Volume 76, Number 47 | April 18 - 24, 2007

Sports

Jonathan Garro, from Argentina, coaching in Downtown United Soccer Club’s free Central City Initiative.

Soccer summit kicks around player-development ideas

By judith Stiles

If low-end soccer cleats cost $50, and cheap shin guards and socks cost another $35, after paying for a uniform, club fees, tournaments and transportation, nine months of soccer could easily cost $1,000. And that’s just for a first-year player on a travel team. 

By age 16, if one adds on fitness training, skill-building camps and college showcases, the cost rises to $10,000 a year or more. This causes great stress on the family wallet. Worse, though, it has created a two-tiered world of youth soccer comprised of middle-class kids who can afford club soccer and those kids who simply cannot. The players who can cough up this kind of money are “in the system,” meaning on the track to being scouted by college coaches, the Olympic Development Team, the U.S. National Team and possibly Major League Soccer.

The kids who cannot afford the frills of organized youth sports have become part of a fast-growing soccer subculture in the city, where they play pickup games with their uncles and fathers on unused corners of fields and schoolyards. This largely immigrant population is not being groomed for the U.S. National Team, and the National Team coaches are missing out on some extraordinary talented players who show great promise, but never get a chance to develop.

After the last World Cup, with the poor performance of the U.S. team, it became painfully evident that the so-called player development system in this country is not working. To address the problem and brainstorm about what the U.S. can do to win a World Cup, on April 9, Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, held a think tank-style meeting at M.L.S. headquarters on Fifth Ave. Attending the meeting were Don Barber, M.L.S. commissioner, and 29 leading members of the New York City soccer community.

“Why is that we have had maybe one player, Carlos Llamosa, from New York City in the last four to five World Cups?” asked Gulati, opening the meeting. He went on to emphasize that this would be the first of many meetings in conjunction with M.L.S. to identify issues of player development in New York City.

Jim Vogt of the Brooklyn Knights Metoval Soccer Club noted that “pay to play” has created enormous problems from entry-level youth soccer all the way up to elite teams. He added that the American club system is largely run by middle-class parents with a personal agenda, and these are people who often have little understanding of the game.

Alfonso Mondelo, former director of coaching at Eastern New York Youth Soccer Association, pointed out that the problems of proper development begin at age 6, with leagues run by inexperienced, well-meaning parents who “take players off the field for scoring too many goals.”

There was a consensus at the meeting that U.S. youth players are playing too many games a year, often up to 70, with less time for practice and unpressured play. This often causes kids to burn out and quit by age 15. Wilmer Cabrera, who played for the Colombian National Team in the 1990 World Cup, criticized U.S. programs for making the commitment of soccer feel like a burden to many young players.

“Our path is wrong. If we don’t have fun, we are going down and we are never going to win anything big,” Cabrera said, as the others hung on his every word.

Tab Ramos, a U.S. soccer legend who played in three World Cups, emphasized that what is needed is a curriculum, starting as early as the 5-year-olds, that teaches proper skills.

“With my teams, we sometimes work on just passing for 45 minutes, because let’s face it, passing is 90 percent of the game,” Ramos noted.

However, Paul Gardner, a veteran sports writer, pointed out that all that training is only useful to a certain point. Nobody has really decided what kind of style soccer the U.S. wants to play, he said. Are we gravitating toward a more Brazilian style in New York City? Or as the British-born Gardner said with a wink, “Do we want to, God forbid, look like England?”

To develop a U.S. style of play, Jim Vogt floated the idea that perhaps New York City should have its own central youth training facility, maybe modeled after the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., a multisport training and educational facility.

Bob Russo of the Downtown United Soccer Club asserted that player development should start as early as kindergarten, simply with programs that introduce children to the ball and the game. He described DUSC’s Central City Initiative program as something the committee should take a closer look at, because it casts a very wide net throughout city schools, offering soccer clinics that are free. Dragos Herninean, DUSC’s director of coaching, handpicked talented coaches for this program who teach basic skills while imparting a love of the game.

Gulati and the group agreed that discovering and nurturing talent has to begin at the grassroots level in order to open the current player-development system to a wider variety of kids. In turn, planting the seeds of a growing soccer culture, school by school, field by field, will hopefully sprout a U.S. World Cup player born in New York City.

Player development is a front-burner topic for the U.S. Soccer Federation and the M.L.S. And not a moment too soon, because the big guys from the English Premier League’s wildly popular Chelsea F.C. and Arsenal F.C. are crossing the ocean to open their own player-development programs in the U.S., where they can do a little cherry-picking, definitely with an eye on the Big Apple.


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