Though I've been writing about soccer for a while, I rarely get to actually play the game. Sure, I get in pickup games every now and again, but I wasn't on any kind of organized club team growing up. When I'm able to make it to a field, the only position I'm any good at is one you'd charitably describe as "offside forward."
Still, I have learned enough about youth soccer in America to believe two things about it.
First, the American youth soccer system sure seems to make a lot of money for companies that make soccer equipment. You'd probably start thinking this too if you walked around the NSCAA exhibit hall and saw the rows upon rows of vendors hawking balls, shoes, scarves, fake grass, summer camps and all manner of gadgets supposedly designed to help young players train better.
(Note that I said train better, not play better.)
Second, and not unrelated to the first, there seems to me to be a very large amount of coaching in American youth soccer. This is a point that's been made by writers much more experienced and well-known than I am, but the theory was borne out in reality at a session I attended this afternoon.
Philadelphia Independence coach Paul Riley conducted a clinic with a title that sounded a heck of a lot like coachspeak to me: "The Importance of Ball Work, Ball Mastery and Ball Creativity from the Youth Player to the Professional Player." And sure enough, the grandstand next to the artificial pitch inside one of the Convention Center's exhibit halls was packed with coaches who appeared to be furiously scribbling notes after each thing Riley said.
Why so? Because coaching is, among other things, about defining plays in a game. This allows coaches to think they're decreasing the possibility of having something unexpected happen, and it also allows them to get more involved in the game than they'd be if they just picked starting lineups.
This makes perfect sense in football or baseball, and to a fair degree in basketball. But soccer rewards the ability to improvise, to create passes and goals outside of a rigid structure.
In other words, soccer is often better when there is less coaching. But since there's only so much time in a training session, coaches have to decide how much time will be spent running and how much time will be spent working with a ball.
Riley did not hold back in emphasizing the latter over the former.
"In American soccer, I don't think we spend enough time with the ball," the native of Liverpool, England said. "Sometimes we forget that the key ingredient is the ball."
He was back at it a few minutes later.
"I think we have a lot of robots here in the States," he said. "Give them a chance to play with the ball as much as they can."
It was refreshing to hear a coach tell a bunch of coaches to stop coaching so much.
When the clinic was over, I took my camera over to Riley to interview him about what he said. I asked him directly: Is there too much coaching in youth soccer?
"There's absolutely no question about that," Riley said. "There's no question we over-coach."
You can see the full interview in the video player.
My telling of this story is not meant by any means to diminish the importance of the NSCAA, or the great convention it put on this weekend. But it might be some food for thought for all of us who are fans of the sport of soccer, no matter what level.
Here's another anecdote I picked up today. This morning, Independence associate general manager Louise Waxler was awarded the NSCAA Women's Committee's Award of Excellence.
I knew nothing about Waxler's history in women's soccer until the convention began. So I was quite surprised to learn that she's been around the game for a long time.
Waxler worked in the front office of the Washington Freedom in the WPS' first year and in the WUSA era, and helped organize Women's World Cup games in Washington in 1999 and 2003. She has also overseen a number of major youth soccer tournaments on the East Coast, and is known best in women's soccer circles for founding and overseeing the KICKS Against Breast Cancer organization.
"It's hard to measure, because she does so many things in so many different areas of the game, exactly what her impact has been," former U.S. women's national team coach and current Boston Breakers coach Tony DiCicco said. "But we all know it's been considerable."
Independence owner David Halsted cited Waxler's skills and knowledge of the industry as reasons to have her on board as the franchise starts its first season.
"Her experience and expertise and relationships in the business community and the soccer community, we were missing that in our franchise," Halsted said. "She was really a missing link that we needed to be successful as we roll out."
That wraps things up for the blog's NSCAA convention coverage. These last three days have been a lot of fun, and I hope you enjoyed them too. If nothing else, I think we all got to meet and learn some things about the people who will be in the spotlight when the Union and Independence kick off this spring.
I'll be back on here as news warrants over the next few weeks. I'm sure there will be plenty to write about, but I'll be in college basketball mode. Feel free to post a comment or email me if you want to share your thoughts.