Sunday, July 17, 2011

Reyna’s youth system overhaul provides US path to close gap with world's elite

Claudio Reyna was a long way from the glare and glamour of the World Cup, sitting in a folding chair beside a patchy suburban soccer field and eating a boxed lunch.

The former U.S. national team captain watched intently as a youth academy team from Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls took on the Dallas Texans, a top club team. The match was part of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s “Finals Week,” a tournament that brought some of the nation’s best teenage teams to Milwaukee this past week.

As the youth technical director for U.S. Soccer, Reyna is leading the federation’s push to identify and nurture talented players at an early age. Reyna says player development doesn’t happen by accident in countries such as Spain, Netherlands, Germany and Brazil. Superstar Lionel Messi didn’t fall out of the sky one day, he was groomed at Barcelona’s legendary La Masia academy.

In hopes of getting the U.S. to that level, Reyna is borrowing ideas from soccer’s powerhouse countries and clubs to change the way American kids learn to play.

“It’s going to happen with a real, collective plan,” Reyna said. “No way is it just going to happen. It’s not happening in the other countries just like that, they’re not just rolling out the balls. It’s a real high level of progressing and evolving, and it’s going to be the same thing here. We’re going to have to make some real big steps to catch up with the world, and have any chance to compete with the rest of the world on a consistent basis.”

As the U.S. women’s team prepared for Sunday’s World Cup title game against Japan, Reyna said he sees a path for the U.S. to reach similar heights in the men’s game — just not overnight. While the men’s team has played itself back into international relevancy and had some big moments over the past two decades, Reyna wants a new generation of players who can take the U.S. from good to great.

“The possibility to influence and make youth players better is what I like, because they can make big steps at these ages, and that’s very important,” Reyna said. “And it’s something that I just enjoy more, because there’s a greater need for it. It’s very, very important that we take on this challenge in a serious way. Clearly, we’re not with the best teams in the world at the moment. We always look at it that way: How do we close the gap?”

Drawing on his experience as a player and ideas from his contacts at top teams around the world, including Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola, Reyna established an official coaching curriculum for U.S. Soccer. About 100 pages long, it outlines the way the U.S. wants to play — retaining possession with quick one- and two-touch passes and attacking, like Barca or Spain’s national team — and provides age-specific guidelines for coaches. The curriculum will be put in place primarily through U.S. Soccer’s partnerships with elite youth clubs and development academies across the country.

A couple of concepts could raise eyebrows.

While today’s kids might play four or five games in a weekend tournament, Reyna wants more practice and fewer games. And in a culture obsessed with winning, Reyna says coaches, especially with younger kids, should worry less about the score and more about playing the “right way.” A team of 12-year-olds might be able to win 1-0 with conservative, defensive play. But that doesn’t help them improve.

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