Friday, November 23, 2007

A Sad Ending

Dear Anson,

You said I had a unique appreciation for the drama that soccer holds. Well, I guess that’s one of the reasons I felt so bad when the season ended so abruptly for my 18s

There we were, cruising along through the State Cup. First weekend -- eight goals scored, two allowed. Six points, five bonus points, one game to go. All we had to do was tie and we would advance to the Final Four.

That was all my players wanted. This was their last year together. The core of the team had played together since they were 10, and every Fall was like a reunion. They laughed about "the old days," they played hard, and they played with heart. The funny thing about this team is that most of them play other sports, and soccer is the primary sport for only a select few. But when they get together, they can achieve things beyond what should be expected..

"The last time" was a theme throughout the year. "This is the last time we will play a home game ... this is the last time we will practice together." After we switched training fields from a baseball outfield to a real soccer field, they were sad. They had trained on the baseball outfield for years, and they would miss it.

So when the "last time" came for real, it was devastating. There was out-and-out, uncontrollable sobbing. I felt horrible.

You see, it was my job to get them to the Final Four, my job to put them in a position to win, my job to give them a happy ending. And I was proud of the job I did. I managed to find a way for my basketball player to play a position that allowed her to hold the ball, distribute, and score. I was able to clear space for my cross country runner to run and run and run, and for my incredible athlete (basketball and tennis) to create havoc with her unorthodox style. And I was able to put my soccer players in positions where they would get the ball the most.

But I couldn't get that one last win.

One girl cried for two solid hours, partly because we lost but mostly because it was over. She couldn't even lament the "last times" anymore. It all ended so suddenly and so cruely.

I didn't know what to say to them after the game. All I could do was tell them to hold their heads high. Obviously, I couldn't stop thinking about it. How can you not think about devastated girls you have coached for four years. They were 13 and 14 when I first met them. Now they are getting ready for college. They mean a lot to me, they always will.

We had a team party a week later. Getting together helped them, and it helped me. I gave them each a nice gift that will serve as a reminder of their time together. All week I thought long and hard, trying to come up with some deep philosophical wisdom to relay to them. At first I thought they would expect me to give them some meaningful speech to help ease the pain. But then I had a revelation. To them, I wasn't a philosopher. I was the guy who inspired them by making them laugh, the guy who cares about them as people, and the guy who always found something slightly off the wall to say that grabbed their attention and made them think.

So I told them that I was heart-broken when we lost and the tears were devastating to me. "But", I said with a sudden burst of energy and enthusiasm, "I have a quote for you. It's from Dr. Seuss." (No lie, look it up). The quote is ...

"Don't cry because it's over; smile because it happened.”

When I think of more, I'll write.
You know who.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Again, Ryan Must Go

Dear Aaron,

Don't mean to pile on, or kick a guy when he's down. But U.S. coaches certainly should understand the dangers of yapping away in the media.

This adds to the disasterous performance of our National Team coach.

When I think of more, I'll write.
You know who

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Obviously, Ryan Must Go

Dear Tony,

I have never done this before. I didn't do it when Bora refused to work on youth development or coaching education. I didn't do it when Sampson fell in love with his own importance and devised the silly 3-6-1 formation then embarrassed us in France. I didn't do it when April had a meltdown in Australia and her team continuously under-performed. I didn't do it when you didn't produce in Sweden in '95.

But I'll do it now. Greg Ryan needs to go. If we can pull it off before the third-place game, that would be nice. But I understand we may need to wait until he gets back from China.

He's a nice guy, but he has ruined the U.S. women's national team -- their confidence, their reputation, and their popularity. Our place atop the world is gone. Of course, everyone knew it was coming some day. Brazil, Germany, Norway ... they were all right there. And we knew as early as 1998 that if Brazil got more of their population involved in women's soccer, it would be very bad news for us. The fact is that our place was gone about a year ago. It just hadn't been proven yet.

I've seen it before. The pressure of playing in a World Cup or an Olympics gets to coaches. They over-react to it and do something that can't be fixed. Replacing Solo was an over-reaction if you look at it in the rear-view mirror or through a clear windshield. It told the players he was desperate to change the team in order to play another team. This came from a guy who had little or no confidence in the roster he selected, rarely using his bench through the first four matches. Then all of a sudden, he goes to his bench for a new goalkeeper? By the way, he embarrassed Bri, a player who has done as much as anyone for women's soccer in this country. He put her in a situation she was not prepared for, and set her up to fail.

His management of the Brazil match was, as Foudy said, "mind-boggling." Using two subs on defenders when you are down three goals with 10 players? That's hard to justify. What that told me is that he needed more people to thump long balls to Abby, which is the style of play that got him in this mess to begin with.

The style is what bugs me most. That set us back as a country 10 years. Is that how our youth and college teams are supposed to play? If our national team is a model for the rest of our system, then, yes, that is what we are supposed to be doing. Won't catch me playing that way, though.

All of that tells me two things. First, he wasn't prepared to coach at the World Cup. Second, he didn't do a good job picking his staff. Was there no one sitting near him to suggest that he was killing the team by replacing Solo? Did no one suggest that he might need to put an attacking player in the game when he was down by three? Or did he refuse to listen?

So, who do we get to replace him? I have one choice.

Brandi Chastain. Not only does Brandi have a solid background in the women's game, but she is also a student of soccer with a very high-level understanding of tactics. She is well-respected, says and does the right things (later in her life, not necessarily earlier in her career), and she would help mend the team’s image which took a horrible hit this month.

I'm sure you remember. After you won in 1999, you went to the Federation AGM and got grilled and ridiculed for the way you won. China was better, they said. We didn't have enough combination play, they whined. Well, if the Fed wasn't satisfied then, what will they say now? I don't have a very good track record trying to understand the moves the USSF leadership makes, so here's my prediction. A new four-year contract for Greg Ryan.

When I think of more, I'll write.
You know who

Monday, September 24, 2007

Heart, Effort, Quality and High Standards

Dear Roger,

Last week I wrote that my U13s got stomped in a lackluster performance and then came back the next day (after a couple long "chats" with me) and put in the performance of the season.

I ended that post saying how was able to start talking to them about maintaining high standards. Well, we played a game this past Saturday and now I have to adjust my coaching a little bit.

We played a team with which we have a long history of close, hard-fought games. Four seasons of matches, I'm told, have all ended in loses or draws. Not this time. It wasn't even close. It was nowhere near the performance I was expecting from this bunch. In fact, it was very hard for me to believe.

Just six minutes in, it was 1-0. By halftime, it was 3-0. The second half was much of the same dominance, but no more goals.

We were just unbelievably good. I challenged them to get a goal in five minutes. It took six. I told them to shut down service out of the back, they did. I told them to play to feet and keep possession, they did. I told them to stay organized in the back to handle the other team's fast and strong striker. She was never a threat.

Now, I have to step back a bit. I told them at halftime that they just set a new standard and it was pretty high. The job now, I said, is to see if we can raise that standard higher. The standard didn't drop in the second half, but I'm not sure it was raised. I could really care less. Now, it's about consistency of effort and quality.

Let me tell you, this is downright fun.

When I think of more, I'll write
You know who

Friday, September 21, 2007

Balancing Development and Creativity

Dear Bob,

Soccer Dad over at On the Pitch has an interesting post about player development.

One of his points is this:

If proper development means less structure in practice to allow for creativity at the expense of a few wins, I think many would be cool with that. But they have to be convinced that there is ‘a better way’ and shown why and how.

In my opinion, less structure is not the entire answer, just as too much structure is not the entire problem. Soccer Dad is posting about the balance between individual skill development and nurturing creativity in young players. He begins by talking about how we strive to create players that can pass well so we can create teams that can pass well.

There are two separate issues here, so first is a little history. Thirty or so years ago, the U.S. coaching community was greatly influenced by the Dutch, as was most of the world. The Dutch, led by Rinus Michels, promoted small-sided games as a means of training youth players. Four-v-four was main component. We adopted that into our coaching education. But being a naive soccer country, we saw four-v-four as a shape to play out of, not a teaching environment. We started teaching two-touch play. Everything was two-touch. It's pretty obvious that you can't dribble much with two-touch restrictions, but it wasn't obvious to us at that point. Our national team was lucky to be able to play two-touch soccer, let alone our kids.

As a soccer country, we have always been influenced by the Europeans, not the South Americans or the Central Americans, because, frankly, our immigration heritage has seen Europeans emerge into leadership roles much faster than any other ethnic group. The European model is structure, organization and team. South or Central Americans lean more on flair, creativity and individualism. But both have heavy emphasis on skill development.

So, that left us with a bunch of two-touch players who had never been allowed to be creative.

Now back to the idea of what coaches allow in training. If we allow and encourage players to make creative mistakes, we promote creativity. If we put players in an environment where they can be creative, they will become more creative. But we can't just throw them out there and let them play. They need to proper technique first, obviously.

And we can't allow improper technique, even in their free play. Receiving the ball with their shin guards or with their knee is not creative, waiting for the ball to arrive before playing it, is not something we can allow, nor is reaching across your body to receive a ball with your dominate foot. The worst is lazy technique -- a half-hearted effort at an important skill.

Less structure, more freedom is an easy way to look at it. But it is kind of like talk radio -- Conservatives good, Liberals bad. There's more to it, and that is what I love about soccer -- there is always more to it.

I think the ideal training environment is when a coach can organize free play -- combine the European structure and the South American freedom. We have to create a situation where players learn the proper technique then have the freedom to learn by themselves how to best utilize that technique.

A different -- and a little more high-faluting -- way to look at it is how a national team coach once explained it to me. "Players have to have technical solutions for tactical problems." That makes sense. We have to have the skill to get out of sticky tactical situations -- whether it's in front of our own goal, in midfield, or in front of the opponent's goal. And we have to be able to do it under pressure. I think it all begins with what we allow.

Oh, and by the way, we should never allow a kid to be called a "ball hog" unless it is said in praise. Ball hogs just haven't learned their options yet. So if you have one on your team, you are a lucky coach. I'll write about ball hogs soon.

When I think of more, I'll write
You know who

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Gotta Have Heart

Dear Aly,

Had a game with my U13 last Saturday. Played like crap for the final 50 minutes. First 20 were pretty good, though.

We played a very good team and lost 4-0. We gave them two goals -- one own goal and then handed their player the ball 10 yards out. One of their girls swerved a corner kick into the far, upper corner. So we were down 3-0 and had made just one mistake. Then we gave up. Never challenged for a ball, didn't look like we wanted the ball. Sloppy passes, no movement, etc., etc.

So it gave me a chance to talk about heart, effort, courage and standards. And let's face it, those are concepts that U13s don't usually think about. First, I told them that playing pretty possession soccer is great, but that alone is not going to win you any games. Heart wins games, effort wins games and personal courage is a by-product of heart and effort. Then we talked about standards and how that performace was well below the standard they have set for themselves and what I expect.

Fortunately, we had another game the next day. I was able to expand on Saturday's talk. Next, I told them that I was going to pick the starting lineup from the warmup. If they were not working hard and showing me effort and heart, they would not be starting. Okay, I came up with that on the spot and had determined the starting lineup on the way to the game in the car. But it worked.

I am a firm believer that your warmup sets the tone for the game. In a warmup you are preparing for the game. I will sometimes pull them in during the warmup and explain that to them and then say, "Right now, you are preparing to lose."

Anyway, we went after it hard in warmup. I pulled them together and said, "This is outstanding. It is exactly what I was talking about."

During the game, at least four of my players played better than they ever had for me. Everyone worked extremely hard, played their nice possession game but played it with some bite. And we won, which was a nice reward for them.

I am now able to talk about maintaining high standards, the value of heart and effort, and how we need to bring that to training every day. The girls now have some success to draw on when they think about those concepts.

And we are working on the fine line between the fury needed to win the ball and the composure to do something smart with it after you win it. And after three games, that's a nice place to be.

When I think of more, I'll write.
You Know Who

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Still Wondering About Next Generation

Dear Carla,

For a long time, I have been wondering about the next generation of U.S. women’s national team players. Well, here they are, and I’m still wondering.

Let’s say up front that I was and still am a big supporter of Mia Hamm, Carla Overbeck, Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers, Kristine Lilly, Joy Fawcett, Brandi Chastain and anyone else that played from 1996-1999. One of their greatest qualities was their leadership ability. Another was their sense of where they came from.

I’m sure you’ve read countless stories about the early days, the time when training camps were few and far between, travel was sketchy, accommodations were Spartan and morale was sky-high. There was a sense that everything they got, they earned. Nothing was handed to them. They had to fight for the simplest things – like uniforms or more than $10 a day per diem.

So I wonder sometimes about the new players. Do they truly get it? I don’t know, and I can only guess at the answer. I think Kate Markgraf, Christie Rampone, Cat Whitehill and Abby Wambach get it. Certainly Lilly gets it, so does Briana Scurry. The rest have just heard stories, and I’m not sure they truly know the history, responsibility and obligations associated with being on that team.

Something in the North Korea draw struck me as interesting. During the stoppage when Wambach was injured, Kristine Lilly pulled the team together and was very animated in her pep talk. Then the U.S. gave up two quick goals.

I am not -- and never will -- questioning Lilly's leadership abililty. I've seen for too long what a positive effect she has on a team whenever she opens her mouth. However, you have to wonder why the team did not respond to her, and in fact, did the opposite. I think their might be a softness in the group that didn't exist in the old days.

I hope they prove me wrong, and I’ll be quick to admit it when they do.

When I think of more, I’ll write.
You know who.

USA 2, North Korea 2

Dear Tony,

Not so good. The U.S. women's national team struggled to a 2-2 draw with North Korea, a team that should have been beaten yet appeared superior in virtually every aspect of the match.

Credit to the players for scratching out a draw and getting a point. But they appeared under-prepared for the North Koreans. Yes, I know, it's easy to second-guess while watching in your living room, but here goes.

A 4-3-3 is a bad idea when playing a quick, technical, balanced team. Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd and Lori Chalupny were over-matched and out-numbered in midfield all game. Chalupny was the most effective of the three, simply because she is the fittest and fastest of the midfielders. Her ability to chase is better than the other two. And chasing is what they were doing. The U.S. lost control of midfield early and never seemed to own it for any sustained period of time. Abby Wambach's goal was the only example of the forwards and midfielders working together. Heather O'Reilly's opportunistic finish to tie the game was a result of horrible defending and poor clearance, possibly the only time North Korea failed defensively.

And I never understood the point of three forwards if, for one, you can't build an attack and play the ball to them where they need it, or two, if they are going to constantly have to chase back into midfield to help. Three forwards are great if you are pressuring the other team's backs into submission, or creating a situation where passes are coming from midfield. Additionally, the North Koreans were able to own every second ball in midfield, simply because of numbers.

And during the run-up to the World Cup, coach Greg Ryan said the strength of the team was scoring off re-starts. Great. Being efficient on re-starts is a valuable tool. But only if the other team fouls you.

So for whatever reason, the U.S. dug themselves a hole. Friday they have to start climbing out of it.

When I think of more, I'll write
You know who

Monday, September 10, 2007

Their Glorious Leader

Dear Aaron,

Whenever a World Cup rolls around, I always look forward to seeing the different styles of play. Each nation takes a unique approach to the game. Sometimes the differences are slight, but nonetheless different.

Usually, a nation's approach can be traced to their history and culture. Now that the Women's World Cup is here, let's take a look at some of the teams. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about North Korea, aka the Democratic Republic of Korea, an inaccurate moniker if I heard heard one. So, we'll start with them.

The North Koreas are all about teamwork. Every player is technically strong, they move the ball as a group, the defend as a group, and individual flair is pretty much non-existent. They seem to have taken advice from Major Frank Burns, The MASH doctor who said, "Individuality is fine as long as we are all doing it together."

Anyway, North Korea, in my opinion, will never win anything outside of Asia for that very reason. Without someone able to step up and take over in the big moment of the big game, you won't be successful at the World Cup level. For all I know, stepping up and taking charge might be against the law. That little guy, the dictator of North Korea, Whatshisname Kim, probably doesn't like it. And North Korea is competing for him, or at least that's what they say. Every press conference in 2003 began with the translator explaining that the team is trying to please "Our Glorious Leader."

And that's another competitive problem. If the players aren't able to play for themselves and for each other, they won't be at their best.

The U.S. will struggle a bit. There will be nerves and that strange mixture of adrenaline and expectation that will come to a head at kickoff. But adrenaline and expectation are better than fear and dread.

Bottom line: USA 3, North Korea 1. Kristine Lilly will not let this team lose the opener.

When I think of more, I'll write.

You Know Who

Friday, September 7, 2007

Why Not Just Play Direct?

Dear Jay,

As I've said here before, my U13 team is pretty good. We've played six matches and have had trouble building the attack. The problems stem from comfort with the ball under pressure and proper runs off the ball. We are working on that.

This week, we worked a lot on supporting runs, joining the attack, off-the-ball running and passing accuracy, At one point the other night, we were struggling with both the concepts and the execution. Half-joking, my assistant says to me, maybe we should just play direct.


In one of our six tournament matches, we played a very good team from Virginia. We lost 3-2. Neither of our goals came from any kind of build-up. On one, we won the ball and the girl hit a great shot. The other was off a corner that we created by banging the ball into their end and pressuring. The entire game, we played direct. Not by choice, but because the of the reasons I stated earlier -- comfort under pressure and naive movement. So why not just play direct? Why don't we just whack it down the field, pressure it and try to win games on effort, heart and hustle, qualities we rarely lack.

I think we all know the answer -- it's wrong. It does the players no good, it creates a false sense of how good you actually are, and it hinders (perhaps halts) development.

So we will continue working on the things that make us better, smarter soccer players and the goals will come. But let's be honest, there is a time and place for direct soccer. It should be one of your team's offensive weapons. But never the sole means of attack.

When I think of more, I'll write
You know who

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Why I Coach, Part III

Dear Alex,

I was reminded the other day of one of the reasons why I love coaching. My players make me laugh.

A few years ago, one of my players was running high school cross country. At practice one day, she came to an intersection, and there was a car on her left at a stop sign. The car stopped, my player started running across the street. The driver, however, looked to his left and turned right, slowly. He ran into my player.

That's not the funny part.

The girl was fine. The car barely hit her. But when she told the rest of the team, they couldn't stop laughing -- after seeing that she was okay, of course.

Okay, so about three weeks later in a game, a big girl on the other team steamrolled another one of my players. This girl is pretty flexible and rarely -- if ever -- goes down with an injury. So when she stayed down, I assumed she was in a fair amount of pain. When the ref waived me on the field, I jogged over to the player, still concerned about her.

When I got there, she was laughing. When I asked her what was so funny, she said, "Remember when Kristine got hit by that car? This was just like that."

We laughed all the way to the sideline.

When I think of more, I'll write
You know who

Friday, August 31, 2007

Slanting the Line

Dear Farrell,

The Slanty Line concept is a great one for youth soccer coaches. The idea comes from the old game kids used to play in PE. You have a rope stretched out with two kids holding it at each end. One by one, the kids jump over it. Then you raise the rope higher and everyone jumps over it again. Whoever misses it is out. They go sit and wait for the activity to end.

That's where the problem arises. The kids who end up sitting out are the kids who need the activity the most. But should we dumb down the activity so everyone can participate? Well, no. That punishes the better athletes, the kids who want to accel and have the ability to do so. So what do you do?

You slant the line. Make it higher at one end and lower at the other. Let the kids choose where they want to jump over it.

That translate into soccer training, but not always so obviously or easily. I have a 1v1 activity that slants the line without the kids even knowing. You set up a grid of about 20x20. Two teams are at opposite corners facing each other (think of a diamond, one line at the top, one at the bottom of the diamond). One team has balls. The first player in the line with balls (usually no more than 4 in a line), plays the ball to the first player in the other line. Then they go 1v1. The dribbler gets one point if he makes it safely to one of the corner cones. If he/she makes it to the cone where the defender started (the other corner), it's three points. They switch lines after each dual so the defenders become attackers.

I like this activity because it's combative, it forces players to make moves, there is no outlet pass to use as a safety net, and it's competitive because one team wins.

The interesting part is that the line is slanted. If a player chooses to go for one point, they can do it and still have to work hard, think and be creative. If they choose to go for three points, it's even harder.

If you pay attention to it, you can start asking the kids why they never go for three. That could bring them out of their comfort zone and get them to try new moves and use more courage. You see kids bust out toward one of the side cones (1-pointers) and they quickly change direction and accelerate to the three-pointer.

I like it. One of my teams has an issue with 1v1 attacking and 1v1 defending. They elect to pass the responsibility to someone else instead of taking a defender on and cracking a shot or then making a pass. They are a very good passing team -- I'd call them advanced -- and this is a missing element.

As with any team, we have a pretty wide range of skill. But this activity seems to slant the line enough to keep everyone challenged while also being demanding.

When I think of more, I'll write
You know who.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Soccer Parenting 101

Dear Donna,

I told this to a parent on my U13 team once, and I don't think she appreciated it. "As the kids grow up," I said, "so will the parents."

That was reinforced in my mind this past weekend. I took my U18s to a tournament and the parental involvement was exactly what a coach would want it to be. The job of the parent, as I see it, is as follows:

1. Get the girls to the field on time
2. Disappear until the game starts
3. Sit, watch and cheer.

And that's exactly what they did. Of course, being the veterans that they are, they threw in a couple of nice extras. They set up the tent for the girls, but didn't linger and distract them. As soon as warmups started, they were gone. They brought coolers full of extra water, ice and cold towels -- which was nice because by halftime, my bottle of water was nearing the boiling point. They brought oranges, grapes and bananas. And they didn't carry the girls' bags for them -- a huge pet peeve of mine.

They were just there.

After the games, they are always ready to do what needs to be done. Get the girls to a cool place, feed them and get them back on time.

Plus, they have always been great to me. They understand the commitment I make to their daughters and go out of their ways to support what I do. I always get "Thank-yous" from them and they send truly heart-felt emails. I told them four years ago that I would take care of and protect their daughters. I proved it, so now they trust me and know they don't have to overstep their boundaries to do it.

Anyway, that's a great bunch of parents. Next week, I'll compare it to the group of parents who haven't grown up yet.

When I think of more, I'll write

You Know Who

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Why I Coach, Part II

Dear Caroline,

They certainly are a fun bunch. When I talk to parents of my U18 girls, they seem to think I am some kind of saint -- or at least have the patience of one. Who in their right mind, they ask, could tolerate eighteen 17-year-old girls? I've never claimed to be in my right mind, and since I enjoy the girls so much, I guess it's obvious that I'm at least a little odd. Besides, it's a lot better when they are 17 than when they were 14.

It's amazing to me how competitive they can be, while at the same time laugh at each other, joke with each other and still get results. We played our first tournament this past weekend and won our division, pretty easily actually.

We are not the most skilled team, but after four years with this group, I have found a system that allows them to be successful. That, to me, is an accomplishment. Not because we win more games than we lose, but because at 17 years old, these girls are still playing soccer. The alternatives to playing are not good for teenagers these days. They have too many options, too many ways to get in trouble.

The system plays to their strengths, protects their weaknesses and produces convincing wins. I have a new assistant coach this year who was skeptical of a system that utilizes one forward. After outscoring our three opponents by six goals, shutting out two teams and leaving with a pair of wins and a draw, she told me that my 4-5-1 formation may actually allow them to play better than they are capable. That's an interesting point.

Anyway, the best part is that the girls had a blast. This is their last year playing with each other and the core of the team has been together for seven years. That's a lot of history. All they want is to be successful and have a lot of a blast doing it. So that's my job.

It's a fun job, too. They make me laugh. I feel bad for them when they get down, but I am able to bring them back up -- partially because I know their personalities and the intracacies of their lives. That's a piece of coaching that I believe is very important and often overlooked.

For example, I know who wants to play college ball, so I demand more of them. I know who needs to bust out of their comfort zone, so I force them to do that. I know who is there for mostly social reasons so I permit as much of that as possible.

And, by the way, the parents are great. More on that later.

When I think of more, I'll write
You know who.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Why Soccer Parents are the Way They Are, Maybe -- Part II

Dear Chick,

Soccer Dad expanded on my post about trying to figure out soccer parents. He offers some interesting insights about sideline parents he's come across. Got me thinking some more.

As frustrated and baffled as I get with parents on the teams I coach, I can't help but find it all very fascinating. Why do they act that way? Why can't they control themselves?

Growing up, my mom and dad went to practically every soccer, hockey and baseball game I ever played. They liked sports -- still do -- and enjoyed watching me and my brother play. When I played baseball, they sat on the top row of the bleachers in left field. When I played soccer, they sat far behind the goal. When I played hockey, they were once again at the top row of the bleachers.

Much, much later, my mother told me that the reason they sat so far away was because my dad could not stand to be near the other parents. He wasn't a yeller, or even a cheerleader. But he had a way of whistling -- a piercing whistle, one of the cool ones that you don't need to put your fingers in your mouth to do. That let us know when we did something good. It was the same whistle that called us in for dinner, so I was well-trained in responding to it, much like Pavlov's Dog.

He played sports growing up, including college soccer. Yes college soccer in the 50s. What I have come to admire about him as a fan is that he did not feel the need to pass on his knowledge of the game to other parents. In fact, he prefered to avoid them -- and that's pretty funny if you ask me.

That's why I get such a kick, and sometimes so annoyed, at people who seek to educate everyone around them with their expertise on a game that they really know very little about. They rely on what in reality is a miniscule amount of knowledge relative to others around them -- especially those in left field.

When I think of more, I'll write.

You know who

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Let's Rank Coaches Instead

Dear Jay,

Soccer Dad got me thinking more about the issue of ranking youth soccer teams in his comment to the post I wrote called My U13s are Ranked! My U13s are Ranked!!"

The big problem I have with ranking youth teams is not necessarily what those rankings do to the kids, but what they do to the adults. I think we should rank the coaches. Every time they lose perspective, they lose points. Each time they sacrifice their "record" for true player development, they gain points.

Here's why ...

I know a dad whose son played on a replacement team in a US Club tournament that is billed as "Nationals." Ok, we know it's not a national championship. How can it be if it takes replacement teams? But it was a well-run, competitive tournament with teams from all over the country. Anyway, this team finished fourth of six in their age group, and the dad started telling people the team was "Top-5 Nationally." They were a second division classic team which means they weren't even top 10 in the state. It's all so unrealistic.

But here is the worst part. If rankings exist, coaches use them as a criteria to measure the jobs they are doing. That feeds on itself and soon the coaches are using it as the main criteria. So if they win major tournaments, they are a good coach. They also start picking tournaments (usually too many and too much travel) to further enhance their ranking. "We have to get into WAGS or our ranking will fall," for example. When rankings are a goal, or the goal, coaches start coaching to win. They develop players to get a result, they stiffle creativity to play safe, they keep kids on the bench who can greatly benefit from game time against strong opponents, they put too much pressure on kids to get what is actually a meaningless result in the long-term.

I spoke to a coach last year. He was trying to decide if his U11 team should enter the Classic Festival. He said, "If we don't win it, can we still get into Jefferson Cup?" First of all, you can't win the Festival, there are no winners. Secondly, if I ever start worrying about that as a coach, shoot me.

I love tournaments. They are a blast for me, but as I've mentioned before, a little perspective is needed.

I remember Bob Gansler, former US National team and Kansas City Wizards coach, telling me once, "When a coach tells you how many wins he has or how many trophies he's won, ask him how many players he's developed."

When I think of more, I'll write.

You know who

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

My U13s Are Ranked, My U13s Are Ranked!!!

Dear Rob,

I hope you see how ridiculous that sounds. Some of my parents asked me one time how not winning a certain tournament would effect our rankings. In my mind, I answered by saying, "Are you seriously asking me about our ranking at U12?" Out loud, I said, "I don't know. It's not important."

So, I had some free time today (big shock) so I went to Gotsoccer's rankings and checked it out. Yep, we're ranked. Pretty high too. Now, I completely understand what a crock these rankings are. Ranked below us (way below us in somce cases) are three teams that finished ahead of his in the league last spring. We beat two of them and tied one. Ranked below us but pretty close is a US Club team that 6 of my players played for, so some of my girls have the distinction of being ranked on two teams in the top 15.

There are also a collection of Challenge teams ranked ahead of Classic teams because they won their groups in tournaments against Challenge teams when Classic teams didn't win their groups against Classic teams.

I will admit the top 5 looks pretty accurate, based on my experience playing against them. Maybe they should stop there. Better yet, maybe they should stop ranking U12 and U13 teams altogether. What's the point? It gives parents something to get all worked up about and gives the players a false sense of their ability.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Tournament Time

Dear Chris,

I have this weekend off. It's my last weekend without a soccer game until Nov. 17. Coaching two teams means I have three tournaments back-to-back-to-back before the season begins. Then 10 straight weekends of league games with a midseason tournament thrown in.

I love tournaments. I guess it stems from the brief period of depression I go through at the end of each game I coach. Win or lose I'm sad when games are over. But there are some games that I feel like I just need to escape quickly before the ref changes his mind and tells me I actually lost. In tournaments, there is always another game right around the corner, either that day or the next morning.

Players love tournaments, too. They love playing a game, hanging around with their teammates and then playing again. Parents enjoy them as well, those that get a kick out of watching their kids compete anyway. You always have the whiners who complain about the heat or what they are missing by being there. I tend to ignore them.

I have to be careful, though. I have to clearly define the purpose of each tournament in my mind beforehand. Then, I have to be absolutely sure I remember that purpose throughout each half, each game, each day and each weekend.

The most important word in preseason tournament is "preseason." Remind me of that if I ever look like I am forgetting it. The purpose is to get the girls used to playing with each other, try some people at different positions, work on our shape in two different formations, and most importantly give all of them a lot of playing time. If I approach the tournament to win the trophy, I will forget most all of that.

There will be some teams that have come to win it. That's fine, I guess. If that's what they want to do, who I am to suggest otherwise? But even if you don't enter with the goal of winning the thing, you can still get caught up in the excitment of that close championship match or that do-or-die group match. If I replace a weaker player with a stronger player in that situation, please just smack me in the head.

Okay, all that sounds great, but in one of our preseason tournaments we will most likely be playing a team that is considered the best in the state. They probably are, and if they aren't they are in the top two. I am going to use that game as a measuring stick -- our best against their best. I am fascinated by devising ways to beat teams better than us. I absolutely love that. I can't help it. And I don't get paid that much, so that will be my little gift to myself. Afterall, one game won't destroy the development of a player, will it?

So just smack me now and get it over with.

When I think of more, I'll write.

You know who.

Why Soccer Parents Are The Way They Are, Maybe

Dear Nomar,

Let me say up front that I know all the good things soccer parents do. I understand the financial and time commitments they make so their children can participate. I'm fully aware of all that. But, too many are out of hand, and I've come up with some reasons.

1. Moms missed out on a lot: Let's say the typical soccer mom is between 30 and 50 years old. So they were ages 10-15 in the 70s and early 80s. If their son or daughter is exceling in soccer, chances are pretty strong mom was a good athlete. But mom didn't have the opportunities to advance in a sport, any sport. Certainly not soccer. So, like any mom who loves her kid, she wants her child to do things she missed out on. So she is intent to push her child to acheive things she never did.

That's all well and good. However, there is an abundance of moms who had some opportunities but did work hard enough for them. And they are just now figuring that out. Those are the scary moms. For whatever reasons -- usually cultural circumstances that involve their own parents -- they bowed to the social stigma surrounding girls and sports in their era. They may have been a tremendous athlete, but didn't pursue it because girls didn't do that.

Listen to Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly for a bit and they will use the same phrase -- "No one ever told me I couldn't do something because I was a girl." That's the important message, not "Don't make the same mistake I made, we paid for that personal trainer so you need to work harder."

2. The many faces of soccer dads: This is a little bit broader topic. There area many kinds of soccer dads. But generally speaking, the amount of overthetopness soccer dads display is directly related to their athletic experiences growing up.

First, you have the non-athlete, peripheral sports fan. They are generally quieter, less intense and successful in life. They make sure their kids' lives are balanced and they probably lean more toward academics than athletics. Their kids will miss practice and sometimes games for academic-related activities. I like these people a lot.

Then there is the sports fan dad. They probably played some sport at a pretty high level, maybe even collegiately, albeit on the bench. They listen to college football and basketball games on the radio at soccer games. They understand sports and can relate soccer to others sports in ways that are useful and hard to argue with. However, they also don't always understand the technical side of the game and the requirements needed to play. That makes them impatient and dangerous. They will say things to coaches like, "You need to have a practice where you teach the kids to get their heads up." Well, you can't do that because half the kids have an awful first touch and they spend three touches chasing the ball, so of course their heads are down. Or, he'll say, "They aren't hitting any through balls. Tell them to hit through balls." Well, let's back up and teach them to first recognized where opportunities exist for through balls and teach them the runs to make to create those opportunities and the supporting angles needed. The worst is, "We need to work on throw-in plays." Well, that's just stupid.

Then there is the high school superstar, usually the big fish in a small pond. More accurately, the biggest goldfish in the tank. They know it all. Their kid will probably play for three different clubs by the time they are 15. Then they will quit altogether. No coach will be good enough, and they will be very vocal on the sidelines. Their kid will be a yellow card magnet because of his/her mouth and the dad will think every ref has a vendetta against his child. They won't listen to professionals who have 20-30 years experience, but they live their lives according to Dean Smith, Coach K or Bill Parcels.

And usually, their kid isn't all that good.

When I think of more, I'll write.

You know who

The Source of Soccer Injuries

Dear Kathleen,

Remember when you were at cross country practice and got hit by that car. We still laugh at that. I’m not sure where this originated, but I found it on the NC Soccer Forum. Just goes to show you … don’t ever do anything.

* Sunday December 5th 2004. Playing in the Swiss league, Servette midfielder Paulo Diogo scored against Schaffhausen, then jumped into the crowd to celebrate. On the way, he managed to catch his wedding ring on a fence and tore off the top half of his finger. He was booked for excessive celebration.

* Arsenal vs Chelsea, Saturday 6th May 200. After scoring Arsenal's (and his) second (and winning) goal, Thierry Henry went to celebrate in the corner of the pitch and required treatment after hitting himself in the face with the corner flag. ArseWeb reader Joel points out that Marco Tardelli (Italy) did a similar thing in the World Cup final in Spain, 1982.

* Perry Groves was on the bench for an Arsenal match. They went one-nil up and he jumped up to celebrate only to hit his head on the roof of the dug-out! He knocked himself out and needed treatment from physio Gary Lewin.

* Sometime in the 70s, Norwegian International defender Svein Grondalen had to withdraw from an International after an accident which happened while he was out jogging. He collided with a moose.

* David Seaman once broke a bone reaching for his TV remote

* Another time, when already out with an injured knee, Seaman went carp fishing and put his shoulder out while reeling in a 26-pounder.

* Carlo Cudicini is also said to have damaged a knee reaching for a remote control. Could be that one or both (see David Seaman in the entry before last) is urban legend? Or that there's something about goalkeepers that makes them prone to this injury?

* In 1970 the career of Chic Brodie (Brentford keeper) was ended by injury following a mid-match collision with a dog that had invaded the pitch.

* In 1975 Man United keeper Alex Stepney screamed so hard at his team-mates that he broke his jaw.

* Brazilian star Ramalho was in bed for three days after swallowing a suppository intended to treat a dental infection

* Milan Rapaic once missed the start of Hajduk Split's season after sticking his boarding-pass in his eye at the airport.

* Not so funny perhaps, but where else are we going to tell you about it?..... Indonesian star Mistar, 25, was tragically killed by a herd of pigs that invaded his team's training pitch before a Cup fixture in 1995.

* in 1999 Portsmouth's Johnny "Lager" Durnin, playing a round of golf with Alan McLoughlin, crashed his buggy into a fairway hollow because he was admiring the view rather than watching the ground in front, and dislocated his elbow putting him out for 6 weeks.

* In 1993 keeper Dave Beasant was kept out by a foot injury caused by a falling jar of salad cream. Yes, he fumbled it, and because his hands were full he stuck out a foot to stop it hitting the floor!

* Barnsley's Darren Barnard slipped in a puddle of his new puppy's pee on the kitchen floor. The resulting knee ligament damage kept him out of action for five months.

* Wolves striker Robbie Keane ruptured his knee cartilage in 1998 after stretching to pick up his TV remote control (cf Seaman & Cudicini, above).

* Steve Morrow broke his collarbone after falling off Tony Adams while celebrating the 1993 League Cup final win.

* David Batty's return from an Achilles tendon injury was put back when he was run over by his toddler on a tricycle.

* Allan Nielsen of Spurs missed several matches after his daughter poked him in the eye

* Republic of Ireland star Alan McLoughlin, John Durnin's golf-partner (see above), ruptured his right thumb picking up daughter Megan.

* Alan Wright, Villa's little full-back, needed treatment for a knee strain caused by stretching to reach the accelerator in his new Ferrari. 'It gave me grief,' said Wright, who swapped the car for a Rover 416.

* Arsenal legend Charlie George never fully recovered from cutting off his big toe with a lawnmower.

* Lee Hodges of Barnet slipped on a bar of soap in the shower, wrenching his groin

* Alan Mullery missed England's 1964 tour of South America after putting his back out while brushing his teeth.

* Reserve Liverpool keeper Stensgaard once injured himself in an incident with an ironing board. We don't know if he was ironing at the

* Rio Ferdinand of Leeds damaged his knee in January 2001, while relaxing in front of the telly with his feet up on a coffee table. He had to go for scans on a tendon.

* Former Arsenal keeper Richard Wright, was warming up in the goalmouth in preparation for an FA Cup tie against Chelsea for his next club Everton, when he twisted his ankle. He did it landing on a wooden sign instructing people not to practise there.

* Spain (and Valencia) keeper Santiago Canizares was ruled out of the 2002 World Cup finals after a bottle of aftershave dropped on his foot (by himself, we assume) caused cuts and serious tendon damage.

* David Beckham needed stitches above his left eye following a dressing room incident after Arsenal's 2-0 FA Cup win at Old Trafford on 15th Feb 2003. The injury was caused by his manager Sir Alex Ferguson kicking a football boot at him.

* Crystal Palace keeper Alex Kolinko was hit around the head by his boss Trevor Francis in October 2002. Kolinko was on the bench, and Francis took offence when he laughed at their conceding a goal. The FA fined Francis 1000 pounds over the incident.

* In 1996, Grimsby manager Brian Laws broke midfielder Ivan Bonetti's cheekbone after the Italian threw food at him in a dressing-room row. Laws escaped punishment, but they both were forced to make public apologies.

* Shaun Goater injured a foot while playing for Man City against Birmingham in the autumn for 2003. The injury was sustained when he kicked an advertising hoarding in celebration of a goal by Nic Anelka. Goater had to be substituted.

* Also in 2003, Villa striker Darius Vassell injured himself while attempting DIY surgery on his own foot. He had a blood blister under the toe-nail on his big toe and was using a power drill to drill through the nail and drain the wound. Drilling to drain such blisters is not an uncommon procedure, but normally it is conducted by a qualified person under sterile conditions. Vassell made it worse, picked up an infection, and had to have half the nail removed.

* Stalybridge Celtic keeper Mark Statham missed a game in 1999 after trapping his head in a car door. We presume that his absence was caused by a resulting injury (rather than that he was still stuck in the car at kick-off) but we don't know what the injury was.
* Halifax defender Dave Robinson put his shoulder out falling off a kid's slide

Soccer in Newspapers: Why it is and Why it isn't Covered, Part I

Dear Aaron,

I just read an analysis on Climbing the Ladder, detailing soccer coverage in newspaper. It listed the amount of space soccer articles received. Someone made a comment about the great job the Washington Post does covering our sport.

I agree completely. If you look closely at papers, you'll find that it's usually one person at that paper who drives the soccer coverage. In the Wash Post case, it's Steve Goff. He's done a great job for years. It takes someone like him to speak up in editorial meetings and sell soccer to the editors.

When Jerry Langdon was the sports editor at USA Today (I guess more accurately, Gannett News Service), soccer was covered far more than it is now. You'll find people like Frank Del'Appa and that other guy (I'll think of his name soon) in Boston, Grahame Jones in LA (if he's still writing), Jody Meachum in San Jose (not sure if he's still there) and others around the country that have parlayed their love of the game into a nice career covering soccer.

Much of the time, papers have Olympic Sports writers. Not only do these people cover major soccer events, but they cover things like gymnastics.

These guys form a nice little group in soccer pressboxes around the country and around the world during major tournaments. Unlike the rest of the "reporters" that fill the rest of the seats in soccer pressboxes, these guys care about soccer and do a good job writing about it.

The rest of the guys ... I'll write about them later. But one comment I'll never forget. "The best thing about soccer is you don't have to pay attention to write about it." That will give you an idea about the people papers send to cover soccer.

Monday, August 6, 2007


Dear Carla,

I've always been interested in leadership. The qualities of leaders, the character needed, the way leaders' minds work -- that's all very interesting to me.

Over at And Again, a soccer coaching forum, they are discussing leadership qualities. Among the more interesting posts is:

We also have our own leadership philosophy that we explain to them. "You take care of everyone with your actions, not just yourself." and "The first person that you lead is yourself." Simple and straightforward, it makes it very obvious to everyone who is really a leader, and who is after the status of being a leader.

They are also talking about different leadership qualities and styles of girls and boys. I could go on forever about that, and will someday. Until then, here's some good info:

For girls, I'm looking first and foremost for the dominant personality. Girls have a pecking order, although it's a little different than how guys do it. Then I start having conversations with her about what it means to lead. Probably the biggest thing with girls is that they're constantly picking on the negative and never reinforcing the positive. If you can convince this individual (sometimes there are more than one) to be more positive than negative, the girls will begin to respond to her. Then you have to make sure she's on your side about things like paying attention in practice and working hard on drills and doing your homework, etc, but that usually follows with this particular kind of personality. Then, when you have a good example, when someone else asks to be captain, you ask them whether they're willing to do what it takes to be captain: Work the hardest, pay attention, keep others in line, take responsibility, encourage others, etc.

Most times, the response I get is "oh." lol.

What are your thoughts on leadership? Do you need captains? What authority do you give them? Are they effective?

When I think of more, I'll write.

You know who

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Soccer Project: Documenting Passion

Dear Amy,

I just read about The Soccer Project, a documentary being made by former Duke and Notre Dame soccer players. The four of them will travel the world in search of pick-up games and chronicle how soccer and society blend together.

I have always been interested in the effects of soccer on culture, and that's one of the reasons the 1999 Women's World Cup was so intriguing to me. This documentary promises to be fascinating. I can't wait.

When I think of more, I'll write

You know who

Monday, July 23, 2007

How Important is Winning?

Dear Lauren,

Here's the problem. My players are pretty good, I think. They are just U13 and I feel they are pretty advanced, most of them anyway. Our season doesn't start until late-August but we have already had 10 optional training sessions, and the turnout has been very good.

We work on touch a lot. We build in some speed and agility training, and we try to make it as fun as possible. The girls love to play and they will play any time they get a chance. Their parents love for them to play as well. What parent wouldn't like to watch an activity in which their children excel?

But here's the thing -- we are in a killer division. With the exception of two 2-0 wins and a 2-0 loss, all of our spring matches were one goal games or ties. At U13 here, teams are promoted and relegated at the end of the fall season and then again at the end of the spring season. Next fall, a Premier Division will be formed from the 10 best teams in the state. My team, which is kind of the flagship team from our small club, has a chance to be a Premier team.

Do do that, we need to not finish in the top seven in the fall to avoid relegation, then finish in the top five in our division in the spring.

Reaching Premier at U14 was one of the stated goals of this team when I took over the team before the spring season. If I am to win, it will have to be at the expense of the best player development situation for some of the girls on my team. There are some that just can't be in a close game if the team is expected to win.

If the team does not reach Premier, it will almost certainly break up and disperse throughout other teams.

What would you do?

When I think of an answer, I'll write.

You know who.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

U11 Fitness Session -- Why?

Dear JT

I just read a youth soccer coach's blog. For the first time, he is coaching a travel team, U11 girls. It's mostly a new team, and they are getting ready to start practicing for the fall season. He's excited and so are the girls.

So what is he planning for his first session? Fitness.

Drives me nuts.

First of all, do U11s really need fitness? That's debatable, obviously. What isn't debatable is that U11s need the ball. I'm sure this coach will preceed his first training session with a speech about commitment and work ethic and how it's important that the team be able to play a full game without tiring out, etc., etc. And the girls will hear none of it.

Then they will go through some ill-conceived running drills and when it's all said and done, they will say, "Dad, how come we didn't get to play soccer tonight?"

How about this instead. Start out by putting them through some individual touch activities. Maybe a 10 cones in a 5-yard grid. Avoid the cones by chopping, rolling and pulling back the ball. While some are doing that, have others do some Coerver training. Then switch them to a different station.

Now put some cones down in gates. A ball for every player. See how many gates you can dribble through in two minutes. Rest 30 seconds, do it again. Then put them in pairs and tell them it's 1v1 through the gates. Then the pairs work together to pass through the gates.

More water.

Add an activity that involves sprinting, maybe something like 1v1 to goal where two players sprint after a loose ball and try to finish it.

Finish with something fun that has them changing speed and running backwards and send them home. The fitness they get from this will be far more beneficial than anything called a "fitness session."

When I think of more, I'll write

You know who

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

TV Is Better With Foudy

Dear Amy,

I wrote yesterday that without Julie Foudy on the field, the national team is missing some personality. What I didn't mention is that the TV broadcasts are much better with her in the box.

Some guy in Tampa agrees with me. I do enjoy Foudy's commentary. The example the guy from Tampa uses is a good one, but Foudy had several other observations, among them:

* That the U.S. trains by position. Defenders train as a group, midfielders train as a group and forwards train as a group. Foudy wondered if by doing that, the team is missing the last crucial piece of competing in a World Cup. And against Norway, it appeared the team lacked cohesiveness, the same type of cohesiveness you get by training together.

* Abby Wambach and Natasha Kai were flip-floped for much of the second half -- Wambach wandering back into midfield and Kai staying up high. Foudy pointed out that Wambach needs to stay high. I think that says more about Wambach's confidence (or lack of) in Kai's willingness or ability to track back, pressure defensively, and win balls than it does about Kai's ability as a striker.

So while the team may not be as dynamic as it used to be, but the broadcasts will be better.

When I think of more, I'll write

You know who

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

I Miss Foudy

Dear Tonya,

I watched the women's national team game against Norway this past weekend. I haven't paid much attention to them since 2004, and I feel bad about that.

The 2004 Olympics was the first women's soccer world championship that I didn't cover since 1996. I watched on TV as the old ladies got their final gold medal and was thrilled for them.

Now it's different, though. I love watching Lilly play and play and play. I think Kate Markgraf is one of the funniest people I've ever interviewed, and I think the world of Cat Whitehill and Briana Scurry. But there's a lot missing.

And I think it is personality.

That's where Julie Foudy comes in. When Foudy was around, it was fascinating to watch her work. On the field, she was energetic, determined, polished and brilliant. Off the field she was energetic, determined, polished and brilliant. No matter where she was, she got things done. And she was funny. She never took herself too seriously, but she took her work very seriously.

I'm sure the US team that will play in China has its share of characters, and its share of people who will make a difference in the world. But it just doesn't hold my interest very long.

I will watch the Women's World Cup on TV, and the wins and losses will mean a lot to me. It just won't be the same without Foudy. I'll try to remember some Foudy stories.

So when I think of more, I'll write.

You know who

Friday, July 13, 2007

Why I Coach, Part I

Dear Anson,

I coach two youth teams. I have an Under-13 team and an Under-18 team, both girls. I thoroughly enjoy coaching these girls. I have had the Under-18 team for four years, since they were U15, and it's been pretty much the same roster the whole time. I have watched them grow as players and as people. And that alone is satisfying.

We've had great moments together that we all will remember for a long time, and it's kind of nice to be a part of their lives in that way.

Coaching can be extremely frustrating and time-consuming. Yet it also can be incredibly satisfying and rewarding. The rewarding parts are what I choose to remember, so here is the first part of the Why I Coach Series.

So I have this girl. She missed the entire 2005 season with an ACL tear, but she worked very hard and came back in 2006. She is probably the least skilled player on the team and missing a year set her back. But she makes up for it with heart and fitness. She plays centerback in a four-back and reads the game well enough to disrupt attacks.

In our 2006 State Cup, our first game was against the eventual champions, a game I knew we would need a miracle to win. But with 10 minutes left, we were down 2-1, a result I would have been thrilled to get.

The last 10 minutes, however, were hell. They went up 3-1 on a great header off a corner. They were pounding us and made it 4-1 before it was all said and done. We were barely hanging on defensively, but we also got a few chances. My girl, the centerback, was phenomenal. She was also playing on a bad ankle, though, and when she went in for a tackle, it twisted. It was near midfield, not far from me.

She got up on her own but had to come out of the game. As she bravely limped toward me on the sideline, the coach of the other team -- a class act by the way --said, "Great game 12!" With eyes staring at the ground, she thanked the other coach.

So here she comes. A proud, fit athlete, who just went to war for 85 minutes to help her friends reach their goal of winning the State Cup. What do you say to her? Is there anything that can be said? I wanted her to know I was proud of her, but didn't want to sound insincere. We were, after all, on the wrong end of a 4-1 score now. I greeted my player with no words, just outstretched arms. She sunk her head in my chest and started sobbing.

I don't think I can forget that. There was nothing more that this girl could have given that day, short of passing out on the field. When her day was done and she realized it didn't go her way, she broke down. And I feel fortunate to have been able to provide the shoulder to cry on.

Often people in sports say, "They gave it everything they had," and they don't really know what that means.

I do.

When I think of more, I'll write

You know who

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Drew Carey, Glenn Myernick and Anson Dorrance

Dear Bob,

I'm sure you have heard about Drew Carey's challenge to face some U.S. National Team players in a video game that I don't play. You can read about it here.

It got me thinking of the one and only Glenn Myernick story I have. At an NSCAA Symposium, in Richmond, I think, Anson Dorrance spoke followed by Myernick. Dorrance told a story about a player he had. She was a senior and he was unable to get her into the championship match that year. He felt horrible, because this fine young woman -- Amy Roberts -- had been a significant part of the team, a true leader. On the plane ride home, Roberts passed Dorrance a note telling her coach that she understood why she didn't play, and that playing four years at Carolina was a thrill. She went on to thank him for opportunity.

Dorrance closed his presentation with that story. Then Myernick got up to speak to the rooom full of coaches.

"I had a similiar situation with a player once when I was coaching the Colorado Rapids," he explained.

"Except my note said, 'Trade me right F$&*#@ng now!'"

When I think of more, I'll write.
You know who


Dear Phil,

This should help pay for Beckham's salary. I think I read that when he signed for Real Madrid, they sold out of his jerseys on the first day.

You know who

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Remember Freddy?

Dear Georgie,

I recently searched for the article, but I guess it's disappeared into wherever articles go after websites shut down.

It was in 2001 at the US Youth Soccer National Championships, still called the Snickers Cup back then. Lawrence, Ind., better known as Indianapolis, was the host. I was there, for my fifth straight summer, doing some articles.

As is the case at any of the USYS Nationals, there are some very good teams, and a whole lot of above-average players. Technically sound, tactically aware (for the most part), very obliging to their accented coach who has them robotically obeying the game plan -- two-touch, knock it wide, drop it back, possess it and lose it. Not that I'm being cynical or anything.

Anyway, I was walking around the complex, hung over and carrying the usual supplies in my pockets. Diet Coke, couple of pens, tape recorder, reporter's notebook. I had a really hard time distinguishing one team from another. They all looked the same. White kids with the same haircut, knocking the ball around, taking no chances, going nowhere, yet tackling really hard.

Then I saw a guy I knew from Eurosport. "Go over the Field 4," he told me. I asked why, and he said, "You'll see."

I did.

Field 4 was easy to find. It was the one with the crowd on the endline. That's a dead giveaway. Youth soccer crowds are always on the sideline opposite the benches. If there is a crowd behind the goal, something interesting is going on.

Sure enough. There was this kid. He was unreal.

He was playing for the Potomac Cougars U14 team, but he was born on June 2, 1989, which meant he just turned 12. Yeah, yeah, I know. The popular thing to do is talk about how Freddy is really 5 years older than he says. Haven't seen the proof of that, so he is what he says.

I wrote an article that night about him. It was called "His Name is Freddy." Best I can figure it was the first or second article written about Freddy Adu in the American media. Will Kuhns of Soccer America did one about the same time, but I'm not sure if it was before nationals or after.

Anyway, I guess it's gone now. Since then, I have watched his career with interest. And I've read and listened to people cut him down as overrated, washed up, whatever.

Then I watched him the other night with the U.S. U20s against Brazil.

Told you so!

You know who

Origins of the Illness

Dear Johan,

About 32 years ago, I came to understand the grip soccer had on me. It helps if I try to keep in mind what I actually said that day. I figure, it gives me excuses for my behavior. Weak ones, but they're better than nothing. If I know the root cause of my problem, I can explain it away in my head. Or, so I would like to believe.

I read soccer forums and some blogs. Parents of youth soccer players feel they are addicted to the game, and like to spout off about how consumed they are by it. Their kid, after all, has been playing youth soccer for probably 5 years, so obviously, there is little for them left to learn. I'm not like that. I don't think about soccer all the time, just most of the time. Nor do I feel the need to share my knowledge about the game. I love learning new things about soccer, and I feel I can learn from anyone, novice or expert.

I just can't get enough -- never could, never will.

Tracing the origins of my illness will show that it started at age 4. My dad was a coach. I was a ball-chaser for the local college team, and that was 44 years ago. In high school, I didn't have a place to play in the summer, so I started an adult team and got us in a league. That, by the way, made me the club president, travel-coordinator, field-liner, registrar, net-hanger, and sideline-mower. My garage was the storage shed. My Datsun B210 hauled balls, nets and lime (pre-historic field paint).

Oh, I was also player-coach. I was 16.

My goalkeeper was a 32-year-old alcoholic math genius who could play anytime the Grateful Dead wasn't within travelling distance. We always had some collegiate players in town for the summer. We had a 24-year-old Englishman who was unbelievable, and a variety of characters who will make up my next book (tentatively titled How Soccer Ruined My Life).

By 17, I was a league officer -- again because if I didn't help I might not have had a place to play.

By that time, though, I was well aware of the illness. Four or five years before that was the first time I said the words that made me understand. It was fall in Central New York -- late enough in the fall for the snow to be finally gone. It was the first nice day of season, warm enough for the neighbors to mow their lawns. I walked outside, stopped in my tracks and said, "It smells like soccer."

That was it. It was over for me. I had long ago reached the point where an open field was a potential soccer complex. I was already suffering from the infliction of seeing something black and white out of the corner of your eye and automatically thinking it was a soccer ball.

Now, though, my old factory senses were playing along. Things could now smell like soccer.

When I think of more, I'll write.


You know who.

Jeff Bradley, One of the Good Guys

Dear Steve,

I have to admit I'm a bit snobbish about what I read.

As a former soccer journalist -- back in the days when it was really hard to believe that people actually made a living as "soccer journalists" in this country -- I developed a odd distain for the couch journalism that emerged in the early 2000s. People could sit on their couch, watch games on TV and write as if they were experts. I never considered myself an expert. But in the U.S. there are so many people who openly admit to knowing nothing of the sport, someone with a bit of a background could easily be viewed as one. The TV-watchers believed it.

There were just a handful of soccer writers who I respected and considered good. Off the top of my head ... let's see. Jerry Trecker was one (please take special note of the name "Jerry", it is distinctly different than "Jamie.") Ridge Mahoney was another.

Jeff Bradley was/is right up there at the top. He is interesting, a good writer, does the legwork, loves the game and is as professional as any journalist in sports. So I was excited when I found out that I was able to add his columns to my blog. I wonder what else I'll discover about this blogging thing.

When I think of something else, I'll write it.

You know who.