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By Mike Woitalla
Ajax Amsterdam, having produced players from Johan Cruyff to Wesley Sneijder, is considered by legions of American youth coaches as a model for youth development.
Much of what happens at Ajax would be impossible for a U.S. program to replicate. Ajax has the pick of the best young players from a soccer-rich nation. That it consistently promotes players to the senior level is to be expected. Lots of coaches — and their clubs — would look quite good if they only had to coach their country’s top youngsters.
Ajax covers all costs, so the academy isn’t limited to those who can afford it.
Still, checking out how top clubs around the world approach player development can provide some ideas on how we coach American children.
Last season, Ajax won its first Dutch league title in seven years, prompting Andy Murray of the British magazine FourFourTwo to visit the Ajax academy, which is called De Toekomst (The Future).
One of his impressions: “There’s no screaming coaches, pushy parents or berating of officials.”
“It’s not a crime to lose nor is it about being champions in your age group, but being in the first team, and winning trophies there. To be a star you must overcome disappointment,” Ajax general manager David Endt told FourFourTwo.
Jan Olde Riekerink, Ajax’s Head of Youth Development, said, “We always look for [soccer players] first, but to stay up with the modern game we must develop athletes to compete at the top international level. But enjoyment must come first. That’s the basis for all our coaching: if they don’t have fun, we don’t do it. We don’t make them run in mud just because it’ll make them stronger.”
Also quoted is 19-year-old Dane Christian Eriksen, a star on the current Eredivisie championship team: “[Soccer] is about more than running. Everyone here wants the ball.”
It needs be noted that Eriksen arrived at De Toekomst at age 16 when he was already a star on the Danish U-17 national team and was also being courted by several of Europe’s top clubs, and that Ajax reportedly paid Odense BK more than $1 million for him.
Last year, Michael Sokolove wrote an in-depth article for New York Times Magazine on De Toekomst. He quoted youth coach Ronald de Jong:
“I am never looking for a result — for example, which boy is scoring the most goals or even who is running the fastest. That may be because of their size and stage of development. I want to notice how a boy runs. Is he on his forefeet, running lightly? Does he have creativity with the ball? Does he seem that he is really loving the game? I think these things are good at predicting how he’ll be when he is older.”
Sokolove reported that through age 12, players train three times a week and play one game on the weekend. “By age 15, the boys are practicing five times a week. In all age groups, training largely consists of small-sided games and drills in which players line up in various configurations, move quickly and kick the ball very hard to each other at close range. In many practice settings in the U.S., this kind of activity would be a warm-up, just to get loose, with the coach paying scant attention and maybe talking on a cell phone or chatting with parents. At the Ajax academy, these exercises — designed to maximize touches, or contact with the ball — are the main event.”
About 200 boys, from ages 7 to 19, train at De Toekomst. Some players at each age group are cut each year. They are said, writes Sokolove, to have been “sent away” — and new prospects take their place.
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)
Team Chicago Academy-Botafogo midfielder, and current U17 National Team right back, Zoey Goralski has verbally accepted a very generous scholarship offer to be part of the UCLA 2013 recruiting class.
UCLA is one of the top Division I programs in the country, and Goralski will be part of a very elite soccer family. A family rich in tradition that includes current U.S. Women’s National Team star Lauren Cheney, and for the 2011 season Neuqua Valley graduate Megan Oyster.
UCLA is coached by BJ Snow who is a former Indiana University standout and NCAA Division I National Champion. Coach Snow also played youth and semi-pro soccer under Team Chicago Academy Director Phil Nielsen, and he is married to U.S. Women’s National Team star Lindsay Tarpley, also a former player of Coach Nielsen’s
BY SETH ROBERTS | Daily Iowan
It’s not unusual for college students to go overseas over summer vacation.
Iowa soccer player Alex Melin took that to another level.
The Hawkeye sophomore midfielder recently returned from spending nine days in Germany with the U.S. Youth Soccer Association Select Girls U19 team. The squad consisted of 20 young players from around the country and played three exhibition games, went sightseeing, and took in three matches at the women’s World Cup.
“That was my favorite part — the whole atmosphere of the World Cup was great,” Melin said. “We got to watch the [U.S.] national team train … that was very cool.”
The trip was the culmination of a long tryout process for Melin, a 19-year-old from Verona, Wis., who had never traveled outside the country.
She said she took the first step a year ago, when she tried out for the Wisconsin branch of the U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program. Once she made that team, she tried out for the regional roster.
The program invited 45 players to a final camp in Florida in December 2010, after which 17 players were selected to go abroad.
“The selection process is such that she controlled what she could control when she went down to Florida,” Iowa head coach Ron Rainey said. “That’s something she did well, and I think the coaches recognized [that]. She just plays, and that’s the best thing you can do at these national camps. “You play to your strengths, and play hard.”
The group, which included just one other player from the Big Ten, departed for Germany on June 29. Melin and the rest of the players spent around a week and a half traveling around the country and played in three exhibition matches against German professional teams.
The U.S. team outscored its opposition, 16-2, and coach Phil Nielsen said Melin played a vital role in that success.
“She was probably our most outstanding player over the three games,” he said. “Her playmaking ability got better and better. She’s a very quick learner; she was great in the first game, even better in the second, and she was just outstanding in the last game.
“[With] her specific skill set and mentality, I think she’s somebody who could go very, very far in the game. I was very impressed with her.”
The trip wasn’t all about soccer, though. The group took the time to see a handful of castles and pay their respects at the site of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
“We want to make sure that we don’t just create great soccer players but also great people,” Nielsen said. “Experiences like that help culture us. Sometimes, in the U.S., we’re a little bit sheltered from those kind of experiences, [and they’re] valuable in creating well-rounded people.”
Melin returned to the United States on July 9, and she will spend the rest of the summer playing for the Madison (Wis.) 56ers of the Women’s Premier Soccer League. She said the entire experience — from the grueling tryout to the emotional trip to the concentration camp to the blowout wins over pro teams — will give her an important advantage as she prepares for her second college season in the fall.
“It gave me a lot more confidence going into this [Iowa] season,” said Melin, who scored three goals for the Hawkeyes as a freshman in 2010. “After playing with a lot of these girls, I know our team can do anything this year and hopefully make a big statement and effect on the Big Ten.”
Pure Brawn and Horsepower
As Soccer Gets More Technical, the U.S. Women Still Thrive on Physical Play
By MATTHEW FUTTERMAN, Wall Street Journal
For three and a half years, Pia Sundhage, the head coach of the U.S. women’s soccer team, has pushed her players to embrace soccer’s new Platonic ideal — the patient, possession-focused ballet of precision passing that’s been perfected by the Spanish men’s team and its unofficial sister club, F.C. Barcelona.
The U.S. women have given this an honest shot. They’ll knock the ball around the midfield a fair bit and switch it from one side of the field to the other to change the point of attack. They sometimes succeed in stringing together three or four consecutive passes.
But when crunch time arrives, the Americans have won in Germany this year for the same reason they’ve always won: when they slam down the gas pedal, nobody can stop them.
From top to bottom, the U.S. roster is bigger, faster, fitter and stronger than any other in the world—and it’s this advantage that has landed them in Sunday’s final against Japan (Sunday, ESPN, 2 p.m. ET).
In Wednesday’s semifinal against France, all three U.S. goals followed a display of pure brawn and horsepower. The first came when speedy midfielder Heather O’Reilly beat a defender by flooring it on a run to the left corner, then sent a cross in front of the goal to another charging thoroughbred, Lauren Cheney, who checks in at 5-foot-9. The second goal came off the airborne forehead of the 5-foot-11, 160-pound striker Abby Wambach. The third arrived when Alex Morgan blew the doors off the entire French defense to reach a ball that Megan Rapinoe had deposited behind them.
“The Americans are in far better physical shape than us,” said French Coach Bruno Bini, who called the Americans the best conditioned team in the world.
Against Japan, the U.S. will have a decided physical advantage. They also have the edge in experience: Before this tournament, the Japanese women had just three wins in 16 World Cup matches since 1991.
But the final will also serve as something of a referendum on whether the technical, possession-oriented soccer that has swept the globe in recent years can conquer women’s soccer. Of all the teams in this tournament, Japan has most enthusiastically embraced the Spanish style.
The Japanese have won the possession battle in each of their five games in the tournament, even against teams known for their technical superiority, such as Sweden and Germany, and even in the team’s 2-0 loss to England. Japan’s creative but diminutive midfielder, Homare Sawa, is tied for the tournament lead with four goals scored.
Just how exasperatingly patient can the Japanese attack be? Against Germany, Japan held the ball for 54% of the match, but was outshot 23-9. And just two of those nine shots were on target. What this means is that the Japanese basically hung onto the ball while barely trying to do anything with it. “They literally made Germany chase the ball the entire game,” Julie Foudy, the former U.S. star, said of the Japanese. “They’re so technical they make the Brazilians look totally not technical.”
“You just know going in you’re not going to out-possess them,” U.S. captain Christie Rampone said of the Japanese Thursday.
After seeing the U.S. team take a 4-0 drubbing from Brazil at the 2007 World Cup, the U.S. Soccer Federation made Sundhage, a Swede, the team’s first European head coach. The goal was to finally teach the greatest collection of female athletes on grass how to master the finer points of the beautiful game. “Everyone always talks about increasing the tempo,” Sundhage said Thursday. “We needed to decrease the tempo and control the rhythm.”
Wednesday’s win over France was bittersweet for Sundhage. Her team was outclassed by a French side that played the way she’d like her players to play, holding the ball for 55% of the game and creating scoring chances from every direction. The Americans haven’t won the possession battle in any game here since the group stage.
Of course, when it comes time for other teams to figure out how to beat the U.S., any talk about the importance of displaying superior foot skills and connecting on a lot of short passes might seem a bit silly. The U.S. doesn’t look, or play, like a team that one can beat by tinkering in the margins. “They have so many huge players who are very good,” said Kleiton Lima, the Brazilian head coach.
The winning formula for the U.S. doesn’t look all that different from the one it used to win the first Women’s World Cup. Then-coach Anson Dorrance trained his players to run the equivalent of a full-court press for 90 minutes and attack the goal with little regard for the game’s technical traditions. “The other teams thought we were crazy,” Dorrance said.
As Tony DiCicco, the head coach of the 1999 U.S. women’s team that won the World Cup puts it, “We just have to accept that this is the way they play.”
The U19 National ODP Team, head-coached by Phil Nielsen the Team Chicago Elite Academy Director, concluded its Germany Tour with a very impressive performance in a 4-0 win over FC Lubars in Berlin. FC Lubars narrowly lost out on promotion to the First Division last season, so it was a formidable opponent for the young Americans.
But after a nervy first 15-20 minutes the U19s found their feet, and really started to play good patient, possession-oriented soccer that forced the FC Lubars players to spend most of the game chasing the ball. Avoiding the common American problem of getting impatient and wanting to play at a 100 miles an hour, the U19 showed great poise and maturity, and scored 4 great goals in the process. Especially the final goal was a thing of beauty, as the U19 defenders and holding midfielder kept the ball for 15 consecutive passes (in the process frustrating their own forwards who were begging for the ball :-) before a center-back found the left back on a weak-side run in behind the German defense with a perfectly weighted 40-yard pass.
Overall the game was a perfect end to the trip, as it showed that the players had embraced the theme and focus of the event. And it proved that American players CAN play patient possession-oriented soccer regardless of what is on display at most college, H.S., and club games all over the country. The German hosts and the referees were extremely impressed by the quality of the American play.
The U19s will conclude the event with a trip to the USA-Sweden game tonight at Wolfsburg and a pre-game BBQ with the friends and families of the U.S. players.