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: 9 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: 9 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: 9 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: 9 years ago



One of the cooler things I get to do is camps. Somebody reads Soccer iQ and likes it enough to reach out and invite me to run a camp for their team. That’s how this story starts: A hand surgeon/soccer coach in Louisiana found my books. Read them, liked them. Turns out, his daughter was best friends with a player I coached at Ole Miss. He reached out to her, she reached out to me, and a short while later I’m spending Thanksgiving in Louisiana.

Now let me ask you this: You’re about to do a camp for a group of twelve-year-old girls in the rural outskirts of Louisiana. What level of player are you expecting to work with? Before you answer, factor in this: This team is the only competitive team in its club, the North Baton Rouge Cosmos, a club founded by Myron Emmanueal that runs a recreational soccer program catering mainly to inner-city kids. The coach never played soccer and he doesn’t cut anyone; and have I mentioned they’re from the rural outskirts of Baton Rouge? So, what do you think you’re walking into?

Yep, that’s what I thought too. Man was I wrong. Let me cut to the end of the story. It was perhaps the most enjoyable camp experience I’ve had – certainly top three. Dr. Robichaux and his wife Bonnie were impeccable hosts – the very embodiment of southern hospitality. And the players… well, the players were amazing! Not amazing for Louisiana; just plain amazing. The level of technical ability was so far above the typical U-12 team that I can’t even explain it. I couldn’t tell you who the worst player was, but even she was still pretty darn good.

I live in New Jersey, a not-rural state with a large player pool and a history of producing some serious soccer talent. Last spring I hooked on with a local club and coached a team at this same age group, and we did fairly well. And on my honor this team from rural soccer nowhere would have beaten us 6-0. They would have steamrolled our entire league. They were that good.

So, how does this group of kids from rural soccer nowhere get this good? The simplest answer…


Dr. Mike Robichaux has an impressive property. Lots of acreage. He also has a passion for soccer. So years ago he built a grass soccer field in his backyard. Adjacent to the grass field is what I can only describe as an arena. It’s a beautiful turf field maybe sixty yards long by thirty-five wide. The field is surrounded on all sides by an eight-foot wall made of thick wooden beams. On the ends, not-quite-regulation-size goals are built directly into the walls. Above the walls are nets to catch misfires. And oh yeah, both fields have lights.

There’s no seating at this arena. It’s sort of like a free standing hockey rink. And when you step through the thick wooden door, you’re immediately on the turf. It’s like stepping into soccer’s Thunderdome.

One of the difficult things about developing as a soccer player is that the sport isn’t conducive to training alone. If you want to train as a basketball player, all you need is one ball and a goal. You dribble around a bit, take your shot, and the ball either goes through the net or it hits the rim or the backboard. At worse, you throw up an airball. Regardless, you never have to go very far to chase the ball and half the time it just comes right back to you. You can take dozens of shots in a very short period of time. Soccer… notsomuch.

If you go out to the soccer field with one ball and you decide to shoot, chances are you’re going to shoot from somewhere around the top of the eighteen. So if you shoot and miss, you’ve got to chase the ball. Now you’ve got the eighteen yards to the endline, then the forty yards behind the endline where the ball finally died, then you get the ball and run those same fifty-eight yards back. And after all that, you’re now ready to take your second shot. Even when the ball goes into the goal you still have to cover the ground to dig it out of the net. Training on your own as a soccer player can flat out suck. Believe me, I did plenty of it. I know.

Don’t get me wrong, there are other things to train besides shooting. But who wants to go to the field and not shoot? Nobody! Everybody wants to shoot. Everybody wants to imagine themselves scoring that goal. You don’t take a ball out to the field and not shoot. So what do you do? You shoot until you’re tired of chasing. And that doesn’t take too long.

I don’t want you to get hung up on the term ‘shooting.’ Unlike basketball, where the only time you would use your shooting technique is to, you know, shoot, soccer’s shooting techniques have far more applications. You use those same techniques to deliver the ball to your teammates over a variety of distances and heights. Shooting and passing are interchangeable. What I’m specifically talking about here is the driven ball. The ability to drive the ball with your laces is essential to the development of a soccer player, and when you’re training alone, if you’re going to drive the ball, there’s no point in driving it anywhere else but the goal. So shooting at a goal develops a technique that will have many other uses. Still with me? Good.

For most teams, before training officially commences, kids pair up, stand about eight yards apart and zombie pass back and forth with the inside of their feet. When Dr. Robichaux’s players arrive to the arena, they start smackin’ balls off the walls. One of the first things I noticed about his players was that they could all leather the crap out of the ball, and many of them with both feet. And you know why? Because those walls provide them with infinite reps. Everywhere they turn there’s a wall waiting to have a ball smacked off it. So they get lots of practice driving balls. And guess what… every time a player drives a ball against a wall, the wall sends the ball right back to her, so now she gets a rep receiving. And the wall’s return pass isn’t a soft roller; it’s a bouncing ball that requires a surface choice and then some degree of technical execution. Everywhere you look there’s a kid drilling a ball into the wall and then receiving the wall’s return pass.

I’m wondering if there’s someone reading this thinking, ‘So these kids can all drill a ball. So what? There’s a lot more to soccer than that!’ Yes. Yes there is more, and believe me, these kids have much more. But here’s the thing… if you’ve coached girls’ soccer at almost any level, you understand what a deficiency we have with this particular technique. Get a high school team together and see what percentage of the players can drive a straight, flighted ball over thirty yards. It’ll be less than half. The ability to drive a ball is critical, and too many players just don’t have it. These kids do, and they won’t even reach high school for another year and a half.

As if the arena walls weren’t enough, Dr. Robichaux has built three ‘battle rooms’. These tunnels are roughly fifteen yards long, eight yards wide and eight yards high, and they extend out like fingers from the arena’s exterior wall. You can think of them as wooden racquetball courts. Before training commences, without prompting, players will pair up for games of wall-ball in the battle rooms. Again there is the constant repetition of hitting and receiving the ball, and in the battle rooms, most of the time they’re hitting volleys – another technique largely deficient in the women’s game.

In case you glossed over that last part, no one is telling these kids to go into the battle rooms. They get to training early specifically because they want to use the battle rooms. Of course they do! It’s fun! The whole place is super fun! It’s a super fun soccer fun zone.

Dr. Robichaux drives his players. He drives them to focus. He drives them to execute. He demands their very best effort. And that certainly shows up in their approach to training. These kids are soccer junkies. They are sponges for new knowledge, new techniques. They show up to soccer not because it’s where they’re supposed to be; they show up because they LOVE it. But it’s that combination of Dr. Robichaux’s leadership and this soccer fun park that he’s constructed that has created an environment where players from rural soccer nowhere are more technically advanced than most of their peer group in this country.

This guy’s backyard should be the model for US Soccer. If you don’t believe me, consider this: Dr. Robichaux’s team, the Cosmos – the team from a rural area of a rural state that doesn’t make cuts… this team’s players comprise 50% of the roster for the Louisiana state team at that age group. Half! Half of the best players in the state are from this one team that isn’t located in New Orleans or Baton Rouge and has a hand surgeon for a coach. Do you think maybe they’re onto something? I’ve been doing this for a long time and if there is a soccer Promised Land, this place is it. And I’ll tell you something else: Don’t be surprised when, a few years down the road, two or three of these kids are competing for a spot on the national team.

Dr. Robichaux’s players probably get ten times the amount of touches per training session as your players or mine. No wonder they’re so freaking good. They are always striking and receiving, striking and receiving, striking and receiving. And because the arena keeps soccer fun, the kids are excited to show up. So much so that three of them – three twelve-year-old girls – will go train extra, two or three times a week, voluntarily, at five-thirty, you read that right, five-thirty, a.m. So I’ll ask you again: Do you think they’re onto something?

The camp was amazing! It was amazing because the kids were amazing. And the kids were amazing in both ability and spirit, in large part due to this wooden arena that eliminates soccer’s biggest logistical hurdle.

I’ve never been one of those people who think we’re only succeeding as a soccer country if we’re winning (or at least threatening to win) World Cups on the men’s side. I think soccer offers plenty of other intrinsic benefits that don’t involve the country’s best twenty-five players. I am, however, a big fan of the technical development of youth players for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is my job to coach some of them when they get to college. But even more importantly, there is something intrinsically good about giving players a better mastery of their craft. That’s more or less the definition of development.

We need to realize that player development isn’t proportional to, or at least dependent upon, population. If it was, China, India, Pakistan and the US would all be world soccer powers, Iceland wouldn’t be advancing to the quarter-finals of the Euros, and these players from rural Louisiana wouldn’t be so darn good. The root of soccer development is touches on the ball. So... how do we give that to our players?

Well… I’m thinkin’ we might want to start with walls.

If you enjoyed this post, I hope you’ll consider reading one of my other books. This team from Louisiana that won my heart used Everything Your Coach Never Told You Because You’re a Girl for book study. Might be worth checkin' out.

updated: 2 weeks ago

Lesson for a Young Coach

Lesson for a Young Coach

Frustrated with the officiating of a match, a coaching friend of mine once said he was convinced that center officials are subconsciously hoping for a draw. It’s not as farfetched as you might think. It might be harder to understand if you’ve never coached, but I have, and I gotta say, I did the same darn thing. I did it for years actually.

If I’m watching a game of anything as neutral party – a game I have no vested interest in - I’m naturally sympathetic to the team with the greater immediate struggle – the team that is trailing. I couldn’t care less about who wins a game between the 49ers and the Broncos, but on the off chance that I tuned into that game and saw that Denver was down by ten points in the third quarter, I’ll find myself quietly rooting for the Broncos. And then, if the Broncos take the lead midway through the fourth, my allegiance will immediately shift and suddenly I’ll be pulling for the 49ers. Sounds strange, but I can’t be alone on this. It’s not even that I’m rooting for an exciting game. I think it’s more like I just don’t want to see either team lose (a problem I don’t have if one of the teams is the Cowboys, Giants or Patriots).

Here’s an actual example from this past August. It’s the Little League World Series – the US championship game, with the winner playing for the world title. Scoreless through four innings, Louisiana comes to life with four runs in the top of the fifth, and then puts the game out of reach plating five more an inning later. I feel bad for the kids from Hawaii who are down 9-0, so naturally I start rooting for them. In the bottom of the sixth (and final) inning, Hawaii rallies.

The first three batters reach base. A couple of walks and an error and it’s raining runs for the boys from Maui. The wheels are coming off for Louisiana and suddenly it’s 9-5 with the bases still loaded and only one out, and now I’m feeling bad for Louisiana because I can’t imagine how awful it would feel for the pitchers who might have to live with the idea of blowing a nine-run lead in the bottom of the last inning. By the way, this was one of the best baseball games you’ll ever see. Anyway, the next batter hits a line drive to the shortstop who snatches it and doubles the runner off second base and the game is over.

Helluva game to be sure, but why did I do such a flip-flop? Because I hate seeing someone lose. Unless it’s to me. Which is fine. But I know the pain of losing, of failing in the big moment, and I hate for anyone to go through it. So I guess if you peel away enough layers, I was rooting for a tie – a game that would go on forever, unsettled. There are certainly worse things in this world.

In my early years of coaching, I had the same problem with my own team when we would divide up and play small-sided games. It wasn’t that I wasn’t emotionally invested; it was that I was equally invested with both teams. It took me close to a decade to figure it out, but because I’m smart and stuff, eventually I realized how my desire for my players to avoid defeat during training sessions was probably leading them to experience actual defeat on game days.

Are you a coach who, during intra-squad games, finds himself coaching harder for the group that is trailing? Are you trying to show them the path back to level? Are you trying to help the group that needs immediate help? Give it an honest think. Now, think about the message you’re sending to both sets of players.

I addressed the issue in my book In My Tribe, and I think it’s one of the most important lessons I learned along the way:

On my journey to alter the pathology of my players, I discovered that we were all tripping over one of my own habits. When I was a young coach and had my team playing small-sided games, I always took up for the side that was losing. I would urge them to work harder. I would give them more instruction. I did everything I could do from the sideline to get them back in the game. I guess it was just my nature to pull for the underdog. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but subconsciously I was rooting for a tie.

Eventually I realized that I was an idiot. My approach was counterproductive to the goal of creating uber-competitors. How can you expect your players to develop a cutting edge when their coach roots against them every time they take a lead? Surely there’s a psychologist out there who will say that my approach was attaching an undertone of guilt to the prospect of breaking an opponent’s spirit, or that I was rewarding the losing side with my attention. Either way, it’s a bad message to send to a group of players who are ultimately measured on wins and losses.

Eventually I woke up and did an about-face. When we played small-sided games, I didn’t actively pull for one team or the other until one of those teams went up by two or three goals. If I thought the trailing team was dogging it, I’d start shouting encouragement to the team with the lead, urging them to punish the opponent. When you’re a player and your team is losing and everything is falling apart, the last thing you want to hear is your coach cheering for the team that’s kicking your ass, but I didn’t care. I wanted to send the message that I’m going to side with the winners. If you don’t like it, do something to change the game. In the meantime, I wanted the team that was winning to go in for the kill. I wanted them to know that turning the knife was the right thing to do. I sincerely believe that this change in approach had a significant impact on the mentality of my teams.

Competitors can sniff out an opponent’s vulnerable spirit during a match. You might see something in her body language, or catch something she mumbles under her breath or says to a teammate, but to a competitor, that moment of weakness is unmistakable. You sense that the opponent’s foundation is ready to collapse. That’s your chance to end the fight. That’s when the assassin must take over and put the opponent out of her misery. I was seeing more and more of that in our training sessions. Taking a lead no longer meant slowing down; it meant stepping on the gas. Our habit of easing up was replaced by a burning urgency to break spirits and end the fight.

If you can clear the emotional hurdle of breaking your friend’s spirit, then breaking a stranger’s spirit isn’t only easy – it’s fun! So as you might imagine, this bloodlust carried over seamlessly into our matches. I had a group of players that would pounce when they sensed weakness. We could turn a game that had been a competitive stalemate into a rout better than any team I’ve ever coached. If an opponent made a mistake anywhere close to its own goal, you could hear a chorus of voices shouting, “Punish it!” They understood the need to strike when the iron was hot and break spirits that were begging to be broken. We were breeding a sense of urgency in training sessions that was resurfacing when it mattered most – against the actual opponents. Suddenly, those winnable games were actually ending up in the win column.

My point is this: If you’re a young coach (or even a not-so-young coach) and you want your players to develop a razor-sharp edge, you can’t hedge your bets at training. You’ve got to reward the team that is actually doing its job by chopping its opponents into little pieces – even if the losing team is also collection of your own players who you love dearly.

Players will internalize your message, regardless of what that message is. If the message you’re sending is internalized as a reward to the team that is trailing, then you can be sure that your team will do a lot of exactly that – trailing. You have to reinforce the messages that are important to you. For me that meant reinforcing the message that you don’t let a wounded opponent recover – that when you have them in trouble, you go in for the kill.

Eventually I stopped rooting for a tie. Amazing what a difference that made.

If you enjoyed this post, check out In My Tribe or one of my other books on Amazon.

updated: 3 months ago

A World Cup Story

A World Cup Story

I had coached at small, NAIA schools before joining Ole Miss in 2007. I had never pined for a Division I job. I enjoyed my existence, and in hindsight, a fraction of that could be chalked up to ‘ignorance is bliss.’ I had never looked at my career in terms of what soccer could give me. It was always about the people I got to co-exist with – the ones I got to coach, and I couldn’t imagine that the people playing Division I soccer were any better than the people I’d coached in the NAIA. And they weren’t. Yes, they were just as wonderful, but no more so.

So anyway, I join Ole Miss and my first road trip is via charter jet to Knoxville. (Re-read that last sentence if you’ve ever played/coached at the small college level.) We land and go to our really sweet hotel, and then to dinner at pretty nice restaurant. The team sits down at five or six tables. I kept waiting for my boss to announce a dollar limit on the meals like I had done a zillion times as an NAIA coach. “Seven dollars. Pass it on.” But the announcement never came. Neither did the dollar limit. Eat as much as you want. You’re in the SEC.

I can’t tell you how alien this was to me… the plane, the hotel, the limitless meal. And almost immediately I had this foreboding that something so good couldn’t possibly last forever. I felt like I was in a garage band that had topped the charts with its first single, and now I was paranoid about being a one-hit wonder. When my moment in the sun had passed, what would I have to show for it? I wanted something to keep these memories alive… some type of documentation.

I don’t remember being a collector of anything since I’d stopped my baseball card habit in fifth grade. While I was going the traditional route of saving a quarter, buying a pack of trading cards, eating the gum and then sorting out the players I’d already had and celebrating the new additions, the parents of my friend Anthony just ordered the entire year’s collection. Just like that – Anthony had the Topps’ playing card of every player in Major League Baseball for the year. It didn’t seem right. Where’s the excitement in that? Anyway, that experience sapped the magic out of collecting trading cards and my hobby soon evaporated.

So I don’t know what inspired me, but to commemorate my time as a Division I coach, I started collecting a different kind of card – key cards – the things you use to open the door to your hotel room. I started walking off with my room ‘key’ from every hotel I stayed at, and when the weekend was over, I would usually Sharpie something about the trip right on the card. It might be the result of the game, or the name of the recruiting event I attended. Stuff like that.

I kept up my habit through five years at Georgia and as you might expect, by the end I had a mighty large collection of room keys. I was recruiting in Melbourne, FL in Novemeber of 2014 when I got the call to come home because I was no longer employed at UGA. I have that key too. It was a crappy way to close out my collection, but it was part of the journey.

I kept that collection of keys after leaving Georgia, but I haven’t pocketed another key since then – at last not intentionally. They now rest in a Ziploc bag tucked away in a Rubbermaid bin under a table in the basement. We’ll come back to this a little while later.

My girlfriend, Alaina, doesn’t have a soccer background. Never saw a game in her life. Not one. When she was over a few months back, I was watching the USWNT playing one of its World Cup warm-ups. She wasn’t interested. She had work of her own to do so that kept her occupied. But when something notable happened, I would point it out and you could see there was a spark. Sure, the spark was buried way deep down inside, but there was definitely a trace of interest.

The next time she was over and a game was on, she was in the kitchen prepping dinner. When she heard some bit of excitement in the announcer‘s voice, she would pop into the living room, check for the replay and ask what happened. Occasionally I would tell her about the players I’d crossed paths with… the ones I’d recruited; the ones I coached against; the one who had the really cool twin sister I got to coach; how Christen Press broke my heart when we were up 1-0 on Stanford with twelve minutes left in regulation. That sorta stuff. Stuff that would bring the players to life a little bit. The spark was burning slightly brighter. Like a lot of soccer newbies, Alaina was particularly fascinated when someone scored with her head.

Then the World Cup began. We caught the first game at JoJos – a little pizza joint by my house. It was the first time she’d ever been around a group of US supporters. The place wasn’t mobbed with fans, but there were enough to notice. The real turning point came when we went to a different pizza joint for the next game against Chile. This place was packed – and I mean standing room only (and tight at that), full of fans in their US national team gear. The room ooohed and ahhhed at every close call and near miss, and exploded with every US goal. Until that moment, Alaina had no idea the amount of excitement this team generates. At that point, the hook was set. I was officially dating a soccer fan.

In late June we headed for a vacation in Croatia. We watched the US-England semifinal in an Irish pub in the town of Dubrovnik (furthering my theory that there is an Irish pub in every city in the world). Again the place was packed and the crowd was split between us-and-them supporters. By this time Alaina knew most of the players by name, and even had a favorite in Carli Lloyd. The atmosphere was fantastic, the US got the result, and at the final whistle, the clever young bartender who grew up on American 80s music immediately blasted Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ to the delight of all us yanks.

Alaina enjoyed the experience so much that she suggested we go back to that same pub a night later for the other semifinal, which we did.

July 6th, the day before the final, was moving day for us. We were leaving Dubrovnik and taking a ferry to our next AirBNB in the town of Split. (At this point I should mention that Croatia is just freaking awesome and if you’re thinking about going, do it!) So we’re about an hour into a four-hour ferry ride when she says we should go to the game tomorrow... you know, the final. The once in France. SWEET! I'm in!

So we are on the ferry booking plane tickets and sorting through hotels. We look at match tickets on StubHub, which are running $500 and up. I suggest we take a gamble. I say that if I put something out on social media, someone will come through with two tickets. It’s a heckuva gamble, considering we already have non-refundable plane tickets to France, but I’m confident in our soccer nation. She’s not nearly as confident.

We get to our new pad around nine. Exhausted. I lock down on social media trying to scramble up some tickets. It’s now 11 PM and I badly need sleep. There’s been no movement on my Hail Mary. It's looking like it's gonna be a StubHub kinda thing.

The next morning I wake up and check Facebook. Plenty of well wishes, but nothing that gets us into the stadium. Twitter – same thing. Then I open my email… I’m copied on an email to US Soccer. An angel of a man named Scott Silberfein is instructing US Soccer to change over his tickets and put them in my name. BAM! A man I’ve never met has just gifted me two tickets to the World Cup Final! Are you kidding me!!! How great is this life! How great is this guy! There just aren’t words to express our gratitude.

Then it was a quick Uber to the airport. Flight delayed an hour, which means when we land in Lyon and misfire on connecting with two Uber drivers, it’s a cab directly to the stadium. Pick up the tickets at Will Call, and minutes later, that gorgeous pitch spreads out in front of us. The stadium looks 90% pro-US. Lots of star-spangled colors. Everyone else is dressed in orange. Three big, bright orange blocks of flag-waving, drum-banging, singing Dutch fans are there to see their David slay our Goliath.

The game was intense; spirited, invested fans hanging on every kick of the ball. The Dutch goalkeeper… heroic! The officiating… let’s not dwell on that. The first half starts out slowly. The US is trying to open up a very compact Dutch defensive block with long driven balls – back to front and side to side. The Dutch are well-organized and up for the fight. They haven’t really attacked yet, but we haven’t been dangerous either.

Midway into the half there’s a flurry of shots at the Dutch goal, but that ‘keeper is standing on her head! She turns away quality efforts from Ertz, Mewis and Morgan in quick succession. We head into the intermission level at zeroes. I can imagine Alexi Lalas telling the TV audience that the half was a win for the Dutch, solely for keeping the Americans off the board. I’d have to agree. It’s a moral victory for the underdog, but we’ve created chances – good ones. We got stronger as the half went on. Rapinoe, who seemed disinterested early, is now running roughshod down the left flank. The Dutch have relied heavily on their goalkeeper, but can they survive another forty-five minutes of this – maybe more?

My optimism is tempered by experience. In the world of sports, there is no greater purveyor of miscarried justice than the beautiful game. The beautiful game… what a crock. The carve your heart out with a spoon game is more like it. More than any other sport, in soccer, the better team loses. Territorial dominance means nothing. How many times has a team outshot its opponent 18-1 only to end up on the wrong end of a 1-0 score-line? This game has that feel. Happens all the time in soccer. But not to this team. Not to the USWNT. It’s part of their magic. They’re the better team and they win. They always find a way. Always. Please, for the love of everything, don’t let this be the exception.

With an assist to VAR, midway through the second half, Morgan draws the PK when a French defender drop kicks her in the shoulder. Pinoe, cool as you like, sends the keeper left while sliding the ball right. Strike a pose. I tell Alaina the game is about to change.

The goal forces the Dutch side to come out of its shell and the game is suddenly wide open – like Talladega wide open. This is great news for the US. Minutes later, Lavelle makes an immortalizing run for glory, drills a left-footer low to the far post to ice the thing, and next thing you know, in the first soccer game she has ever attended in her whole freaking life, my girlfriend is cheering her head off, watching the US hoist the World Cup. Not a bad day. Not at all.

Sixty thousand people are queuing up for busses, cabs and Ubers, but just outside the stadium and beside the promenade that leads to the transportation hub, there’s a hotel with an outdoor bar that is filling up with red, white and blue. We break away from the queue, dip into the bar and spend the next three hours partying with happy Americans, many of them Outlaws, basking in the afterglow of our world championship.

We check in to our own hotel just after 11 PM and join two more Americans having a quiet nightcap in the lobby. The clerk is also the bartender. The bar is closed, but she likes us, so she let’s us buy one round. Then another. And maybe one more.

One of the men is a member of the LAPD and youth coach from California. He tells me that his daughter is a rising college freshman and that her college coach has every incoming freshman read my book Rookie. She’s up in her room reading it as we speak. He calls up and asks if she wants to come to the lobby and have me sign it. She says no.

Ha! That was awesome!

We finally get to our room around 1 AM. A few hours of sleep – more like a nap really – and we are back at the airport by five o’clock for a 7 AM return flight to Croatia. It was a helluva trip. For the rest of my life I’ll sleep well knowing that I was there when the US won a World Cup in France. All thanks to the kindness of a stranger.

We didn’t buy any souvenirs at the match… one reason being that the lines were longer than the stadium itself, so save for some pictures, we don’t really have any physical thing to commemorate our excursion. So I figured one, final key-card would make an imporved bookend to my collection.

updated: 5 months ago

Never Apologize for Winning

Never Apologize for Winning

So last week I posted a meme that said, “Never apologize for winning.” Had no idea how apropos that sucker would be a few days later. Our 13-0 thrashing of Thailand is blowing up everything this morning, and not in a good way… not for a lot of people. That ‘never apologize’ bit is a big theme in my book Everything Your Coach Never Told You Because You’re a Girl. But now it seems like half our country is saying exactly that to our only soccer program that has ever won a World Cup: Apologize.

The two main concerns are the score-line itself… a full baker’s dozen… and any celebration that accompanied goals, oh, let’s say, five through thirteen.

Here’s my two cents: The thing you have to remember about soccer (and hockey and basketball and field hockey and water polo and who knows what else): The goal is literally the goal. Just guessing here, but I’m pretty sure the whole ‘goal-setting’ thing was pulled straight from sports where there are, you know, actual goals. And when you try to artificially deflate the score-line, you take the goal out of the equation.

We’re basically the only nation that concerns ourselves with a lopsided score-line, and then, only when it fits into our daily dose of moral superiority. Once on a recruiting trip to Sweden, I went to a women’s indoor tournament. I think the games were twenty-five minutes long. I remember watching one team beat its opponent 32-0. Sincerely. And had the game gone on longer, I assure you the score would have gone higher. (Incidentally, the Australian men’s soccer team once beat American Samoa 31-0 in World Cup qualifying. So there’s that.)

In 1995 I coached a college team that scored 181 goals in 21 games. Most of my attacking players were internationals – all of which had either played for their country’s youth or senior national teams. We were just way more talented than most of the teams we faced. Scores often got out of hand, and oftentimes pretty quickly. It was up to me to manage the ‘sportsmanship factor.’

There’s a loose code in women’s college soccer that you stop scoring after nine goals. I tried that early on, and those international players just couldn’t wrap their heads around it. As a matter of fact, they weren’t too fond of my put-on-the-brakes directives. When you’re up 9-0 five minutes into the second half, what the hell are you supposed to do for the next forty minutes? Well, here are your options:

1. Sub out your starters. That’s fine for a college coach where you might be able to pull off your entire starting eleven, but at the international level, you only get three substitutions. And when you’re coaching the USWNT, that can mean pulling off Alex Morgan for Carli Lloyd or Christen Press. Now what’s that going to do to stem the tide? You also need to consider that the Carli Lloyds of the world are trying to make a case for themselves to get more time on the field or even crack the starting line-up. It’ not like the intensity level is going to dip. If anything, it’s going to be met with renewed energy.

2. You can pull players off the field and play down a man or two or three. Happens in college, but it’s not even a consideration at the international level. Goal differential is a consideration in tie-breakers. The last thing you’re ever going to do is put your own side at a numerical disadvantage. In addition to the obvious, it also requires more work for the players you keep on the field. Any way you slice it, it’s a bad idea.

3. You can try to put conditions on the team such as we can only score from a header. Again, good luck with that when you have players fighting for their playing-time survival. You think Carli Lloyd would pass up the opportunity to bang home a sitter simply because the ball came in too low? No stinkin’ way. And to even ask her would be absurd.

4. And finally, there’s the old keep-away ploy. We’ll just pass the ball around and forgo any scoring chances as we run out the clock. If you’re looking to humiliate an opponent, then this is the method of choice. “We have the ball and you can’t get it.”

So there are your options: Play your very best from whistle to whistle, or do something that opposes the premise that the goal is the goal and asks for something less than your very best. Our players did what they were supposed to do. And they did what they’ve been trained to do: Vaporize opponents. The fact that any American can criticize them makes my head want to explode, especially considering the last World Cup – the one in 2018 – the one our country didn’t qualify to attend.

Winner win. That’s the bottom line. And we’re fortunate to have a team of cold-blooded killers on the pitch. And any way you slice it, they did their damn job.

The other complaint is that our players celebrated too much once the result was in hand. Pass me the Advil – stat! You know what celebrations I think are ridiculous? When a receiver drops a perfect pass from his quarterback and the covering defensive-back jumps up and down beating his chest like he had something to do with it. That’s excessive. That’s unnecessary. But celebrating a goal in the World Cup??? Do you know how many people get to do that in this lifetime? On the biggest stage in the world, you scored a goal for your country. Now please tamp down your excitement. It’s impolite.

Get stuffed!

You need to know that truly elite athletes, like the ones that comprise our women’s national team, they didn’t get there by being charitable and kind on the soccer field. They got there by being competitive assassins. It’s not a switch they turn on and off. That bulb has been burning bright for years. And what happened in an instant, that moment when the ball tickled twine, it was a product of all those years. It wasn’t just a goal in a game. It wasn’t just a moment. It was all the car rides and wind-sprints and ice packs that made that moment possible. The goal was just the payoff.

Here’s what I think… I think at least half the people who were offended would not have been offended if the losing team wasn’t a group of women, because let’s face it, women need our protection. I think the people who were offended should go watch tape of the Dream Team in the 1992 Olympics and recall how sympathetic they were when the Americans were dunking with a sixty-point lead.

We want - and we expect - women to give us the warm and fuzzy. And when they don’t give us that, when they instead break an opponent’s spirit into a million little pieces – we want them to apologize. To that I say Ptooey! Our team did its job the way it was supposed to, with intensity and excellence from beginning to end. That my friends is a job well done.

And if you want something about this team to bitch about, go educate yourself on their fight for equal pay. They can use your support. You can read more about it here.

If you'd like to check out Everything Your Coach Never Told You Because You're a Girl, just click the link below.

updated: 8 months 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: 1 year 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: 3 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.

soccerpoet 759

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updated: 3 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: 3 years ago