Monday, February 28, 2011

English youth soccer system may lack, but still tops ours

From the Evansville Courier Press, February 27, 2011

On a recent trip to England, I found some radical differences between how we develop our young players here in the United States.

Evansville Soccer Club president Jim King and I spent a couple of days at the Manchester City Football Club youth academy, where we watched some of their youth teams train and met with their academy staff.

Here were some unique items that stood out with the young academy players, teams and coaches:

n Frequency of training: Even at the under-8 level, the players practice regularly. The average under-8 teams in the English Premier League academies get together three times a week, twice for practices, and once for a game.

n Players taken out of their comfort zone: As early as u-8, teams play against older opposition. We watched Manchester City's under-8 team play against Stockport County's under-9. While there were certainly times where they were overmatched physically, you could see them growing in confidence from competing against opposition that was stronger and faster. My guess is that those experiences translate pretty well when they return to play teams their own age.

n Score: I was very impressed by the focus of the youth academy coaches on the process (teaching and coaching how to play), opposed to a focus on the outcome (too much emphasis on winning). I can't recall any of the spectators or players referencing the score at any time. The standard of how the teams were trying to play was very high, and without the fear of failure seemed to develop confidence in the young players.

n Referees: I was very surprised that there were no referees for the match. Coaches would stop the game if a foul was committed, but there might have been three fouls in the entire game.You could see that players were physical while playing the game the right way — tackling with a minimal amount of fouling. Players never complained or looked to an official for help; when a player was knocked off the ball, he immediately bounced up and recovered in transition.

n Parents: What most shocked me was how the parents behaved. Parents only applauded after a goal was scored or at the end of a period, and never addressed their children at any time during the game. When asked why, one of the parents told King that "we aren't allowed to say anything to kids." I was amazed to see how much buy-in the parents had in this process, and what kind of compromise that they were able to make to have their children play in an English Premier League academy with aspirations of someday becoming a professional.

While on our trip, I read a newspaper column by Henry Winter of The Telegraph about how the English Academy system was behind in youth development from the likes of the Barcelona academy I wrote about weeks ago. Winter wrote that England was painfully behind other nations in youth development; Barcelona's team of all the talents visited Arsenal recently with up to seven home-grown products, such as Xavi and AndrĂ©s Iniesta, in their starting lineup. Arsenal is as gifted a team as there is in the EPL and has only had 2 players — Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott — that have come out of the EPL academy system.

The primary focus of Winter's article was on the number of hours that young academy players train in England in comparison to the top soccer nations of the world. On average, a young player in Spain will have enjoyed 4,880 hours of contact time with an elite club such as Barcelona from the ages of 9 to 21. Holland and France pour even more time into coaching youngsters, 5,940 hours and 5,740 hours respectively. An English tyro will have only 3,760.

Under the FA's Charter for Quality introduced in 1997, Premier League clubs are permitted three hours' contact a week with 9- to 11 year-olds (excluding games), which tends to be the golden years of learning.

In the 12-16 age group, English contenders are limited to five hours a week (excluding games) while those at Ajax (Holland) have 10 to 12. Wonder why England is perceived to struggle in comparison? Do the math.

The Premier League is taking inspiration from the world of music and dance. At the Menuhin music school, each budding virtuoso has 10,840 hours of contact time in their development years, three times the football figure. Pupils at the Royal Ballet receive 10,000 hours' tuition.

What I couldn't get over was that as deficient as Winter described the English academy system, it was still significantly ahead of where we are in the United States. Our young players play a similar number of hours a week as our English counterparts, but even they are saying that it's not enough.

If we could find a way to get more hours for our players to play and learn (without stifling interest and enthusiasm), we can certainly catch up to the other top soccer nations of the world.

Mike Jacobs is soccer coach at the University of Evansville.

McLeish & Birmingham City win English League Cup

Alex McLeish won seven titles as the manager of Scottish club Rangers, but he called Birmingham City's 2-1 win over Arsenal in the English League Cup final the "best ever" win of his career.

A last-minute goal by Nigerian Obafemi Martins gave Birmingham its first trophy in 48 years. The goal followed a blunder by Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, who failed to collect Nikola Zigic's glancing header from a long pass into the box in a mix-up with French defender Laurent Koscielny.

"At Rangers, I was expected to win trophies," said McLeish, "but to come to England, my first trophy attempt, and to win against the might of Arsenal is a dream come true for everybody connected to the club. Nobody gave us a prayer -- we were massive underdogs. But sometimes the bookies don't get it right and we proved that today with phenomenal belief, phenomenal courage and some good football."

Birmingham City's England international goalie Ben Foster, who had given up a bad goal to West Ham in the semifinals, sympathized with Szczesny.

"He's got an unbelievable future ahead of him," Foster said. "I think he's come in for the last couple or so games and he's been absolutely amazing. The pressure he must have been feeling. He's just got to put it behind him [the error in the final] and move on, because he looks an amazing prospect."

Foster blamed Koscielny, a defender in only his second season of top-flight soccer, for the goal.

"The center half kind of just got involved when he didn't really need to," Foster said. "I thought the goalkeeper probably shouted for it. Obviously, there's a lot of noise in Wembley. He [Koscielny] couldn't hear and he's just tried to clear when it was obvious that it would drop into his [Szczesny's] hands. It's one of those things: when it's not heard, it kind of looks bad on the goalkeeper. But if the defender had just left it, it would have dropped right into his [Szczesny's] hands."


The USA got overtime goals from Nathan Smith on a blast from almost 40 yards and Andrew Oliver and Alfred Koroma on breakaways to beat Canada, 3-0, and win the Concacaf under-17 championship for the first time since 1992.

With one its best youth teams in recent history, Canada had high hopes of winning the U-17 title, but goalie Kendall McIntosh ke pt the USA in the game with two big saves in the first half.

Smith broke in from the left side and beat Canada goalie Maxime Crepeau with a shot that hit off the far post and went into the goal. It was the first goal Canada had allowed in five games.

Oliver then put the Americans ahead by 2-0 when he blew past the Canada backline, rounded Crepeau and scored into an empty net for his team-high fourth goal of the tournament.

Los Angeles Galaxy rookie Jack McBean, who had fed Oliver, set up Koroma for the third goal.

The only downer for the USA was Oliver's red card in the 118th minute for tussling with Canadian Marco Lapenna.

The ejections should keep both players out of the opening game of the U-17 World Cup.

Panama beat host Jamaica, 1-0, in the third-place game.

All four semifinalists qualified for the 2011 Under-17 World Cup, which will be held in Mexico June 18-July 10.

Final Feb. 27 in Montego Bay
USA 3 Canada 0. Goals: Smith 92, A.Oliver 100, Koroma 118.
USA -- McIntosh, Smith, Souders (Fehr, 46), Carroll, Amon, Dunn, Pelosi, Serna (Koroma, 56), E.Rodriguez, M.Rodriguez (McBean, 84), Oliver.
Canada -- Crepeau, Piette, Stanese, Seymour, Lapenna, Alderson (Jalali, 102), Aleman, Nanco, Gasparotto, Chapman (Hamilton, 56), Patrasso (Cain, 67)
Red Cards: USA -- A.Oliver 118; Canada -- Lapenna 118.
Referee: Enrico Winjgaarde (Suriname).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Guardiola extents contract with Barcelona

Barcelona coach Josep Guardiola has signed a one-year contract extension to keep him with the Spanish champion until June 2012.

The 40-year-old Guardiola, who spent most of his playing career at Barcelona, coached Barcelona's B team before taking charge of the first team in June 2008, succeeding from Dutchman Frank Rijkaard.

Guardiola has won eight trophies, including two straight La Liga titles and the 2009 Champions League.

"This success has been achieved playing soccer with his personal stamp, which has won praise from all sides and has accumulated incredible individual and team records, the latest one being the record of wins (79) in his first 100 games in charge in the Spanish league," read a statement from the club, which is currently five points ahead of archrivals Real Madrid in La Liga.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

That Barcelona Theory

USSoccerPlayers writes about the Barcelona Theory:

It’s easy enough to bask in the synchronicity that is Barcelona’s regular game plan domestically and in the Champions League. In both instances, they’re usually spared the standard Major League Soccer defensive tactic of someone trying to step into every available passing lane. Instead, there’s room to move the ball around while the opposing defense tries to keep some semblance of shape.

Normally, Barcelona’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters’ Magic Circle creates enough opportunities for them to… you know… actually win the game. That didn’t happen at the Emirates Stadium in North London yesterday, and with that non-result the backlash.

Our English friends are responding as expected. Play up the home result we already know about while half-heartedly acknowledging that there’s a second game. There’s also the tendency to laugh at Barcelona’s vaunted ball movement when it meant them losing that first leg. After all, you can call yourself the superior team (hi Xavi) but it counts for little if you end up getting bounced out of the competition.

Still, it should be harder to play up Arsenal as having a convincing answer to Barcelona’s regular game. Winning a first-leg doesn’t mean beating a style. Nothing that Barcelona normally do over 90 or even 180 minutes has been left in tatters.

Barcelona remain that gifted team that puts them in the conversation with Milan of the early 90’s. It’s not just about shutting down most people’s pick for the best player in the World. It’s not about stifling their ball movement or somehow disrupting their game enough to force them into a disadvantage. It’s about throwing a different theory of what works at this level at them and getting a meaningful result.

It’s the meaningful part of result that should be tripping Arsenal up as they consider the Nou Camp next month. Arsenal took their opportunities on the counterattack, no question. Subbing on Andrei Arshavin in the 69th minute changed the game, but that’s not likely to work twice. Instead of adjusting, Barcelona kept moving the ball around. What happens when Barcelona sees they’re running out of time and make those adjustments?

All involved know that eventually that ends up with Barcelona putting that ball in the back of the net. All involved know Arsenal are the ones trying to figure out what might work twice while trying to figure out how to defend that lead. Arsenal got a result over 90 minutes, but it’s going to take another 90 to prove their point. Otherwise, this becomes a footnote if it’s Barcelona advancing to the next round.

Eric Cantona speaks

Eric Cantona, now the New York Cosmos director of soccer, sat down for an interview with David Hirshey, who notes that Cantona spent his career making something out of nothing on the soccer field -- and right now the Cosmos have no players, no stadium, no league. But they have launched youth academies.

"I think the question," Cantona says, "we have to ask the players at the Cosmos Academy is 'Why do you want to play professional football?' Do you want to be a great player or do you want to become rich and famous? What is your dream? If you just want to become a professional and make money, I don't want you on my team. But if you want to become the best player in the world and score a goal in the last minute to win the game, then I will help you become that."

Hirshey brought up Cantona's infamous kung-fu kick attack on a fan: "I never said I was an example. I don't want to be a role model. I don't think I'm more important than somebody trying to insult me. I'm a human being. He's a human being. We're equals and if I want to kick another human being, I do it. Who is wrong? Me for acting like a man or the press for making me into a superior person who comes from another planet?"

Asked if he had any regrets about the kung-fu kick, Cantona replied: "Yes, I regret not kicking him harder. We are not all saints. I know there are some players who take their image very seriously."

Onstad pressed into service

D.C. United's goalkeeping crisis has forced 43-year-old Pat Onstad out of retirement. The Canadian was pressed into service following the injury suffered by Steve Cronin in preseason training.

D.C. hired Onstad as a goalkeeping coach after he became a free agent and retired following the 2010 season. He was MLS Goalkeeper of the Year with San Jose in 2003 and 2005 and then played five seasons for the Houston Dynamo. He was the oldest player in MLS when he retired last season.

Cronin was acquired in a trade with Portland for Troy Perkins. Bill Hamid, who started eight games last season as a 19-year-old, is coming back from shoulder surgery. After Cronin was injured, the D.C. coaching staff discussed at lunch its options, including Onstad's return.

"We were joking but we were serious, and we started to have a real conversation about it," General Manager Dave Kasper told the Insider's
Steve Goff. "He had a chance to digest it and decided he could do it."

Wahl running for FIFA presidency

Longtime Sports Illustrated soccer writer Grant Wahl has announced: "I'm running for the presidency of FIFA in the election to be held on June 1. And no, I'm not kidding. Have you seen who else is running? That's right: Sepp Blatter, the 74-year-old Swiss strongman atop the world's most popular sport, is campaigning for his fourth term. Blatter's most prominent rival, Qatar's Mohamed Bin Hammam, may run as well, but he's just another FIFA insider in an election that desperately needs an outsider."

"So I'll raise my hand. Someone has to. It gets kind of old hearing the world's soccer fans complain about Blatter without anyone trying to provide an alter­native. And make no mistake, FIFA needs to change. The vote in December that chose the hosts for the 2018 and '22 World Cups was just the latest evidence that FIFA is far from a clean organization. Two members of FIFA's executive committee were suspended last October after being caught by The Sunday Times of London trying to sell their World Cup votes. Why, Blatter himself admits that FIFA's reputation has been tarnished under his watch. Sepp's solution? 'Trust us,' he says. Seriously? That's like trusting a Tour de France winner to oversee cycling's anti-doping program."

Wahl's platform includes giving women a presence within the FIFA hierarchy ("Who's the most powerful woman in FIFA? Good question. The ruling 24-man executive committee is exactly that: all men"), introducing video-review for close calls on the goal line, and making sure the World Cup has the best whistle-blowers -- with no limits per country -- and require them to meet with pool reporters after every game to explain controversial calls.

He'll also make sure players no longer see yellow for removing their jerseys after scoring a goal: "Think about it: Spain's Andres Iniesta got the same punishment for celebrating the game-winning goal in the World Cup final that Dutch thug Nigel de Jong received for karate kicking an opponent in the chest."