Off to Las Vegas for Got Soccer Cup!

Well many in our group are departing for Las Vegas for this weekends Got Soccer Cup today, which is certainly the highest profile tournament that we will have entered up to this point.  The four teams in our group are us, ACLB (Los Banos) Got Soccer nationally ranked #421, Trebol (Denver) # 224, NYSL (Las Vegas) #165, and CCV (Phoenix) #5.  While Got Soccer rankings are not the most indicative of team ability, they do give a relative indication as to the difficulty of this tournament compared to what we have played in up to this point.

We spent the week working on our touches, whole field pattern play, and ball distribution through the midfield.  As you could see in our last video (if you watched) we are struggling with playing the ball away from pressure and more specifically turning the ball away from the pressure instead of continually playing short into tight spaces that eventually get cut off.  We worked a couple of midfield distribution drills courtesy of Gary Curneen’s latest book, Position Specific Training.  If we see any of these elements starting to show through against tough competition I will be impressed since we know that things must be trained to the point of unconscious competence.  Realistically in a best case scenario we are in the second stage of conscious incompetence.  Translation is that most of our players recognize the relevance of the training, but the execution is probably not at a game level yet.  We also had a chance to work our forwards on movement reads such as when to check, when to interchange, etc.  The pieces are coming together a bit in practice, but the urgency in the attacking 3rd is still not at a game tempo yet in practice.  We have a few guest players joining us for the tournament, so hopefully their quality in the final 3rd will help us in these areas.

We will be attempting to shoot some video of our games in Las Vegas, primarily as a coaching tool.  Obviously U11 players look at the film as a how cool it is that they are on the internet.  A few of them get it and see the mistakes that they are making and kind of cringe while watching at times and get excited at other times when positive movements happen.

Regardless we have talked about reasons to look forward to this level of competition and how boring low level games can be.  Again some love the idea of a high scoring blowout.  I then reminded them how fun it is for 20 minutes and then how boring it is to pass the game away with possession for the last half of a match.  We talked about the opportunity that these games present to bring out the best in each player and the opportunity to show how strong the team can be.  At any rate it will be interesting to see how are little team from Los Banos fares.  We will keep you posted!

ACLB vs Ajax

Here is the video from our most recent game against Ajax United.  We are wearing blue.  Our first half was extremely sloppy and I was not very happy with our quality of play.  We spent the half with our players all trying to be the man and take people one on one, instead of playing off their teammates.  We were also trying to play too direct.  We talk about playing simple passes with complex movement.  I believe things go wrong when the reverse happens and we have simple movement and complex passing.

With that said we wasted some good opportunities in the first half.  At halftime we had a “discussion” about playing as a team and playing the ball away from the opponent while trying to get to goal.  We did a better job in the second half of looking for teammates and had a better run of play, but still wasted a few golden opportunities.  At 43 minutes we moved one of our stronger and faster players from Center Back up into the attack and he scored 30 seconds later.

Our next set of games are going to be at Got Soccer Cup in Las Vegas.  We are going to have to do a better job of controlling the ball and moving it to find the 2 v 1’s on the field if we are going to have any success there.  We will be adding a few guest players in to the team for this tournament because we are going to need a bit more firepower to compete at that level.  Hopefully we will be able to capitalize on our opportunities, because one thing is very clear:  the higher the level of play the more they punish you for mistakes.  Your team can play amazing for large stretches of games and quality opponents will take advantage of the moments you lapse and punish you for them with deflating goals.

This will be our first time facing out of state competition with teams from Phoenix, Colorado, and Nevada in our group.  Should be a good experience pushing our limits.  We will see how it goes…

Differentiated groupings at practice

One of the things that newer coaches think about when instituting new curriculum is whether their players are ready or not.  It is important to differentiate your groupings.  The top players should be training in a grouping with other top players and lower skilled players should be prepping with lower skilled players.  These groupings are not permanent and should be fluid even within a practice as kids have good days and bad days.  Ultimately when you move in to whole group the groups will be blended back together.  It is important to remember how frustrating it can be to be a high skill player stuck in a group with low skill players.  Yes I know they are teammates, but it is vital that the best players also continue to get better.  This is not No Child Left Behind, this is all players move forward at their level.

Here is a look at 4 groupings from our practice on 4/23.  One of the videos is a 4 v 0 because the group really was struggling that day in 3 v 1.  So we pulled them back into a 4 v 0 to focus on technique and body positioning.  At this point in our development the players divide themselves into at level groupings, the coaches do not have to tell players which group to go to.  We only had to make one change this day.

Also as a practice progression to get to this point this day we start with 5 v 2 warm-up, then go through our stretching and skill set development period, s-drill, then into 4 v 0   / 3 v 1

Crossing that Bridge

As I mentioned in an earlier post we began play three years ago as a U8 bronze team.  Now here we are three years later playing at the Premier level of Nor Cal.  But a larger question exists now that we have reached this point: “Is this where we want to be?”  What we have learned in our stay at the Premier level is that we are an average team for this age grouping because we are not a collection of all-stars or the top team of several at a larger club, instead we are an organically grown team that consistently can swing with the big boys.

The question then is this where we want to be?  As a coach I certainly want to meet the highest challenge and play the best, but at what expense is this accomplished.  Playing at the Gold level we thoroughly outclassed our opponents and did not belong, but it took a lesser commitment from players and families.  Moving up to Premier has increased the demands on families to have a greater commitment to things that will make their children better soccer players.  However, what is the cost of doing this and is this what they all want?  When the questions are asked the answers are always yes, but when it comes down to actually making sacrifices it feels sometimes like feet are being dragged.  It is as though we recognize that playing at a lower level is not the challenge that we want in competition, but playing at the highest level places demands that we are not comfortable with either.

One need look no further than our last tournament as evidence.  We traveled down to Los Angeles and our kids were truly on a vacation complete with trips to the beach and all.  The result was a lethargic effort in which we only showed any real seriousness in our last game on Sunday and it ultimately left a bad taste in our mouths.  From there we picked up in league with two half hearted efforts that resulted in back to back 2-1 losses.  We finally broke through in the third game with a better effort and a 3-2 win.  But is this what everyone really wants?  Do the the kids want to be pushed to this level?

The answer like most things lies somewhere in the middle.  Many of the players do in fact want to have to play hard and at the highest level because of the challenge.  There are of course others that enjoy being a part of the team, but are not as committed to the level of play they must achieve to be successful at this level.  So the challenge as a coach is what do you do?  We are not a club in the sense that we have an A and a B team (or more for that matter) where these problems would more easily be resolved.  We are also 45 minutes to an hour removed from any other club where players could go to meet their level of need and even many of them only have 1 team.

So here our kids are getting prepared to head to Las Vegas for another high level tournament and we as coaches and managers are now attempting to treat this more as a business trip, than vacation.  Team meals, proper health preparation for games, etc.  But there will undoubtably be resistance to this when we go to Las Vegas.  And this is where the real frustration starts to kick in.  Our team is not athletically gifted relative to these other teams, we are probably below average across the board in that aspect. We are successful when we have high work rates and utilize our technical ability.  So it is critical that our players are in the best possible mental and physical shape to be ready for high level competition, a level where a few mistakes can be your undoing.

So going back to the original point, it seems we have reached a point where that first question is truly going to determine the future of this team.  Is this where we want to be?  If the answer is a resounding yes then there is no doubt that the future of this team is secure.  Anything less than that however leaves the future in doubt.

MLS you had me, then you lost me!

A lot is made of the so called “Eurosnob”, the American soccer fan who prefers watching European soccer to Major League Soccer.  In theory I should have been the demographic that MLS was after:  A newbie to the sport, no real knowledge of international soccer, and a willingness to spend money to see the game in person.

I was the typical all American sports kid, not an All-American, just a kid who loved American sports.  Specifically football, basketball, and baseball.  Sure as a kid in my San Fernando Valley neighborhood we ventured into our occasional game of playground soccer in an enclosed outdoor area, but that was more to appease out Argentinian friends Ariel and Eziquel who went along with us most of the time when we engaged in our “American” sports.  There were no dreams of becoming the next Pele, in fact I don’t think I even knew who Pele was.  This was the early 1980’s and soccer was relatively invisible on the sports landscape.  Instead we played basketball first, football second, and baseball third.  I was an undersized late bloomer with dreams of making it into the NBA or NFL.  When those dreams were obviously not realized, I became a coach for these sports.  And so this continued until around 2002.

That’s right 2002!  World Cup 1994 was barely a blip on my radar.  The founding of MLS was cool, but I was not all that interested.  Then in 2002 I found myself getting up at 4am to watch the USMNT compete in the World Cup.  It was captivating because I had a rooting interest.  I didn’t know jack about soccer, but like Olympic fans I wanted to see the United States win… and they did (well almost).  They made their most successful run in the modern era of soccer all the way to the Quarterfinals.  But like Olympic fans and their favorite swimmer or gymnast, soccer slowly faded as my interest dwindled with nothing of note in front of me to see.  Although I did find myself watching the occasional US match on TV.

Then I had kids and what better youth sport for kids to play than soccer.  So I signed my kids up for the local park and recreation league.  As a coach of other sports I naturally volunteered to coach my 3 and 4 your old boys in park and recreation soccer. It was more of a directional experience than a coaching experience, as in “go that way”.  But as a person that was accustomed to structure in sports I was dissatisfied with the lack of organization of the unaffiliated park and rec league so I found a CYSA league 40 minutes away.  At sign-ups they told me that my younger son was too young to play by 4 days, but they would put him in if I coached.  They even offered to give me coaching courses for free and I received my F and E license.  While taking the course I ran into some local coaches who ran a travel team and long story short I was suddenly immersed in the local soccer scene coaching a U8 boys travel team.

So here I was coaching travel soccer and my first inclination was to look for the nearest professional league to take my kids to go see games.  We went to the occasional SJ Earthquakes game in that first year, but quickly loved the gameday experience and bought season tickets for our family over the next few seasons.  As we were attending these games, I was continuing my soccer education.  Early on the MLS standard seemed pretty awesome, but as my soccer knowledge increased and my knowledge of the game increased I found myself questioning what I was seeing on the field.

In soccer education I was now attending trainings presented by Fiorentina, Ajax, Barcelona, etc.  MLS was no where to be seen.  In retrospect I wonder why were they not present in these training sessions?  Why were they not actively educating local coaches that could potentially feed their club?  However, at the time that was not something that I was thinking about.  I was thirsty for soccer knowledge and I was getting it from these foreign places.  The natural next step was to watch these teams in action.  Sure their training seemed great and all, but what does the finished product look like?  It did not take long to figure out the difference.

Instead of watching the domestic league I found myself waking up early to watch EPL games, because they were most readily available.  Then with exposure to possession soccer education, I found myself gravitating towards Barcelona.  The technical ability that Barcelona possessed was the technical ability I wanted my players to strive for, not the technical ability of the players in MLS.  I needed to, my players needed to watch more La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga, etc.  More importantly I didn’t have to ask my players, they were watching it and wanted to talk about it.  But don’t feel bad MLS, they don’t want to talk about FMF much at all either.

They want to talk about Barcelona, Bayern, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester United, Juventus, Messi, Ronaldo, Hazard, Pogba, Oscar, Neymar, Suarez, and Bale.  I want to talk about them also.  So does liking watch these players and teams make us “Eurosnobs”or fans of high quality soccer?  Why did we turn to these leagues for inspiration?

The answer is actually quite simple.  MLS lacks the quality, tactically and technically to captivate a large soccer audience.  You need proof look at soccer viewership statistics in the United States.  The largest club soccer audiences, both on TV and in person are when these European teams are involved.  EVEN WHEN THE GAMES DON’T MATTER.  Think about that for a second, Americans would rather watch exhibitions of these teams than meaningful games for MLS.  Americans don’t even watch preseason baseball, football, or basketball.  Preseason games in these sports get a fraction of the attendance that their regular seasons get.  Yet in soccer Americans will fill these very same stadiums to capacity for meaningless games.

So here I am anticipating the next round of preseason tours coming this summer so I can take in a public training or game if they make it to the West Coast and not attending any local MLS games.  Not because of any blatant dislike for MLS, but rather because I prefer to spend my money elsewhere.  MLS you had me and let me go.  I was who you were after 25-40 year old, married, professional with income and two soccer playing boys.  Kids who could have grown up Earthquakes fans or Galaxy fans or whatever MLS team they wanted.  Instead they have a passing interest in MLS and sit down to watch La Liga games.  Instead of being MLS teams on FIFA, they want to be Barca, Real, Bayern, or Chelsea.  Instead of wanting MLS jerseys they want the same teams jerseys they play with on FIFA and watch on TV.  So MLS you really did have me and I thank you for helping me to understand the game better, even if it was in an opposite way than you intended.  But I have moved on now!  I hope that one day you can get me back because I would like to see quality soccer right here in the United States, unfortunately it just is not happening right now!

If you build it they will come!

For the past three years I have coached a U11 group of kids that have grown from a Bronze level team to a team playing at the Premier level in Nor Cal.  All of this has been done in a low cost environment, in which all coaches and staff of the team and club are volunteer and players pay only $30 per month to participate in everything from league to state cup to high level tournaments.

This past year I took over as varsity coach of our schools soccer team and saw a need to run an off-season program.  So I started a U17 travel team to focus on offseason development.  I was initially concerned that there would not be enough interest or commitment by those who were interested to see the team to fruition.  However, what I am finding is that the opposite is happening.  While working a curriculum developed by our friends at 3four3.com the program has grown massively.  Players are coming from all over to be a part of this team.  Every practice new kids are showing up wanting to add to the team and the numbers are swelling beyond capacity.  So now the challenge becomes how to accommodate all of these players?

Therein lies the real issue here.  When I take my U11’s to tournaments in different places we always get the same two questions, “Where is Los Banos?” and “Are there more teams like yours there?”.  I have to explain where our town is located, more challenging than you think.  Then I have to explain that there are other teams, but none that play like us.  It isn’t that there are not other teams, or there is not good talent, they just don’t play possession style.  They rely solely on their athleticism and narrow individual skill set to play direct balls whether the situation calls for it or not.  As a result the players that come to my teams come for a specific purpose: They see the possession based soccer that we are developing and want to be a part of it.  The problem is that no other coaches around seem to see the value in it and the result is our teams are an oasis in our local soccer landscape.

If there were more coaches willing to offer what the kids are after, then there would not be a problem.  Instead I am sure many of you can envision the problems in the foreseeable future.  Players wanting to move into these teams, other coaches complaining they are being recruited, and the teams swelling beyond capacity.  The solution seems so simple.  If the demand is there from the players to have teams that play this style, then we need to have coaches willing to teach and coach this style. However, rather than learn or adapt their coaching style to incorporate possession based methods, they thumb their nose at what we teach and talk down about it.

Jay Bilas Toughness adapted for soccer

Toughness has nothing to do with size, physical strength or athleticism. Some players may be born tough, but I believe that toughness is a skill, and it is a skill that can be developed and improved. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo always says, “Players play, but tough players win.” He is right. Here are some of the ways true toughness is exhibited in basketball:

Make a good Run: The toughest players to mark are the players who have good movement. When you have good movement, you are improving the chances for a teammate to get open, and you are greatly improving your chances of getting open. Good movement can force the defense to make a mistake. Lazy or bad movement is a waste of everyone’s time and energy. To be a tough player, you need to be a “mover/scorer,” a player who moves well and immediately looks for an opportunity on offense. On the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team, Bob Knight made Michael Jordan set a screen before he could get a shot. If it is good enough for Jordan, arguably the toughest player ever, it is good enough for you.

Set up your cut: The toughest players make hard cuts, and set up their cuts. Soccer is about deception. Take your defender one way, and then plant the foot opposite of the direction you want to go and cut hard. A hard cut may get you a goal, but it may also get a teammate a goal. If you do not make a hard cut, you will not get anyone open. Setting up your cut, making the proper read of the defense, and making a hard cut require alertness, good conditioning and good concentration. Davidson’s Stephen Curry is hardly a physical muscle-man, but he is a tough player because he is in constant motion, he changes speeds, he sets up his cuts, and he cuts hard. Curry is hard to guard, and he is a tough player.

Talk on defense: The toughest players talk on defense, and communicate with their teammates. It is almost impossible to talk on defense and not be in position, ready, with a vision of man and ball. If you talk, you let your teammates know you are there, and make them and yourself better defenders. It also lets your opponent know that you are fully engaged.

Jump to the ball: When on defense, the tough defenders move as the ball moves. The toughest players move on the flight of the ball, not when it gets to its destination. And the toughest players jump to the ball and take away the ball side of the cut. Tough players don’t let players cut across their face — they make the cutter change his path.

Don’t be defended: No coach can give a player the proper footwork to get through every situation. Tough players have a sense of urgency not to get covered and to get open so that the passer can play the ball where he wants to. A tough player makes the passers job easier. The opposite is true on defense.

Pressure the ball: A pass discouraged is just as good as a pass denied. Tough players play in passing lanes and pressure the ball to take away vision, get deflections and to discourage a pass in order to allow a teammate to cover up. Players will get open, if only for a count. If your are pressuring, you can keep the passer from seeing a momentary opening.

Play the ball, see your man: Most defenders see the ball and hug their man, because they are afraid to get beat. A tough defender plays the ball and sees his man. There is a difference.

Hustle for the Ball: In my first road game as a freshman, there was a loose ball that I thought I could pick up and take the other way for an easy one. While I was bending over at the waist, one of my opponents dived on the floor and got possession of the ball. My coach was livid. We lost possession of the ball because I wasn’t tough enough to get on the floor for it. I tried like hell never to get out-toughed like that again.

The first player to get to the ball is usually the one to come up with any loose ball. Close out under control: It is too easy to fly at a player and think you are a tough defender. A tough defender closes out under control, takes away a straight line drive and takes away the shot. A tough player has a sense of urgency but has the discipline to do it the right way. .

Run the field: Tough players sprint the field, which drags the defense and opens up things for others. Tough players run hard and get “easy” opportunities, even though there is nothing easy about them. Easy goals are hard to get. Tough players don’t take tough shots — they work hard to make them easy.

Play so hard, your coach has to take you out: I was a really hard worker in high school and college. But I worked and trained exceptionally hard to make playing easier. I was wrong. I once read that Bob Knight had criticized a player of his by saying, “You just want to be comfortable out there!” Well, that was me, and when I read that, it clicked with me. I needed to work to increase my capacity for work, not to make it easier to play. I needed to work in order to be more productive in my time on the floor. Tough players play so hard that their coaches have to take them out to get rest so they can put them back in. The toughest players don’t pace themselves.

Get to your teammate first: When your teammate lays his body on the line to dive on the field or contact, the tough players get to him first to help him back up. If your teammate misses a shot, tough players get to him right away. Tough players are also great teammates.

Take responsibility for your teammates: Tough players expect a lot from their teammates, but they also put them first. When the bus leaves at 9 a.m., tough players not only get themselves there, but they also make sure their teammates are up and get there, too. Tough players take responsibility for others in addition to themselves. They make sure their teammates eat first, and they give credit to their teammates before taking it themselves.

Finish plays: Tough players don’t just get fouled, they get fouled and complete the play. They don’t give up on a play or assume that a teammate will do it. A tough player plays through to the end of the play and works to finish every play.

Work on your pass: A tough player doesn’t have his passes deflected. A tough player receives properly, released properly, and works to get the proper angle to pass away from the defense and deliver the ball.

Throw yourself into your team’s defense: A tough player fills his tank on the defensive end, not on offense. A tough player is not deterred by a missed shot. A tough player values his performance first by how well he defended.

Take and give criticism the right way: Tough players can take criticism without feeling the need to answer back or give excuses. They are open to getting better and expect to be challenged and hear tough things. You will never again in your life have the opportunity you have now at the college level: a coaching staff that is totally and completely dedicated to making you and your team better. Tough players listen and are not afraid to say what other teammates may not want to hear, but need to hear.

Show strength in your body language: Tough players project confidence and security with their body language. They do not hang their heads, do not react negatively to a mistake of a teammate, and do not whine and complain to officials. Tough players project strength, and do not cause their teammates to worry about them. Tough players do their jobs, and their body language communicates that to their teammates — and to their opponents.

Catch and face: Teams that press and trap are banking on the receiver’s falling apart and making a mistake. When pressed, tough players set up their cuts, cut hard to an open area and present themselves as a receiver to the passer. Tough players catch, face the defense, and make the right read and play, and they do it with poise. Tough players do not just receive and dribble; they receive and face.

Don’t get split: If you trap, a tough player gets shoulder-to-shoulder with his teammate and does not allow the handler to split the trap and gain an advantage on the back side of the trap.

Be alert: Tough players are not “cool.” Tough players are alert and active, and tough players communicate with teammates so that they are alert, too. Tough players echo commands until everyone is on the same page. They understand the best teams play five as one. Tough players are alert in transition and get back to protect the goal. Tough players don’t just run back to find their man, they run back to stop the ball and protect the goal.

Concentrate, and encourage your teammates to concentrate: Concentration is a skill, and tough players work hard to concentrate on every play. Tough players go as hard as they can for as long as they can.

It’s not your shot; it’s our shot: Tough players don’t take bad shots, and they certainly don’t worry about getting “my” shots. Tough players work for good shots and understand that it is not “my” shot, it is “our” shot. Tough players celebrate when “we” score.

Win the ball: Tough players are disciplined enough to lay a body on someone. They make first contact and go after the ball. And tough players do it on every possession, not just when they feel like it. They understand defense is not complete until they secure the ball.

Take responsibility for your actions: Tough players make no excuses. They take responsibility for their actions. Take James Johnson for example. With 17 seconds to go in Wake’s game against Duke on Wednesday, Jon Scheyer missed a 3-pointer that bounced right to Johnson. But instead of aggressively pursuing the ball with a sense of urgency, Johnson stood there and waited for the ball to come to him. It never did. Scheyer grabbed it, called a timeout and the Blue Devils hit a game-tying shot on a possession they never should’ve had. Going after the loose ball is toughness — and Johnson didn’t show it on that play. But what happened next? He re-focused, slipped a screen for the winning basket, and after the game — when he could’ve been basking only in the glow of victory — manned up to the mistake that could’ve cost his team the win. “That was my responsibility — I should have had that,” Johnson said of the goof. No excuses. Shouldering the responsibility. That’s toughness.

Look your coaches and teammates in the eye: Tough players never drop their heads. They always look coaches and teammates in the eye, because if they are talking, it is important to them and to you.

Move on to the next play: Tough players don’t waste time celebrating a good play or lamenting a bad one. They understand that soccer is too fast a game to waste time and opportunities with celebratory gestures or angry reactions. Tough players move on to the next play. They know that the most important play in any game is the next one.

Be hard to play against, and easy to play with: Tough players make their teammates’ jobs easier, and their opponents’ jobs tougher.

Make every game important: Tough players don’t categorize opponents and games. They know that if they are playing, it is important. Tough players understand that if they want to play in championship games, they must treat every game as a championship game.

Make getting better every day your goal: Tough players come to work every day to get better, and keep their horizons short. They meet victory and defeat the same way: They get up the next day and go to work to be better than they were the day before. Tough players hate losing but are not shaken or deterred by a loss. Tough players enjoy winning but are never satisfied. For tough players, a championship or a trophy is not a goal; it is a destination. The goal is to get better every day.

When I was playing, the players I respected most were not the best or most talented players. The players I respected most were the toughest players. I don’t remember anything about the players who talked a good game or blocked a shot and acted like a fool. I remember the players who were tough to play against.

Anybody can talk. Not anybody can be tough.

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