I was reminded, while watching the World Cup these past couple of weeks, of what a fun and thrilling sport soccer can be. It wasn’t so long ago that I was swearing that no child of mine would ever be allowed to play this confusing Eurosport. It would be (American) football like his old man, or nothing! By the time my first kid was six years old, he was not only playing, but I was also coaching, and I found myself desperate to learn everything possible that I could about the sport as expeditiously as possible.
Fortunately for me, and for anyone who would like their children to play this great sport, we have an incredible organization in our community, run by a band of dedicated volunteers who give their time and considerable effort to ensuring that our children are able to get a great start in soccer, the Greenhaven Soccer Club. And they do it for a price that won’t bring you to your knees. My son spent several years in the club before branching off into competitive soccer (the cost of which can very well bring you to your knees, depending on the club), and he has his Greenhaven coaches to thank for providing him the foundation he would use to compete at the higher levels of the sport as he got older.
There was much talk during the World Cup among the various analysts, regarding youth soccer in the respective countries, and the differences in how it is administrated, and what the children are taught. The guy from Holland seemed to prefer his country’s method over whatever it is they do in Brazil. The guys from England always comport themselves with an air of soccer superiority over everyone, never mind that their national team never seems to make it out of the Group Stage.
I’m no expert, but I can’t imagine a better system than the one innovated at Greenhaven for their youngest players. According to the club’s Director of Coaching, Wayne Novoa, the program was transformed under former President Mark Bearor, and with the close consultation of board members Tom Bistline, Steve Larson, and current president, Shane Singh. This group developed and implemented the program from what appeared to be a miniature version of the real sport into an innovative configuration designed to get each child as many touches on the ball as possible under competitive circumstances.
Greenhaven’s U6 Division is now comprised of teams that compete only among themselves, rather than against other clubs, such as East Sacramento or Land Park. Every Saturday, the U6 teams are divided into two very small sides of three players each, and they play against their assigned opponents at the same time on two separate fields. The goals aren’t the massive white pipes we normally see on soccer fields, tended by goalkeepers. Instead, our U6 players shoot at “Pugs” little fold out arches that stand untended on the field.
“Our system allows everyone on the field a chance to gain more touches on the ball,” says Coach Wayne. “With increased repetition comes mastery… the kids improve their decision making and their fitness. Perhaps most importantly, they have more fun, because they’re more involved. In the regular system, which is still used by many of the other clubs, it’s easy for the more deferential kids to go an entire game without ever touching the ball. That does no one any good.”
The only way to get the full benefit of speeding the learning curve for our youngest players is to identify potential as soon as possible and funnel it to the national team program immediately. In 1979, US Soccer introduced the Olympic Development Program, which established a pipeline between youth soccer clubs throughout the country and the United States national soccer program. Any player can try out for his or her state Olympic Development Team and the standouts are absorbed upward by the regional and national teams. What’s great is that the kids can still compete with their clubs, as the Olympic Development functions as an ancillary program to the player’s club experience.
We really are at a great point in the proliferation of soccer in America. It’s a sport that has been predicted to sweep the nation ever since the great Pelé peeled off his Brazilian national team jersey and pulled the New York Cosmos jersey over his head in the 1970s. Yet, somehow, it just hasn’t happened. But now soccer really has become woven into the adolescence of the majority of Americans under the age of 30 who played youth soccer. As that generation ages, and as new generations of soccer playing Americans become adults, the tide has turned. This World Cup season, we were swimming in soccer to the point of drowning.
Could anyone ever have foreseen a time when we have not one, but two viable professional and semi-professional soccer franchises in Sacramento? Not only do we have the Sacramento Republic killing it in the USL Pro League, sort of the incubator league for franchises desiring to enter Major League Soccer (the MLS), the most successful professional soccer league ever in the US, but we also have the Sacramento Gold, a highly successful franchise in the semipro National Premiere Soccer League, the incubator for the incubator, if you will.
The bottom line is that our country is definitely becoming a force in this sport that is religiously followed by the rest of the civilized—and uncivilized—world. Our draw in the World Cup was about as bad as could be expected. We wound up in what became known as this year’s “Group of Death”, but we made it out of the group stage to the Knockout Round, where we were ultimately knocked out by Belgium, a country roughly the size, physically and populously, as the State of Maryland, but I digress. A lot of perennial world powerhouses were knocked out at that stage. And many others didn’t even make it to that level, including the land of soccer snobs, England. It should not pass unnoticed that we lost to eventual World Champions Germany by a score of 0-1, but mighty Brazil lost to them by a humiliating score of 1-7.
The US is rising, and we can trace the ascension back to our communities four- and five-year olds. Thanks to local clubs like Greenhaven Soccer Club, we can not only monitor our country’s progress, but we can be a part of it, as well. Now if we could just do something about the diving…
The Pocket Watch appears in each issue of the Pocket News. Jeff Dominguez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.