn with him. It’s an undeniably cool experiment.

But this filing has several issues. In no particular order (some major points, some picayune):

1. The FIFA statute. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard pro/rel proponents citing page 73 of the current FIFA statutes. Under “Sporting Integrity” in “The Regulations Governing the Application of the Statutes,” Article 9.1 reads: “A club’s entitlement to take part in a domestic league championship shall depend principally on sporting merit. A club shall qualify for a domestic league championship by remaining in a certain division or by being promoted or relegated to another at the end of a season.”

But then Article 9.2 says this: “In addition to qualification on sporting merit, a club’s participation in a domestic league championship may be subject to other criteria within the scope of the licensing procedure, whereby the emphasis is on sporting, infrastructural, administrative, legal and financial considerations. Licensing decisions must be able to be examined by the member association’s body of appeal.”

An analysis by lawyer Terry Brennan suggests 9.2 doesn’t totally overrule 9.1. But he also raises a few interesting contextual issues about why this was put in place — namely, to keep clubs within pro/rel leagues from pulling all sorts of shenanigans to shuffle clubs from place to place and division to division. (He doesn’t mention Mexico but cites an example from Spain that drew a clarification from FIFA that mentions, without objection, “closed leagues” such as those in the USA and Australia.)

Here’s the bottom line: Leagues clearly have leeway to set standards. FC Small Town United can’t grab MLS status with a 5,000-seat stadium. And there’s that word “legal.”

MLS was founded by soccer-loving lawyers, some of whom are still there. You want to bet against their legal team in this argument?

2. Court of Arbitration for Sport. If they were eager to wade into a U.S. legal issue, wouldn’t we have heard something about the issue of solidarity payments — to me and surely others, a more pressing issue — by now? Besides, they still have a global dispute over American football to handle. Seriously.

3. U.S. Soccer. The federation might have the power to end this right away by saying they’re committed to it at the right time. Here’s the precedent from Australia. (Thanks, First Eleven!)

4. Curious bits of the filing. First — there is no official fourth division designation in the United States, so the filing probably shouldn’t say it does on page 7. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve checked with people in a position to know, and I’ve never come across it in reading years and years of USSF papers.)

Also, I love Wikipedia, but is that really how you want to identify one of the parties in this?

wiki-concacaf

Next — it’s rather curious to appeal to a FIFA statute to impose “sporting merit” as the sole criterion for division status and then complain that lower-division clubs can’t make to the Club World Cup because MLS clubs keep winning the U.S. Open Cup.

5. Tons of countries have firewalls between the amateur and pro ranks. In England, the system was rigged against amateur clubs joining the 92-club Football League for decades. (That’s why I think we can do it better.) Ireland has two pro tiers (barely) and no formal pro/rel between that and the amateur ranks. (Yes, I know I’m citing Wikipedia soon after saying it’s odd to see such a citation in a legal document, but lawyers get paid a lot more than I do, I have no reason to dispute Wikipedia on this, and why are lawyers citing Wikipedia to tell us where CONCACAF exists?) The Netherlands, where soccer reigns supreme and travel costs are nil, only started forcing amateur clubs up the pyramid last year.

Add it all up, and the likelihood of this filing succeeding seems minimal.

Of course, it’s possible that the filers know they’re not going to win, just as Silva surely knew he wasn’t going to walk out of MLS HQ with the league’s future media rights in exchange for a pro/rel pyramid. This smells like a PR stunt.

So here’s the question: What’s the harm? There was no harm in Silva’s media-rights bet. How about this?

If it goes away quietly, no harm done. But there’s a danger in having an ongoing legal battle. MLS’ growth was hindered, quite substantially, by a lawsuit from its players that dragged on far longer than anyone anticipated. If you’re thinking of investing in soccer on any level in this country, would a legal dispute make you hesitate?

And lawsuits have a way of making each side bunker in.

So I have to ask: Given all the progress being made on pro/rel (check out next week’s Ranting Soccer Dad podcast), why was this considered a good idea?

 

 

Presenting the Perpetual Medal Count

How are each country’s Olympic athletes trending in World Championship and other competition? Glad you asked.

As it stands now, U.S. athletes are doing quite well, tracking a good bit ahead of how they finished in Rio 2016. So are Russian, Australian, Chinese and French athletes. British athletes, on the other hand, are falling rapidly.

pmc20170802

What does this mean?

Check out the Perpetual Medal Count, which adds up each country’s performance in Olympic events through all relevant World Championships. Each country starts with its medal count from the Rio Olympics, then gains or loses medals depending on how its athletes do in those events. In the chart above, the Rio medal count is on the left, and the Perpetual Medal Count on the right, with a plus/minus category at far right.

So if there’s been no relevant competition thus far (as in archery, badminton, basketball, boxing, canoeing, mountain bike, road cycling, equestrian, field hockey, golf, gymnastics, women’s handball, judo, modern pentathlon, rowing, rugby sevens, sailing, shooting, tennis, some volleyball, weightlifting, wrestling, and — until next week — track and field), the medals are still in the hands in the countries that won them in 2016.

Here’s how things stack up in some of the events that have been contested so far:

Track cycling: A huge 10-medal loss for Great Britain, which dominated in Rio and barely missed a shutout in worlds. Australia gained four.

Diving: More losses for the USA (-3) and Britain (-2); big gain for Russia (+4).

Swimming: Believe it or not, the USA broke even — 33 medals in 2016, 33 medals in Olympic events (including open water) in 2017. Add the new Olympic events, and the USA gets two more. The other major countries also came close to matching their Rio totals.

And the new events throughout the Games give the USA a huge boost — 15 medals total, though it’s tough to tell whether the skateboarding competition for the Olympics will resemble any other competition.

This will be updated every couple of weeks while we still have a lot of World Championships going on, then more sporadically in 2018, then picking up again in 2019.

Next up: the winter version.

The sprawling attempt to prevent travel soccer sprawl

Let’s play Soccer Optometrist.

Better like this?

Or better like this?

That’s the result of my attempt to demonstrate something I’ve been investigating and analyzing for the past two months in a couple of stories — the opus on all Development Academy issues and the five-point plan for reducing the confusion and unnecessary travel in elite soccer — and the first full-fledged Ranting Soccer Dad podcast, in which Mike Woitalla and I pointed to travel itself as the best place to cut costs in travel soccer. The logic is pretty simple — it’s tougher to cut coaching costs and much tougher to cut field costs than it is to cut the bills on hotels and airlines.

So the hypothesis I’m testing with these maps: Elite soccer players don’t need to travel like Odysseus to find competitive games. The Development Academy (adding girls’ teams this year) and the ECNL (adding boys) would be better off if they played each other and top U.S. Youth Soccer teams currently playing in the Eastern Regional League and National League.

I also learned two important lessons:

1. Don’t try to put 332 data points on a map of the Northeast U.S.

2. Most youth soccer clubs have atrocious websites.

But I did compile complete-ish data for most teams playing at a serious or semi-serious level in Region 1 (the East Coast from Virginia to Maine). I put the raw data on Github because I have delusions of becoming a data journalist. (And so people can check numbers at a glance and dive deeper if they wish.)

On the spreadsheet and the maps, all clubs are listed with their 2016-17 leagues EXCEPT the ECNL and DA, which have announced their fall lineups, plus a couple of clubs that have qualified for the National League. I did NOT go through and try to figure new qualifiers for the ERL or calculate promotion/relegation in EDP and local leagues. (But there’s a little bit of pro/rel later.)

The rankings are all from Youth Soccer Rankings. All rankings should be taken with a grain of salt, but this site has the most comprehensive results database. It has the occasional error, mostly because teams often don’t use consistent names (“PREMIER 01 GIRLS FC BULLDOGS” or “PREMIER FC BULLDOGS,” etc.) and because a couple of leagues (looking at you, Virginia Premier League) have sites that simply don’t make it easy to look up results. But it does a remarkable job of compiling and analyzing scores, and I chose the U17 level because that group is old enough for results to be relatively meaningful. I used girls leagues because boys DA teams generally aren’t ranked because they rarely play outside the DA.

I have a plausible reorganization of the “national” leagues in U.S. youth soccer — the Development Academy, the ECNL and the U.S. Youth Soccer regional/national competitions. On these maps, I call that “Division 1.” I’m a little less convinced with what I’m calling “Division 2,” for reasons that will be come apparent.

Here’s how I broke it down:

CRITERIA FOR CURRENT LEAGUES (the “Before” view in the before-and-after of my reorganization; the numbers all refer to rankings)

DIVISION 1: 64 teams

  • Elite Clubs National League (ECNL): 6 t10, 9 13-32, 47th, 82nd, 104th
  • Development Academy (DA): 4 t12, 2 35-75, 129th, 8 new teams
  • Eastern Regional League (ERL) and/or U.S. Youth Soccer National League (Natl): 2 t20, 8 21-50, 10 51-100, 5 101-200, 2 below
  • Two independent teams ranked in top 100

DIVISION 2: (105 teams)

NPL (U.S. Club Soccer) regional leagues

  • New England Premier League (NEPL): 6th, 6 40-100, 2 below 200
  • NPL Northeast: 3 t50, 4 51-100, 6 101-200
  • New York Club Soccer League (NYCSL) – NPL Division: 2 t20, 5 51-100, 2 101-200
  • Virginia Premier League (VPL): 2 50-100, 4 101-200, 3 below 200

Non-NPL regional leagues

  • EDP – 1st Divisions
    • North (NY East/CT): 2 t50, 1 51-100, 3 101-125
    • Central (NJ): 3 t50, 2 51-100
    • East (NJ/PA East): 2 t50, 3 51-100
    • South (PA East/MD): 1 t50, 3 51-100
  • New England Premiership – 1st Division (NEP): 4 51-100, 5 101-200
  • Club Champions League (Va/Md): 1 t50, 2 51-100, 4 101-200, 3 <275, one unr.
  • 11 independent teams in top 200 (11)

DIVISION 3 (162 teams)

I only mapped this on the rather jumbled 332-team map. I may go back and do some local case studies at some point. But for posterity, here’s how I came up with a third division.

Complete leagues (or divisions of leagues)

  • EDP – 2nd Divisions: majority in top 200; all but 2 in top 300)
  • EDP – Premier divisions (third tier): 7 101-200, 10 201-300
  • Connecticut Junior Soccer Association – Elite: 2 101-200, 4 201-300)
  • National Capital Soccer League – Div. 1 (NCSL; DC/MD/VA): 3 101-200, 3 201-300 (disclaimer — the NCSL has collected some Dure family registration fees over the years)
  • NEP – 2nd Division: 3 101-200, 3 201-300
  • Northeast Soccer League – Elite (NSL; NE): 2 101-200, 1 200-210, only 4 teams
  • NYCSL – NYPL Division 1 (second tier): 2 101-200, 3 201-300
  • PA West Spring Classic League – Div. 1 (SCL): 87th, 3 101-200, 2 201-300
  • Thruway League – National (NY West): 11th (also ERL/Natl), 54th, 173, 218th, unranked

In the top 300 or champion in a league with multiple teams over 300

  • 5 from CJSA – Premier
  • 2 each from EDP Championship Central and Championship North (fourth tier)
  • 3 from Jersey Area Girls Soccer (JAGS)
  • 2 from Long Island Junior Soccer League – Premier A (LIJSL)
  • 2 from NCSL – Div. 2
  • 3 each from NEP Championship North and Central (third tier)
  • 3 from NSL – Premier
  • 2 from NYCSL – NYPL Division 2 (plus fall champ that also plays LIJSL)
  • 2 from NYCSL – NYPL Division 3
  • 2 from Rock Spring League (PA East)
  • 2 from SCL – Div. 2
  • 3 from Thruway League – Presidents (second tier)
  • 2 from Virginia State League – Division 1 (VSL; plus 2 teams playing up)

Champions or top U16 teams in these leagues/divisions/states

  • Baltimore Beltway Soccer League (BBSL, Md.): top team 466
  • Blue Ridge Soccer League (BRSL, Va.): champion 373 (also beat team playing up at U17)
  • Central Pennsylvania Youth Soccer League (CPYSL): top team 412
  • Lancaster County Soccer League (LANCO, PA East): top team 344
  • Long Island Junior Soccer League – Premier B (LIJSL): champion 238
  • Mid New Jersey (MNJ): top team 468
  • Monmouth Ocean Soccer Association (MOSA, NJ): champion 414
  • Maine State Premier League (MSPL): champion 383, plus team (69) that played up
  • NCSL – Div. 3: champion 287
  • NEP – League 1 (fourth tier): champion 253
  • New Hampshire State League (NHSL): champion 542
  • NSL – Select: champion unranked
  • Philadelphia Area Girls Soccer – Div. 4 (PAGS, top tier, fall league): champion 318
  • Vermont State League (VtSL): top team 334, top-ranked team 328
  • West Virginia: remaining top-ranked team 323

So how did I do the “reimagined” maps? Like so:

DIVISION 1: Add champions of Division 2 leagues. (EDP-1N champion New York SC Elite NPL is already in DA.)

DIVISION 2

  • Remove those who were promoted.
  • Add champions of:
    • EDP – 2nd Divisions
    • CJSA – Elite
    • NCSL – Div. 1
    • NEP – 2nd Division
    • NSL – Elite
    • NYCSL – NYPL Division 1
    • SCL – Div. 1
    • Thruway League – National (already in)

Here’s how it turned out:

BEFORE

AFTER 

That’s an improvement, but perhaps less so than Division 1.

The Division 2 issues:

  • Pennsylvania West somehow dropped to one team. They have some company at the western tip of New York and in West Virginia, but that’s not a league. Possible solutions:
    • Play up an age group in a local league.
    • Cross the regional boundary and play in Ohio.
    • Just drop to Division 3 unless they’re utterly dominant.
  • Roanoke Star, all the way in southwestern Virginia, also might need to cross a regional boundary and play teams in and around Greensboro.
  • Virginia’s high school season is in the spring. (So is Delaware’s, though only for girls.) I should probably split the “DMV” region along the Potomac.

 

Do we care about high school soccer? Depends on the region. I found most elite teams currently play few to no league games during their high school season. A lot of lower second and third tiers that often play through high school season, depending on the region. In my densely populated area (Northern Virginia), that makes sense — players who aren’t on the top travel teams won’t make their high school teams. That’s surely less common in more rural areas.

High school play is the biggest wedge between the Development Academy and the ECNL. The latter allows players to play in high school. The former doesn’t — sort of. Players can get waivers if their admission or scholarship to private school is contingent on their participation on the soccer team.

If we combine the DA and ECNL, we’d have to let players play in high school. If some teams want to skip high school soccer and play more league games, we can work that out.

Final note: This plan wouldn’t necessarily replace existing leagues. The NPL (U.S. Club Soccer’s network of regional leagues) would get some reorganization, and it could split the second tier with the EDP or share it. (The sprawling EDP already has some NPL divisions in other age groups, so it’s not a stretch to imagine them cooperating.) I do think Club Champions League should reinvent itself as a series of showcase events rather than a “league,” which is another rant.

The rest of the pyramid remains intact, perhaps with the stipulation that teams would need waivers if they’re a certain distance from the league’s geographic center.

There’s no way to prevent all lopsided games. But with this system in place, at least teams wouldn’t travel 300 miles for an uncompetitive game. If they still want to fly to Disney World for a tournament, they’re still free to do so. (Can I join your club?)

 

Are refs calling NWSL and MLS games differently?

A few of us have gotten the impression that referees in NWSL games are awarding tons of penalty kicks but not many yellow cards. Are we right?

Sort of …

ref-comp

So the PKs, aside from games involving Sky Blue, aren’t that far off. But yellow cards? A rare sight in an NWSL game.

If you’d like to check my work, have at it …

Ranting Soccer Dad has debuted

My new youth soccer podcast, Ranting Soccer Dad, is now available through this site and … well … Podbean. I’ll work on getting it everywhere else.

You can find it on the Podbean site or just check the Ranting Soccer Dad page here.

Future episodes will have interviews. That’s why this one is Episode 0. It’s just me explaining a bit about what I’m planning to do.

Meet the new site, not quite the old site

SportsMyriad had a weird, wonderful seven-year run. The last year was a bit half-hearted, honestly — a hacker attack sapped my energy, and I’ve been retrenching, work-wise.

I’ve migrated my posts and pages over here, essentially combining my two sites. Simplify. Zen. All that Eastern philosophy stuff but with an English-language keyboard.

And I’ll still blog on occasion, but this site will feature work I’m doing here, there and everywhere. That includes a new podcast on youth soccer and related topics (general soccer, parenting, philosophy, migrating to Mars), and I’m quite excited about it.

Follow, tune in, enjoy.

Single-Digit Soccer: NSCAA convention presentation (abridged)

On Saturday, I had the honor of speaking at the NSCAA Convention, presenting what I’d put together toward my Single-Digit Soccer book, sharing ideas, and making bad jokes about my youth team being named Athens Applejacks.

In case you couldn’t make it — or in case you weren’t writing things down — here’s a synopsis. It may even have some things I forgot to mention. U.S. Youth Soccer will also post slides later.

About the book

Single-Digit Soccer is an exploration of issues, a guidebook for parents, a collection of fun stories and so forth — all in the U-Little age groups (U10, U9, etc.).

The book will come out sometime this year, but I’m still seeking input. Please chime in and let me know what you think.

About me (writer)

USA TODAY, Long-Range Goals, Enduring Spirit (if you’re on this blog, you already know I can be found here). My youth soccer work started in earnest when I covered the unveiling of the U.S. Soccer curriculum for ESPN.com.

About me (parent coach/player)

Yes, I was the starting sweeper for the U14 Athens Applejacks 1970. As a player, it’s been all downhill from there, and I recently retired from indoor soccer goalkeeping because my hand didn’t recover from a couple of saves.

As a coach, I’ve been involved with House league, All-Stars and a “crossover” program in which our U7s and U8s sign up for extra training and play against teams from other clubs. I have an “E” license and will get my “D” this year.

The age we’re talking about

I love this video:

Mixed messages

There’s a chasm between what we say and what we do. U.S. Youth Soccer says we shouldn’t have competitive tournaments, tryouts or a split between “recreational” and “competitive” at U10. Then we have U9 State Cups.

Tryouts

We worry about kids not having enough fun, getting too serious too soon, and then quitting. So at U9, we’re telling kids they’re not good enough. You don’t get to train with the great coach. You don’t get the fancy warmups. You can’t play in a tournament.

The kids who make it

Then we tell other 8-year-olds they’re hot stuff. These kids strut around school like they own the place. “Hi, Coach Beau! I’m really good — I made travel!” Then coaches wonder why these kids aren’t devoted to improving themselves. It’s like Nuke Laloosh with the quadraphonic Blaupunkt.

Trickling down

And it trickles down even lower. U8 ID Days. U6-U10 Tryouts. And if your club isn’t doing these hyperserious things, the club next door is. In our “crossover” league, we took 48 kids who just signed up, split them into four teams and took them into games against teams that had tryouts for the top 12 players. It was House players who signed up for additional training vs. a travel team in everything but name.

ISSUES

The idea here is to frame the discussion. Some of these issues don’t have simple solutions. Some are just things to weigh in the balance when making any sort of decision about soccer — how to set up a club, how to coach, what parents should look for, etc.

How much is this going to cost?

Big issue, especially for parents. Travel teams can easily cost $1,000 per season not inclusive of tournament fees, uniforms, postgame stops at McDonald’s, etc. And one elite league in my area has a four-hour, 35-minute drive between clubs. For a league game.

How much time will this take?

Again, see that travel distance. Now all these other commitments. Welcome to the U9 Academy, where you’ll spend three days a week training for your 30-35 games in a 10-month span.

What do parents really want?

Not that simple. Some are chasing college scholarships. Most just want their kids to do something fun and healthy. Some hope their kids can play high school soccer. Some hope their kids get the social experience of playing travel soccer with other kids who love the sport. And some don’t want to drive more than five minutes to practice.

Should we play year-round?

Probably not. That’s what orthopedists and psychiatrists would say. But parents are terrified of their kids being left behind. Or they play indoor soccer in the winter because they get something different from that than they get from their house leagues — they can play with their buddies.

Winning vs. development

The big one. Entire rooms at NSCAA tackle this issue. And we all say development. Are you rotating everyone on defense and in goal? Are you selecting only small numbers of players, like some teams do in our crossover and All-Star tournaments? Are you teaching your players to foul, dive and do other acts of wanton gamesmanship? I saw it at a U9 tournament.

Fun vs. development

Some kids are content playing “Mr. Wolf, What Time is It?” Some want to play actual soccer. And then there’s the whole notion of keeping score. A lot of kids want to do it.

Fun vs. structure

How many of your clubs have time set apart for free play, where kids can come in and play in mixed groups with parents and coaches told to shut the bleep up? We say the game is the best teacher. We warn against joystick coaching. Is that message getting across? A program near me has three training sessions for every game at U8 — the games are every other week, and they just play other kids in the program. I can’t think of a kid I’ve coached, and I’ve coached some very good ones, who would enjoy that.

Fun vs. parity

Kids like to play with their friends. Some groups of friends have greater interest in and aptitude for soccer than others. So the typical house league might bust them up. Fair? Perhaps. Fun for all? Maybe not. Are there other ways this house league could be fair without splitting up all the groups of friends?

Development vs. parity

Are unevenly matched games a good challenge? Or a waste of time?

What kind of development?

Some clubs and curricula think we should teach passing at early ages; some insist that you can’t. When Claudio Reyna unveiled the curriculum, he warned against “overdribbling.” Coaches at the back of the room were puzzled. (I bumped into Reyna soon after the curriculum presentation — he used Barcelona as an example of a team that takes 1-2 touches and then passes, rarely dribbling.)

Tracking/segregating

Do “A” players need to train apart from “B” players? Will it drag down the “A” players to be around other kids? Should we ban them from playing at recess with their buddies? And what’s an “A” player at age 8 anyway? Can we do it differently, perhaps putting everyone in one pool and only pulling them out for voluntary extra training and merit-based tournaments?

Burnout

Are we burning these kids out? Mentally and physically?

RADICAL IDEAS

This part will work best when you can see the slides. I list the issues on one side of each slide, and I highlight the ones that are addressed by each idea.

These are not Commandments. These are discussion-starters. Some of them actually contradict each other. Some may make sense for one club and not another, depending on your geography, your schools, your staffing, etc.

Tailor practices to your team, not vice versa

By all means, try to follow a curriculum, but meet reality at some point. Your curriculum may tell you to do a completely different set of exercises each week, but your kids may not have that kind of attention span. The kids I coach usually don’t, and I can’t spend half of every practice explaining the new exercises.

Put more coaching education online

This is actually happening — through NSCAA, U.S. Soccer, AYSO and others. That’s great. We need to train parent coaches, and they can’t always drive 90 minutes for two weekends a year to get a “D” license. We’re asking them to volunteer as soccer coaches, not join the Army Reserve.

Don’t push specialization

We need to make what we say match what we do. I’m not sure how. Maybe just talk to your parents. The trouble is that if you don’t offer something, they may sign up for a program somewhere else. But we can encourage kids to do other things. Basketball will help teach team tactics. Swimming will keep them fit. Martial arts can teach discipline. Chess, music, acting — everything else will make them well-rounded people. That, moreso than a singular focus on soccer, will help kids at college admissions time.

Teach positions, or at least basic tactics

My first youth sports experience was at the Athens YMCA playing four sports a year, mostly under the guidance of football coaches. In football season, we ran plays. The coach could call “32,” and I knew it meant a running back was going run into the hole between me (the right guard) and the center. Then in the spring, we all played 11v11 soccer, and it wasn’t a total train wreck.

One reason this is important: “Magnetball” can easily drive skilled kids out of soccer. They can’t get the ball, so they can’t use their skills.

Do programs through school

We ask parents to pick up their kids from school, take them home for an hour or three, then drive them back to a soccer field that might be right back at that school. Meanwhile, the local karate school is picking the kids up in a van. Parents who strain to make one soccer practice a week will gladly sign their kids up for five days of karate. It’s not because they’re chasing a karate scholarship.

Don’t travel more than 90 minutes for league games

Some people in the audience objected because their geography demands such travel. That’s understandable. In the metro D.C. area, it seems ridiculous.

Part-time travel

This is what I see in our local baseball, and guess what? We produce a lot of good players without segregating people. The players all play Little League. A few of them also get “elite” play on a travel team that just plays a handful of games.

Group by skill level, not age group

Another idea borrowed from baseball. If you start playing at age 7, you don’t just get tossed in with U8s who have been playing for years. You’ll likely start at Rookie baseball while more experienced 7-year-olds play Single-A. People progress through the ranks at their own pace. By the time they’re 12, they’re all in the same league.

Doesn’t that sound better than splitting into “recreational” and “competitive” at a tryout at age 8, with little opportunity to bridge the gap?

Have a program between “House” and “travel”

Another idea for keeping late bloomers in the game and for rewarding players who are serious about soccer but can’t match the elite players’ athleticism. Ideally, give everyone who wants professional training and evenly matched competition the chance to get it – maybe not every day or every week, but at some point each season.

THE ULTIMATE GOAL: Be inclusive

The one thing of which I’m firmly convinced is that THIS is the ultimate goal for all of us who care about youth soccer. We need to meet the needs of elite players with good competition, at least on occasion. We need to meet the needs of those who are not elite yet but might be. We need TOPSoccer. We need basic rec league for people just starting out. We need to give all players a good time — these are our future soccer fans and our future youth club volunteers.

And I want this project to be inclusive. I want to hear from you. Comments, email, Twitter, skywriting — anything’s fine. (But get a move on — I’d like to get this book done!)