Soccer Poet

Red Duck Quacking

Red Duck Quacking


Okay… new coaches, new system, new style and 14 rookies. All that against the nation’s #6 team (according to the preseason poll) and the defending ACC champions. Let’s just say that my wish-list for our scrimmage with Florida State was pretty modest. I was hoping we would play well and leave Tallahassee with our players believing that their new coaches aren’t idiots and that we were all on the right track. That’s what I was hoping.

Then there are those days where everything just comes up roses.

Let’s flash back…

Our bus left Athens at 9 A.M. Thursday. It was my first road trip as a Bulldog and because I must be livin’ right, my first Bulldog road trip lunch stop was at a Cracker Barrel somewhere in South Georgia. To know me is to know my unconditional love for the Barrel and all it stands for. The Barrel is the brass ring for road trip breakfasts and lunches, and let’s face it, the dinners aren’t too shabby either. Find me at the Barrel and you’ve found a happy poet.

The Cracker Barrel gift shop also provided our Monkey of the Day sightings with a stuffed animal and a greeting card. Are you a believer yet?

There’s been a recent addition to our team that bears mentioning. Monkeys aren’t the only animal we keep an eye out for. Since Steve’s ‘Look Like a Duck’ sermon, there has been a preponderance of duck sightings in our camp, but none more impressive than the ceramic one sent to us by Ashley Baker’s family. I’m not exactly sure of who turned the duck into a Bulldog duck, but that sucker sure looks good in bright red with the black ‘G’ on its back. When Ashley brought it on board there was no doubt that our new mascot would be a regular on these trips.

We rolled into Tallahassee around 3, checked into the hotel, then did a quick turn around and headed to FSU for a light training session. Our timing was impeccable. In Tallahassee even Mother Nature is a Seminole as just as our bus pulled up, so did the thick black clouds and one monster storm.

Before the rain actually began, Steve went to visit the office of FSU’s head coach Mark Krikorian. The rest of the team stayed on the bus. So when the rains came down with the fury of Zeus, there was a couple hundred yards of torrential downpour between Steve and our bus. Coach Krikorian was kind enough to lend Steve an umbrella. Of course the umbrella was garnet and gold and emblazoned with ‘FSU’ all over it. This went over particularly well with a bus full of loyal Bulldogs who insisted our driver not open the door, then began chanting, “Get off the bus! Get off the bus!”

Eventually they let Steve back on and we returned to our hotel. And as soon as we got to our rooms, the rain magically ceased to be. Funny how that works.

The weather held up nicely for us on Friday, as did the monkeys. First sighting at 8:30 A.M., TV cartoon.

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We got in a light morning session, mainly to introduce a couple of corner kicks and do just enough possession to shake out the cobwebs. Then lunch at McCallister’s and before long we were on our way to Seminole Soccer Stadium to take the Dawgs out for a test drive.

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If you’re new to my blogs, this is how pregame works: Steve speaks first, reviewing the tactics for the match. Then I follow with some words of motivation. Hopefully.

We had an agreement with FSU that neither team would produce scouting reports following the match, and that fit in nicely with my team talk. The coaches wouldn’t talk about the opponent after the game, so our players wouldn’t worry about them during the game. At least that was my hope.

When you play a team like Florida State, it’s easy to get star-struck by their recent accomplishments.
I wanted to extract their resume from our collective psyche. So the theme of my talk was very simple. This game was not about them. This game was about us. It was about taking what we’ve done in training and applying it against some live ammo. We’ve worked a lot on keeping the ball, organizing the runs of our forwards, and organizing our defense. We wanted to see our players apply what they’ve learned.

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The other thing we’ve focused on is our pressure – its organization and its attitude. There’s only one way our pressure works, and that’s if we’re the aggressor. Regardless of how good FSU was supposed to be, we needed to take the game to them. And we did. Man, did we ever.

Apparently the past two preseason matches between UGA and FSU ended up in landslide Seminole victories by the score of 5-1. So imagine my delight when we nearly scored in the first minute, got behind them again a few minutes later, and basically put up a wall of pressure that the defending ACC champion struggled to negotiate. We were everywhere! It was like one big red swarm. We pressured relentlessly, turned the ‘Noles over up high and really took the game to them.

About ten minutes in I looked at Robin and she was just sitting there quietly with a grin on her face. She was enjoying the view, watching the Dawgs take it to this team that had whooped them in seasons past. Seeing her team’s new attitude made Robin happy. Not strictly for the team or the program, but for the girls.

We went to the half at 0-0. We were the better team in the first half, so we all figured that the Noles would ratchet up the pressure in the second half and things would level out. But as it turns out, we were actually even more dominant in the second stanza. FSU is a possession team and they enjoy making opponents chase. But they just couldn’t weave their way through the pressure we kept heaving on top of them.

FSU had one very good sustained attack in the second half and it resulted in a PK. I thought about yelling for our players to hunt for rebounds, but for whatever reason I decided against it. So what happens? Naturally Ashley plays it perfectly and makes the save while our players stay planted on the 18 yard line as the shooter finishes her own rebound. Doh!

As a rebound fanatic, that drives me bananas. Your keeper should only have to make one save. On a PK you’re fortunate if she can do even that. But if she does, it better be one of us who’s first to any rebound left dangling out there.

That goal really could have swung the game away from us, but we dug in and answered in splendid fashion about 30 seconds later. Carly Shultis had the ball 25 yards out in front of the FSU goal. As Laura Eddy streaked past her, Shultis scooped a sublime little chip just over the center back and into Eddy’s path at the penalty spot. The ball died on the first bounce. Eddy side-footed a half-volley on the second bounce just inside the right post and we were level at 1-1.

It was Shultis’ first game against collegiate competition. It’s against a national powerhouse. And she feathers a pass of such daring as to dwarf any pass I have ever made in any game… EVER. Eddy’s finish was composed and clinical, but it was the audacity of Shultis that stole the moment. This preseason has now presented two of the best goals I have ever seen and neither of them count. That just ain’t right.

The rest of the game was more of the same and played mainly in the FSU half, and we left Tallahassee with a 1-1 draw.

Our staff was pleased with our performance, particularly our work rate. Our willingness to run and chase and hit was fantastic. When I addressed the team on the first night of preseason I said that we must not let talent be the signature of this team… that our signature must be our work rate and our courage and our willingness to chase. On Friday it certainly was.

It was a good start for the Dawgs. I was hoping for belief and I know that we left Tallahassee with an abundance of it. We went 20 players deep and our level did not drop. We still have work to do. We’re going to get better. But that was a pretty smooth test drive.

On the bus ride home we started throwing riddles around, which led me to creating a puzzle for a group of interested players, which in turn led to a small wager. There were 12 problems to be solved in my puzzle. If the players got all 12 before we got to Athens, everyone on the team would be awarded one point for Breakfast Club.

Breakfast Club is our 6:30 A.M. running club for those players who have not accumulated 32 points on their fitness standard. Each day they get one point for attending Breakfast Club, and occasionally we re-run a fitness test so they can accumulate some points in bulk. To get out of Breakfast Club you must reach the 32 point marker. Bailey Powell had a particularly vested interest in this puzzle being solved as she was sitting at 31 points - only one point shy of graduating the BC. If the puzzle got solved, she got to sleep in Sunday.

So as we rolled through the Georgia night, as most of their teammates slept, a half-dozen Dawgs put their brains to work trying to save everyone a day of Breakfast Club.

I went back to check on their progress and they only had two problems left. I knew it was just a matter of time before they would get one of them. My only hope was the other one - problem #3.

With about 30 miles left in our trip I heard a celebration erupt at the back of the bus and I knew it was over. Jenna and Chewy brought their solution sheet up for my review. It was just a formality. They knew they had won.

Want to see how your brain compares with a few of the Georgia Bulldogs? Solve this:

3 = LB in BMS

12 = D of C
12 = Days of Christmas

First one to email me the correct answer gets a free Soccer Poet bumper sticker.

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updated: 8 years ago

Live Ammo

Live Ammo

Tomorrow morning the Dawgs are bussin’ it to Tallahassee for a preseason duel with Florida State on Friday night. Talk about a baptism by fire. The Seminoles have been among the nation’s elite for the past few years, in no small part due to the success of their international recruiting efforts. We know they’ll be talented and technical and skillful and patient and that they’ll try their best to make us chase and chase.

I’m not concerned with the result… that is provided we don’t give up six or seven goals because that wouldn’t be any fun at all. I want to see us play well. And I want to see us be the aggressor. I want to see us apply the things we’ve rehearsed in training. No, my concern is not the result. Right now my biggest concern is belief.

We’re a new staff implementing a new system and new style (of play and of coaching) and so far everyone has bought into it. We’ve looked good in training and showed marked improvement from our first intra-squad scrimmage to the second. But now it’s time to face some serious live ammunition. One big torpedo across the bow can severely damage the credibility of everything we’ve tried to teach in the past week. We don’t need to beat Florida State. But we need to leave there believing that we’re on the right track.

College athletes are so in-the-moment. Whatever time of day it is, that time is the most important. If they’re not in the starting eleven now, they never will be (or so they think). And if we lose a couple on the trot, then there is something wrong with the system and/or the way it’s being coached. It’s very all-or-none for college players.

For all the hard work it entails, preseason is really the honeymoon phase. The team is undefeated; no one is a starter or a reserve; and whatever physical misery a player endures, she endures it with a whole bunch of teammates. All of the misery is a collective misery and that makes it bearable. But tomorrow that all changes. Tomorrow we get on a bus and leave 9 teammates behind. Only 22 of our 31 will be making the trip. Once that game starts, 11 of those 22 won’t be starters. Now the misery isn’t quite so shared. Now it’s very personal. And not everyone handles it the way their team needs them to handle it.

Every team in the country faces these same battles. Some deal with it better than others. A lot of it has to do with the leadership within the team… captains, seniors, upperclassmen… anyone of any status who commits to putting the team first, which is almost always a lot easier said than done.

20 years of coaching has taught me this one unimpeachable lesson: Winning solves a lot of problems.

Trust me.

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updated: 8 years ago

Quantum Fitness

Quantum Fitness

So let’s just say the first week of preseason is behind us. The days all run together at this point, but I know tonight is Sunday, and Monday starts a new week, so our first week, although abbreviated on the front end, is over.

Like several thousand other college soccer players across this nation, the Dawgs went to bed Tuesday night dreading the fitness test that awaited them on Wednesday morning. And for good reason. Fitness tests are freaking hard. No way around it. Plus there’s the part where you pass or fail, which is sure to red-line your internal stress-o-meter.

So here’s the thing about Coach Steve Holeman… he likes numbers. A lot. He’s got a math brain. He’s an engineer in a soccer coach’s body. That’s why, whenever I need his help with any kind of mathematical figuring, I just call him Rainman. He’s the kind of guy who will relax by balancing his checkbook. If he lived in Ancient Greece he probably would've invented the triangle. He’s that smart.

Anyway, point being, I’m going to guess that we have the most mathematically complex fitness testing system in the nation. A lot of programs have one or two tests, and you either pass or fail. We, on the other hand, have four tests where players can achieve a maximum score of 42 total points. A player who accumulates a minimum of 32 points over those four tests has passed our fitness standard. But it’s much deeper than just that. Because in addition to points, players can attain half-points or, heaven forbid, negative points. If you give me a day and a half I can explain it all to you, but the bottom line is that Coach Holeman has combined his coaching experience with his math affinity to create a foolproof system where players, even the fittest ones, have to bust it on every repetition of every test.

Okay, I can’t resist. So the final test is 120s… that’s ten 120 yard sprints in 18 seconds (for a point), under 21 seconds (for half a point), over 23 seconds (a negative half a point), and over 25 seconds (for a negative point). Then you have 62 seconds to return to your starting point before the next repetition begins.

The scoring system wasn’t just something Steve dreamed up overnight. It’s evolved over 20 years of watching players find and shimmy through loopholes in the testing. Steve’s competitive about a lot of things, but I think most of all he doesn’t ever want to be outsmarted. That’s why he has put so much thought into this thing.

So 120s… let’s say a player who has come in exceptionally fit has racked up 30 points going into 120s. She only needs to make the 18 second standard twice to be given a passing grade for the entire fitness testing franchise. A clever player in that situation will probably bust it and go all out on the first repetition because that’s when she’s the freshest. She’ll hit her 18 second mark and now she’s just one point shy of passing. So being clever, she may do the next three reps at a glorified jog, not come close to the 18 second benchmark, and use these reps to catch her breath. After the 4th rep there’s an extra 30 seconds of rest, so now our clever player is as rested as she can hope to be so she’ll go full steam for the 5th rep, make her 18 second time, and just like that, she’s passed preseason fitness testing. Steve’s introduction of the negative points safeguards against that.

Personally I don’t mind a player who has proven herself over three tests getting a free pass on the fourth. It’s like being in high school and doing well enough over the semester to be exempt from the final exam. But I like Steve’s way, too. It’s all about work ethic. And there's an intrinsic value to that. Quite honestly, I’m so awed by the calculus of it that I’m just proud to know the guy who created the system.

Anyway, preseason isn’t just fitness, although that’s about all the players will remember ten years down the road. There’s also the part where we’re on the field playing soccer. That’s the fun part.

It’s pretty cool coming to UGA. The players are talented and friendly and hungry for championships. Much to my surprise, they are also very open to coaching from the new guys. The defenders have been very open-minded about implementing a new philosophy which makes my life a lot more enjoyable. Because that’s my responsibility first and foremost… designing our defense.

I love that Steve trusts me with the defenders. He doesn’t micromanage me. He just wants me to give him a group of defenders that will keep the ball out of our net. As long as I do that, he’s content to let me do my thing. If there's something he doesn't like, he'll let me know and we'll tweak it, but other than that I get almost total autonomy. It's a dream set up for me. It’s a responsibility I love and that I take very seriously. When the boss trusts you enough to give you an important job, you don’t want to let him down. So I put in the work.

I wrote a manual for our defenders that outlines what our philosophies will be and illustrates our shape in different situations. Occasionally I give them quizzes to make sure they are doing their homework, and so far the one thing I can assure you of is that the girls have done their reading. That in and of itself has been pretty impressive and shows how much this season means to them. They are buying into what we are teaching, and that’s a testament to their drive to take this program to new heights.

It’s funny, trying to organize an entire defense from scratch in two and a half weeks. There’s so much to cover that it can seem overwhelming to be the one in charge of teaching. But the way the players have bought into it, and the way they have applied what’s been taught, it’s really something to behold.

We had our Red/Black game on Friday night, and the way our defense was so disorganized kept me up most of the night. But we hadn’t yet touched on any big picture stuff. We started that today and the progress we made in a single day was pretty astonishing. At least it gave me reason to hope. By the way… the Red/Black game featured one of the best free kicks you’ll ever see. And you can see it at

Okay, one last thing before I get under the sheets. On Saturday we had a couple of sports psychologists from IMG Academy spend the day with the team. They did an awesome job and put the girls through some exercises that were absolutely hysterical, but also taught great lessons about teamwork and trust. After dinner the final meeting was about goal-setting. Now I’m not about to betray the sanctity of what goes on in the Bulldog locker room, but I will tell you this: our duck is taking on a life of its own.

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updated: 8 years ago

A Duck

A Duck

So it’s here. Preseason 2010 has finally, and I do mean FINALLY arrived.

Coach Holeman and I were very excited about coming to UGA when we were hired back in mid-April. We knew we had scored one of the premier gigs in all of college soccer. So we hurried to get packed and get to Athens. Then we got here. And then we waited. And waited. And waited some more. It was like being 3 months early to your own surprise party. We knew we were going to be coaching a group of very talented players. It was just a matter of when. Well, when came today.

Today the Dawgs, all 32 of them, reported for preseason. The first day is a bit of a drag for the players. I mean let’s face it, what they want to do most of all is get on the field and play. But today it was their turn to wait. Today was one meeting after another with a couple of meals sprinkled in between. They heard from our trainers, our strength coach, our counselor, our compliance officers, our sports information people, two athletic directors and anyone else who helps us do what we do. And of course they also heard from the coaches.

On the first day it is important to establish a theme or themes for the season, and when you’re lucky enough to stumble onto a quote that encapsulates and magnifies your message, you make a point of sharing that quote. You hope it’s something the players will use as a foundation for their season… a safe harbor they can always return to.

Coach Holeman made it very clear that the cornerstone for our year was going to be our work rate. Georgia Soccer has been talented for a very long time, but the program didn’t have much of a reputation as a blue collar franchise. We’re hoping to change that. We need to change that. And if we do, well, then there’s a chance you might see something special this year.

Today’s quote was about a duck. And yes, you read that right. See for yourself:

“There once was a man who carved a duck from a block of wood. When people asked him how he did it, he replied, “Simple. I just got rid of everything that didn’t look like a duck.”

The message was simple. The duck is our standards. And anything that doesn’t meet our standards must be whittled away. We’ve got to change the culture of this team from white collar to blue collar and we need to do it overnight. We need a better duck.

Tomorrow morning we take the field at 9 A.M.

College Soccer 2010 is finally here!

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updated: 8 years ago

The Backbone of Possession

The Backbone of Possession

I’m a big fan of possession soccer. So big, in fact, that I wrote a book about it. Not surprisingly, I called it Possession – Teaching Your Team to Keep the Darn Ball. After making the NCAA tournament at UGA in 2014 and being rewarded with a pink slip, I had sworn off college coaching. I felt my talents were better suited to year-round sunshine and catching fish in the Gulf of Mexico. But this past July, Widener University, in Chester, PA, just south of Philly, found itself in need of a coach and well, now, here we are.

Widener is a Division III program. The level of talent/athleticism is different than at an SEC program. What’s not different is the players’ dedication to their program and their love of the game. And to be quite honest, these kids love being coached. I mean they just eat it up. They want to learn.

Anyway, on the first day of preseason I told the team we would play 101. When it comes to possession games, 101 is my all-time favorite. We played 8v8 plus a neutral player. It’s a simple game of keep-away. Whatever team has the ball plays keep-away from the opponent. A team scores a point for every one-touch pass it successfully completes. You don’t have to play one-touch; you can take as many touches as you like. But to score a point, you have to complete a one-touch pass. The first team to 101 wins.

The best team I ever coached at keeping the ball was Georgia in 2013. That group could combine possession, speed of play and going forward like only a handful of teams can manage. That 2013 team was the benchmark I wanted my new team to reach, and the go-to exercise for that Georgia team was 101. We played it often, usually right near the beginning of training. The result was hard to argue with, so it made sense to immediately unveil 101 to the Widener team.

Roughly sixty seconds after the exercise began I realized that if we played to 101, we’d be on that field all night and most of the next day, so step one was to rename the drill 51. There were days in Athens when a game of 101 would be over in four and half minutes. That wouldn’t be the case here in Chester, at least not for a while. But we kept at it. We kept playing 51 and a variety of other possession games. We got better at supporting in good seams, playing the way we faced, supporting better than square, playing the higher of two options, saying no to the impossible pass, receiving with the proper foot, etc. And every now and then we’d even put together a brilliant burst of five or six one-touch passes and you could see that the dream wasn’t unreachable. But those moments were the beautiful exception. The little improvements just weren’t moving the needle as much as I had hoped, and it all came back to one indisputable, unbendable, non-negotiable rule:

You can’t keep the ball as a team if you can’t keep it as an individual.

Those spectacular little runs of one-touch passes are like wonderful vacations, but that’s not where most teams live. With very few exceptions, most teams need to grind out their possession, and that’s where we were falling short. We couldn’t keep the ball as individuals when we were under pressure, regardless if that pressure was real (body-to-body contact) or perceived (an opponent shadowing the ball-carrier). Sometimes just the sound of opposing footsteps would sufficiently unnerve us into a giveaway. If we perceived pressure, we wanted to get that ball off our foot, stat. As you can imagine, when you play with that type of panicked mindset, you’re going to donate a lot of balls to the opponent. And until you fix that little hiccup, you’ll never be a team that can keep the ball.

I had started at the end. I was focusing on speed of play in possession, but if your players aren’t comfortable under pressure, speed of play is the least of your worries. Your players will play fast simply to avoid having an opponent take the ball of their foot. The problem is the opponent will be taking the ball somewhere slightly further away. My players were so afraid of losing the ball that they couldn’t get around to keeping it. This topic is addressed in the book Possession:

Possession soccer isn’t always a tidy run of quick passes. Yeah, we all pine for those runs of nine consecutive one-touch passes where we ping combinations around a befuddled opponent, but our teams don’t live in that world; they just visit it occasionally. To get to those moments or to keep one of those passing runs alive, you need players who are going to win their individual battles. You need players who can receive the ball under heavy pressure and find their way out of it. Regardless of how pretty you’d like your team to play, the game is often determined in the trenches where individual battles are fought.

Even if your players completely buy into the idea of playing the simple pass quickly, there are going to be many, many times when that’s just not an option. Eventually there comes a time and place when a player is going to have to solve pressure on her own. She’s going to be under heavy pressure with no immediate support from her teammates, and she’s going to have to get out of that jam all by herself. At times like this, her ability to stay composed and escape pressure on the dribble will determine whether or not your team keeps the ball. As much as you may want to your players to pass, pass, pass, their ability to dribble themselves out of pressure is critical to your team’s possession.

One of my coaching mottos is this: It takes more than one of them to take the ball from one of us. That means my players are expected to be able to protect the ball from a single pressuring opponent. If we habitually turn the ball over to a single opponent, we’re going to lose a lot of games. Players must be able to break this type of pressure on their own, and they do that through a combination of shielding and escaping.

Now considering I wrote that, you’d think I’d understand its importance. You’d think. But turns out, I had underestimated the importance. I was trying to start near the finish line when we needed to start at the beginning.

Our biggest problem was that it didn’t take more than one of them to take the ball from one of us. One of them was all it took. One of them was constantly causing us to donate possession. If we were going to move the needle, this is where we had to start.

We had to go back to the first building block of possession, and that’s one player protecting the ball from a single opponent. That’s the backbone of possession soccer: shielding and escaping. Especially shielding.

We began doing shielding and other back-to-pressure exercises two or three times per week. My players were gonna learn to welcome pressure and to hold the ball under excessive physical duress. We were still going to be a possession team because, let’s face it, I can’t live in a world of direct play, but we were going to sacrifice speed of play for ball security. I was constantly preaching at my players to stay calm and protect the ball, a mantra that quickly morphed into “Stay calm and pass.” We would start with playing securely and graduate to playing quickly.

So, how did it work?

Let me begin by saying that this experience at Widener has been remarkable in a number of ways, not the least of which was the discernible level of improvement from one game to the next, game after game after game, from beginning to end. In my mind, our season looks like a stair case that just kept rising. Each game a new, higher step was added. After our ninth match I thought, ‘That’s the best we’ve played this year,’ then quickly realized that I’d had that exact same thought after every other game. And save for one match, the pattern never truly broke. We got better at keeping the ball game by game. And we also got pretty darn good at running off the ball.

I’m going off topic just a bit here, but I’ve never had a team that moved so well off the ball as we transitioned into attack. Overlaps, wall-passes, third-man runs, up-back-throughs – by the middle of the season we were putting together ridiculous combinations that left me scratching my own head. It’s hard for me to describe the extent at which reality was outdistancing my own expectations.

In one way it was the result of players who weren’t afraid to take the patterns we worked on in training and apply them against live ammunition. God knows it’s nothing I haven’t done with every other team I’ve ever coached. It’s just that these players were more willing to take Friday’s practice patterns and unleash them on Saturday’s game. For decades I’ve been begging center forwards to move away from the ball and clear a seam for a weak-side forward to make a diagonal run. Begging. But it just never happened… until now. Suddenly I’ve got wingers screaming at the center forward to ‘get out!’ The center forward would curl her run away from the ball, drag the center back with her, and the next thing you know, the weak-side winger is running onto a ball behind the entire defense. Just like I’ve been planning it for 25 freaking years.

The understanding of this particular pattern is not super advanced, but the application of it is like sighting a Yetti. For whatever reason, these players just believed it would work and they did what almost none of their predecessors had – they just did it. And suddenly we were lousy with Yetti sightings. There’s no way for me to adequately convey my joy at some of the things we put together because of our off-the-ball movement.

Anyway, the reason I mention all of this off-the-ball movement… it was all the result of our ability to keep the ball, first as individuals, and then as a team. To execute these types of patterns, you need the play to develop, and that only happens when you’re not in a panicked hurry to get the ball off your foot. If you don’t have players composed while receiving the ball under pressure, no one has time to figure out the movements and the spacing and all of those little things that bring these patterns to life. Plus you’ll end up losing the ball anyway, making everything else a moot point. Sacrificing speed of play for ball ownership freed up everything for us going forward. Let me be clear on this… We did not abandon speed of play as a tenet. We just accepted that if we couldn’t actually keep the ball, speed of play didn’t matter. There was a delicate balance we had to navigate between the two principles.

Take a look at the last goal we scored at home this year. It wasn’t our prettiest goal of the year – not in terms of build-up, movement or finish – but it’s a fairly good representation of the things we emphasized, and a microcosm of our evolution into possession soccer: Players receiving the ball under pressure, protecting the ball from an individual opponent, staying calm and finding a teammate. In other words, playing securely and deliberately until we had the chance to play fast. When we finally staked out the opportunity to play fast, the game rewarded us.

I’m sharing this with you because there a million coaches out there willing their teams to play like Barcelona, Bayern or Man City, popping Advil and wondering why it just won’t take. And maybe, just maybe, you’re one of them. Do yourself a favor: Pay attention to how many times your team turns the ball over when 1. Your player isn’t under actual pressure (in other words, the pressuring opponent isn’t a legitimate threat to actually take the ball) and 2. Your player is under pressure from a single opponent. I’ll bet you’ll be surprised by the count.

As much as you want your team to pass, pass, pass, if your players can’t (or won’t) protect the ball from a single opponent, you’re going to send way too many passes to the opposing team. Your players need to be able to protect the ball on an individual level. That’s the backbone of possession soccer.

Stay calm and pass, my friends. Stay calm and pass.

If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in my book POSSESSION – Teaching Your Team to Keep the Darn Ball.

updated: 2 days ago

What My Daughter Isn't Getting From Soccer

What My Daughter Isn039t Getting From Soccer

      I’ve always had a distaste for people who say that sports aren’t important. Okay, I agree that there are more pressing issues that warrant our attention – like world peace and curing cancer – but just because some things are life-and-death important, it doesn’t mean that other things can’t also be important in their own ways.

      The detractors only see sport as a recreational activity… a group of people chasing a ball around a field. They only see it as a measure of skill – a game. To them it’s just a leisure activity and they conclude that our time is better spent elsewhere. These people, most of them have never committed to or even played a team sport, so they only see the surface. They only see the game. They don’t see everything that went before it. They don’t understand the story of each individual participating in that game. They don’t understand the real benefits that people get from playing sports, particularly team sports. Yes, sometimes a game really is just a game, but sometimes, it’s so much more.

      Lots of people have written about what they get from soccer. I’m going to spend today turning that inside out. My daughter doesn’t play soccer. She doesn’t play anything actually. Well, except the drums and a clarinet. But as for sports, she’s just not interested. Izzy dabbled in soccer a few years back, but her interest soon waned.

      I hated that she stopped playing. I wondered if maybe there actually was a value to being one of those parents who forced their kids to play a sport. Make them play long enough and eventually they’ll just learn to love it. But I had made up my mind that I would never be that father. And as a guy who took a hands-off approach, let me tell you what my kid isn’t getting from soccer.

      The other night I was helping Izzy with her algebra homework. In the not-so-distant future, having me as a math tutor will be as helpful as hiring a giraffe to teach her piano. But for now, Izzy’s class is still pretty close to algebra’s starting blocks, so I’m not totally useless.

      Izzy and I were looking at a word problem that we had to translate into an equation. We were tinkering around with it for about three minutes before Izzy exploded with, “I don’t understand this! I’m just going to ask my teacher tomorrow!”

      I tried talking her down. I told her we could figure it out. She wasn’t having it. She insisted that she didn’t get it. Frustrated, I spouted off, “Of course you don’t get it. You’re not even trying!” Well that didn’t go over so well and the eruption moved into full steam and Izzy stormed off.

      I was pretty irritated myself, so I stepped outside for a breather. It gave me a chance to settle myself and rationally evaluate the situation. This is what I came up with:

      My daughter has five math problems and has quit before finishing the first one because it didn’t come easy to her. That’s unacceptable. There are three variables that have to be represented in the equation, and they’re giving us two of them. Surely we can just plug things in different spots until the equation makes sense.

      I called Izzy back to the table and told her we were going to figure it the heck out. I pretty well guided her through the first problem. Then she was ready to quit again on the second one. I showed her how similar the second problem was to the first problem and as we got about halfway through, suddenly the light bulb went on and from that moment forward, my daughter no longer needed my help to finish her homework. I gave myself a pat on the back for superior fathersmanship in defusing a hostile situation, but the whole thing still bugged me. I mean, she just plain quit. And this wasn’t the first time. Over the past year or so, there’s a pattern that’s starting to reveal itself. When there’s something she doesn’t want to do, she finds 101 excuses as to why she can’t do it. It’s driving me mental because I know she’s full of crap and that she’s just being lazy. Instead of digging into anything that requires more effort than summonsing Siri, she’s just so damn content to quit. Believe me, there are few things in this world I am more diametrically opposed to than quitting. And my own daughter is getting better and better at it.

      She threw in the towel after three minutes of math! Who does that? It’s so far out of my nature that I can’t even process it. But then again, Izzy and I have two very different backgrounds.

      A few months back I was road-tripping with a very successful businessman who makes an unholy amount of money. He told me that he prefers hiring college athletes into his organization. I said, “Of course you do. Who wouldn’t? Athletes don’t think there’s a problem they can’t solve by working harder.” My daughter’s math meltdown reminded me of that conversation. It also reminded me of my biggest regret. Izzy doesn’t play a sport, and I know it’s partially my fault.

      There was a time when Izzy played soccer. She played for two seasons when she was eight and nine. Her first season was pretty good, pretty enjoyable. Then for a reason I can’t remember, we moved to a new league. Her team was a group of really good kids who just didn’t happen to be very good at soccer. They won a single game that season, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that soccer practice just wasn’t any fun.

      God bless the guy who coached. He had no soccer background, but if it weren’t for him, there wouldn’t have even been a team. He was a very nice man. Unfortunately, like a lot of other very nice men who volunteer to coach, he had no idea what he was doing in terms of teaching the game of soccer, and certainly not in a way that would keep it fun for nine-year-olds. He was trying to teach the game while learning it himself (he literally brought a book to practice), and he fell into the same holes as a lot of parent-coaches, such as focusing on field organization, throw-ins and set pieces instead of developing a passion for the game. That’s what a lot of rookie coaches don’t understand… that players won’t develop a soccer mastery without first developing a soccer passion. At that age it’s not about winning; it’s about running sessions that are so enjoyable that the players can’t wait for the next practice.

      Practices were held once a week and started while I was still at work. Occasionally I could scramble from the office and get to the field in time to catch the last 15 minutes of the session. Once or twice I was able to attend an entire practice. It didn’t matter. By the end of the first session I knew that we were in trouble. The session was dull. Every session was dull. Nine-year-olds are easily bored, and if you can’t keep them entertained, they’re gonna lose interest. Izzy lost interest. Forever.

      When I became a father, the one thing I was sure of was that I wanted my daughter to play a team sport. Not because I wanted her to be athletic, but because I wanted her to be an athlete. I wanted her submerged in the values of team. I wanted her to learn teamwork and accountability. I wanted her to experience the satisfaction of working really hard for the greater good. I wanted her to learn to stand up and compete. I wanted her to learn how to respond to pain – both physical and emotional. I wanted her to learn that getting a bloody knee isn’t a tragedy and that when she gets knocked down she can get the hell back up. And I wanted her to develop the same animosity I have for the concept of quitting.

      I knew we were in trouble. I knew she wasn’t getting any of those things and there was almost nothing I could do about it. My dream of raising a daughter who loved being part of a team was disintegrating and I was watching it happen. It was an almost comical irony. Here I was, a guy who was more than qualified to help, but who couldn’t get to one soccer practice because of another soccer practice. While my daughter was lurching through her training session, I was coaching college kids.

      I hoped that being surrounded by college soccer players and going to our matches was enough to keep her interested in playing the game. It wasn’t. I’d hoped that all the time she spent with the injured players – the ones who had to endure months of physical therapy – would instill in her the value of the long-term investment. It didn’t. Izzy’s propensity to bail at the first sign of adversity isn’t limited to math. As soon as something gets difficult, she’s looking for the exit. And worst of all, I have no idea how to fix it.

      There are very few activities in life that can teach you how to handle adversity without having to experience actual, tragic adversity. Sport is one of them. Soccer is one of them.

      When I was nine I joined a travel team called the Hamilton Hurricanes. Our second tournament was the Thanksgiving event in Arlington, VA. On the day of our final game, it was freaking freezing. It was like North Pole cold. We literally played that game in the early stages of a blizzard. Snowflakes the size of quarters were falling so fast and so thick it was hard to see. This was before the advent of things like Under Armour and guys wearing tights. We wore shorts. We were nine-years-old wearing shorts… in a blizzard! We had a center forward named Kenny. It was so damn cold, Kenny literally froze in place on the field. Our coaches noticed him not moving from the center spot as the other nineteen players ran back and forth past him. They had to go onto the field and carry him off. He was that cold.

      I remember the car ride home. Me and three of my teammates were piled into the back of my parents station wagon for the four-hour trip back to new Jersey. It’s not like we got to take a nice hot shower after that game. Nope. Everyone just hopped into their cars and formed a caravan headed northbound on I-95.

      I’ll never forget the four of us in the back, covered in blankets, trying to get rid of the chill. We talked about the tournament and about girls. We changed the words to whatever song was on the radio, and generally laughed our butts off. But at the same time, we were all in physical misery. It was obvious that all four of us had gotten ill. You could hear it in our voices. We each had a fever. We were all sick as dogs the next day,

      I think about that ride every once in a while. It was a precursor to life as an athlete. I spent the next twelve years playing in everything from baking sun to freezing rain in degrees of physical health that varied just as widely. Between league soccer, travel soccer, middle and high school soccer, league baseball and middle and high school baseball, rarely a week went by when my parents weren’t shuttling me to a game somewhere, often hours away. I had a cut on my knee that literally didn’t heal for like three years. Every time I played, either in a game or practice, I would end up sliding on the ground and the cut would reopen. It became a joke on my team: It was bad luck if my knee didn’t bleed.

      But that’s life as an athlete. By the time I was eighteen, I couldn’t tell you the last time my body had been “100%.” As an athlete, you are never ding-free. There is always some part of you that’s in pain. It’s just part of the gig. But you love the game and you love your team so you grit your teeth and you play. You do this so often for so many years that it no longer even occurs to you that pain might be an excuse for sitting this one out. Pain just becomes a part of your daily existence and you learn to push through it.

      Just the logistics of being an athlete is a book of life lessons: You follow through on your commitments, even when you’d rather not. You get your homework done just so you can get to practice. Your teammates depend on you, so you’d better have their backs. You learn the discipline to stay quiet when your coach is speaking and to keep focused even when you’re on the umpteenth repetition of a drill that bores you to tears. You show up even when the weather sucks. You don’t control your environment. You only control your response. You learn to play the cards your dealt and when the cards aren’t friendly, you learn to dig in. Because that’s the only way the problem gets solved.

      That whole Arlington tournament was also a precursor. Our team didn’t advance to the playoff round. That was a reoccurring theme for years to come. And every time we accumulated enough points to tie for a potential spot in the playoffs, we’d lose out on some goals-for or goals-against tie-breaker. It went on like this for years. We’d get in our cars all excited to go win a tournament, and then we’d drive home beaten. Again.

      There were very few bright spots in terms of our competitiveness in high-profile events. The most notable was a State Cup run when I was eleven. We were one of sixteen teams that had advanced to the third round. Our third match ended in a draw and went to penalties. I shot third, went to the goalkeeper’s left and missed. Badly. My shot wasn’t just wide of the goal; it was wide of the six-yard box. I think only one of our shooters actually converted his chance, but that didn’t make me feel any better. I bawled for two days because, in my eyes, I had cost my team a state title.

      A year later we got skunked in our own Easter tournament. And when I say skunked, I don’t just mean we lost every game; I mean we didn’t even score a freaking goal. I was twelve and my parents still had that station wagon. I know because I remember crying my eyes out in the back of it after our final game. I was so embarrassed. Hundreds of teams in all age groups played in that tournament. Teams came from around the world to play in it. It wasn’t just a big deal – it was our big deal. And we couldn’t even score one lousy goal. It was humiliating.

      Then when I was fourteen, something remarkable happened, and I really don’t know why. For reasons that have never been quite clear, the Hamilton Hurricanes started winning. Not just a little bit. We started winning a lot. As a matter of fact, we started winning pretty much everything.

      The first event we won was the Garden State tournament. Garden State was arguably the best club in New Jersey, and they had been clobbering us since I was nine. Then on one remarkable Sunday, we met them in the semi-final and beat them 2-0, knocking them out of their own tournament. We were the better team on that day, and no one was more surprised than me and my teammates. We had just beaten Goliath and advanced to our first tournament final. The next day we beat a club from Brick, NJ, 2-1, and we had our first trophy. At the time, it was clearly the best weekend of my life.

      My dad was the assistant coach by then, and two nights later our head coach popped by our house for a visit. I was sitting on the living room sofa when he walked in. He took one look at me, laughed and said, “Look at him. He’s still on cloud nine.” I had tried to hide my stupid grin, but damned if he didn’t see right through me. I had scored some goals that weekend, including three of our last four, and I literally couldn’t shake the euphoria. I had been grinning ever since.

      That team played year-round. We had travelled the eastern seaboard, failing weekend after weekend for six long years. All those years of long drives, of staying in strangers’ homes, of playing in the slop and the snow and the sleet; all of those injuries and all of those heartbreaks – now we finally had something to show for it. And some people insist that a game isn’t important. Well I promise you, that game was important to me.

      I think about my life as a club soccer player and it saddens me that my daughter won’t get those experiences. She’ll never limp off the field with blood running down her shin and feel the satisfaction of a job well done. She’ll never eat lunch in a gas station parking lot with fifteen teammates, or spend an hour running her ass off in a downpour. She’ll never know the misery of missing in a penalty kick shootout or the elation of potting the overtime winner. She’ll never exert herself to the precipice of exhaustion, wake up and do it all over again the next day. She’s going to miss out on all of that. And so much more.

      When you have to work hard day after day, hard work becomes a habit, and you end up with a work ethic. When you consistently step onto the field in the rain or snow or searing heat, the conditions cease to matter. When you have to work hard even when you’re in pain, you learn that pain isn’t an excused absence, that it’s just something you put out of you mind because you still have a job to do. And when you’ve been immersed in a culture like that for a sustained period of time, you stop seeing obstacles as insurmountable. Instead they become inconveniences that you will eventually overcome.

      Sport offers us a lot of wonderful lessons, but I think perhaps the most important one might simply be this: Keep going. This world rarely asks us to do something that we are incapable of doing. The solution is out there. Somewhere it surely is. But the only way to find it is to keep going. Even when it’s hard; even when it sucks – you just keep going. That’s what athletes have grown to understand. That's what my time with the Hurricanes taught me.

      I love my daughter more than I could ever express. She’s my best friend and the coolest kid I’ve ever met. She’s everything you could ever want in a daughter. She didn’t let me down. I let her down. Instead of being her coach, I spent my time coaching college kids. I don’t mind that Izzy’s not a soccer player. But the thought of everything she’s not getting from soccer… that’s what kills me.

      Izzy’s decided that she’s going to give volleyball a try this year. I know as much about volleyball as I do about marine botany, and unfortunately, Izzy’s in the same boat, but I can’t help but hoping that this is our second chance. I hope she loves volleyball. I hope she loves it more than she’s ever loved anything. And if she does, I look forward to spending a lot of hours in gymnasiums watching my kid do something she loves, and hopefully learning some lessons along the way. No matter how it plays out, we'll just keep going.

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updated: 2 years ago

The Grand Coincidence

The Grand Coincidence

If it happened in the U.S., we’d have already anointed it as the second best story in the history of sports, just behind the Miracle on Ice. And to be honest, it’s equally impressive. It’s the ultimate underdog movie (Think Hoosiers on steroids – not the players, but the plotline), but since Leicester City happens to be in the U.K. – in the East Midlands of England to be precise – their football club’s moment in the American sun has quickly passed. And oh yeah, it’s not a movie. It actually happened.

A year ago Leister City Football Club showed every sign of being relegated back out of the Premier League. They spent 140 days of last season in last place. Now, a year later, these 5000-1 shots pulled off the unimaginable by winning the English Premier League – with a week to spare no less. That’s right, the team that was predicted to finish dead last in the twenty-team league went out and won the whole darn thing.

It’s impossible to label it as just a story – singular – because this big and wonderful story is sort of like a piñata filled with all these smaller but equally wonderful stories. And I’m not kidding. You can’t swing a dead cat around this story without hitting a Disney moment. The narrative is rich with tales of swashbuckling heroics and sublime redemption, culminating with the club’s first top-flight title since its inception a mere 132 years ago. I mean, if you tried to pass this off as a work of fiction, you’d be arrested for extreme cliché and reckless use of fantastical cheesiness.

These smaller stories are too numerous to list, but just to give you a taste – there was the miracle before the miracle, the miracle finish to the 2014-15 season, the one that set up the 2015-16 miracle, and it all began with… wait for it… a disinterred king. Yeah, you read that right. A king who was unburied then reburied. Leicester’s run of survival in the Premiership began with King Richard III’s second funeral, when the royal was re-buried at Leicester’s Anglican Cathedral. Four days later, the downtrodden Foxes began their surge with a 2-1 win over West Ham thanks to late goal by a substitute named Andy.

Andy King.

Andy. Freaking. King.

That goal sparked Leicester’s climb to survival as the club won seven of its final nine games (it had only won four up to that point), enabling it to maintain a spot in the league which it would go on to win a year later.

So yeah, there’s a lot going on with this one.

I feel compelled to mention just one more of these smaller stories within the story because the coincidence is just too good not to share.

About a year ago I published a book called Shutout Pizza – Smarter Soccer Defending for Players and Coaches. If you haven’t read it, you may have noticed that there’s a word that seems a little out of place for a book about soccer defending… or soccer anything really. Well I wanted weave a cool little story into my defending book – a backdrop really – to give it a touch of personality.

The title is born of a tradition we started at UGA, where I was in charge of coaching the defenders. Typically we’d have games on Fridays and Sundays. On Tuesday nights, I would meet with the defenders and ‘keepers to review video of those games. To spice things up a bit, if we had recorded a shutout on the weekend, we would celebrate with some pizza at the start of the meeting. It was quickly dubbed ‘shutout pizza.’

And there you have it.

So how does Shutout Pizza the book title tie into one of the most magnificent stories in the history of sport? Well that’s where this other-worldly coincidence comes in.

Early in the Premier League season, Leicester City was winning games, but they were hemorrhaging goals. Their manager, Claudio Ranieri, begged his boys for shutouts, but the shutouts weren’t coming. So before a match against Crystal Palace, Ranieri told his players that if they notched a clean sheet that day, he would take them out for pizza.

Wait what?

Sure enough, in their eighth Premier League match, LCFC finally delivered its first shutout of the championship campaign. No shutouts before the pizza. Fifteen after it. Yeah, go ahead and try demystifying that one. And if you don’t believe me, just check out this article written by Ranieri himself.

So was it purely coincidence? Or are there other factors at play here? And as the inventor of Shutout Pizza, shouldn’t I be invited to partake in the celebration if not necessarily be the Guest of Honor? Should there not be a chair reserved for me in the manager’s box? Should I not have complimentary season tickets and a lifetime supply of free pints? At the very least, should Mr. Ranieri not have his photo taken while proudly holding the book I sent him? (I’m looking at you, Leicester City supporters. Help out a Yank while you’re still feeling the love.)

I’d stopped watching soccer on television a few years back, mainly because so much of my life was already consumed by watching video of college games. But this year I decided to end my embargo – another fine coincidence –which allowed me to watch this story unfold. In the interest of full disclosure, Leicester City had never been my team. But there are thousands all over the world just like me, who loosened the leash on our allegiance to whichever club we support and allowed ourselves to be swept away by the euphoria of this sensational, once-in-many-lifetimes fairytale.

Congrats to Leicester City FC, champions of the Premier League. It was, in a word, magical.

And hardly a coincidence.

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updated: 2 years ago

Five Myths About Signing Day

Five Myths About Signing Day

Happy Signing Day! Wednesday is the day when soccer players across the country – and around the world – solidify their commitments to the universities of their choice by signing a National Letter of Intent and an agreement of financial aid, officially putting to bed one anxiety before preparing for a whole new one – their first preseason. By signing that piece of paper, a student-athlete is agreeing to accept the financial offer from the university of his choice and solidifying his commitment to that university.

Signing Day is a joyous occasion for players (and their parents) who are finally free from the distractions and stress of the recruiting process. This is the payoff for all those miles logged to showcase events, all those bills for plane tickets and hotel rooms, and all those hours shuttling to and from practices, games and unofficial visits. It is equally welcomed by college coaches who will breathe a little easier when the fax machine whirs to life and they see their top recruits officially signed on the dotted line. Signing Day is the day when a high school soccer player officially becomes a college soccer player. It may not be recognized on the Gregorian calendar or even notated on your At-A-Glance monthly planner, but Signing Day is a holiday for athletes. Heck, it’s bigger than a holiday; it’s their wedding day! For a year or two they played the field, attracting suitors along the way. As sophomores or juniors they picked a college and got engaged with a verbal commitment. But it’s not until the first Wednesday of February in their senior years that they exchange rings and make it official.

Even with all the fanfare that Signing Day now generates, there are still some misconceptions that players and their families should be aware of, so let’s look at five myths about National Signing Day.

  1. There’s only one Signing Day.

False. There are actually several different Signing Days. The first Wednesday in February is the most recognized Signing Day, but that’s due to the popularity of college football. Only a handful of sports actually use today as their official Signing Day, including football, soccer and men’s water polo. The other sports kick off their signing periods in other months.

  1. If you don’t sign on Signing Day, you can’t sign.

False. Signing Day is merely the first day of an extended signing period that, for soccer players, actually lasts until August. The vast percentage of soccer players will sign on the first Wednesday of February, but plenty of players will finalize their paperwork at a later date. If you know the school you want to attend and you’ve agreed to their financial offer, there’s really no point in waiting. The signing period might be extensive, but all the buzz happens on Signing Day. Anyway, most families couldn’t be happier to make it official, and the sooner the better. It’s a chance to cross-off one of the biggest items on life’s to-do list. If a player signs later, it’s often because she’s a late discovery, like an international, or a player that managed to fly under the radar during the prime recruiting years.

  1. Everyone gets a full ride.

God no! College soccer is considered an equivalency sport. That means that scholarships can be divided and re-divided and spread out over any number of players. A fully-funded Division I women’s soccer program will have 14 scholarships to its name. That team could conceivably have a roster of 30 players, with each player getting some amount of scholarship money. It could also have 14 players on full rides and 16 players getting no athletic aid whatsoever. Typically a program falls somewhere in the middle, with a few players getting full scholarships, a bigger segment getting partial scholarships, and some players getting no scholarship money at all. The players who don’t receive any scholarship money are considered walk-ons.

  1. Walk-ons sign NLIs

False. This one is important so pay attention. Walk-ons are an important part of the college soccer landscape. Just because they aren’t being awarded a scholarship, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be celebrated for achieving their goal of playing college soccer. Part of that celebration is the press release that each college will produce to introduce its incoming class of rookies. It’s undeniable proof that you’ve climbed the mountain. For parents, it’s a source of tremendous pride. It’s also validation that they have, in fact, kept up with the Joneses. It’s a little piece of family history that will go straight to Facebook, and you want to be a part of it!

The problem is that according to NCAA rules, walk-ons cannot be included in that release. HOWEVER, there is a lovely little loophole in that rule. Walk-ons can in fact be included in that release if they’ve paid their housing deposit to the university. Now that’s what the NCAA says. Ultimately, even if you pay your housing deposit, your university still has the discretion to decide its own policy about whether or not you may be included in the Signing Day release. Why a college would choose to exclude a walk-on from its Signing Day release is beyond me, but it still happens. If you are walking on to a college soccer program, have this conversation with the coach well in advance of Signing Day. For starters, there’s half a chance he isn’t even aware of this rule. Secondly, he may need time to lobby the administration as he champions your cause.

  1. NLIs are not binding to the university.

False. And True. By signing your NLI and agreement of financial aid, you are duty-bound to that university for your freshman year. However, if you have an eleventh hour change of heart, you can back out of your commitment and choose to go to a different university, but now you may have to deal with some consequences. If you decide to play at a different university, you’ll need a release from the university you signed with. If that coach/university releases you, then you can proceed as if you’d never signed. However, if the university refuses to grant your release, you can still attend your new favorite school, you just won’t be allowed to play soccer there for your freshman season.

Congratulations to the Signing Class of 2016! I hope you have a college soccer experience that is fulfilling and memorable and without regret! It’ll be tiring and taxing and it will test your resolve over and over again, but it will also be the best job you ever have. Don’t ever forget that!

If you’d like to get a head start on preparing for your college soccer career and that monster known as preseason, I hope you’ll read my book ROOKIE – Surviving Your Freshman Year of College soccer.

updated: 2 years ago

So Uncool

So Uncool

When I look back at the past 12 months, it’s hard to miss the number of good things that have gone away. Ace died. So did Roddy Piper. David Letterman said farewell, followed in short order by Jon Stewart. The Phils traded away Chase Utley. Cindy Mancini, the girl from Can’t Buy Me Love who took Patrick Dempsey from totally geek to totally chic, passed away in July – well, at least Amanda Peterson, the actress who played her, did. Even Phineas and Ferb’s 104 days of summer vacation finally came to an end after seven years. And oh yeah, there was that thing about a job I used to have.

These losses, well, some are bigger than others, but each of them had a place in my life. They each brought me some level of joy and they each held some longevity. I’d been watching Letterman since my junior year of high school. Met Ace about a year later. And I fondly remember doing the African Anteater Ritual at Crazy Zack’s in Myrtle Beach with my roommate Bernie. That summer was the high-water mark of my youth. How can Cindy Mancini be dead? Wasn’t she just 18? Wasn’t I?

When things like these starting going away, you can’t help but think about the number of candles on your last birthday cake.

The first time I thought, ‘I’m getting old,’ was game one of the ’93 World Series when I realized there were players on the Phillies’ roster who were my age or younger. I’d long since made a quiet peace with the reality that my dream of being a professional athlete wouldn’t materialize, but it was weird nonetheless. I guess I had never really paid attention to the whole age thing. My whole life, pro ball players were the guys you looked up to… the guys you aspired to be. But while I kept getting older, they stayed the same age. Now I was passing them by. I was 25.

Ten years later, Amanda Daku marched into my office after a training session and asked me if Paul Newman was famous for anything besides salad dressing.


Daku’s question, asked with all due sincerity, made it clear that if I wasn’t necessarily old, I was surely outdated. I had long since given up on being cool, but just like the ’93 series, it was a moment that took my dead horse and beat it, shot it and vaporized it.

Eight years later I married into a beautiful six-year-old daughter. It wasn’t twenty minutes after we met that Izzy first took my hand, and we’ve been holding hands ever since. From day one I’ve been Izzy’s hero. Whatever I’m doing, she wants to do it too. I’ve taught her to hit a baseball, kick a soccer ball, start the grill and to hold a largemouth bass by its lower lip. She cheers for the Eagles and Flyers and was happy to name our dog Utley. We kayak, slurp steamed clams straight from the shell and wear tandem costumes at Halloween. And as a startling bonus, she actually shares my sense of humor. I still meet adults who don’t get my sarcasm, but Izzy always has, and she’s got an impressively dry wit herself. We make each other belly laugh even when no one else gets the joke.

Izzy supports me unconditionally and always has my back. In her eyes, I can literally do no wrong. To hammer home the point, she frequently sings a song she made up that goes: Da-ddy, Daddy’s the best! Da-ddy, Daddy’s the best! Okay, so her mom isn’t too thrilled about that one, but I think it has Grammy potential.

It didn’t hurt that when Izzy moved to Athens, her new daddy was a soccer coach at the University of Georgia. There’s a certain degree of minor celebrity attached to that. I don’t think Izzy ever flaunted it, but it surely gave her some mad street cred on the mean streets of the Athens Montessori school.

Izzy always got home from school before I got home from work, and every night when I walked in the door, she would come flying across the house and leap into my arms shouting, “DADDY!” I’m not exaggerating when I say this happened every. single. night. In four years her enthusiasm for my return never dipped. Regardless of whether I was old or outdated, and at this point I was both, it didn’t matter, because in Izzy’s eyes, I was cool.

I used to tell people that the day I walked through the door and Izzy didn’t run over to hug me, well, that was going to be one of the saddest days of my life. I knew that it would happen eventually. One day it surely would. It was just a matter of time.

In July we moved from Athens to a quiet community on the gulf coast of Florida. Izzy started a new school. She’s a sixth-grader now – a middle-schooler. Now she rides the bus. After two days in her new school, Izzy decided she wanted to ride her bike to the bus stop. So for the next three days, she and I would pedal to her bus stop. I would kiss her goodbye and then I would pedal on for a few more miles trying to reintroduce my body to this thing called exercise. Those morning rides with Izzy were the best part of my day.

On the fourth day, Izzy turned into a side street a block before her stop and went just far enough to be out of view of the kids who had already arrived. I pulled up next to her and she said, “Daddy, it’s okay if you want to say goodbye here.” It was her diplomatic way of telling me that it was embarrassing to have her dad ride with her to the bus stop. The time had come. Daddy needed to be jettisoned.

I didn’t show any disappointment. I just smiled and gave her an “Okay, Button.” I didn’t want Izzy thinking about the dagger she had just plunged deep into my heart then twisted like a bread tie. I didn’t want to saddle her with the guilt of breaking my soul into a million little pieces and grinding it to dust. None of that was her fault. It’s just part of growing up. But the day had finally come. Once again, I was so uncool.

I still ride with Izzy to that street. She gives me a hug and a kiss and we say our I love yous. Then I pedal on in stealth to save her from the horror of being the kid who has the dad who rides with her to the bus stop.

I took Izzy shoe-shopping in the mall on Friday afternoon. As malls are the undisputed incubators for preteen socialization, it was no surprise that we would cross paths with a few other kids from her class as we meandered past the storefronts. When she saw them, I expected her to dart off in their direction and commence that high-pitch, wounded-coyote squeal thing that girlfriends do when they’ve been apart for more than ten minutes.

Instead, Izzy took my hand and waved as we walked by.

That kid is so freaking cool.

soccerpoet 753
soccerpoet 753

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updated: 3 years ago

17 Tips on Scholarships

17 Tips on Scholarships

So the girl and her parents had flown a long way to get to us. She was a late recruit – one of those kids that managed to fly under the radar. I’d stumbled upon her down in Texas and was crazy about her. We offered her a 50% scholarship over the phone. It was a very fair offer, but she hadn’t committed to it. I was expecting that there’d be some haggling during her visit. They would ask for more and I’d tell them we didn’t have any more. Then they’d have to decide on whether or not they wanted to play hardball. That’s just how it goes.

Now here we all sat in the soccer office lobby, shaking hands, smiling, laughing and chatting in a good-to-know-you, welcome to Georgia kinda way. I knew they had intended to visit family in Atlanta at some point (One thing coaching at Georgia taught me was that everyone has family in Atlanta.), so I casually asked the girl, “So what are your plans?” It was just small talk. I was merely inquiring about the family’s travel itinerary. Then she blurted out, “Well I think we’ll just walk around campus and if I like it, I’m ready to commit.”


Do you remember the look on Tom Cruise’s face when Jack Nicholson confesses to ordering the Code Red? That was me. Did that just happen? Her father, on the other hand, well his expression was more like a defeated Al Bundy. He let out an audible gasp then tilted his head back as if to ask the Lord, “Why me?” Then he bowed his head and rubbed his temples. We both knew what had just happened. His daughter had showed me their cards. There’d be no negotiating.

I almost laughed… not in a gloating way… but just because her father’s reaction was so genuinely funny. When your livelihood depends on teenagers, you learn to appreciate these moments.

No two recruiting experiences are ever the same, and from my side of the fence, few went as smoothly as that one. The player loved her visit and committed to us that afternoon. That experience was more the exception than the rule.

For years people have asked me to write a blog on recruiting tips, so this is me obliging. Before I begin, let’s settle on some ground rules. First, these are generalities and cannot be universally applied. The recruiting process cannot be painted with one big, fat brush. As you read through this, you’ll notice some built-in contradictions. That’s because there is no magic bullet. Everything happens on a case by case basis that varies according to each player going through the process and each school she considers during that process. Secondly, this is not an exhaustive list because that would be impossible. Again, everything is on a case by case basis. Thirdly, this won’t be a list about how to get seen, approach coaches or anything to do with the early stages of recruiting. If that’s what you’re looking for, read Soccer iQ and skip to the Recruiting chapter. Fourth, this focuses on scholarship opportunities, and that leaves out a whole bunch of really great schools. Fifth, I’ve only recruited on the women’s side, so I have no idea how things work for the other gender. Sixth, I’m not factoring any other types of financial aid into these guidelines. For example, in-state aid can add up to big bucks, but that’s not factored in here. Finally, some coaches will flat out disagree with me on some points. That’s fine. But if my daughter were going through the process, here’s some of insider info I’d be glad to know.

Club coaches are the overlords of recruiting
By now you probably know that recruiting for women’s soccer has gotten very young. Coaches, particularly ones at the big schools, are looking at and making offers to high school sophomores and freshman. Crazy, right? Well, to save these kids from a phone that never stops ringing, the NCAA has put in place rules that prohibit college coaches from contacting them directly. So how does a college coach let a high school sophomore know he’s really interested? Well, he needs an intermediary. Enter the club coach.

Club coaches have an absurd amount of power because they are the gatekeepers. If a college coach wants to recruit Kelly, he tells Kelly’s club coach. Then it’s up to that club coach to decide whether or not Kelly gets that message. Hopefully he tells Kelly that XYZ University is really interested and that she should give the coach a call (these young recruits can call the college coaches, just not the other way around).

The role of club coach has evolved into something much more than just coaching soccer, particularly at the high-profile clubs. Club coaches are no longer judged solely on player development and wins and losses; now they’re judged by their college placements and scholarship history. Now these coaches spend half their lives on the phone with college coaches who are looking to pick the fruit from their trees. The more quality players a club has, the more time its coach spends on the phone. It’s a tremendous responsibility to shoulder and I don’t envy their workload one bit.

Because he knows his players much better than we do, college coaches depend greatly on the club coach’s insights. When six kids from the same club team are emailing us, the club coach can help us separate the wheat from the chaff. He can tell us who is a great leader, and who has poor training habits. He can tell us who is dedicated to soccer, and who is more interested in the next party. Keep that in mind when you go to training sessions.

Almost every club coach I’ve worked with has been excellent serving as a bridge between recruit and college coach. Almost. For a myriad of reasons, sometimes the message never makes it through. Sometimes it’s just because life gets in the way. And sometimes it’s more personal than that. Occasionally a club coach will want to steer a certain player to his buddy at a certain school; sometimes he’ll want to steer a player away from a certain school. Early recruiting has given him the power to do both of these things. If a club coach starts deciding what messages you do and don’t receive, even if he thinks he’s acting in your best interest, he’s costing you opportunities.

Here’s an example: You’re being recruited by some high profile schools on the west coast when a mid-major from Nashville decides to jump in the game. Your club coach thinks the level of that program is beneath you so, to save you the hassle of one more thing to do, he never passes along the message. What he didn’t know is that your favorite aunt lives in Nashville and that you would love the chance to go to a college near her. The coach thought he was acting in your best interest, but in the end, it cost you a really great opportunity.

With all this in mind, it behooves you to have a strong relationship with your club coach. His role as go-between is critical as you go through this process, so you need him on your side. Additionally, let your club coach know that regardless of who reaches out to you, you want to know about it. Or, if you have absolute faith in his judgment, set out some parameters that give him the freedom to act as a filter on your behalf.

Is the school recruiting you, or are you recruiting the school?
This is where a lot of families lose the plot before the movie ever begins. This is the first thing you need to figure out because it’s the crux of any negotiating power you might have. And as you search for this answer, you need to be very honest with yourself. If a coach responds to your email, that doesn’t automatically mean he’s recruiting you. The same holds true if you receive an invitation to a summer camp or an ID camp or if he answers your phone call. Too often a player will chase her dream school and all the while tell herself that the school is chasing her.

The more a coach wants you, the more valuable you are to his program, and that can translate into scholarship dollars. When a coach sees you as a scholarship candidate, you’ll know. You’ll know because you’ll be a priority and he’ll make sure you know that. If you’re unsure about where you stand, get your club coach involved. Have him ask where you stand on the recruiting ladder. College coaches can be more forthcoming when speaking to an intermediary.

Let me give you an even better reason to find an honest answer to this question: It’s likely going to correlate to the amount of playing time you’re going to see. Coaches recruit players who can help them win. That’s it. If a coach isn’t actively pursuing you, he doesn’t feel you fall into that category, and that’s a pretty good indicator of your playing-time prospects. That might be a tough pill to swallow, but that’s just how the world spins. I always advise players to ask themselves, “Do you want to be on a college soccer team, or do you actually want to play college soccer.” Just because you love a school, that doesn’t mean you’re entitled to play for its soccer team. You’re better off being honest with yourself and finding a school where you’ll get to play college soccer.

Don’t worry about keeping up with the Joneses
Turns out, the Joneses lie. Don’t panic just because eight of your club teammates are talking about all the schools that are recruiting them. Just because you don’t misinterpret the signals, it doesn’t mean they won’t. Additionally, when someone tells you about the huge scholarship offer his daughter just got from Notre Dame, don’t take the bait. Egos run wild during the recruiting process. Why? Because parents have burned through their retirement funds shuttling their children to tournaments across the U.S. and they need everyone to see that it was all worthwhile. It’s not uncommon for parents to inflate a scholarship offer whenever the opportunity presents itself. There have been multiple occasions when I offered a player a book scholarship (or no scholarship) only to hear through the grapevine a week later that we’d offered her a full ride. No joke.

Let’s set the record straight: Only a tiny percentage of college freshmen receive a full athletic scholarship. If you don’t believe me, do the math. A fully-funded Division I program has 14 scholarships. That’s not 14 per year; it’s 14 total. Fourteen scholarships to disperse as the coach sees fit throughout the whole of the team. Rarely do you find a Division I roster with fewer than 20 players on it (most coaches try to carry at least 24 – enough for a full-field scrimmage, with a two-person buffer for injuries) and the big schools typically have rosters of 30 or so, give or take. On none of those teams will you find 14 players on full-rides while everyone else is a walk-on. Those 14 scholarships can get sliced up pretty darn thin when it’s all said and done.

You’ve got to take the water cooler chatter with a grain of salt. Don’t worry about what your teammates are doing. Don’t let them panic you into a rash choice. Stay calm, focus on yourself and find the school that’s the best fit for you.

Be great on your visit
Your campus visit may be the first opportunity a coach has to actually get to know you. And while he’s getting to know you, he’s evaluating you as a person. He’s deciding if you’ll be good or bad for team chemistry. He’s deciding if you’ll be good or bad in the classroom and whether or not you’ll be a social liability. Whatever figure he had in mind before you showed up can change dramatically (or disappear entirely) without you ever knowing. You’ve put yourself in a great position by getting this far; don’t blow it by being a punk. Show your best self and demonstrate why that coach would love to adopt you for four years.

Be Honest…
You’re going to be asked a lot of questions as you go through the process. Don’t lie. It’ll come back to bite you. And once you’re outted, it’s over for you at that school. So always be honest…

… but not transparent
This is where the girl in the opening story went off the beam. Keep in mind that if a coach can get a player for 50%, he doesn’t want to spend 51%. Information is power, and coaches are going to want you to hand over as much of it as possible. You don’t have to answer every question a coach asks you. You can politely decline by saying, “I don’t feel comfortable answering that question.”

You’re going to be asked about the other schools you’re looking at, where you’ve visited, and if anyone has made you an offer.” You may as well answer the first two because it’s pretty easy for a coach to dig up that information anyway, plus it adds to the mystique of your value. You want the coach to know that other schools have an interest in you. As for the third question, you may be better off being a little vague, as in, “Yes, I’ve received a couple of offers.” The follow-up question may be, “Oh… so what did they offer you?” This is where you can politely decline to answer or again, go vague with something like, “I’ve actually gotten a couple of different offers” or “I’ve gotten two very generous offers.” The college coach can find out a lot of things, but he can’t always find out what type of offers you’re sitting on unless your club coach spills the beans. If multiple schools are hot and heavy for you, this is the information you want to keep private until it’s time to play your hand. Often times the scholarship offer is made when you take your visit. Up until that point the coach is thinking, ‘What’s it gonna take to get this kid?’ If you’re truly a priority, he doesn’t want to gamble, so he’ll probably leave a little margin for error and guess higher rather than lower. That’s good news for you.

Also, play it cool. When it comes to scholarship offers, recruiting is a dance. Don’t go flying onto the floor begging for marriage. For example, you can be positive and enthusiastic without saying, “You’re my #1 school. I’ve always dreamed of going here and playing soccer for you and being a part of your business program. My parents went here and their parents went here and this is where I want to go!” Even if all that is true, the coach doesn’t need to know that until the offer’s been made and accepted. The more you value the school, the less the coach may be inclined to offer. Keep your cards close to your vest.

Know what you need before you get an offer
If a school is pursuing you to take an unofficial visit, particularly one that’s out of your region, there’s a reasonable chance that when you take that visit, you’ll receive a scholarship offer. I was always impressed by the families who had the bottom line figured out before they sat down for the big meeting. It helped them take the emotion of their decision. Chances are you’re not getting a full ride, so know how big of a hit your budget can take before you get to campus. If the offer exceeds your needs, fantastic! If it doesn’t meet your needs, you can counter by laying out some figures and explaining to the coach the financial needs of your family. Sometimes the coach’s budget doesn’t have any wiggle room, but sometimes it does. If the offer isn’t what you need, you can explain exactly what it is that you do need. The coach may decide to get you there. Then again, he might not. If he can’t or he won’t, you’ll know to walk away from the offer.

Be prepared to answer a deadline
If you visit a school expecting an offer, you should expect that offer to come with a deadline. Not all coaches insist on a deadline, but many do. The problem is, you don’t know what any given coach is going to do on any given day. Often times that deadline is 2-3 weeks, but sometimes it’s less. And sometimes it’s immediate. This is another great reason to know exactly where your financial floor is. You need to know what you’re going to say if the coach says, “I’m going to offer you a full tuition scholarship; you’ll be responsible for room and board, books and fees. I need an answer before you leave this office.” This isn’t the type of math problem you want to try solving on the fly.

Visit a Rival
Ready to play a little poker?

If you’re flying across the country to visit a college, it makes good financial sense to see more than one school. It’ll save you from buying another plane ticket three weeks later. More importantly, it puts two coaches in a position to compete for you.

It’s one thing to lose a player because your offer was too small. Losing her to your rival, well, that’s another matter all together. There’s a difference between not having you on our roster and having to play against you for the next four years.

As much as coaches want to stay analytical about their spending, they’re still human and emotion can still creep into the equation. That’s good news for you. We hated when a player we were recruiting flew across the country to visit us and South Carolina, or us and Auburn. It sparked a greater sense of urgency to not come in too low with the offer.

This piece of advice is more applicable for the player who is visiting an out-of-region school. It already happens more or less by default for the local players. All the regional colleges know who the best local players are, and those players are going to visit several of those schools anyway, so that just comes with the territory. It’s an entirely different matter when you’ve convinced a player to fly across the country to take a look at you. That’s a player who’ll give you heartburn if she turns up at your rival.

If you’re going to employ this strategy, there are a lot of different ways you can approach it and there are a ton of possible outcomes. My advice is to visit the school you favor first. The two-visit weekend is a double-edged sword because it may generate a bigger offer, but it may also induce an immediate deadline. You want your first choice school to be the one that puts you in that position. Let me put it another way…

School A is your dream school but you decide to visit School B first, and School B exceeds your expectations and you think, ‘Yeah, I really like it here. I think I can be happy here for four years.’ School B makes you a great offer with an immediate deadline. “We’re gonna offer you a full ride, but only if you commit to us right this second.” If you accept, you have to cancel your visit to School A. How would you feel about accepting that offer having never gotten to visit your dream school?

Does the scenario I described happen all the time? Nope. It’s actually pretty rare. Does it happen ever? Yep. It all depends on how much the coach values you and how much money he has in the budget and his personal philosophy on recruiting. Most times the coach in this position will make you an offer without asking for an immediate answer, but there are definitely some moments when a coach will play big-time hardball.

However it plays out, make sure the coach at the first school knows you’re looking forward to seeing the second school; and if and when you get to the second school and that coach asks how you enjoyed your visit to the first school, let him know it was fantastic and that you really loved the coaching staff!

By the way, this whole concept only matters if the schools are genuinely interested in recruiting you. You have to be a serious priority for at least one of the schools. For you to have hand, you need to be valued.

What if there’s no deadline?
Some coaches won’t attach any deadline to a scholarship. They don’t want you to feel pressured and that’s good news for you. It gives you the opportunity to carefully consider your decision. It also lets you use that offer as a bargaining tool as you visit other schools. And sometimes… well sometimes there’s this thing I’ll call a floating deadline. For example…

Let’s say you’re a goalkeeper and I’ve just offered you a 50% scholarship with no deadline. However, I also tell you that I made this same offer to two other goalkeepers and if one of them accepts it, I’ve got to pull your offer. Then it’s a matter of first come, first serve. At that point, you’ve just got to use your best judgment. I’ve seen some heartbroken players who spent too much time hemming and hawing and trying to keep all of their options open until a floating scholarship offer got gobbled up by another player.

If the coach doesn’t give you a deadline, I recommend giving yourself one. Three weeks ought to do it. If you’re still in love with that school after three weeks has passed, then what are you waiting for? Sometimes the bird in the hand really is worth a lot more than the two in the bush.

Pushing back the deadline
Once an offer is on the table, the best tool a coach has at his disposal is urgency. That’s why coaches use deadlines. The scholarship is the carrot; the deadline is the stick. When we give you an offer, we want you to say yes, and the sooner the better. We don’t want you walking around with our scholarship offer in your pocket while you visit three other schools. Our only alternative to preventing that is a deadline.

Another reason coaches issue deadlines is for self-preservation. We all know that there’s a very real possibility that your answer is going to be, “Thanks but no thanks.” Every day you spend sitting on a scholarship offer is another day we can’t offer that money to another player. That turns one problem into a bigger one.

When it comes to deadlines, my advice is to tactfully take the initiative. Early in your visit, let it be known that you’ll be making your decision after your visit to such-and-such a school or on such-and-such a date. Outlining your plan like this establishes you as the one dictating the timetable and implies you won’t be backed into a deadline. This may cause a coach to rethink any hard deadline he had in mind for you. Then again, it might not. It all depends on the coach and the day. Like I said, everything is on a case by case basis and is most directly impacted by your talent and the coach’s needs. The greater your talent, the greater the coach’s need.

Coaches overbook the plane
You probably know that if an airplane has 200 seats available, the airline may sell 275 tickets for that flight. Why? Because they know that not every traveler will actually board the flight. A number of coaches take the same approach with scholarships.

Recruiting in women’s college soccer has gotten so young it’s flat out silly. Offers are routinely made to high school sophomores. If a coach offers a scholarship to a player in 10th grade, that means he has to calculate that offer into the next seven years of his budget. A lot can happen in seven years, and plenty of that will happen before that high school sophomore ever becomes a college freshman. Because the standard coaching kit doesn’t include a crystal ball, coaches have to take some calculated risks with their scholarship budgets. Let’s do a hypothetical using full scholarships to simplify the math…

You’re a college coach with a chance to commit two big-time sophomores that will make a huge impact on your program. These kids are legitimate superstars – national team kids – who can take you to the College Cup. To get them, you’ll need to offer both a full ride. The problem is that you only have one full ride left in your budget for their freshman year. What do you do?

What a coach would do in this situation depends entirely on the coach. Some coaches are like Quakers when it comes to their budget projections. Others aren’t so squeamish about taking a gamble. In this situation, plenty of coaches would offer up two full rides and cross their fingers that some money opens up.

Some coaches regularly overbook their airplanes by offering out more scholarship money than they actually have in a budget that’s two or three years down the road. They have to, because not everyone is going to board the flight. When the tenth grader finally gets to the airplane, the passenger manifest will have changed. Things happen. Life happens. We all know we’re going to lose some players, we just don’t know who or when. Recruits decommit. Players transfer or quit soccer or quit school or sustain career-ending injuries. It happens every year. Every time a scholarship player leaves, money opens up. But since the coach doesn’t know who’s going to leave, he doesn’t know how much money is going to become available. Complicating this from the other end is the scholarship player who gets injured and takes a medical redshirt year. Now money the coach was expecting to become available gets tied up for another year.

There’s no way to predict what’ll happen a few years from now, so the bottom line is that coaches gamble. How much a coach is willing to gamble varies from one coach to the next, but eventually each coach reaches the point where he’s got to shut down the ATM. The reason I tell you this is because when a coach says he’s out of money, he may very well be telling you the truth. He may not only be out of money, he may be overspent by two scholarships. Some parents refuse to believe that the scholarship well ever runs dry, but believe me, it does.

By that same token, when a coach says he’s out of money, he may not actually be out of money, just out of money for you. For example, let’s say you’re a defender and the coach tells you he’s out of money. Then two months later you learn he just committed a different player to a full ride. It happens, usually because a coach has held a scholarship back, not for a certain player, but for a certain position. In your case, he was holding money back for an attacking player. It’s also not uncommon for a coach to hold back a scholarship with hopes of finding a transfer or an international player. And of course there’s the distinct possibility that someone has changed their plans since your visit and money suddenly became available. It happens. All of it.

If you’re planning an unofficial visit to a school – particularly one that’s a few area codes away – try to find out if you’re going to be getting an offer before you buy your plane tickets. Ask your club coach to talk to the college coach. He’ll call the college coach and say, “Kelly likes your school and is thinking about a visit, but money’s real tight for her family right now. If she comes to visit, do you plan on making her a scholarship offer?” The implied message is that if the coach isn’t going to make an offer, you won’t be making the trip.

If the coach says ‘yes,’ then you’re in business. If he says he doesn’t have any money right now, at least you’re not out a thousand dollars in air fare and rental cars. Either way it’s good information to have.

Can she get money (or more money) down the road?
This is a pretty common question from prospects who are invited into the team but are offered little or no scholarship money.

The parents know that this school is their daughter’s number one pick and they were hoping to get a generous scholarship offer, now they’re sitting across from the coach’s desk, scrambling to calculate if it’s financially feasible. So they ask if it’s possible for Kelly to get money somewhere down the road.

I always hated this question because it implied that a family might tie its horse to an imaginary cart and I didn’t want to be the one holding the hitch. The simple (and honest) answer is yes, it is possible. It’s possible the same way that moon landings are possible. It does happen, but it’s not something to pin your financial future on. Very few walk-ons ever evolve into players with significant scholarships. Remember, coaches are already overbooking their airplanes and have money committed to players who haven’t even found a junior prom date. Turning a walk-on into a scholarship player isn’t factored into that budget.

So many players ‘just want a chance.’ They’re convinced that if they get their shot, they’ll prove their worth and parlay that into scholarship money. But when it comes to evaluating their own talent level, so many of those players (and their parents) just don’t live in reality. Neither you, your parents/friends/other coaches are reliable evaluators of how you’ll fit in at any given college soccer program. Only the college coach gets to evaluate your talent level, and the painful truth is that if you aren’t viewed as a scholarship recruit, then you aren’t a priority in the coach’s plans. That means you’ll have your work cut out for you just to get on the field, let alone stay on it long enough to make an impact worthy of a financial commitment.

Unless the coach explicitly says something like, “We don’t have any money for you as a freshman, but we’ll have some money freed up for you as a sophomore,” just assume that there won’t ever be money for you. You’re better off preparing for the worst.

Coaches do their research.
The question “How much do we offer her?” gets bandied about pretty frantically when a top prospect is coming to visit. It’s quickly followed by “How much does she need?”

Part of that speculation is calculating your worth as a player, and part of it is just calculating your family’s net worth. Ever heard of Google Earth? If we’re thinking about offering you a scholarship, we’re taking a look at your house from the sky and checking out your ten-acre estate with the in-ground swimming pool. We’ve talked to your club coach and maybe your high school coach and we’ve asked about your financial situation so we usually have a pretty good idea of your need before we ever talk to you.

Don’t overplay your hand
I’ve seen a parent or two lose their kid’s scholarship offer. It’s typically the parent with an over-sized ego and an inflated misconception of his daughter’s value as a soccer player. We offer the kid room and board because that’s all we have left to offer. The father – a successful businessman who fancies himself as quite the negotiator – thinks we’re bluffing. He’s built his fortune negotiating million dollar mergers so a soccer coach is gonna be a piece of cake. He’s called three more times since the visit, always trying to squeeze more from our offer. We mention something about getting blood from a stone. So he says that Kelly has two more visits to make and then she’ll decide. His tone implies that this is a threat – that we may lose her. Kelly takes another visit and then the dad is back on the phone telling us that University X offered her a full ride and what do we think about that.

Well that’s great but we’re out of money so we can’t match it.

Yeah, you can at least throw in tuition, right?

No we can’t. We are out of money.

Look, you guys are gonna have to do better than that. Let’s work to get to a number that we can agree on.

We don’t have any other numbers. We are out of money.

Kelly really wants to come to you guys but if you can’t cover tuition, she’s just gonna have to go to University X.

Well tell her congratulations on her choice. We’ll consider her offer rescinded. Bye.

Yes, once every blue moon, this actually happens. You’ve gone through the negotiating and you have your offer. Your choice is to accept it or decline it. Don’t hardball it right off the table unless you have a really good back-up plan.

Women’s soccer coaches don’t do a lot of bluffing. We can’t because there just isn’t enough top tier talent out there. Coaches are more likely to overpay than underpay when making an offer because we don’t want to lose a player who can legitimately help us. As much as we’d like to conserve scholarship dollars, supply hasn’t caught up with demand so there’s not a lot of low-balling going around.

From dating to married
When a school is recruiting you, you’re dating. That means you get to see other people without any serious ramifications. The moment you verbally commit – Congratulations! – you’re married. That means you stop seeing other people. Completely. You can call or email the other schools to let them know you’re off the market, but that’s it. After that, you’re in a mutually exclusive relationship. No more recruiting calls, no more visits. Period.

Every once in a while some parent will try to outsmart the system and continue shopping around her daughter because the school she committed to will never find out. Well, I got some news for you: there is, in fact, some honor among thieves. Even though we compete against one another, we’ve also been known to help one another. School A will call School B and ask for a favor. School B will grant the favor because the coach knows that somewhere down the line, the roles are going to be reversed and it’ll be School B that needs the favor. The simplest example I can think of is how we all trade scouting reports each week. We may be competitors, but we also have to co-exist. And not for nothin’, but a lot of coaches are actually very good friends.

Additionally, there’s this code amongst women’s soccer coaches that says when a player verbally commits to a university, everyone else has to back off. And we’re pretty good about obeying that code. A coach who breaks the code is labeled as a cheater. And no one wants to be dragged into a bad reputation by some whacko mom who’s trying to game the system.

Here’s a situation we encountered a few years back: We picked up a sophomore we were really happy about. We offered a full ride and she accepted and all seemed right with the world. But her mom thought she would keep playing the game to see what else was out there for her daughter, so about a week later she reached out to another university saying that her daughter was interested in that school. That coach said that he heard the girl had already committed to us and therefore he couldn’t talk to her. The moment he got off the phone with her, he called to tell us what was going on. We pulled the offer.

Part of the recruiting process is deciding whether or not we want to deal with you (and your parents) for four years. Stunts like this make that decision really easy. Don’t underestimate the coaching network. It’s not as cutthroat as you might imagine.

The Fit
My final piece of advice: Find the school that’s the best fit for you – academically, socially, financially, and of course, athletically. That’s ultimately the objective. Don’t let pride or fanaticism lead you into a choice that you’ll regret for the next four years and beyond. When it comes to soccer, the one thing that 24 years of college coaching has taught me is that you’re going to be much happier playing college soccer than watching it. Game days are no fun when you don’t get on the field. You’ve dedicated your life to becoming a great soccer player. If you genuinely love the game – if soccer is truly your passion – go to a school where you’ll have a realistic chance to play. You’ll be thankful you did.

If you enjoyed this entry I hope you’ll try my books. Just click on a cover image below.

updated: 3 years ago

Concussions - Gettin' Jiggy

Concussions - Gettin039 Jiggy

Will Smith has a new movie coming out and it may be the highest grossing Public Service Announcement of all time. The film is called Concussion. Can you guess what it’s about?

Congratulations to everyone who answered, ‘Concussions!’

Yes, the movie is about concussions, and if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell watched the same trailer I did, he’s probably thinking that retirement looks pretty good right about now. Will Smith plays forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu who discovered a neurodegenerative disease in the brains of football players. Omalu’s discovery was the smoking gun evidence the NFL was hoping to avoid and then quash amidst an avalanche of lawsuits from its former players.

Concussions have become the injury of the millennium, and the NFL has a lot to do with that, albeit begrudgingly. It’s collection of damaged alums, combined with Dr. Omalu’s findings, have pushed the concussion conversation into the national conscience. Sports Illustrated’s 2012 piece on Jim McMahon was a whopper, detailing the human cost of a brain that’s been treated like a battering ram. HBO devoted several episodes of Real Sports to the NFL concussion controversy before releasing an episode this summer that focused on a teenage female soccer player whose life has been dramatically altered due to a concussion. And that’s what we’re beginning to understand… concussions aren’t like other injuries that get treated, healed and are never heard from again. The ‘rub some dirt on it’ philosophy doesn’t apply. A concussion can stay with you like a shadow, and it can utterly dismantle your quality of life – or, in some cases, just your life. Such was the case of Junior Seau, the NFL icon whose suicide was attributed to a career of repetitive shots to the head.

Soccer stars have stepped forward to champion concussion prevention. Brandi Chastain has been a vocal proponent for eliminating heading from youth soccer for players up to fourteen-years-old. Goalkeeper Briana Scurry, who suffered a career-ending concussion, is now a concussion-prevention advocate. These days, concussions are frequently in the sports spotlight, and for good reason.

Concussions hit more than four million Americans each year – and those are just the ones that get reported. Many remain undiagnosed. And it’s not just a football problem. The occurrence of concussions in soccer is remarkably high. Soccer ranks only behind football in the amount of concussions sustained and it is the leading sport for concussions in females. A recent lawsuit against FIFA and US Soccer claims that in 2010, 50,000 high school soccer players suffered concussions. 50,000! To make matters worse, once you sustain your first concussion, you are two to three times as likely to sustain subsequent concussions.

And when Will Smith hits theaters this Christmas, soccer moms from coast to coast are going to be rethinking the athletic endeavors of their children. And honestly, I don’t blame them.

Pushing concussions into the spotlight is turning out to be a very good thing. It’s giving people the chance to make educated decisions. It’s creating technologies that will keep our kids safer. No one can be happier about the movie Concussion than Unequal Technologies, a company devoted to preventing them. Unequal is already a mainstay in the NFL and NHL, and they’ve recently moved into the soccer market with their Halo headgear. If you watched any women’s soccer this summer, a Halo is what US defender Ali Kreiger wore on her head while she was busy winning the World Cup. Mexico’s top talent, Charlyn Corral, also donned the Halo, as did a handful of others. By gearing up on the biggest stage, these stars are making protective headgear socially acceptable on the soccer scene. And oh by the way, if anyone tries to tell you that you can’t get a concussion from heading a soccer ball, they are grossly misinformed. I’ve seen it happen firsthand on multiple occasions.

Okay, let me also say that at least in the realm of women’s soccer, coaches have to bear some of the blame. We haven’t done our players any favors when it comes to teaching proper heading technique. The fact of the matter is that most girls don’t know how to head a ball properly. Proper technique goes a long way to minimizing the ball-to-head impact. When it comes to technique, a player should head the ball; the ball shouldn’t head the player, and too often, that’s what happens. Proper technique is not only safer, it also makes heading a lot less painful.

Incidentally, if you’re going to teach a heading session, I highly recommend using partially deflated soccer balls, or even some type of Nerf-like substitute. And if you want to make a million dollars, come up with the head-safe ball – something that looks and feels an awful lot like a regular soccer ball but is much safer for training headers. Believe me, I’ve thought about it.

In addition to head-to-ball technique, there’s also the matter of body-shape when challenging for a header, particularly from a goalkeeper’s punt, and the percentage of female players who do this properly is close to zero. Now we're not talking about ball-to-head contact; now we're talking skull-to-skull contact. Let me explain…

The opposing goalkeeper punts the ball and you’re going to challenge for it. The attacker right in front of you is also going to challenge for that ball, and she’s going to try and flick it on past you. When she does this, she’s going to snap her head backwards, right towards your face.

Most players on the defensive end of this challenge do nothing to protect themselves. They simply square their shoulders to the attacker and jump straight up hoping to win the ball. Then the attacker snaps her head back and the back of her head slams into the defender’s face. It happens all – the – time. Poor body-shape has led to a whole lot of head injuries.

When challenging for a punt - or any ball where the attacker is posted up in front of you - don’t go up square; go up sideways and use your arm to build a cage. Use that arm as a barrier between the attacker’s head and your face. It’s hard to explain in print, so I’m including a picture that compares reckless technique to safer technique. Notice the male player in the red jersey. You can see he’s turned sideways and is using an arm to build a protective cage. That’s what it’s supposed to look like. Unfortunately, more often than not, our players seem to model the torpedo technique from the other photo.

Watch an EPL game this weekend. You’ll see players regularly employing this safer technique. Why? To protect themselves! For the welfare of our players, coaches need to learn to teach this method of challenging for headers. It’s just one more way to keep our kids safe.

And oh by the way, when I say that most girls don’t know how to head a ball properly, I’m not implying that most boys do. Boys may be just as uneducated as girls, it’s just that I’ve rarely watched a boys game over the past two decades. I hope you’ll forgive me.

soccerpoet 751

updated: 3 years ago

980 Minutes

980 Minutes
On Saturday morning we took our three points and skedaddled out of Columbia on a charter flight to Lexington for a Sunday match against the Kentucky Wildcats. There’s a lot I love about charter flights, but the way that the plane parks about 30 feet from the bus we have to board is near the top of the list.

Jill Maloney is one of our goalkeepers and she certainly leads a life less ordinary. In addition to traipsing across the Atlantic Ocean every few weeks to represent Ireland at the U-20 level, Jill has also written a book, been an NFL Pass, Punt and Kick finalist, and was a nationally ranked Monopoly player (who knew, right?). She also has an IQ that dwarfs 99% of Americans, so her sense of humor is on a slightly different plane than most people.

Anyway, so our bus is rolling through Kentucky when Jill and Kevin Copp delight us with this exchange:

Jill: We’re in Kentucky! We have to eat at a KFC! It’s a bucket list thing… And it literally comes in a bucket!
Kevin: Yeah, except here it’s just called FC.

Ah yes. It’s the little things really. Speaking of food…

I had survived two gluten free travel days, but our lunch stop at a little sub shop was a bit more challenging. Sub shops aren’t big on gluten free options. Something about the bread, I reckon. It was not my favorite meal of the trip as I was relegated to scraping the meat and cheese off my roll. Wasn’t a whole lot of meat to work with. As it turns out, when it comes to subs, the bread is a pretty important part of actually filling you up. By the time dinner came around that night I was ready to eat my arm.

And oh yeah… From the files of what-a-small-world… we ran into the UAB women’s soccer team in that very restaurant, as they had stopped off on their way to play the Thundering Herd of Marshall University. We both have a lot of Atlanta-based players on our rosters, so it was a reunion of sorts.

A few weeks ago I wrote an entry called Hero Hawk about an experience we had down in Texas where our trainer, Hawk, had to administer care to a diabetic woman who had passed out in front of a shopping center store. What I didn’t tell you was that when we were exiting the airport at the end of that trip, we encountered a woman bleeding profusely at the bottom of the escalator. It seemed like Hawk was a medical emergency magnet. The good news for everyone else was who crossed our path was that Emily was coming off maternity leave two days later to resume her role as our trainer.

Then, a week later, Wayne went down before our match with Furman and we were already thinking what a strange year we’re having. I hadn’t encountered three non-soccer medical emergencies in my entire career, and suddenly we had three in a week.

Well wouldn’t you know… On Saturday night, we’re eating at a Texas Roadhouse when a woman passes out right in the doorway to the private room where our team had been seated. This time it was Emily’s turn to serve as the heroic first responder and she handled the situation like a true pro, keeping everyone calm and administering care and getting the woman back to consciousness.

Four of these things in a month? Like I said, strange year.

As for the Kentucky Wildcats…

This was a tough weekend to prepare for because we were facing two opponents with very different styles, and both of them are very good at what they do. On the bright side, UK plays very much like we do. They’re patient. They like to get the ball on the ground and string some passes together. They are the closest thing we have to a twin in the SEC, so we felt a little more comfortable seeing as how we train against ourselves four days a week. (Wow. I really hope that last sentence made sense to you.)

To accommodate the television coverage, the start time was pushed back to 6:30 P.M., and the weather was cool and overcast, so it wouldn’t be a ‘typical’ Sunday game in the SEC. Still, it was in fact a Sunday game and if there is one thing this league has taught me, it’s that it’s really difficult to win on the road on Sundays. Especially against a very good team.

As for the game… we expected it to be very even, and it was pretty much a dead heat. Both sides had some runs of momentum, but legitimate scoring chances were few and… well, they were just few.

Our best attacking stretch came early in the second half, but the only real chance we had was Gabby Seiler’s shot from the top of the 18 that hit the crossbar.

Okay… I started writing this entry like five days ago so the statute of limitations has well since expired. During the fall, because the schedule is so full-speed ahead, if a project falls behind schedule, that’s usually the end of it. It’s sorta like dropping your keys over the side of the boat. Those suckers ain’t gonna resurface.

But this one is a little different because I actually feel obliged to write about the UK match if for no other reason than we lost. I don’t want to be the guy who only has something to say when things turn out well. So I plan on giving Kentucky equal time. Sort of.

Here’s the thing… we had some technical difficulties producing a DVD of the match so I never reviewed it on video (another project that has slipped to the ocean floor), and my memory of a match pretty well resets itself as soon as we play the next one, which we have. My point is this, I really don’t remember much about the Kentucky game other than what I saw on the highlight package, so I’m relegated to providing the seriously abbreviated version.

I remember it was a heckuva game against a heckuva team. Both teams had about an equal share of the ball and neither team produced an abundance of scoring opportunities. It was more or less a midfield slugfest. Our best run of play was the first fifteen minutes after halftime as we managed some sustained pressure. The best of our chances came from the foot of Gabby Seiler from 18 yards that the UK ‘keeper managed to momentarily pin against the underside of the crossbar before pouncing on the rebound.

There was very little separating the two teams… save for one moment. One of UK’s attackers gobbled up a failed clearance, carved herself a window to shoot, and slotted a shot just inside the post to Woody’s left. It was the game’s only goal, but it was enough to end our 9-game win streak as well as one other streak that I had been reluctant to mention. It was the first goal we had given up during the run of play all season. Texas scored on a free kick and a corner kick. Charleston netted a penalty. No one else had scored until that goal in the 71st minute. We had opened the season with 980 scoreless minutes in the run of play. It might not be a record for some teams, but it is surely a record as far as my career is concerned.
And since I’ve got to scoot out of town to recruit on Monday, let me save myself the stress of another uncompleted project by adding that we also lost to Alabama, 3-2, on Friday night.

Congrats to the UGA football team and coach Mark Richt on another amazing victory in Knoxville! Go Dawgs!

I apologize for the haphazard nature of this entry. I’ll try to do better next time.

updated: 1 year ago